Archive | January, 2014

Another entry for my ‘Rational Thinking about penis research’ lecture

26 Jan


One of the UK’s great psychology educators, Professor Andy Field of Sussex University, often says that the best way to engage undergraduate students with difficult topics is to use examples based on ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’. In that vein I’ve over the years amasses a whole series of examples from what I call the ‘penis and sperm’ genre. From celebrity sperm banks to cross-cultural penis size research, the literature is full of examples that stick in the mind of students. This week I’ve come across an example that is really useful for communicating one of the most difficult parts of rational thinking, the idea that even if something appears in a reputable peer-reviewed journal students still need to apply their rational thinking skills before accepting it a face value.

In April 2013 the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published ‘Penis size interacts with body shape and height to influence male attractiveness’ by Mautz teal.. The study involved showing female participants life-size computer generated images of naked males varying in height, shoulder-hip ration and penis size and asking them to rate the images for attractiveness. Whilst I’m not entirely convinced by the results of the study, what really interests me is the hypothesis that it’s based on. The authors make an evolutionary biology argument that pre copulatory female mate choice based on male genital traits may have an impact on penis size. Now, I can see that this hypothesis makes perfect sense for animals where genitals are visible, but how would it possibly work in humans ????? Are bars around the world really populated by women attempting to assess the genital size of potential mates through their trousers ?

This paper presents quite a complex idea for students, in that the study itself seems perfectly well conducted, it is the very basis for the study that seems open to question. But just by thinking about that the hypothesis is suggesting I think students ought to be able to see that there is something to be questioned here.

(I’m going to ask a more statistical minded colleague to have a look at the papers stats for me, as it looks to me that the results actually suggest that height and hip-shoulder ratio are hugely better predictors of attractiveness that penis size anyway)

More on the benefits (or otherwise) of coffee

13 Jan


Coffee, or more specifically caffeine, crops up in a lot of places in my teaching. The Daily Mail has a strange obsession with things that cause or prevent cancer, and over the years coffee has been placed in both the ’cause’ and ‘prevent’ categories. Equally, one of my favourite Daily Express headlines ‘Two cups of coffee a day stops Alzheimer” was based solely on a study in mice. It is, however, slightly depressing when this overzealous reporting of caffeine -related stories begins to infect the BBC.

On the 12th Jan 2014 the BBC website reported a story headlines “Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory'”. The story reports a study of 160 participants, whose memory for images, over a 24 hour period, improved when given a 200 milligram caffeine tablet. The study comes from a very reputable source, and I have no reason to doubt the validity of the science involved, but I am intrigued that the BBC’s reporting of the story seem to fall half way between the extremes of the Mail and Express and actually applying some rational thinking. For example, the BBC report includes the line ‘The Johns Hopkins University study involved people who did not regularly eat or drink caffeinated products’, but makes no further comment on why this might be significant. Now, a sample of American participants who don’t drink tea, coffee or cola seems like it might be less that representative.

To give the BBC some credit, they do include ‘a voice of reason’ at the end of the story ( and I really pleased that in this case it was Dr. Ashok Jansari, a colleague from my own department).  Ash rightly points out the potential negative effect of caffeine, but what I find slightly odd about this is the apparent need to ‘contract out’ rational thinking, as if it isn’t something we should expect from the journalists reporting the story. After all you only need to type ‘caffeine’ into the search box of the BBC website to find a whole range of stories about the possible negative effects of caffeine including the idea of a ban on highly caffeinated drinks for under 16s.

All in all, this seems like a nice story to get students thinking rational at science (i.e. what’s the ecological validity of the original study) but also about the reporting of science and the idea that by learning some simple skills they can seemingly do the sort of thinking that BBC journalists seem to be avoiding. It’s also worth noting that ‘caffeine pill could boost memory’ is a story that is likely to be very appealing to students facing exams, and anything that gets across the message that cans of Red Bull may not be the answer to good exams results can only be a good thing 😉

Once the media create a myth can it ever be ‘uncreated’ ?

9 Jan


I regularly use the MMR vaccination fiasco as an example of the way in which media misinterpretation of scientific material can lead to ‘myths’ being established in the public consciousness. In particular I find it intriguing that even long after evidence has been produced to conclusively refute media created ‘myths’ (and the media have moved on to a new story) the myth remains firmly established in the public consciousness. Every time I teach this session I wonder about simpler examples of the phenomena that I could use as an introductory example.  Over the Christmas break I was reminded of a story that I will begin next year’s lecture with.

Back in the winter of 1997 Birmingham city council in the UK were looking at ways of producing a coherent marketing strategy for the wide range of events that took place in the city centre over the mid-winter period. The Head of events was looking for a ‘generic banner’ that could encompass all of the events and thus allow him to do things like seeks a single corporate sponsor. Eventually he came up with the seemingly inoffensive term ‘Winterval’, a simple contraction of ‘Winter’ and ‘Festival’.

The media reaction to ‘Winterval’, when it first appeared in November 1998 was extraordinary. The media reported ‘Winterval’ as a ‘rebranding’ of Christmas to avoid offending ethic and religious minorities. Even the Bishop of Birmingham bought into the media interpretation of the story  and condemned ‘Winterval’ as political correctness. What is unusual about this case is that ‘Winterval’ very rapidly became a synonym for ‘political correctness’, even though the council pointed out immediately that the promotional material for ‘Winterval’ included images of Angels ans Carol singers, and thus was hardly ‘politically correct.

What’s intriguing is that the ‘Winterval’ myth lasted for over a decade, and it was only in 2011 that the Daily Mail printed a tiny retraction confirming that the whole thing had been a myth. In the intervening decade hundreds of newspaper articles appeared citing ‘Winterval’ as the height of political correctness. I’m going to start trying to compile a list of these types of media myth. The obvious starting point would be the various EU scare-stories that regularly appear in the UK press i.e. Bananas are going to have to be straight, hedgehog crisps will be band etcetera. but is would be nice to come up with a list of less obviously comic stories.

This seems like a really good way of introducing students to many of the tenets of rational thinking, particularly that they should question material they believe to be fact because it has been repeated so often ! (The academic in me is also conscious that I really need to go and read something about meme theory !)

Lectures aren’t as bad as people say

5 Jan
I’ve been teaching in higher education for over ten years, and in that period the one point I’ve seen made about teaching more than any other is that lectures are not a good means of teaching. Indeed, the phrase ‘ chalk and talk’ has almost become a synonym for ‘poor teaching’. For someone like myself who is interested in good teaching it is therefore more than a little ironic that my teaching now consists entirely of lectures delivered to 200+ students at a time.
This paradox came to mind recently when I read an excellent article in praise of lectures, that chimed with many of my opinions. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best examples of ‘teaching’ that one sees are invariably ‘lectures’, from the Xmas Lecture Series of the Royal Institution to Richard Feynman’s celebrated lectures on Physics. Indeed, even in the world of television, work from documentary makers like Ken Burns or naturalists like David Attenborough are essentially just very well-illustrated lectures. Against this it seems very odd that educationists will advocate almost any teaching method above lectures.
It’s interesting to contemplate how we might have arrived at this paradoxical situation. My own view is that when educationists talk about lectures being the worst way of ‘teaching’ in higher education what they are actually talking about are ‘poor lectures’. Anyone who has spent any time in higher education will know the sense of depression that sets in when you are trapped in a classroom with a lecturer who doesn’t seem interested in the material, is reading reams of text direct from the Powerpoint slides and is barely audible as they fail to use microphones correctly.
Now, or course I’m not saying that there aren’t teaching situations where a small-group tutorial wouldn’t be a much better solution than 200+ lecture, but I am saying that the ‘anything but lectures’ approach is just ridiculous. So one of my new years resolutions for 2014 is to interrupt anyone who ‘chalk and talk’ is bad, and ask them for their evidence.
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