Talk hears of ‘lack of thoughtfulness’ in modern discourse

Senator John Crown among speakers at inaugural talk at new UCD debating theatre

Is the lack of evidence-based thinking the greatest problem afflicting the modern world?

According to senator and professor John Crown, it's the single biggest menace on the planet - responsible for wars, hunger, intolerance and more closer to home, the domination of politics by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

The consultant oncologist was speaking at the inaugural TEDx UCD talks.

Licensed under the TED Talks franchise, the event was held at the university’s new FitzGerald debating chamber, named in honour of the late Dr Garret FitzGerald.


Under a theme of “foresight or predicting what will happen or be needed in the future”, 12 individuals connected with the college were asked to expound on an issue close to their hearts.

For his subject, Prof Crown chose thoughtfulness; though, in truth, his speech was more about its absence.

He pinpointed the recent Iraq war as perhaps the greatest example of the lack of thoughtfulness in modern history.

"Why did a sophisticated, relatively well-educated country, led by George Bush, launch a war in response to the 9/11 attacks against a people who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks?"

He discounted the conventional theory that it was because of oil, insisting it was a consequence what psychologists call of “value bundling”, whereby people adopt positions based on perceived values without assessing policy on its own merits.

This type “critically-limited thinking” was evident in Irish political culture where a person’s position on the Gaza blockade was predictive of where they stood on fracking in Leitrim, he said.

The upshot of all this thoughtlessness was a political culture dominated by two ideologically indistinguishable parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Prof Crown said.

“They are just like two wholly artificial vacuums of people who have come together, in many cases, because of culture, family or personal history of place, and they’re entirely capable flipping their positions past each other like demented skiers going down a slalom slope at election time.”

“In general, when you’re in opposition you’ll be in favour of increasing spending on everything and when you’re in government, you curtail.”

His experience of mainstream politics [he became a senator in 2011] has done little to change his view of the political establishment, he added.

Based on the success of this year’s series, UCD plans to make the talks an annual event.

One o f the other interesting talks was given by Professor Jennifer McElwain from the UCD School of Biology and focused on the predictable and unpredictable biological responses to climate change.

On the subject of default, or more precisely sovereign default, UCD economist Karl Whelan spoke of the euro area’s long abandoned policy not directly purchasing government bonds and how this had evolved.

Dr Gary O’Reilly from UCD’s School of Pyschology outlined how the latest gaming technology was being adapted to help children with mental health problems, and, specifically, how his team’s “Pesky Gnats” games was being used to aid children in therapy.

For her lecture, the master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Rhona Mahony, spoke on the topic of courage; from the various political and medical pioneers who have maintained the courage of their convictions in the face of adversity to "the random acts of courage in daily life" which are deployed by everyday people in everyday circumstances.

"In a world where jargon and technical language is everywhere I think it is worth gathering people together for a day to examine our foresight theme by exploring the breadth and depth of ideas worth spreading from our speakers who include researchers, students and graduates from UCD," UCD vice-president for innovation, Professor Peter Clinch said.

“Organising TEDxUCD is part of UCD Innovation’s commitment to share UCD knowledge and expertise with a wider community in Ireland and across the globe.”

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times