Cork Skeptics

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


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.


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.

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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.

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Believing Is Seeing: A Talk By Dr. Jurek Kirakowski

Photo courtesy Andy Ferreira Photography

Tomorrow night, Friday 21st January, we will be hosting a talk by Dr. Jurek Kirakowski on the subject of Moving Statues, Stigmatics and Science.

Jurek, a senior lecturer in Applied Psychology in UCC, calls himself the “original ghostbuster”. He ran a number of experiments during the moving statues phenomenon in the mid-1980’s which cast doubt on any supernatural effects. Jurek is the co-author of the book ‘Ballinspittle: Moving statues and faith” and he has recently appeared in the 2010 RTE documentary “Apparitions“. Jurek remains very interested in mass-delusion, and his talk will take us on a world tour of similar happenings around the world. His talk will contrast modern enlightenment thinking to ancient and medieval belief systems, from which such strange visions and beliefs emerge.

The talk will begin at 8pm in Blackrock Castle on Friday January 21st, 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.