Archive | April, 2012

Cake makes you lose weight !!

30 Apr

Weird diet stories often appear in the press, and serve as a really nice way for students to deploy their rational thinking skills. This particular example from the Daily Telegraph in Feb 2012 suggests that eating chocolate cake makes you lose weight.

The reported study involves two groups, both of a calorie-limited low-carbohydrate diet, where the difference between the two groups was that one ate a 300 calorie breakfast whereas the other ate a 600 calories breakfast including the chocolate cake. The cake group lost substantially more weight that the non-cake group, even though they consumed the same number of calories in total.

Students will have undoubtedly heard the advice that eating a large breakfast means you are less hungry throughout the day, but the story treats this as being some kind of amazing scientific revelation !

It’s worth asking  students to Google this story, to see just how far such ‘news’ spreads. The story originals from the Tele Aviv University in Israel, but I’ve found it being reported in India, the USA, Australia and New Zealand as well as the UK. What’s really intriguing is that nowhere in any of these stories does the idea of a group eating a 600 calorie breakfast with cake versus a group eating a 600 calorie breakfast without cake would be an actual test of the ‘cake’ hypothesis

Encouraging students to recognise their own skills

30 Apr

It can often be difficult to get students to recognise that they have acquired new cognitive skills, and that it is a skills that others might not possess. For the last couple of years I’ve been using an example aimed at demonstrating to students how unusual their rational thinking skills are.

In 2009 the world’s media picked up the story of a Belgium man , Rom Houben who had been diagnosed in 2006 as suffering from Lock-in syndrome, when for the previous 23 years he had been treated by doctors as if he was in a persistent vegetative state. Put simply, he had been conscious for 23 years, but un able to communicate with those around him. This story ran in the media around the world, including the USA, Australia, the UK and Germany.

What made the story particularly compelling was the quotations from Mr Houben, explaining how he felt during the 23 years of his isolation. The following is a selection of the quotes reported:

“Powerlessness. Utter powerlessness. At first I was angry, then I learned to live with it,”

 He told doctors he had “travelled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether”. Sometimes, he said, “I was only my consciousness and nothing else”.

“I’ll never forget the day that they discovered me,” he said. “It was my second birth”.

 “Just imagine,” he wrote. “You hear, see, feel and think but no one can see that. You undergo things. You cannot participate in life.”

At this point, having talked students through the story I stop and ask them what they think about it. The usual reactions are ‘horror’ at the impact on Rom Houben, and ‘anger’ at the medical profession for allowing it to happen.

At this point I show the students a video of the BBC NEWS report of this story, and ask them if they notice anything unusual. This is usually enough of a prompt that the students will ask about Mr Houben means of communication, in particular that he is using one finger to type on a keyboard, but that finger appears to be being directed by a health care work. This process is known as ‘facilitated communication’. I usually then give the students a break and invite them to see what they can find out about ‘facilitated communications’. 

Given that most students are in possession of at least one internet-enabled device, it doesn’t take long for them to begin questioning the validity of the quotations from Rom Houben. I then conclude by showing them an article from the BBC website some months after the first report, in which they retract the original story and say that sadly Mr Houben could not communicate after all, and that the quotations produced where coming from the health care worker involved.

All of this leads to two discussions with students, the impact on Mr Houben’s family of having their hopes raised and the dashed, and the fact that the students were able to recognise an issue that the BBC (and all the other media outlets) seem to have missed. Hopefully this excercise encourages students to realise that they are gaining valuable skills in learning to think rationally, and that these skills aren’t very widespread

Superfoods – Is it just correlational data ?

28 Apr

Students will probably have already come across the idea of ‘superfoods’, so this article should be easily accessible.

This Daily Mail article reports a study from a large US cohort study that suggests that eating strawberries and blueberries can stave off cognitive decline on later life. What’s of particular interest is that if the students read to the end of the Mail’s article they discover the idea that other ‘lifestyle’ variables, for example ‘exercise’, might explain the correlation between the fruit consumption and slowing of the rate of cognitive decline. Students should be able to readily recognise that people who eat more fruit might also exercise more. It seems quite bizarre that a newspaper that would publish a single article where the end of the article seems to contradict beginning of it.

This seems like a nice way to talk about correlation and causation and also a good example that just by reading all the way through newspaper articles it’s possible to spot the problems with them !

Psychic Powers, Replication and the collapse of psychology ???

27 Apr

As part of my teaching I focus on students gaining an understanding of how knowledge progresses by the employment of the scientific method. One of the tenets of this teaching is the idea that you would never accept a hypothesis after one positive result, but would seek to replicate the finding with different samples and different experimental methods. When students begin to read scholarly journals they may gains rather different impression of how knowledge progresses, as the world appears to consist of positive findings associated with new theories and hypotheses. This absence of replication would seem to be one of those unwritten rules of academia, but recent developments seem to suggest that it might be beginning to unravel.

In 2011 the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper by Daryl Bem suggesting the existence of precognition As you might imagine, a paper in a leading peer-reviewed journal reporting experimental evidence of a psychic phenomena produced a good deal of interest.

Three British psychologists Stuart Ritchie, Richard Wiseman and Chris French set about trying to replicate Bem’s work, and unsurprisingly failed to reproduce his findings. This is where the story gets interesting, as they struggled to get their failed replication published. In particular it was rejected by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who had published Bem’s original work. Ritchie, Wiseman and French have written about the saga of trying to get their replication published in the May 2012 edition of The Psychologist.

All of the above makes for an interesting discussion with students, Psychic powers to engagement initially, the idea that we should be looking for replication and the evidence that we actually aren’t really interested in publishing it. However, another development makes it an even more interesting topic for discussion. A group of researchers started something they call The Reproducibility Project that is aiming to replicate all the work published in three leading journals Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition during 2008. There is an interesting article about this project in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s interesting to speculate about what might happen if they fail to replicate much of the work from three such prestigious journals

Paper on my work

24 Apr

I recently presented a paper at the Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference for Science , Technology, Engineering and Maths disciplines (HEA STEM) on the teaching approach I use to encourage rational thinking.

All of the papers from the HEA STEM conference are available on their website, and there is some very interesting material amongst them

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