Archive | February, 2013

City University wants to review Friday prayers ‘sermons’ for ‘appropriateness’ BEFORE they are delivered.

28 Feb

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I’ve just come across this odd little story that City University have locked their Muslim Prayer Room, as the students using the room have refused to submit their Friday prayer ‘sermons’ for vetting for ‘appropriateness’ before they are delivered. The BBC story suggests that three years ago there was some evidence of extremist views amongst City’s Islamic students but seems to be no indication of that being the trigger for the current ‘lock-out’ . Given what I teach I have fairly strong views on what university should be about, and it seems to me that this story goes straight to the heart of this question.

I’m slightly bewildered that a university’s administration could set themselves up as arbiters of what is ‘appropriate’ to be said on university premises. Surely, unless there is evidence that the law is being broken, university should be the very place where anything can be said. I can think of several groups who would find the things I say in lectures very inappropriate (homeopaths, creationists, conspiracy theorists) and ye tI don’ t see any of my institution’s management wanting to pre-screen what I teach.

I’m quite looking forward to asking students what they think might be  behind this story. For me, university’s ought to follow that famous Voltaire quotation ‘“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” with my addition “and my right to say what you say is rubbish”

NHS seems to think homeopathy isn’t too bad !

21 Feb


This is a really disappointing story that I came across via the excellent blog of David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.

For a number of years I’ve been encouraging my students to the National Health Service’s web site NHS Choices as a reliable source of about the range of health-related news stories that populate the British press on a daily basis. Sadly, if you look at the NHS Choices page on Homeopathy something very odd appears. Unlike the equivalent American website, NHS Choices fails to point out the there is no scientific evidence supporting homeopathy and it would be perfectly possible to read the page as an endorsement of homeopathy as a treatment for a range of ailments.

All of this is depressing enough, but it becomes worse when you look at what Professor David Colquhoun discovered, that the changes to the NHS Choices page seem to have been driven by an organisation supported by Prince Charles !! ~It seems like the NHS may have fallen pray to a rather odd combination of political correctness and the desire for ‘balance’ that undermines a lot of TV news science coverage.

What I find really intriguing is that what seems like a serious backward step in getting rationality to a wider audience might actual benefit my teaching. When I get around to teaching about homeopathy in the autumn it will be interesting to see the impact on the students when they realise that they understand something that the NHS appears not too. I suspect that this might actually reinforce the value of learning to think rationally. So every cloud may well have a silver lining.

UPDATE 22nd FEB 2013

In an even more bizarre turn of events I’ve just read a Daily Mail article that very nicely summarises what David Colquhoun has uncovered. We now seem to be in the very odd situation of the Daily Mail being a more reliable source of information than the National Health Service !

More questionable penis research

17 Feb

A few months ago I wrote about a frankly ridiculous penis size study that somehow made it’s way into a respectable peer-reviewed journal. I shall now be expanding by ‘penis’ lecture, having come across another  questionable piece of penis research. In the last week a paper called ‘ Male circumcision decreases penile sensitivity as measured in a large cohort’ published in BJU International has produced media interest around the world. The briefest of Google searches produces stories about this paper from as far afield as Singapore, India, UK and Canada.

At first sight this paper is less obviously ridiculous than Richard Lynn’s recent penis size paper, but as soon as you start to delve a whole range on flaws become apparent. Sadly,  the Male circumcision paper is behind a paywall (and my own institution doesn’t subscribe to the journal), so I’m only working from the abstract but even with that the difficulties are fairly apparent.

The study recruited participants via ‘leaflets and advertising’ and collected data via self-report on-line. The first question I shall be asking my (predominantly female) psychology class is what might drive a man presented with a leaflet about penis sensitivity to log on to a web site and answer a series of personal and intimate questions ? Hopefully my students will recognise that the very characteristics of the population likely to respond to ‘leaflets and advertising’ on this topic might well skew the final results. Secondly, and somewhat more subtly, it would be fascinating to know if the study looked at demographic differences between the circumcised and non-circumcised groups. In a European sample (the researchers seem to be based in Belgium) it seems reasonable to assume that the circumcised group are likely to have come from particular ethic groups. You’d like to think that the non-circumcised control group would be ethnically matched (but somehow I doubt it !).

All in all these ‘penis’ studies look like a really good way to engage students with a couple of components of my rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

P.S. If anyone does have access to a copy of ‘ Male circumcision decreases penile sensitivity as measured in a large cohort’ I’d be delighted to get it

Reflecting on teaching the ‘Psychology of Evil’

14 Feb

I’ve just finished two weeks of teaching ‘The Psychology of Evil’, and I thought a few reflections might be in order:

1) The students (250+ of them) seemed to really engaged with some quite hard-hitting material i.e. holocaust, children killing children, Rwandan genocide US School shootings etc

2) I was extremely pleased that the material seemed to shift students thinking. At the beginning of the first lecture students clearer saw the soldiers in the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures as being ‘Evil’,  but by the end of the second lecture their views had clearly changed to seeing the ‘system’ as being the ‘Evil’ component. There is an excellent HBO documentary, ‘The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’ that seemed to be the turning point.

3) Having taught the material for the first time, and reflected on it subsequently it’s really interesting that the ‘take home message’ was ‘don’t trust single explanations of complex human behaviour’.  It led me to thing that actually if students take that one point away from the lectures it would have been quite successful, and any resultant learning of bit of social psychology or mental health material is an added bonus.

All in all a really rewarding teaching session that makes me think that teaching really ‘big ideas’ and then attaching the research to it subsequently is a much more productive approach than the usual theory-driven model.

Butter is good for your heart !!

10 Feb

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This story from last week interested me, as it seemed to contradict all of the health advice we’ve received for years. According to the headline replacing butter with polyunsaturated fat margarine ‘doubles heart risk‘. The story is based on a paper recently published in the British Medical Journal. The first thing that set me thinking was that the study is a reanalysis of missing data from a student conducted with Australian men between 1966 and 1973. Based on this alone it would be interesting to get students to think about whether you could generalise from a sample of Australian men from forty years ago. I may be adopting a dreadful stereotype, but I suspect that the diet of a 1960’s Australian male hugely different from today’s average thus making sensible comparisons rather difficult.

Secondly, the newspaper article is a great example for encouraging students to read all of an article. Towards the end of the article two academics are quoted who clearly don’t think the story has much strength:

Professor Tom Sanders, of King’s College London, said the study was ‘enormously underpowered’, of ‘little relevance to diets today’ and its findings had been refuted by recent better studies.

Professor Brian Ratcliffe, of  Aberdeen University, said: ‘This paper does not provide evidence for changes to the current recommendations for a healthy diet.’

FInally, this story is a lovely example of one of the key points of the rational thinking curriculum/syllabus that I’m trying to assemble. It you read through the reader comments attached to this story you can see the Naturalistic Fallacy at work. Many of the Mail’s readers seem to conclude that it is obvious that butter is more healthy than margarine because butter is ‘natural’ and margarine in ‘manufactured’. A moment’s thought exposes flawed logic of this argument, and yet it is hugely widespread.

It’s of note that the original article is freely available on the BMJ website, and thus for once academic journal paywalls aren’t actively hampering rational thinking !

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