Archive | December, 2013

Rational Thinking Books of the Year Part 1

30 Dec
I recently attended one of Robin’s Ince‘s great secular Christmas Shows ‘Nine lessons and carols for godless people’. The particular show I attended fell on the anniversary of the death Carl Sagan, the great American scientist and sceptic. As a tribute to Sagan, Robin Ince read an excerpt from Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted world’. As a child I can remember watching Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, and like many others I enjoyed his novel ‘Contact’, and its subsequent film but I have to confess that as an adult who teaches rational thinking I have never read any of his non-fiction word. The excerpt Robin Ince read is from the first few paragraphs of the chapter on psychics, and is a beautifully written and move account for why however comforting the idea of life after death maybe, it is eventually facts that provide use with a solid basis for genuine comfort. (I’d recommend that you stop reading me immediately, click this link and read the first seven paragraphs now !)
On my way home from the Christmas show I ordered two of Sagan’s books from Amazon, and read them very rapidly. Thus my first rational thinking book of the year was actually published over a decade ago and is Sagan’s ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark‘. It is one of the most beautifully written explanations of why rational thinking is vital in a modern society that I have ever read. Sagan’s writing style makes the book accessible for most readers, but I’s strongly recommend it to anyone who is attempting to teach rational thinking (or indeed critical thinking), as it will cement the importance of the work they are doing.
Interestingly, Sagan pops up again in the second of my books of the year @


Dog acupuncture ? Seems a like a shaggy dog story

10 Dec



Every so often I feel like newspapers are writing stories just to provide me with teaching materials and this week has given me  a beautiful example. On the 10th December the Daily Mail reported the story of a clinically depressed dog who had been cured by acupuncture. This story is almost perfect  for teaching rational thinking. From the headline alone one can generate a couple of interesting class questions:

How was ‘clinical depression’ diagnosed ?

Why might we me more inclined to believe in acupuncture than say homeopathy ?

Once one reads the whole story other questions emerge:

Was the dog’s ‘clinical depression’ a result of its physical injuries ?

Once the physical injuries were addressed would the ‘clinical depression’ have disappeared over a period ?

What evidence is there for ‘traditional chinese medicine’ ?

It seems perfectly reasonable to say that an abandoned and physically injury dog would suffer psychologically, but labelling this as clinical depression just seems ridiculous. One suspects that the method of diagnosis didn’t involve measuring serotonin levels, or indeed completing the Beck Depression Inventory. In relation to western views of ‘traditional chinese medicine’ I detect a reluctance on ‘cultural sensitivity’ grounds to be skeptical about acupuncture, and yet I read an interesting article recently that suggested that ‘traditional chinese medicine’ was a concept constructed by Chairman Mao to bypass China’s inability to deliver empirically tested Western medicine to its poulation !

Finally, this whole story seems to be to be an example of that old joke ‘Treatment X cured my common cold in seven days, and without it I would have had the cold for a whole week’. Once this dog’s physical wounds were cured we have no way of knowing whether his psychological ‘wounds’ would have healed without acupuncture, or indeed whether the undoubtedly caring treatment he received from the vet was effectively a placebo.

All in all, a lot of material from a simple story !


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