Archive | July, 2014

Even more on the ‘value’ of university sport… oh the irony

22 Jul

Only yesterday I wrote about a story from the USA about how university sport ‘allegedly’ makes you cleverer, and then this morning the Sports Centre of my own institution tweeted a link to a UK story suggesting that university sport makes you more employable and results in you earning more money !!!!. This story comes from what seems an unimpeachable source, an academic study funded by BUCS.

As with the study I wrote about yesterday from the US, in the 59 pages of the BUCS report I can find no mention of the Socio-economic of the students surveyed. I am well aware that there are a some honourable exceptions to this (my own institution is based in an economically reprieved area but has a successful rowing club !), but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that universities that draw their students from higher SES groups make larger investments in sports, and students at those institutions have a higher disposable income and more free time (not working part-time) and thus more time to devote to sport. It’s hardly surprising that students from such institutions are more employable and earn higher salaries. I’m just not convinced that the sport is what is driving the higher salaries !!!

Now of course I’m not suggesting that university sport is a bad thing, but people really need to look at the source of stories. One wonders if BUCS would have funded a study that said ‘Students at Russell Group Universities (the UK equivalent of the Ivy League) have a higher disposable income and more free time that students at Post-92 universities (State unis in the US) and go on to earn more’. That’s rather more a point about the socio-economic climate that it is a point about university sport..

As ever the take home message of this is that just because you find a correlation it doesn’t mean that variable A causes condition B !!!!!!

Being a member of a gym makes you do better at University…. The return of the Mediteranean Diet Effect

21 Jul

One of the most used examples for teaching rational thinking is the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ story. Put simply this is the idea that Northern Europeans live longer if they stick to the diet of Southern Europeans i.e. Lots of salad and olive oil. A few moment’s thought demonstrates how silly this idea is i.e. Northern Europeans who consume lots of salad and olive oil tend to come from higher income brackets, and it’s the higher economic status that is the predictor of longevity, not the diet itself.

This can to mind when I read a story in the Daily Mail this week:


This story reports a study from the Michigan State University suggesting that students who join an on-campus gym get better grades and stay in university longer. Sadly the original paper is behind a paywall, but the available abstract makes no reference to controlling for the disposable income of the students. (Working in a university I am fortunate that I have access to the full-text of this paper. As I suspected, the study doesn’t control for disposable income, indeed the paper actually acknowledges that Socio-economic status could confound the results) It seems possible that students who can afford to join a gym might have a high disposable income, and indeed that those with a higher disposable income might spend less time in paid employment and thus have more time for sporting activities (and college work !!).

All of this leaves me wondering who is at fault here. It’s interesting that whilst the paper itself acknowledges a potentially dramatic confounding variable it still makes claims about the importance of the relationship found. At times I worry that in a drive to gain publicity for their research scientists may end up actually making matters worse by facilitating a lack of understand that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation.

My 1st rational thinking book of year 2014 (and its only July !!)

18 Jul

I love using numerical examples of rational thinking to introduce students to the concept. There is something about how badly so many of us were taught maths at School that means that when we grasp a mathematical idea we intuitively understand that we’ve gained a skill that most people don’t have. I know it’s only half way through the year, but I’ve just read what I’m sure will be one of my rational thinking book of the year, and will be a great source of numerical examples for years to come.


Gerd Gigerenzer is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin, and is a big star in the academic decision making literature. Gigerenzer is often cast as the anti-Kahneman (the author of one of my books of last year), but in reality his work is an excellent adjunct to reading Kahneman, and shows the breadth of the academic working doing on in this area.

In a similar manner to Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Gigerenzer’s ‘Risk Savvy’ summarises decades of academic work for a lay audience, and acts as something of a manifesto for creating a risk-aware population. Unlike many ‘popular’ books by leading academics I’d thoroughly recommend ‘Risk Savvy’ to anyone, and for a teacher it’s wonderful as it contains endless examples that will engage students.

If you’ve not come across Gigerenzer’s work before (and unless you’re a psychologist you probably wont have done !) you can find an excellent introduction to it in this article from the BBC’s website

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