Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond


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All in the Genes? Marcin’s talk in full.

Last night, Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski gave a talk on genes and the role that they play in determining our personalities, our mental faculties and the quality of our lives. It was a fascinating lecture that brings the “Nature vs Nurture” debate right up to date. Marcin presents his talk as a hypothesis, but in doing so he brought us on a tour of the key research that tells us something about the influence of genes in our lives. The various strands of research – via twin studies, animal studies and genetic studies – show a strong linkage between our genes and our traits. They also show that genes do not necessarily impose limits on our abilities, and that “inherited” does not mean “immutable”. The environment, as it were, raises (or lowers) all boats, providing the means to correct, improve or impose restrictions on our natural talents and inclinations.

Using Google Hangout, we broadcasted this talk live to YouTube, and the full recording of the meeting is presented below. Marcin’s talk begins at the 29 minute mark. We’d love to hear some feedback from you on what you taught about the talk, whether this format works for you, and any improvements you would like to see.

 

 

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Skeptics in the Skype

Hayley, Ash, Patrick, Colm and a strange bespectacled guest

We tried something very different for our meeting on the 21st of October. Instead of inviting along a guest speaker to be present on the night, we had a video conference over Skype with skeptics in Edinburgh and Victoria, Canada.

The meeting went very well. Hayley Stephens and Ash Pryce regaled us with stories about alleged ghost hauntings in the UK – how they came about, how improbable they were and the reasons they were nothing more than either deliberate hoaxes, pareidolia, or mistakes made by people who desperately wanted to believe in ghosts. Hayley’s story of the landlord that she caught pretending his house was haunted was hilarious. Ash also spoke of investigations into the Tantallon Castleghost pictures“, which subsequently turned out to be easily explainable.

The Tantallon Castle ghost picture

The Tantallon "ghost"

On the subject of speaking to the dead, Hayley has recently set up Project Barnum to raise awareness of the tricks employed by so-called psychics to convince people of their paranormal abilities.

We also had Patrick Fisher, president of the YYJ Skeptics Club in Victoria, Canada on the line. Patrick spoke about Sasquatch and some of the alleged monsters of the Pacific coast, and how stories of these creatures were either fabrications or mistaken identities.

There was a lot of audience engagement and a lively “what’s the harm” discussion ensued, involving all the speakers on the night.

All three speakers were very entertaining and it was great having them involved on the night. I want to thank all of them for their involvement. It was superb. It’s an event we will try again in the near future.

A note on video-conferencing

We used Skype Premium as the teleconferencing software. The free Skype software does not permit multiple members to be involved in a call at the same time. We also tested Google Plus Hangout, which would have been a cheaper option. Unfortunately, we had a lot of problems with audio, so we abandoned it this time. The Google Hangout service is still very new, so I expect it will improve over time. With Skype Premium, it is only necessary for one person needs to buy the package subscription – free users can then piggyback off this.

Video conferencing needs a lot of advance preparation. While it’s not that complicated to set up a conference, a lot of things can go wrong on the night. Headsets and microphones need to be tested, and the software needs to be trialled in advance to ensure that the bandwidth is sufficient to channel good quality audio and video. We had a number of advance meetings, one in the Blackrock Castle venue itself, to ensure everything was working fine.

You also need to ensure you have some backup options, should the video-conference or the Internet fail on the night. I would recommend downloading a few entertaining videos in advance, or having a few stories to talk about, just in case.

It’s also worthwhile arriving at the venue very early on the night, again to test the sound and the video and to go through any last minute checks.

In the end, video conferencing is definitely an option for clubs who either have a gap in their schedule or are looking to do something different with their meetings.


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Announcing the Cork Skeptics in the Castle – May Event!

Recent events in Japan have focused attention once again on radiation – what effect it can have and whether nuclear power is a viable solution for our growing energy needs. At our next meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle, Professor John McInerney will be giving a talk about radiation – what it is, what it does and doesn’t do, and how it impacts our lives.

(We’ll also be talking about conspiracy theories and that little matter of the end of the world on the 21st of May.)

About the speaker: John McInerney is Professor and Head of Physics at University College Cork, and also co-director of the opto-electronics group at the Tyndall National Institute. Before joining UCC he held academic positions at the University of New Mexico (USA) and the University of Cambridge, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona.

He has also worked in industry, both in large photonics and electronics companies and in small start-ups. He received his BSc in Physics from University College Cork and PhD from Trinity College, Dublin.

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The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday May 20th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend.

Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.



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GM Crops talk at Cork Skeptics in the Castle, Feb. 18th

Eoin Lettice, Lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences, UCC

Genetically modified crops have been the subject of considerable controversy for many years. Some of the concerns people have stem from legitimate worries, others are based in misconceptions and rumours. The very idea has become so threatening to some that even small test GM crops planted only for research purposes only have to be guarded in secrecy for fear of attack and destruction by well-intentioned but often misinformed people. After a very thoroughly researched, balanced and well-presented talk by Eoin Lettice on Friday night, the controversy is far from resolved; although the audience can certainly claim to be far better informed than we were previously. It is always frustrating and fascinating to explore a subject that cannot be conclusively pigeonholed into a Good for Humans / Good for the Planet category, and the evening raised as many new questions as it answered old ones.

In his talk, Eoin took pains to emphasise that GM crops were not a panacea to the world’s food problems, but that they could play a beneficial role in certain circumstances. He described the methods by which new genes can be inserted into existing DNA and how marker genes are used to distinguish between modified and unmodified cells (luminous green potatoes, anyone?). A lot of the focus on GM has been on yield improvement, something that fails to resonate with consumers, although research indicates that if consumer uses could be found for such crops (a putative cure for cancer, for instance), that this might have a significant effect on public perception.

Eoin takes questions from the floor

Progress in genetic modification has been affected by political considerations, particularly in Europe, where there has been a moratorium on research until quite recently. It has been proposed to allow the different states of the EU to decide for themselves how they want to address the issue – an unsustainable position according to Eoin.

Questions from the floor included concerns over multinational influence over the framing of legislation (esp. Monsanto); concerns over leakage of herbicide resistance into other crops; concerns over biodiversity and the deliberate sterility of some crops which meant that farmers would be forced to buy seeds every year from the manufacturers. Eoin pointed out that in many cases similar issues existed with non-GM crops and that this was an issue for farming generally and not just for GM alone.

Eoin’s talk was presented with passion and the subject was presented very clearly. The discussion was lively with some valuable commentary from the floor. Clearly, this is an issue that is far from being resolved.

You can view more photos from the night on our Facebook page.


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“Believing is Seeing”

Dr. Jurek Kirakowski, senior lecturer in Applied Psychology in UCC, was our speaker last night for the second meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle. He gave a wide ranging and entertaining speech about mystical phenomena from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Dr. Kirakowski framed the talk in terms of epistemologies, or “how we know what we know”. He explained that mysticism was treated as normal during the Middle Ages, when the teachings of Aristotle held sway. The modern age, ushered in by the likes of Francis Bacon and the Enlightenment scientists, has been much more critical of mysticism as it places greater emphasis on what can be objectively observed and measured than on individual personal experiences. In essence, mysticism and how it is treated by wider society, is indicative of a clash between two very different world views.

Dr Kirakowski has a long-standing interest in the moving statue phenomenon in Ireland during 1985. He was part of a team of researchers that demonstrated that the statues were not actually moving; instead it was shown to be an optical illusion caused by the way light is processed by our brains. The phenomenon was not just about moving statues, however. There was a plethora of intense personal experiences reported all over the country. Dr Kirakowski explains such experiences as “key events”, unlocking a part of our unconscious mind that is still poorly understood.

Dr Kirakowski calls himself a “radical skeptic”, skeptical about skepticism as it were. It was a fascinating talk, taking into account the bizarre world of stigmatics, the Knock apparitions and milk drinking statues in India. His engaging style gave us all plenty to think about on our way out of the meeting.

We had some feedback on the background noise last night which we should be able to sort out for the next get-together. We are very much open to any feedback, so if you have suggestions and comments, please let us know.

You can view some more photos from the night on our Facebook page.