Personal Reflections of John Radford’s ‘A liberal science’ lecture

24 Oct

This week I watched John Radford, the ninety year old founder of our Department deliver a lecture on his view of psychology as ‘a liberal science’. It made me reflect on my own views ….

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

I’m beginning to think that this summary of Voltiare’s views, which have long been the definition of the liberal approach to freedom of speech might actually now be beginning to undermine liberal democracies. Today the phrase ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ has become a mantra across the political spectrum, and often seems to actually mean ‘you are not allowed to question my opinion’. I have spent twenty years attempting to teach the primacy of evidence over opinion, and yet we seem to be moving rapidly towards a position where evidence and opinion are either equally valued, or worse opinion trumps evidence. For someone is has spent so long teaching rational thought, it’s disturbing to see the very language of rational thinking being appropriated by those who advocate the primacy of opinion. When I started teaching this stuff to be ‘sceptical’ was to be ‘rational’, and yet today to be a climate change ‘sceptic’ means to deny the weight of scientific evidence. 

It’s ironic that this position has arisen at a time when the previous battle between faith and science seems to be dying down. Beyond the real fringes, the world’s religions seem to have shifted away from denying things like evolution via natural selection and yet, at the same time in both the US and the UK political divisions have arisen over what would have previously been scientific questions. For example, the UK government is now in the paradoxical position of advocating the wearing of face masks in confided populated spaces, whilst not doing so themselves and refusing to legislate for such. It is difficult to see this as anything other than a victory for those who’s opinion is that they should not be required to wears masks over the evidence that it may ease the spread of Covid-19. 

My guess is that those who advocate the primacy of evidence over opinion may need to balance their support for the Voltairian position on freedom of speech, from my opening quotation, with a thorough understanding of  Karl Popper’s Tolerance paradox. It’s ironic that Popper may have been thinking of religious, racial and political intolerance, but it maybe that we need a degree of intolerance of ‘anti-science’ in order to defend our ‘tolerant’ society.

I do think that psychology has a small but significant part to play in defending against ‘anti-science’ by ensuring that we do question practice that isn’t evidence-based. For example, colleagues at my own institution have done sterling work questioning things like withdrawal from anti-depressant medication, or the use of ECT. However, as a discipline we could do much more. It may sound a trivial example but has every Psychology Department who’s institution promotes ‘learning styles’ to their students been public in demonstrating the astonishing lack of evidence for learning styles ? Sadly I suspect not. 

None of this will be easy, and I would confess to a good deal of cognitive dissonance over the idea that I should be more active in questioning those with strongly help opinions that seem to contradict the available weight of evidence. It’s so much easier just to smile sweetly and move the conversation on to a different topic, but in doing so am I letting down the discipline ?

Reflecting on rational thinking ‘2020’ style

8 Dec

As the strangest term I’ve ever experienced comes to an end I thought it might be good to resurrect my teaching rational thinking blog, and to consider how the last nine months have changed my views.

My interest in teaching rational thinking began back in 2004, which might not seem that long ago, but it’s worth remembering that iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007. So, I think it’s reasonable to say that in those 16 years the world has changed much more than most of us recognise. One example from academia rather nicely illustrates this change.

Back in 2004 if I wanted a copy of a journal article the easiest way to get it was to walk over to the university library, climb a ladder to find the volume of the journal that I wanted and take it down photocopy the relevant pages. This process relied on two key things in order to be successful, first that my university library subscribed to the journal I was looking for, and second that the last user had put the journal volume back in the right place !! In the event of either of these two things not working you had to fall back on an even older technology, the British Library request form. Fast forward sixteen years, and I ‘m now pretty surprised if there is anything that I can’t access direct from the mobile phone in my pocket. If you’d have told the me of 2004 how easy access to information would be in 2020 I’d have seen it as a huge boon to teaching rational thinking.

The flip side of this growth in freely available information is a collapse in the quality of public discourse over the same period. Whilst politicians have never been paragons of virtue, the average 2004 politician would go out of their way to avoid being caught in an obvious lie, whereas today being in possession of ‘alternative facts’ seems to be the standard operating procedure for almost all politicians. This growth in politicians willing to be ‘economical with the truth’ has been paralleled by the enormous growth of on-line news outlets willing to turn a blind-eye what in 2004 would have been seen as resignation-worthy behaviour.

We thus find ourselves in the paradoxical situation that the growth in freely available information (that in 2004 I would have guessed would have boosted rational thinking), has had little impact and I now believe that the teaching of rational thinking is even more important than it was in 2020.

I’m going to aim to post something every week, from now on, illustrating how I think we can best go about boosting rational thinking skills, but in the interim you might want to have a look back at my older posts. FOr my new posts I shall try to take a leaf out of my younger colleagues books and post more video, rather than my usual ‘text-heavy’ posts.

Teaching as storytelling

3 Jan

I’ve never subscribed to the current vogue In HE of ‘Lecturing = BAD, anything but Lecturing = GOOD’, but I’ve bever had a particularly good argument against it, beyond ‘Look what David Attenborough does, it’s just an illustrated lecture’. I’d happily acknowledge that bad lecuring is probably the worst sort of teaching, but I’m just not convinced that all lecturing is inherently bad. All f that said, I was really pleased to come across this paper over the Christmas break :

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The paper is facinating to me for a couple of reasons, in that it rather perfectly sums up my approach to teaching and I have no recollection of having read it before, even though it comes from a time what I had just begun teaching in HE.

So, a genuine question for those who believe that ‘lecturing’ is bad. If ‘storytelling’ has been the means of passing on knowledge for the vast majority of human history, why now is it a problem ???

Why teaching rational thinking is vital

2 Jan

As my own institution undergoes one of it’s regular ‘reorganisations’ my mind has turned to trying to explain why the sort of teaching I do is so important. In a period when UK HEIs are under existential threat, just saying ‘critical thinking is a valuable graduate skill’ seems like a rather weak justification for my work !

As every, the British media provided me with inspiration, when I came across this article, published in the Daily Mail on New Year’s Eve, and headlined ‘Chemotherapy may cause breast cancer to SPREAD: Two commonly used drugs encourage the disease to develop in the lungs’.

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Even before I get to the details of the reporting, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the potential impact of this article. Imagine reading this article as a patient undergoing breast cancer treatment. You’re first reaction might be to telephone your doctor, but it’s New Years Eve, so the chances are that you won’t be able to speak to anyone about it until after the New Year’s Day holiday. Thus you’d have two days of dwelling on the idea that the treatment you were currently getting might actually be harming you.

Before I get into the details, it’s worth saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the underlying research here, indeed it’s work from a reputable group, published in a reputable journal. I’d suggest that the fault here lays with the reporting of the original research. So have a look at what the issues might be :

  1. No link to the original paperThe original paper on which the article is based is freely available online, and thus it would have been simple for the newspaper to link to it. You might argue that the vast majority of readers wouldn’t understand the detailed content of the paper (me amongst them !!!), but having access to it does let the unqualified reader pick up some points that the newspaper ‘glossed over’ !!!
  2. Details of the study – The newspaper article refers to working with ‘experimental tumour models’, but nowhere does it explain that these ‘experimental tumour models’ are actually mice ! Return for a moment to putting yourself in the shoes of a cancer patient reading that article, and imagine how less stressed you Ould have been had the headline included the additional two words ‘…in mice’.
  3. Burying what the original authors said – As is often the case, the newspaper article buries the original authors comments at the very end of the article, in this case saying ‘not to jump to conclusions because they don’t if they’s get the same results with human breast cancer’. If you’d only ever read the Daily Mail article that seems like a very odd think for the original author to say, as you’d be assuming that the whole thing was about human, rather than mouse breast cancer.
  4. Ignoring important stuff – Additionally, if you had access to the original journal article you’s find another line that the Daily Mail omit to mention completely. Towards the end on the paper the original authors say ‘However, it should be cautioned that we did not study the survival of mice in association with the various treatments, so we currently ignore whether increased metastatic seeding and outgrowth in response to chemotherapy-elicited EVs would trans-late into shorter survival in our experimental cancer models’. So, the very variable that our imaginary reader might be most worried about (survival rate) wasn’t even studied !!!

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Why is any of this even vaguely relevant to teaching rational thinking ? I’d argue that it’s two-fold:

  1. A reader who is clear on some of the basic tenets of rational thinking i.e. media literacy, how science works, and reading journal articles, would be in a position to be much less stressed that they otherwise might be about such reporting.
  2. This might be wishful thinking, but a populous educated in rational thinking might encourage newspapers to stop this sort of reporting !!!!

 

My 2017 Rational Thinking Book of the Year

3 Dec

At the beginning of 2017, having been bed-ridden with pneumonia, I discovered the wonderful world of podcasts. I’ll write a separate post about why I love podcasts, and what my favourite ones are, but this is the story of a book I discovered after listening to an episode of the excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast.

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In this particular Freakonomics Radio episode, Stephen Dubner interviewed the economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about his work and his new book “Everybody Lies: What the internet can tell us about who we really are”

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If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by behavioural economics, and Stephens Davidowitz’s work in particularly interesting as during his economics PhD he hit on the idea of using Google Searches to study human behaviour. If you listen to the podcast you’ll get a good feel of the idea, but put simply, it addresses two problems that dog a lot of psychology research. Firstly, Google’s almost monopoly position means that they have an enormous volume of data from populations all over the world (addressing psychology’s issues both with relatively small samples and over reliance on student participants), and secondly people’s on-line behaviour is more reflective of their actual views than might be the case in face-to face discussion (The ‘social acceptability’ problem). Stephens-Davidowitz nicely illustrates this point with is discussion of racism. In traditional face-to face psychology research it is very unlikely that participants will explicitly express racist views, and yet by looking at Google searches for obviously racist terms one can access a sea of information that would be otherwise hidden.

“Everybody Lies” is written in an entirely accessible style, so would be comprehensible for a non-social scientist, but I’d hugely recommend it to anyone interested in psychology, sociology or indeed politics. Indeed, given the omnipresence of Google it maybe ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the future and the currently fashionable topic of ‘big data’. Certainly, if your looking for a Christmas present for anyone of an ‘academic’ disposition this is the book to go for.

Finally, for the more scientifically inclined, my own conclusion from reading ‘Everybody Lies’, was that there maybe a paradigm shift coming in how science works. I’ve grow up with the idea that science begins with ‘theory’, and one collects data to test that ‘theory’. My thought was that ‘big data’ does away with theory i.e if we can conclusively demonstrate from the data that A is related to B do we any longer need to thing about WHY A might be related to B ? As it turns out this is not the most original of thoughts, but is is intriguing to think that in the future scientists job might be the ‘why’ part of the question, because ‘big data’ analysts will already have demonstrated the ‘what’.

 

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