Archive | September, 2013

Rational Thinking and the iPhone 5s

29 Sep

I’m always on the lookout for topical examples of rational thinking, and this week offered a lovely example. Being a huge Apple fan I stopped at my local mobile phone shop on the way to work last friday to pick up my new iPhone 5s (the one with the fingerprint sensor). When I arrived at work a colleague suggested to me that my new phone was dangerous as ‘muggers would now want to cut off my finger’ along with stealing my phone. This seemed a little melodramatic, but i did a brief internet search, and came across the newspaper story below.

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This story floats the image of iPhone thieves cutting off the fingers of their victims, even though the story immediately says that only fingers with a pulse will work. When I presented this to students in my first lecture of the year it was interesting how rapidly that finger amputation was very unlikely. One only had to picture an image of a iPhone thief pulling his newly stolen phone from his pocket and then having to pull out a bloody amputated finger to unlock it to realise how silly this story is.

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The Daily Mail followed up a few days later with a story that the new iPhone sensor had been ‘hacked’. Ignoring the somewhat strange use of the word ‘hacked’ , the story presents a means of bypassing the fingerprint scanner using a print copied from a photograph. Again, just by asking students to think about their image of an iPhone thief, and whether they might be capable of using the complex process the story outlined it was easy to get students to recognise just how unlikely this story was.

Sadly, this idea is only really useful over the next couple of weeks, but it did very rapidly demonstrate to new students that they were perfectly capable of seeing through a bit of poor reporting.

Reflections on the brilliance of Jim Flynn and my own teaching this week.

27 Sep

I’ve just finished watching an excellent new TED talk (above) from one of my intellectual heroes, Jim Flynn, and it’s made me reflect both on the brilliance of Flynn and on my our teaching experience this week. (For anyone interested in rational thinking Flynn’s work show be required reading).

In the video Flynn presents his work on the phenomena of IQ increases across the 20th century and it’s consequences in his usual thorough and engaging style, and without the aid of any of the technology that we ‘modern’ teachers have come to rely on. This made me really think about my own teaching experience this week. I taught the first session of my rational thinking course this week and had one of those disaster-ridden days when the IT provision decided not to work. Whilst I hope it didn’t effect the students experience too much I found the whole session fairly stressful. On reflection , it wasn’t the teaching that stressed me, but rather the absence of my technological ‘crutch’.

It’s intriguing that ‘chalk and talk’ has become something of an insult in modern higher education pedagogy and yet Jim Flynn demonstrates that you don’t even need the ‘chalk’ for perfect teaching. I’m not sure that any of this will completely ween me off my technology addiction, but at the very least then next time a teaching a session that involves just me talking and the students listening I wont be ashamed of it.

Is red wine really good for you ???

7 Sep

As part of the assessment for my rational thinking course I get students to work up their own example of ‘bad’ science reporting as a presentation to the general public. I try to dot my teaching with examples so that the students have something to work from when constructing their own presentations. I’m thus always on the look out for new examples, to add to things like homeopathy and the MMR vaccine that I already talk about.


My interest was piqued by a series of adverts on London’s underground system for a product called ‘Fountain’ calling itself the ‘beauty molecule food supplement’. Fountain is being promoted by the UKs leading pharmacy, Boots, and judging by the display in my local store (see picture below) they expecting to sell an awful lot of it. The ‘beauty molecule’ in question is Resveratrol, something I’ve come across before in relation to claims about the health benefits of red wine.


The idea that red wine has health benefits has become very well established in the UK over the last five years. Get a group on middle class English people around a table with a bottle of red wine and you can guarantee that someone will say that it is ‘purely medicinal’. Running my usual test what the British public think ( a search of the Daily Mail website) produced a huge range of alleged health benefits of red wine :

The anti-ageing cream that’s made from red wine: Antioxidant found in grape skins can reduce wrinkles and lines

‘Miracle ingredient’ in red wine could help people live longer and more energetic lives

New drug being developed using compound found in red wine ‘could help humans live until they are 150’

(That is just a sample of the health ‘benefits’ of red wine)

What is really intriguing about this is that the vast majority of the research that all this is based on has not been with human participants. Interestingly, even the web site of Boots is clear that “Many of the headlines about the possible anti-ageing and disease fighting possibilities for resveratrol have come from laboratory or animal studies rather than evidence from trials involving humans”. Even more damning is the idea that to get the equivalent dose of resveratrol used in some mouse studies a human would need to drink 60 litres of red wine a day !


All this alone seemed link a really nice teaching example, but I came across a really interesting thing when I looked at resveratrol studies that did use human participants.  A recent study from the University of Copenhagen (admittedly with a small sample) suggests that resveratrol supplements might actually block the health benefits of exercise in older men.

Taken together this seems like a really good demonstration for students of how fairly thin pieces of research can get picked up by the press and rapidly established in the public consciousness. I also think there is an interesting ethical discussion to be had here about what pharmacies should be able to promote. Boots of course also sell homeopathic products, criticising them here might not get very far !

Flu jab cuts heart attack deaths ??

3 Sep

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 12.48.53Last week the Daily Express reported a study from Australia suggesting that the winter flu vaccine had a positive effect on heart attack deaths amongst middle aged people, and thus was a very cheap way for the NHS to cut spending on heart related treatment. This story offers a couple of really good opportunities to get students to think rationally.

Just by getting students to read the whole of the Express’s story it becomes rapidly clear that whilst the headline refers to heart attack deaths, the study didn’t actually ever look at people who had died from heart attacks. This sort of exercise seems like a very simple way of getting students to delve a little further into stories, and not to take them at face value.

This story becomes a good deal more interesting if one delves even deeper into the original research (Full details can be found on the excellent NHS Choices site). The point that appealed to me, and seems like it would grab the attention of students is that the original study was financed by GlaxoSmithKline that produces a flu vaccine. Or course, this doesn’t necessarily suggest any impropriety on the part of the paper’s authors but it does impact on how a reader interprets the study.

As currently in the process of writing a new lecture on the UK’s MMR vaccine fiasco, and thus anything that gets students to focus on all the details of a study (including where the funding came from) seems really useful.





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