Archive | January, 2013

Blondes have more fun and David Cameron has a successful ‘political face’ !!

26 Jan

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Doing what I do, I read a lot of weird news stories but I came across something this week that was the strangest thing I’ve seen in some time. At first glance the story seemed like standard fayre, suggesting that facial traits are related to success and leadership. It goes no to say that women with dark hair are more successful in business than those with blonde hair (somewhat surprisingly illustrating successful business women with pictures of Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middlleton !!), and suggesting that men with squarer jawlines are better leaders (illustrated with a picture of David Cameron).

I was just about to move on, dismissing the story as too silly to think about, when two points peaked my interested. Firstly, the study on which the story is based seems to have been written by a respectable academic, Dr Chris Solomon from the University of Kent, and secondly his study was funded by the UK TV channel ‘Dave’, which is now for its  re-runs of comedy shows. This reminded me of a case from a few years ago, where headlines such as ‘All men will have big willies‘ were prompted by a report written by Dr Oliver Curry of the LSE, and funded by the TV channel ‘Bravo’.

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This link made me dig a little further, and I came across a couple of very strange things.

17th November 2008 ‘Fresh faced Cameron beats sunken-eyed Brown on ‘face you can trust’ issue’, based on Dr Solomon’s research funded by TV channel ‘Alibi’

6th November 2010 ‘How Cheryl Cole and David Beckham have ‘perfect faces” based on Dr Solomon’s research funded for the launch of ‘Beauty and the Beast ‘ on Blu-Ray disc

13th July 2009 ‘Scientists unveil the face of ‘the perfect boss’ based on Dr Solomon’s research funded by Vauxhall Motors for the launch of their Insignia model

Now, I haven’t been able to track down the research on which any of these four articles are based, and thus it’s difficult for me to draw firm conclusions, but at the very least it seems like a good way of getting students to think about where the border between science and public-relations lays !!

Eating chocolate and drinking milk will make you a Nobel Prize winner

22 Jan

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You could hardly miss this story, as it seems to have been all over the media this week. The headline of the  Daily Mail version of the story focused on a correlation between a country’s milk consumption and the number of Nobel Laureates from the country. The story went on to cover a similar correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel prizes. The same story appeared around the world including Bangladesh, USA (Time), Pakistan and Ghana.

You might just dismiss this story and the usual newspaper rubbish, but when you read through the story it is based on material from the Practical Neurology (A British Medical Journal publication) and from the New England Journal of Medicine. When you look at the Practical Neurology article one can feel the authors tongues firms in their cheeks and in the second line of the article they acknowledge that correlation obviously doesn’t imply correlation.

This story is useful for two different types of teaching. At a basic level it’s a nice way to illustrate the idea that correlation doesn’t imply causation. In discussion with students I’m pretty sure you could come up with a lot of possible variables that might me mediating this relationship. My own mind wanders to the figures for lactose intolerance in Asian countries being 75% plus.

At a much higher level I think there is an interesting discussion to be had about the responsibility of scientists when publishing correlational data. Whilst both the papers that this story was based on were published in peer-reviewed journals (and were thus aimed at an audience who would understand correlation and causation) it’s not unreasonable to suggest that given the subject matter both the authors and the journal editors would be aware that the popular press were likely to pick it up. Under these circumstances my question is ‘Do the authors and editors have any responsibility to consider the wider audience and their lack of understanding and correlation”? It’s all very well for us to bemoan poor science reporting in the popular press, but we ar least partially responsible ?

Misleading, even for the Daily Mail !!!!

21 Jan

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I’m always trying to encourage students to read beyond ‘headlines’, and I came across a story this week that’s a perfect illustration of this. University fees in the UK have risen by 300% in the last two years, and as you might imagine this has had a large impact on university recruitment. THis week saw the publication of the final enrolment figures for 2012, which was covered in the Daily Mail with a story headlines ‘Rise in tuition fees leads to 40% drop in university admissions’.

What’s particular wonderful about the Mail’s story is that the second paragraph says “The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) revealed that 51,000 fewer students started degree courses last autumn – a fall of 12 per cent – after fees nearly trebled to £9,000 a year“. So the headline says ‘40% drop’ and paragraph two says ‘fall of 12%’. It is not until further into the story that you realise that the ‘40% drop’ referred to in the headline is related only to London Metropolitan University (an institution who’s issues have little to do with the increase in tuition fees). You quite often come across newspaper stories where the headline somewhat oversells the story, but you have to assume this one was deliberately written to mislead !

More on US Gun Laws (and my own biases exposed !!)

14 Jan


Since writing about US Gun Laws last week I’ve been putting together material for a lecture and have come across a couple of things that might be of broader interest. I’ve been looking at the US media coverage in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook attack, and in particular the uproar caused by the pronouncements of the British journalist Piers Morgan.


Piers Morgan is a British tabloid journalist who rose to the position of editor of a number tabloid newspapers before being fired from the editorship of the Daily Mirror after publishing fake pictures of British soldiers assaulting prisoners. He subsequently reinvented himself via a number of TV shows including ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’, before ending up in his current position where he replaced Larry King on CNN Television’s premier interview show. I think it would be reasonable to say that Piers Morgan’s journalistic abilities are not widely respected in the UK, and so the strength of the opposition when he offered the standard European view that the USA’s gun laws seem a bit ‘mad’ came as something of a surprise. A White House Petition to deport Piers Morgan, that garnered in excess of 100,00 signatures, produced particular hilarity in the UK where the default reaction was ‘we don’t want him back’.

Alex Jones a Texas Radio phone-in host,one of the supporters of the ‘Deportation’ petition, appeared on Morgan’s US TV show in the days following the Sandy Hook attack to support the US Gun Laws. As you’ll see from this clip he is quite a ‘character’.

I’d originally come across Alex Jones ten years ago when appeared in Jon Ronson’s excellent book ‘Them: Adventures with Extremists’, and thus wasn’t in the least bit surprised by his extreme ‘performance’ on the show. What’s interesting is that I automatically assumed that booking Jones for Piers Morgan’s show was a fairly ‘cheap’ trick to discredit the gun lobby by having their views voiced by someone who appeared slightly ‘deranged’. I then came across a second clip from Piers Morgan’s show, of someone called Ted Nugent, that seems to confirm my assumption:


What I found interesting was that having watched these two clips I’d settled on the view that the ‘clever liberal’ anti-gun people had tricked the ‘simple conservative’ pro-gun people into undermining their own argument by booking seeming ‘deranged’ contributors. What really surprised me was that I’ve subsequently discovered that Ted Nugent is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association, the hugely powerful pro-gun lobby group. So, the question that arises is was my view that he looked ‘slightly deranged’ a produced on my own European liberal bias, or is he as ‘mad’ as he looks and sounds ?

All in all it seems like I need to work a lot more on a lecture on cultural differences. With this stuff and the debate around abortion that appeared during the US Elections last year there is a lot of material. Psychology’s own literature has quite a lot to say about cultural differences but most it it is focused on differences between Eastern and Western culture rather than between North America and Europe.

The ‘Mediterranean Diet’ Super Pill

7 Jan



Seven days into the year, and I’ve spotted a new piece of teaching material. The front page story of today’s Daily Express is headlined ‘Super Pills is the Key to Living Longer’, and reports a small-scale study of the effects of lycopene. The story also appears in today’s Daily Mail under the headline ‘A daily tomato pill to cut heart attacks’.


The study itself is of passing interest, but what drew my attention was the link being made with ‘The Mediterranean Diet’. The logic of the article is that lycopene is derived from tomatoes, and tomatoes are a major constitutent of the Mediterranean diet. It will be interesting to get students to reflect on this adea of the link between good health and the ‘Mediterranean Diet’. Hopefully students will be able to derive for themselves the possibility that overall ‘lifestyle’ rather than diet alone might be behind the health advatages of those living in Southern Europe. Once this has been established it’s only a small step to ask students to think about the impact of the current economic crisis in Southern Europe, with civil unrest in Greece and unemployment in Spain in excess of 25%.

However good their diet might be one suspects that the current economic woes are likely to have a much greater neagtive effect on health !

Trying to think rationally about US gun laws

4 Jan


Since the dreadful attack on The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut just before Christmas I’ve been thinking about the debate that followed might be integrated into my rational thinking teaching. I’m sure that for those teaching in other disciplines there will be other parts of the debate that will seem relevant, but for my students (who are studying psychology) I’ve settled on two points. Firstly, the idea that the attack was ‘evil’, and secondly the question of the cultural differences between Europe and the USA.

The Psychology of ‘Evil’

In the immediate aftermath of the attack the Connecticut State governor Dannel Malloy visited Newtown and was reported to have said ‘Evil visited this community today’. I was immediately struck by how unhelpful this was in trying to explain the attack. It seems to me that calling the attack ‘evil’ removes any requirement to understand why to attack happened i.e it happened because the attackers was evil. It will be interesting to discuss this idea with students, particularly as psychology does have something to say about the aetiology of ‘evil’ acts whether it be Zimbardo’s ‘Situationist’ approach or Baron-Cohen’s more recent work on ‘evil’ and the absence of empathy.

Cultural Differences between Europe and the USA

Possibly of more general interest is the apparent difference in reaction between Europe and the USA. I’ve previously written about the idea that students tend to not differentiate between Europeans and Americans, and yet this is an example where the vast majority of Europeans struggle to grasp the attachment of many  (50%) Americans attachment to the right to bear arms. For the average European the post-attack reaction of the American National Rifle Association (NRA), suggesting that the attack could have been prevented had the school teachers been armed seems so extreme as to be difficult to believe.

Trying to uncover rational thought about US Gun Law is difficult, and often confounded by the lobbying power of the NRA, but I’ve come across a few articles that are of interest :

Silencing the Science of Gun Research – From the Journal of the American Medical Assocation takes a look at the avaialble research

The Riddle of the Gun – By Sam Harris is an interesting take on why some completely rational Americans might have to desire to own a gun, and an excellent critique of Sam Harris’s article

Finally, I found “Should Gun Owners Have To Buy Liability Insurance?” a really intriging idea that balances the need for regulation with the sense of so many Americans that they ‘need’ to own a gun.

I’ll report back after I’ve taught this stuff in February.

My rational thinking books of the year (Part 2)

3 Jan

I’ve been thinking for some time about trying to codify my thoughts on teaching rational thinking into a coherent curriculum, and in researching the idea I came across a new book by one of my academic heroes, Jim Flynn.


‘How to improve your mind’ is let down by a cover that makes it look like a dreadful self-help manual, when it actually contains Flynn’s views on the concepts for intelligence growth that first appeared in his 2007 work ‘What is Intelligence ?’. The twenty key concepts that Flynn identifies provide a powerful basis for teaching rational thinking.

For those who might have only read Flynn’s works on Intelligence ‘What is Intelligence’ and ‘Are we getting smarter ?’ might be surprised by the tone of the book. Those two books draw very heavily on the available data with pages of tables and references, whereas ‘How to Improve Your Mind’ reads much more like a conversation with Jim Flynn in that it written in a precise but occasionally acerbic style.

I’d recommend the book for anyone considering teaching rational thinking although I’m not sure about using as a textbook for a rational thinking course. Flynn himself suggests that his key concepts ought to be taught to final year undergraduates, and I can see that the book might appeal to students at that level. However, for the 1st year undergraduates that I teach the book might be pitched slightly to high.

One final word of warning, Jim Flynn has a particular liberal world-view that comes across vigorously in this book. If you object to liberal politics you might want to avoid his work. (That said, if you’ve read this far you probably won’t have any problem with his views !!)

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