“We are future physicians, but right now our classmates are working in hospitals around Ireland and the globe as nurses, laboratory staff, phlebotomists, radiography technicians, pharmacists, in administrative roles, and in research positions. Our classmates are cleaning healthcare facilities, delivering meals and medications to our most vulnerable community members, caring for our children and elderly family members, and taking the necessary steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, while also completing all required coursework to finish the spring trimester. We are committed to evidence-based actions to fight COVID-19. The statements made by Professor Cahill are something we take seriously, both personally and professionally.”
These are the words of medical students who have been let down. They have been working harder than basically anyone else in the country to fight this disease while simultaneously trying to complete one of the most difficult college courses one can take. Now they have been given the extra task of fighting misinformation. That misinformation is not coming from fellow students, nor from nut-job trolls from the back-arse of 4Chan. It is coming from one of their own lecturers in the School of Medicine. And it is spreading like a virus.
Professor Cahill did half the work of undermining public trust in UCD as a source of reliable medical advice when she spread baseless conspiracy theories. The university itself finished the job when it refused to comment. The med students who have been working so hard were ignored when they tried to tell the university that Cahill was damaging the reputation of their school. That reputation, which they paid so much to share in, will follow them for the rest of their professional lives.
The College Tribune too was ignored. The experts with the knowledge and expertise to put Cahill’s claims to bed chose instead to bury their heads in the sand. The possibility of a scandal was apparently more important than providing accurate medical advice at a time when accurate medical advice is more important than ever before. Universities ought to care more about the truth than about their image.
“We are concerned that Cahill is using the name of UCD and UCD Medicine (the name which we will use for the rest of our careers to indicate where we were educated) to further her unsubstantiated claims. UCD Medicine students pay anything up to fifty-five thousand euros a year to study in UCD. We attend UCD as we expect a top-class education. We are concerned that UCD is remaining silent on the fact that we are being educated by someone who holds what we have researched and concluded are damaging and alternative scientific and medical views. Many individuals have spent days fact checking various claims that have been made”.
To say that the med students have put a lot of work into refuting Cahill’s claims would be one hell of an understatement. They have written a letter and gathered over 130 signatures. They have also written a 32-page document with hundreds of academic references. It fills us with both anger and hope that the students respect the data so much more than their own lecturer does and apparently more than the university itself. At least we know that the future is in safe hands. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said for the present.
The Irish Times recently published an article which revealed that Cahill has been asked to resign from the EU Scientific Committee as a result of her misleading claims about COVID-19. This has left many wondering why UCD has not taken this step already. Professor Cahill has full tenure, which might explain why the university has not yet fired her for providing misleading medical advice to the public. The university would do well to remember, however, that tenure does not provide full immunity.
“We live in a time when misinformation spreads like viruses online, through social media, alternative news sources, and the mainstream media. Content on websites and online communities is largely unregulated and places the burden on consumers to determine the reliability of information. There is a growing mistrust in healthcare institutions, in science, and in the counsel of experts whose lives are dedicated to evidence and reason. Physicians, nurses, researchers, and public health experts around the world are working tirelessly to contain this pandemic, to develop new tests, to develop treatments, and to create a vaccine. As future healthcare providers and community members, it is vital that we acknowledge and unequivocally condemn the intentional spread of misinformation”.
UCD’s response (or lack thereof) to both our investigation and complaints by students suggests that there is an organised culture of silence surrounding Professor Cahill. If Cahill’s claims are justified, then they should have no problem defending her. If they are not justified, however, UCD should have the courage to speak out against her. It damages the university’s reputation to condemn one of their own Professors, yes, but refusing to so much as acknowledge that one of their own professors has been publicly making dangerous and unsubstantiated claims about a public health crisis is arguably so much worse.
A group of medical students have already done the painstaking work of demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that Cahill’s claims are misleading or simply baseless. That should not have been their job to do. It is the university’s turn to join them in their fight against misinformation. Failure to do so will pose a massive reputational risk to UCD and undermine the trust that each one of us puts in universities to provide us with information that reflects the evidence rather than fantasies that have been pulled from a hat (or somewhere less appealing as the case may be).
In particular, the Dean of the School of Medicine has a responsibility to ensure that his staff are providing the public with accurate information in this time of crisis. He also has a responsibility to acknowledge and respond to complaints made by students about his staff. Professor Keane and the university should make it clear that Cahill’s claims do not reflect UCD’s official advice on how best to deal with this pandemic, or risk lending credibility to misinformation which could ultimately harm both public health and the university’s reputation.
College Tribune Editorial Team.