Archive | October, 2012

More on cognitive dissonance and abortion. Pregancy from rape is ‘something God intended to happen’ !

29 Oct

A few weeks ago I wrote about an American politician Todd Akin, and suggested that the somewhat bizarre views about rape and abortion that he had expressed might have been a product of cognitive dissonance. I’ve now come across a second example of what seems to be the same phenomena.

Richard Mourdock is a Republican candidate for an Indiana Senate seat who holds very firm views on abortion believing that there are no circumstances in which it should be allowed. However,  the interesting stuff began when Mr Mourdock was questioned about his views on rape. As any right thinking person would be said that he ‘abhorred rape, as did God’. When the discussion moved to his views about pregnancy as a result of rape you see the dramatic ‘problems’ caused by cognitive dissonance. Mr Mourdock was confronted with on one-hand his ‘abhorrence’ of rape (and presumable the view that it wasn’t part of God’s plan) and on the other hand his opposition to abortion under any circumstances. It seems to me that cognitive dissonance can be the only rational explanation for Mr Mourdock’s subsequent statement that pregnancy as a result of rape was ‘something that God intended to happen’.

Both Akin and Mourdock’s statements over the last few weeks seem to me to be great illustrations of quite how powerful an influence on the mind cognitive dissonance is. It’s all to easy for European liberals to dismiss such statements as being slight ‘mad’, but I think that seeking rational explanations for them is much more interesting.

Equally, this seem like another useful example to get students to think about differences between American and Western European culture. All to often students are prepared to uncritically accept evidence from the USA when these examples seem to illustrate another gaping cultural difference. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘mainstream’ British politician of any party making statements similar to those of Akin and Mourdock without seeing a rapid end to their political career.

Celebrity Sperm Bank Fiasco

29 Oct

Teaching a university course in ‘Thinking’ can be very different from most other courses, In that it isn’t immediately apparent to students how they are benefiting from the course. To get over this I try to regularly include items that demonstrate to the students that they are acquiring an uncommon skill, that out in the ‘real world’ very few people possess. This week I came across a great example that went down very well with the students.

The website details a sperm bank with a range of celebrity donors. It doesn’t take much of a look to realise that the website is a very well executed joke. When I showed the website to my students I’d estimate that 60% realised that it was a joke site immediately, and the remainder did so after watching the video on the front page of the website.


What is interesting about this case is that not everyone realised that was a joke. The UK daytime TV show ‘This Morning’, picked up the story of and ran a live interview with its ‘founder’. For readers in the USA, ‘This Morning’ would roughly be the equivalent of ‘Live with Regis and Kelly’


Showing students this website, letting them examine it, and then showing them the video of the ‘This Morning’ is a great way of getting them to understand that they are acquiring a set of skills that are valuable, and that many apparently ‘intelligent’ people don’t possess.

Interestingly, this formed about a ten minute section of a three-hour lecture, and yet it was the one thing the students wanted to speak to me about afterwards !

Cherry picking research. Screens of any sort (and Facebook) may be killing you, or at least your children !!!

14 Oct

In my lecture this week I was covering the idea of cherry picking research findings to match a particular view of a research question, as as luck would have it two days before the British press was covered with the ‘news’ that watching TV (or indeed screens of any sort) was seriously damaging children’s health. This story was based on the latest work of Dr. Aric Sigman, who has previously been involved in Putting baby in nursery ‘could raise its risk of heart disease’ and How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer. I’m particularly interested in the work of Dr. Sigman as he received his PhD from the institution at which I now work (from the same department).

In my lecture I showed the students a TED lecture from Ben Goldacre on the questionable practices of the pharmaceutical industry in cherry picking research results to support there latest product (excellently detailed in his new book ‘Bad Pharma’). I moved on to show them the psychologists could be equally guilty of this, illustrated with the Facebook/cancer story mentioned above. Aric Sigman’s habit of cherry picking the literature has been extensively detailed, but what I find particularly surprising is that he openly admits to selectively reporting evidence to support his own point of view. All of this from someone who’s academic credentials on the surface seem exemplary . Aric Sigman’s own website lists him as a Chartered Biologist, Fellow of the Society of Biology, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a recipient of the Chartered Scientist award from the Science Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. Interestingly, true experts in the fields Sigman writes about, such as Dorothy Bishop (Oxford Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology) have regular criticised his writings (but have had little media impact). Indeed, Bishop has written a great piece on how to become a media science expert, where you suspect she may have had Aric Sigman in mind.

On the surface all of this could be quite depressing for someone trying to teach students to think rationally, in that it questions the value of science’s much-revired peer-review process (Sigman’s work has been regularly published in the peer-reviewed ‘The Biologist’. However, as a vehicle for encouraging students to question everything they are presented with even if it comes from a peer-reviewed sources an an apparently highly qualified author, it is second to none.

On a more cheerful note, my lecture did produce one gem that I will recycle for years to come. The Daily Mail’s article suggesting Facebook could raise your risk of cancer has a very interesting addition an the bottom, a button to post the story to Facebook and a counter showing that 4565 readers have ‘liked’ the story on Facebook !

One of my students spotted this particular gem of irony, so perhaps what I am teaching is worthwhile !

My penis is bigger than yours ! Quality psychology research ??

7 Oct

As I’ve hopefully demonstrated elsewhere on this blog, newspaper science articles are a great way to get students to hone their rational thinking skills. However the aim of such education is to get those students to employ their newly honed skills when they are reading the academic content of the rest of their undergraduate course. Achieving such ‘transfer of training’ isn’t easy, indeed psychologists have spent the best part of 100 years arguing about the extent to which it happens at all. It is entirely possible that our own teaching methods may actively discourage students from critiquing the content of academic journals. I’m sure many HE teachers spend a long time with new undergraduate students talking about the importance of ‘peer-review’ and how ‘peer-reviewed’ sources are much more reliable than students just ‘googling’ a topic.

One way to try to encourage students to use their rational thinking skills on academic papers is to try to collect ‘peer-reviewed articles’ that contain glaring methodological flaws. In most cases these are flaws that only become obvious years after publication, but htis week I’ve come across current article from a prestigious journal that serves this purpose perfectly.

My interest was piqued by an article in the Daily Mail headlined ‘We knew it all along: British men have bigger penises than the French according to new survey’. These sorts of story are usually obvious nonsense, but I was intrigued by two things, that the story was a report of an article published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’, and that even the Daily Mail had highlighted methodological problems with the study

The story is based on the paper ‘An examination of Rushton’s theory of differences in penis length and circumference and r-K life history theory in 113 populations” by Richard Lynn. Ignoring the slightly eccentric theory behind the paper,three very obvious point appear when one reads it. Firstly, the data from the 113 population is presented to a surprising level of accuracy. Mean penis length is quoted for each population, and detailed down to hundredths of centimetres. I was immediately drawn to thinking about what type of measuring equipment would be necessary to achieve this level of accuracy. Secondly, many data points listed from the 113 populations were followed by a small asterisk. Turning to the bottom of the table you find out that the asterisk denotes ‘self-report’. YOu can only speculate how naive you would have to be not to questions the reliability of ‘self-report’ of penis length. Finally, reading through the method section of the paper you find that the data was not collected by the author, but rather culled from a website ( A quick skip through the web site leads you to a list of the sources from which they complied their data. WHilst some of them seem to be legitimate sources a number seem quite surprising:

The Elle/ sex and body image survey. Elle, pp. 111–113. Magna-RX. (2005, March). Does size really matter to your lover? More than you can possibly imagine! For Him Magazine, p. 117

The Happy Hook-Up: A Single Girl’s Guide to Casual Sex. Alexa Joy Sherman, Nicole Tocantins. p208. Ten Speed Press, 2004.

Argionic Desire. (2005, March). Argionic desire: Innovative penis enlargement product for men. For Him Magazine

Taken together these three things make me really wonder about the peer-review process. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’d question this sort of stuff it I saw if in a third year student’s thesis and yet it is apparently acceptable is the ‘gold-standard’ for academic writing. Having run through this paper with my 1st year undergraduate class I’d recommend it to anyone trying to encourage students to be active in critiquing ‘peer-reviewed’ material. Not only does the content guarantee you a cheap laugh from the students it gives them an understandingg that they can spot things that journal editors miss (or possible choose to ignore ???)

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