Archive | May, 2012

Does homeopathy really do any harm ?

28 May

Getting students to initially engage their rational thinking skills can be relatively straightforward, in that you are really only asking them to be skeptical about what they are presented with. The bigger challenge is to get then to ‘unpick’ a more complex argument using all the skills they have learnt. Again, homeopathy can provide a useful vehicle for encouraging this deeper level of rational thinking.

As I’ve previously discussed I use homeopathy as a teaching example, as it’s an area where basic skepticism will lead students in the right direction. However, this basic skepticism leads stronger students to two questions,’if it’s making them feel better why should we worry about it’ and ’if it’s oh water it can’t be doing them any harm. These questions confirm that students have understood the basic issues that rationalism has with homeopathy (i.e. It’s water and it’s a placebo) but also show that they need to be encouraged to delve a little deeper.


Some years ago the BBC’s Newsnight programme ran an investigation into homeopathy in which they used hidden cameras to record UK-based homeopaths recommending a homeopathic remedy for malaria prophylaxis. As you might expect, in a subsequent interview with Emily Maitlis a representative of the UK regulatory group for homeopaths condemned the prescription of such remedies.
Many of my students recognise the usual prophylaxis treatment for malaria, and as such begin to realise the possible harm that homeopathy might do. One could, of course, employ the ’bad apples’ defence against this evidence in that it only shows two ’dodgy’ homeopaths amongst many hundreds. However, this brings me to a strange exchange I had with a homeopath following a recent post here.

My post, “Homeopathy as a teaching example” prompted a series of comments from an Indian homeopath seeking to ‘educate’ me about homeopathy. You can read all the comments for yourself here. I was unfailingly polite in my reponses to the comments, and as i like to see everything as an opportunity for collecting teaching materials I decided to ask what she’d recommend for malaria prophylaxis. Given the drive from UK homeopaths to be taken seriously I was fully expecting to be referred to my GP, but surprisingly I received a very rapid response suggesting a homeopathic remedy.

So, the answer to the question ‘Does homeopathy do any harm’ would seem to be YES especially if one considers the modern wecb-connected world.

I suspect this post may generate more responses from homeopaths, which will hopefully generate more teaching examples.

Evening Standard doesn’t understand numbers

24 May

A quick posting, as I’m recovering from marking hell ! I found this story in this week’s Evening Standard, and thought it might make a good way of getting students to think about numbers. I’d just ask if they can see any difference between the headline and the text of the story. You can only assume that Standard sub-editors don’t understand that inflation falling from 3.5% to 3% isn’t  a ‘3% drop in the cost of living’ ! The text of the story is pretty clear that the ‘cost of living’ actually went up 3% last month.

Homeopathy again !

18 May

I often use homeopathy as a teaching example, as there are so many resources available to liven up teaching. Some years ago the BBC’s flagship documentary programme, Horizon, ran a film on homeopathy that is still accessible via YouTube.


The documentary provides both useful background on homeopathy, and an interesting test of its effectiveness.

More recently, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee produced a report on homeopathy. Amongst the evidence taken by the committee was a comical  exchange between the committee chairman, a representative from Boots, the UK’s largest chemist (drugstore) chain and largest retailer of homeopathic remedies, and a representative of UK homeopathic manufacturers. The representative of Boots said that he had no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. When asked the same question the manufacturers representative said that he has a range of evidence showing the efficacy of homeopathy. With a heavily ironic tone the committee chairman then suggest that he might like to pass the evidence on to his largest customer. Even more revealing is the admission from the Boots representative that he stocks homeopathic remedies not because they work but solely because customers demand them.

The video of this exchange always produces intersting discussion with students. They are particulayl interested in the idea that Boots promote themselves as being able to offer health advise, but are happy that they have no evidence of the efficancy of homeopathy.

Contradicting your own headlines (and other stories)

14 May

I’ve written recently about newspaper science stories that seem to bear little resemblance to their original sources, but I’ve just come across an example where the headline and the text of the story seem to actively disagree with each other !

This Daily Mail story from 26th March 2012 is headlined ‘Forget your five-a-day: Popcorn has ‘more antioxidants than fruit and vegetables’, and yet if you read through the story you find the researcher warning ‘that people can’t forego their five-a-day’.

So, in this case students don’t even need to be told to read the source material, as the problems are there in the story itself. Beyond that, it’s worth asking students if they can see a bigger problem with the idea of popcorn as ‘the perfect snack food’ and thus the latest ‘superfood’. You might wonder how many students order ‘virgin’ popcorn at the local Vue ? You would suspect that various ‘sweet’ favours might be the norm, followed by ‘salted’. Ironically this article headlined ‘A 1800 calorie bag of popcorn: Cinemas urged to warn film lovers about fat-filled snacks’ strangely also appeared in the Daily Mail ?

Bragging on Facebook better than sex ?

13 May

I’m always on the lookout for items that might engage students’ interest, and when I came across this Daily Mail story about ‘bragging on Facebook feeling better than sex’ it seems like I’d found the perfect source material.

As ever, popular science reporting very rarely links to their original sources and in this case didn’t even say where the original paper was published. After a bit of googling I found the original paper, and that’s where this story gets a little more interesting. The paper, from Harvard psychologists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell only mentions Twitter once, in passing, in the introduction and doesn’t mention Facebook at all even though it’s the headline of the Mail article

I have no idea whether the Mail’s Facebook focus is a result of their interpretation of the paper or possible an overly vigourous press release from Harvard, but what is useful from a teaching perspective is that this story illustrators how important it is to read the original source. A reasonable reading of the Mail story would suggest that Facebook and Twitter had been part of the original , where actually Facebook didn’t appear at all and Twitter only in passing.

Being rational about conspiracy theories

11 May

Conspiracy theories can be a great way to introduce ideas about rational thinking, and as I’ve discovered this year also a way of getting students to evaluate competing theories.

At a very basic level it’s worth getting students to think about the practicalities of maintaining a conspiracy. My favourite example of this is the idea that the Americans faked the Apollo moon landings. The first thing I ask them to think about is ‘how many people would they have had to pay off to keep it quite for forty years’. I then show students the most recent photos of the moon’s surface that show the Apollo landing sites in detail. A few students usually suggest that these might be fake as well, but this leads on to a discussion of how the Americans might go about preventing the Russian or Chinese governments from exposing such an obvious fake (as you would assume that they too have the ability to photograph the lunar surface). This simple exercise is a nice way to demonstrate to students that they don’t need to be experts a particular field in order to think rationally about it. It’s possible to do this same exercise using Alien Landings as the example, with questions like ’why do they always land in the back woods of the USA’ and ’if they have the technology to get here why do they hide once they arrive’.

I’ve discovered this year that conspiracy theories can also be a good vehicle to get students to evaluate competing theories. I was inspired by a great article in The Psychologist to teach a lecture on the psychology of conspiracy theories, and found that students could readily see that whilst theory A might explain conspiracy theory B, it didn’t really fit with conspiracy theory C that was better explained by theory D. This also seemed like a way of introducing students to the idea that their might not be a definitive answer to a particular question yet.

One slightly worrying by product of this teaching was the realisation that lumps of history that I had assumed were common knowledge were far from it. I was genuinely surprised by the level of shock that a showing of the footage of Kennedy’s assassination produced.  In retrospect, it maybe isn’t so surprising that concepts like ‘Communism’ that might represent part of the ‘lived experience’ of a 45 year old academic might just be ancient history to an 18 year old. However it has made me think about how lack of understanding of context may hamper students understanding of particular behaviours, particularly in relation to Social Psychology. It makes me think that ‘historical context’ should be an explicit part of many more lectures than it currently is

I would offer one word of caution about using conspiracy theories as a vehicle for teaching. You may be surprised by how many students believe at least one conspiracy theory, and indeed I’ve come across one colleague who assures me that the Americans definitely faked the moon landings !

Strange developments in the psychic world

8 May

Sally Morgan is, at least according to her web-site, ‘Britain’s best-loved psychic’, who provided psychic reading to the late princess Diana.

As ‘Britain’s best-loved psychic’, she has peaked the interested on the ‘skeptical’ community, and there are a number of recent articles about her work which are worth discussing with students. At a performance in Dublin in Sept 2011 some members of Sally’s audience reported hearing a voice apparently feeding inform to her whilst on stage. Subsequently she was accused of wearing a concealed earpiece to allow her staff to communication information about members of the audience during the performance. Subsequently the illusionist Paul Zenon wrote about this incident in a story in the Daily Mail. Morgan is now suing both the Mail and Zenon for libel.

Following this incident Simon Singh examined the reviews of Sally Morgan’s shows blogs and found a fall in her ratings after the Dublin incident. Singh took care to point out that he was not suggesting that this was as a result of no longer being able to use an earpiece.

The story gets even more convoluted in Feb 2012, when Drew McAdam attended Sally Morgan’s Edinburgh show. McAdam reports planting a story that Morgan subsequently repeated during her show. Sally Morgan has, obviously, vigorously challenged McAdam’s claims.

This whole story makes for a great ‘knock-around’ teaching session. Students seem to love anything about ‘psychic-powers’, and the McAdam portion of the tale is a nice illustration of how some psychics might work. It’s worth getting students to think about how they might objectively test claims of psychic powers. For students interested in such work, the work of Chris French at Goldsmiths is worth following

In addition, it’s interesting that the Daily Mail come out on the right side of this story !

At interesting postscript to this story is that very little seems to change in relation to psychic powers. Below is a video of James Randi investiagting Uri Geller in the early 1970’s. Much of what Randi reports seems to be replicated in the above story

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