Archive | August, 2012

The ethics of being a skeptic

28 Aug

One of the questions that often comes up in my classes is ‘are they doing any harm ?’. More specifically, students ask if we have any right to get involved if adults want to spend their money on consulting Sally Morgan ( the UK’s ‘best-loved’ psychic) or on buying very expensive bottles of sugar pills to ‘cure’ any number of ailments. I’ve always combated this argument with examples of homeopaths prescribing ‘remedies’ for life threatening diseases (i.e. Malaria) and thus incurring potential expense for the NHS, which we all pay for.

I was drawn to think about this when I read a recent story about a church in the north of England peddling a highly questionable cancer ‘cure’. The same church had previously been fined £25,000 by OFCOM, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, for broadcasting cancer ‘cure’ claims on their TV channel Believe TV. Religion is always a topic I’ve avoided directly addressing when teaching, using the defence that faith is inherently unfalsifiable , and thus not amenable to scientific enquiry. Of course, this defence itself has raised questions from students since Richard Dawkins published his book ‘The God Delusion’. However, I’m left with the conundrum that I’d happily talk about someone peddling olive oil and Ribena as a ‘cancer’ cure in lectures but I avoid discussion of prayer curing cancer. This particular case interested me, as Ben Goldacre tweeted about it suggesting that those involved in purchasing the Ribena and Olive Oil cure need to take responsibility for their own actions. I’m not sure I agree with that view completely, in that I think skeptics ought to warn against such things.

All of this makes me think about where the limits of skepticism lay. Should we comment on everything, or are there points where we should step back and say ‘if you fell for that it’s your own fault ?’. Equally, is my decision not to discuss religious faith in class a rational one, or just me avoiding a controversial topic. I don’t really have and answer to either of these questions, so I’d love to hear what others think. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Abortion and cognitive dissonance

24 Aug

One of my favourite teaching topics is ‘why do smart people do and think dumb things’, and I was reminded of this during the week when I read about the latest, slightly bizarre, twist in the ongoing US abortion debate. As you will have undoubtedly read,  in a discussion  about pregnancy ( and thus potential abortion) after rape Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said “in cases of legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”. Avoiding, for the moment, the horrific use of the word ‘legitimate’ in that sentence I was draw to the question of why an apparently reasonably intelligence person could end up so confused about female biology as the available evidence seems to point in completely the opposite direction.

This made me think about a lecture I did last year, on the psychology of conspiracy theories. I spent a long time looking for an interesting example of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort felt when an individual holds conflicting beliefs, and in particular Festinger’s idea that individuals would modify their cognitions to resolve the dissonance.

It seems that Congressman Akin passionately believes that abortion should be banned, and no exceptions to this ban should be allowed. Equally he believes that rape is wrong. He is thus left with the dissonant cognition that a pregnancy might result from a rape. In order to resolve these dissonant beliefs it seems reasonable to suggest that Congressman Akin’s brain has concocted the seemingly baseless idea that the female reproductive system can shutdown in the face of rape in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance. There may, of course, be other explanations of this but it does look like a nice classroom illustration of the concept.

If you are interested in a rational look at the US abortion debate material is very difficult to find, as the debate is so polarised. However, I did come across this twenty year old paper from the arch-rationalist Carl Sagan that is well worth reading.

More on the UK’s ‘best-loved psychic’.

17 Aug

I’ve written previously about Sally Morgan, the UK’s self-proclaimed ‘best-loved’ psychic. A couple of recent articles make this an even better teaching opportunity that it was previously.

The first article is a review of one of Sally’s shows from June 2012, written by an ex-magician who points out some of the techniques she may have used. The article doesn’t provide anything hugely surprising, but it’s worth paying attention to the comments at the bottom of the article. Two commenters, both who claim to have attended the same show, defend Sally Morgan’s work and suggest that the report is not accurate. Whilst you might like to believe the original article, as a rational thinker you have to accept that article can’t be accepted at face value.

However, the second article makes things much more interesting. When the author and renowned skeptic Simon Singh originally wrote about Sally Morgan’s activities he asked anyone who had had a reading from her to contact him. He has now written about the response to this request, including audio recordings of one particular reading by Sally Morgan (There is a certain irony in the fact that the recording was made by Morgan herself). Having an audio recording allows for a point by point dissection of Morgan’s methods, which makes very interesting reading.

There are a couple of useful teaching points here. Firstly, it’s the quality of the evidence that separates the first article from the second. Whilst students might latch on to the first article, it’s a good way of demonstrating the questionable nature of testimonials. The quality of the evidence in the second article is what allows for the better critique of Morgan’s methods. The second teaching point is, I think, a more interesting one. I’d like to use this to get students to think about whether psychics do any harm, and whether we shouldn’t get involved if adults wish to spend their own money of psychic readings. In areas such as alternative medicine I think the question of potential harm is clearer, but here I suspect there is, at the very least, an argument to be had.


They might speak our language, but they’re not like us …

15 Aug

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reminded of an experience I had four years whilst attending a conference in Boston during the Beijing Olympics. Like most academics at a conference I was never far from my laptop, and so was able to check on Olympic results many times during the day. Subsequently I had the odd experience of sitting in a hotel bar in the evening watching apparently ‘live’ Olympic TV coverage of the events where I already  knew the results. As we’ve discovered again this week NBC, the American Olympic TV broadcaster, recorded all of their coverage and then showed it during ‘prime-time’ as if it was live. This made me think about cultural differences between the UK and the US, and how to get students to think about them.

My own discipline (Psychology) is dominated by American research, and it is often difficult to get my UK students to recognise that they need to question conclusions drawn from studies using American participants. It would seem that the universality of America music and television makes UK students think that they culturally indistinguishable from Americans, and thus they have no reason to question US research. At a very simple level, just asking a UK student what they think would happen if the BBC decided to only show Olympic events several hours after they had taken place should lead students someway towards recognising a very obvious cultural difference. Equally I would imagine that with a little rephrasing the same question would be illustrative for US students. This type of thinking is vital for UK psychology students, as they spend so much of their time evaluating research conducted using US participants. For example, I’ve previously written about a study suggesting that certain types of music may make you racist which I suspect may be a good example of a cultural skewed piece of research.

A couple of recent news story also look like a good way to illustrate these UK/US cultural differences. The story is a truly bizarre one, in which a US political party comes out against Critical Thinking. The 2012 platform document for the Republican Party in Texas states:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabelling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that had this paragraph been published by any part of either of the UK’s leading political parties, those responsible would have been very rapidly disowned by the parties national leadership.

One final anecdote also nicely illustrates a surprising UK/US cultural difference. Some months ago I was editing a paper that I wanted to be accessible for a US audience and I was thus doing through it removing UK-centric references. At one point in the paper I had referred to David Attenborough, a UK naturalist and broadcaster who has been making award-winning TV Natural History documentaries, and suggested that he was a universally trusted figure. I asked an American colleague what I  thought at the time was a very straightforward question, the name of an equally universally trusted US figure. She came up with Walter Kronkite (a newscaster who retired over thirty years ago), but struggled to think of anyone of a more recent vintage !!! Indeed, we ended up having an interesting discussion about what the absence of figures of trust said about US culture in general.

Teaching statistical thinking might have just got easier

6 Aug

Over seventy years ago Samuel Wilkes, the then President of the American Statistical Association, wrote “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write!”. (Interestingly he was paraphrasing the work of the the British writer HG Wells from 1903 !!). Given the welter of statistics that we are confronted with on a daily basis, it seem s perfectly reasonable to say that that day has arrived, and yet what I see of students entering undergraduate studies suggests that we have a long way to go in developing ‘efficient citizenship’.

My own discipline, psychology, requires students to have detailed knowledge of the statistics of null-hypothesis testing and yet in focusing on an understanding of t-tests, ANOVAs regression etc etc I suspect that more apparently ‘basic’ statistical ideas such as understanding distributions and sampling are often neglected. It has be to said that the fault does not entirely lay with those of us teaching in higher education institutions. Psychology students appear to arrive at university with an aversion to anything the looks like mathematics, that you have to assume is a product of the nature of pre-16 mathematics teaching.

Ive written before about using opinion polling problems as a route into teaching about sampling, but I’ve just come across a little book that seems like a perfect way of getting students to grasp ‘statistical thinking’.

‘How to lie with statistics’ by Darrell Huff is a tiny (124 pages) fifty year old book that contains a huge range of the type of examples that I like to use when teaching, and delivers them in a style that is accessible to modern-day students. It seems to me that this book would make an excellent basis for the first few weeks of any introductory statistics undergraduate course and ought to be compulsory reading to guarantee ‘efficient citizenship’.

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