Archive | August, 2013

How important is rational thinking ? It’s a matter of life and death !

22 Aug


In the UK the sceptic movement has become very ‘rock and roll’ in the last few years with it’s own resident stand up comedian (Dara O’Briaian), and one of it’s biggest stars (Prof Brian Cox) having been a pop start in a ‘previous life’. Against this background it’s often difficult to keep in mind that in some countries scepticism can literally be a matter of life and death.

This week a leading Indian rationalist Narendra Dabholkar has been shot dead whilst campaigning for a law to ban black magic. There seems to be a range of things here that would be worth discussing with western students. The idea alone that ‘black magic’ might be something that one of the world’s leading economies might consider it necessary to legislate against seems to me to be seems worthy of consideration (especially as so many of my students can trace their family origins back to the Indian subcontinent). In the West we are so used to there being legislation which limits the promotion of patently spurious medicines etc that I think we forget that even in highly developed countries like India superstition is hugely powerful. Equally, the next time a student questions why what I’m teaching is relevant to their psychology degree I’ll role out this story.

The real irony of the story of the murder of Narendra Dabholkar is that following his death the government of the State of Maharashtra have passed an emergency law banning ‘black magic’.

Regular sex makes you rich. (I give up !)

16 Aug


My list of weird penis and sex stories has just got even longer. The Daily Mail’s story today reports a study conducted by Dr.Nich Drydakis of Anglia Ruskin University that reports an apparent correlation between income and frequency of sexual intercourse. Unusually for such stories, and very usefully for teaching purposes, the original paper is freely available on the internet.

This story could be useful for illustrating a whole range of things :

1) Correlation and causation – Does this mean that if you have more sex your income will increase ?

2) Can self-report be relied on ? – I’ve written before about the perils of self-report studies in relation to penis-size, and this seems to me like another example where it’s entirely possible that people who exaggerate about sexual activity might also exaggerate about their income

3) Generalisation – The Mail’s report of this study reports that it used 7500 participants. At face value this seems this it might add to the generalisability of the studies findings. However, I’m interested to see what my students make of all the participants being Greek. Can we draw conclusions about the UK from such a sample ?. It seems to me that even if the data is reliable, the vast cultural differences might bias the conclusions

All in all this looks like a really useful example that I look forward to trying out with the students

Is democracy overrated ??

12 Aug

Badge - 2008 election

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating article on the BBC website entitled ‘Is democracy overrated?’, and it seems like excellent source material for the Importance of historical context’ thread of my rational thinking syllabus.

For most students in western European and North American universities, the idea that democracy is a good thing and should be encouraged in all societies is an article of faith. This article pushes the reader to understand that it isn’t democracy alone that underpins ‘western society’, it is more complex ideas like ‘individual rights’ and ‘judicial independence’. It will be interesting to see what the idea that democracy alone might not be that good has on students !

In the past I’ve used examples from my own discipline to illustrate the idea of the importance of historical context to rational thinking, but this seems to me like a much better generic example that would be useful for students of all disciplines. I will try this out in my lecture this semester and report back

Assessing rational thinking (How should I do it ?)

8 Aug

As we move towards the beginning of another academic year, and the department in which I work starts to contemplate a rewrite of our undergraduate programme, my mind has moved to thinking about how rational thinking can be assessed. I’ve written elsewhere about developing a rational thinking curriculum/syllabus, and the obvious corollary of this is the necessity for a measure to determine whether my teaching is being successful in delivering my curriculum/syllabus.

As I teach as part of an undergraduate degree programme, I am limited by the degree awarding regulations (and in the past by the traditions of university assessment). I current use a combination of essay, presentation and multiple-choice questions to assess my course. I’ve always worried about the use of an essay for my course. UK universities have traditionally used essays as their main form of assessment but my concern has always been how easy it is, when marking, to be swayed by the quality of English rather than the content of the essay itself. I should say that I’m not advocating removing essays from university assessment. Clearly graduates ought to be able to write well, my concern is more that in my particular case I may not be assessing exactly what I want to be assessing.

Some of my colleagues use debates as a form of assessment, but again these rather worry me. Rhetorical skills seem to be completely add odds with rational thinking. I don’t want my students to be skilled in finding good ways to argue the wrong side of an argument. I want them to be able to evaluate the evidence so they know which side of the argument is right !

I don’t have any obvious answers to these questions, but I do now have an incentive to think about them. The degree programme that I teach on will be rewritten over the next year, So by this time next year I need to have settled on what my assessment will look like for the coming years.

Illustrating correlation and causation

8 Aug


I’ve written before about an alleged relationship between computer use and various psychological problems and a newspaper article I read this week made me think about that idea again. The newspaper story straightforwardly reports a paper demonstrating that children on the autistic spectrum spend twice as long playing video games as typically developing children. This seems like a really nice illustration for students that just because two things are related it doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. I suspect that most students will rapidly see the idea that essentially solitary video gaming might be an obviously appealing recreation for autistic children.

What is depressing is that I suspect that those peddling a link between computer use and psychological problems (Aric Sigman, Baroness Susan Greenfield) will latch on to studies like this and claim that they support their theory. Much has been written elsewhere about Greenfield unsubstantiated claims about autism and computer use, (Ben Goldacre is particularly good on Greenfield’s strange claims) but I do wonder whether I should be pleased or depressed that my students can spot something that seems to be difficult for ’eminent’ scientists !

Things like this are always really useful for teaching. I find that the idea that they are developing a skill that others (who they think are cleverer) lack is really appealing to students.



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