Archive | April, 2014

The glory of people being cleverer than me !

10 Apr


I often find myself saying to students that you don’t have to be an expert in a particular topic to spot flaws in something you are being told. Just by applying rational thinking to ideas it’s often possible to detect a problem, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly what the problem is.

In the last couple of days I’ve come across a lovely example of this from my own thinking. In the past few months I’ve written a few times about my worries about the use of ‘big data’. I’m no statistics expert, but I’ve always worried about people trawling large datasets and coming up with post hoc conclusions. It seems to me that this flies in the face of the scientific method. I don’t have the statistical skills to articulate my concerns more than this, but my rational thinking skills are good enough to detect ‘something funny’ going on. What’s nice is that this week I’ve come across a great article by Gary Marcus in the New York Times, that articulates all the issues that I din’t have the skills to unearth.

So, two great teaching points for students:

1) You don’t have to be a ‘rocket scientist’ to identify issues within complex ideas

2) If you follow enough ‘rocket scientists’ on Twitter you will find an expert who can explain those issues for you

How much of what I learnt as a teenager is rubbish ????

4 Apr

I’ve written before about how and understanding of historical and political context is important for students to produce rational thinking, and a couple of weeks ago I came across another example of how an understanding of broader context can expose really interesting ideas.


I was on university business in Stockholm, and as it was my first visit I asked a local resident what I should see. I ended up at the Vasa museum, an extraordinary place that houses an almost perfectly preserved 1628 galleon that was salvaged from the harbour in 1961. What really intrigued me about this was that my own UK upbringing had led me to believe that a similar salvaged ship in the UK (The Mary Rose) was a world historical treasure.

The hull of the Mary Rose (2). Copyright the Mary Rose Trust. Copyright the Mary Rose Trust. Copyright the Mary Rose Trust

The Mary Rose sank in 1545, and was salvage in 1982 with live coverage across British TV, and as I recall no mention at all that Sweden had a much more impressive ship already.  So I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve come across another factor that I need to get students to think about, what I might call ‘Social Context’. I’m sure my colleagues from the social sciences have a term for this sort of thing already, but I’m going to spend some time over the summer to see if I can come up with other examples. I already talk about ‘Muslim Science’ in the european ‘Dark Ages’, but I’m sure there is other material I could cover.

The overriding moral of this story is that if you are at a loose end in Stockholm, go and visit the Vasa !

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