Cork Skeptics

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


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Academic Freedom: A Talk by Dr. Tom Moore

Academic Freedom, In theory and In Practice: A Talk by Dr. Tom Moore

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 22nd September, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by Dr. Tom Moore, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry at UCC, and will examine the topic of academic freedom.

Academic freedom encapsulates the idea that academics must be able to freely research and discuss controversial or politically unpopular ideas without suffering repression, job loss, or imprisonment. There is an extensive history of repression of academics for expressing unpopular ideas, for example in the former Soviet Union. In contrast, in the United States, freedom of speech is to some extent guaranteed under the First Amendment. The breadth of academic freedom may be subject to various constraints where it intersects with employment law, commercialisation, religious freedom, and social responsibility. In Ireland, the 1997 Universities Act provides a robust statement of academic freedom.

This talk will outline some key historical cases and discuss how the Irish approach to academic freedom performs in practice.

Dr. Tom Moore teaches and researches the genetics and physiology of embryonic development and human pregnancy. A veterinary surgeon by training, he did his PhD studies at the University of London and postdoctoral research in Cambridge, UK. He is currently a senior lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, UCC.

This talk is open to the public, and is free to attend. Directions to Blackrock Castle Observatory can be found on our information page. We hope to see you there!


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Skepticism – the wider issue

In a few years time, there may well be no rhinos left alive. And when I say no rhinos, I do not mean “none left in the wild”. I mean none in the zoos either. The captive animals will have been killed too. The reason for this is an insatiable desire among some people for rhinoceros horn – a material thought by some to possess magical healing powers. It’s really just a mass of keratin – the same substance that your hair and fingernails is made from. There is good money to be made from this trade. International criminals have stopped at nothing: butchering animals all across Asia and Africa, even breaking into museums to steal horns for the black-market. Some say it’s worth more per gram than cocaine. In pursuit of an odious delusion, we are witnessing the imminent extinction in our lifetime, of an animal, variants of which have existed on this planet for 33 million years.

This is what you get when critical thinking is left to one side and blind belief trumps patient scientific inquiry. Where unsupported and uncontested beliefs thrive, dreadful scenarios can play themselves out, right down to the last animal standing.

We don’t have to go as far as the traditional medicine markets of China or Vietnam to find such strange and destructive beliefs. There is a woeful lack of rational thinking all around us. Every day, uncritical and pseudo-critical thinking sends people down fruitless, and sometimes dangerous cul-de-sacs. It has lead to poor decisions, bad investments, unfair treatment of others and unquestioning acceptance of leaders who should never have been given the whiff of power.

Skepticism is often dismissed by critics as an obsession with the weird and outlandish, or a cynical repudiation of personal beliefs that are comforting to many and threatening to no-one. This is missing the point. While individual issues might easily be dismissed in this manner, the wider issue is a lack of critical thinking and an almost systematic undermining of the role of science and the value of evidence throughout society.

As people who value rational thinking, we get exasperated by the alternative medicine industry, not just because the products they advertise are usually useless, but because they have made a virtue out of ignorance. They are more interested in marketing and subjective hearsay than they are in standards of evidence. Their passionately held rationalisations have damaged any kind of sensible discourse on the subject, making it difficult to distinguish valuable therapies from the nonsensical ones, of which there are a great many examples.

We get frustrated by religionists because, while they seek to shine a critical light on everyone and everything, their own beliefs are beyond the pale of honest inquiry. They make a virtue out of unquestioning acceptance of dogma, pretending to all the world that this is a good thing, when it most certainly isn’t.

We despair of elements within the media, who forsake information dissemination for controversy. In their attempts to create debate where the balance of evidence is overwhelmingly on one side, people are lead to the conclusion that all science is simply a matter of opinion. Propaganda, forcefully and passionately delivered, stands in the ascendant while reality based content seems to survive on the margins.

We should also question our current education system, that, while often rigorous with the accuracy of its curriculums, seems to fail in providing so many students a basic underpinning in how to distinguish fact from fantasy, or how to critically assess new information. The products of this failure are all around us.

Of greatest concern are the politicians, who are happy to distort science in order to appeal to their power base. Rather than lead, they follow; allowing popularity to take precedence over scientific discovery. The results can be catastrophic, as much needed legislation from the environment, to healthcare, to basic human rights, are held up, buried, obfuscated and condemned in equal measure. They have done much to trivialise science and make a virtue out of ignorance.

We live in a world where many people are manifestly ill-informed about all sorts of issues. A large section of society is happy to spend their incomes and savings on spurious magical therapies, as if we were still living in the Dark Ages. Others allow unsupported stories to inform their moral philosophy, leading in turn to tacit support for prejudicial and discriminatory actions. Thousands of people believe in wild conspiracy theories, preferring to believe that astronauts didn’t land on the moon, or that the 9/11 bombings were concocted by an elite cabal within the US Government. There is an appetite for denial, whereby tortured analyses, intellectual bottlenecks and special pleadings are expected to be equated with a cool-headed understanding of the evidence. Many others are simply content to allow arguments from authority or other such logical fallacies to inform all their important decisions.

In the light of such a fog of make believe and dissimulation, there is a need for people to fly the flag for rational thinking. Science and scientific thinking needs to be elevated, both as a means to understand the world and also as our best tool to solve the problems of the present and the future. People need to appreciate the value of evidence – correctly gathered and analysed evidence – in making claims about reality. Fantasy and make-believe have their place in society, but not when it comes to policy making and critical decisions about our future.


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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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Trust Me, I’m A Scientist: A Talk by Eoin Lettice

On Friday 18th February, we will host a talk by Eoin Lettice entitled Trust Me, I’m A Scientist: Gentically Modified (GM) Crops and the Public Perception of Science.

With an increasing demand for high-yielding crop varieties, the genetic modification of plants is seen by many as part of the solution. However, with serious opposition in some quarters to GM technology, has there been a failure by scientists to communicate the benefits and risks of GM properly to the public? This talk will look at public perceptions of science and at how science is communicated. Particular focus will be on the area of genetically modified crops and how the public perceive them.

About the speaker: Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES), University College Cork. His research and teaching focus is on plant pathology and plant biotechnology. He also writes the Communicate Science blog, which was nominated for an Irish Blog Award, Irish Web Award and shortlisted for an Eircom Spider Award in 2010.

The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday February 18th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory, which is close to the Mahon Point Shopping Centre. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend.
Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.