Cork Skeptics

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


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Our June Talk by Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski

Science and Pseudoscience in the Treatment of Special Educational Needs

Friday 17th June at Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork

Some children experience significant difficulties in aspects of their psychological development, making it hard for them to achieve their full potential inside the mainstream school curriculum. Those developmental difficulties can be elusive—hard to diagnose or even define precisely—and hard to treat. Naturally, there is no shortage of those who claim to have found the solution—wonderfully simple and effective— and who try to sell it to (often desperate) parents, teachers, psychologists or speech therapists. What these consumers need is the ability to critically evaluate the therapeutic products that are being marketed to them.

In this talk, Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski of the UCC Applied Psychology department will offer a brief overview of special educational needs—their symptoms and causes—as currently understood by the mainstream scientific community. The talk will cover subjects such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. He will then suggest some rules of thumb that will allow us to evaluate the competing therapeutic proposals, helping to differentiate those that are plausible from those that are almost certainly a waste of time.

The boundaries between evidence-based therapy and its dubious alternatives can be fuzzy. Even bona fide scientists are often guilty of over-selling the genuine remedies they offer. Dr. Szczerbinski will discuss the effectiveness of widely known therapies, such as Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym as part of the talk, questioning how effective they are in reality.

About The Speaker: Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski is a psychologist, a graduate of the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, and University College London. He has taught psychology and research methods at the University of Sheffield, before moving to the UCC earlier this year. He researches developmental dyslexia, among other things.

Venue & Time: This talk will begin at 8.00pm on Friday 17th June, 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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Nuclear Radiation – a talk by Prof. John McInerney

Recent events in Japan have reinvigorated the debate on nuclear power, so we invited Professor John McInerney from the Physics Dept. in UCC to give us a better insight into the subject. John gave us a wide ranging talk, covering the effects of nuclear radiation, the best known nuclear disasters, the future of nuclear power and the implications for Ireland.

“Microwaves in general are not harmful, including the ones in cell-phones and radars.”

Early in the talk, John dispelled with the idea of non-ionising radiation being responsible for detrimental health effects. “Microwaves in general are not harmful, including the ones in cell-phones and radars. Unless you cook yourself. If you stood in front of a 10KW radio antenna it would be bad for you. It would serve you right. That’s Darwin’s principle at work”.

He also had some bracing thoughts on fossil fuels. “We are very bad statisticians. About 40% of people are killed by cardiovascular diseases, another 40% are killed by malignancy. Most cardiovascular events happen prematurely simply because we are breathing particulate matter that’s drenched in organic compounds or tars or carcinogens of one kind or another, and that’s mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels.”

John explained that radiation is all around us and that most of it is man-made. We will get exposed to anything between 20 and 50 millisieverts each year just through natural sources of radiation. Nuclear power facilities are designed not to contribute in any significant way to this background exposure and there is no way that, even under the most extreme conditions, that a nuclear power station can explode in a nuclear fireball.

The talk then turned to the major incidents that have played out over the past few decades. On Three Mile Island: “Nobody was killed. There was no excess mortality. No excess cases of cancer as far as anyone has determined. But what happened? The US quit building nuclear reactors. They build coal fired power plants instead, which are a million times worse”. On Chernobyl: “It was the worst, the most unforgivable, the most sloppy, the most base, the most vile – it was a combination of many different things, none of which should have ever happened. Maybe a few hundred people died as a result of excess exposure in Chernobyl. It’s a tragedy but it shouldn’t be the reason to shut down an entire industry”. On Fukushima: “Compared to Chernobyl, it’s like night and day. A 1960’s type accident, using 1960’s technology. The reactor containment vessels did what they were supposed to do, but it isn’t normal to put the spent fuel pools right beside the reactors”.

“You’ve got to know what you are doing. You can’t have amateur crews. You should not cut costs. If anyone is running nuclear power, it should not be a commercial company.

Nuclear technology is not risk free. “You’ve got to know what you are doing. You can’t have amateur crews. You should not cut costs. If anyone is running nuclear power, it should not be a commercial company. There should be no profit motive. It should be run by the government. It should be run according to the strictest standards”. He cited the US Navy, the biggest operators of nuclear power generators by far, who are not known to have had a single accident.

Pebble Bed reactor technology was cited as something that Ireland could get involved in if the political will was there. Pebble Bed reactors do not require coolants or reactants and they cannot go on fire. But this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. “There is no nuclear power, or nuclear physics, or nuclear engineering programme in this country, and there won’t be until the government lifts this ridiculous legal restriction on having nuclear power. If you compare what happened – if you look back to the 40’s and 50’s – where there was rural electrification and the building of Ardnacrusha, and the government turned to the universities and said they wanted all these people trained for the ESB – we want to start electrical engineering departments – go for it. And this is why we are where we are today. They need to do something similar. They are not even having the discussion.”

“Do whatever you can – put solar panels on the roofs, conserve where you can. You are always left with a couple of gigawatts that you have to generate.”

John is a proponent of green fuels, but with current technologies they won’t come close to meeting worldwide demand. “Do whatever you can – put solar panels on the roofs, conserve where you can. You are always left with a couple of gigawatts that you have to generate. If you can’t use fossil fuels, you have to do something like this. It takes 20 years to build something like that, so if you are not deciding to do it now, by the time the 20 years are up and the lights are off, everybody is pointing fingers at each other. What’s the point? You are out of the game. You are back in the Stone Age.” He pointed to France, who have embraced non-fossil fuel technologies, including nuclear. “When the rest of us are in the dark, the French will be living the beautiful life”.

We would like to thank John again for speaking to us on this very important subject. It was a fascinating talk that deserves further discussion. We hope to have a video of his presentation up on our YouTube site in the next few weeks.


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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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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.