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Why teaching rational thinking is vital

2 Jan

As my own institution undergoes one of it’s regular ‘reorganisations’ my mind has turned to trying to explain why the sort of teaching I do is so important. In a period when UK HEIs are under existential threat, just saying ‘critical thinking is a valuable graduate skill’ seems like a rather weak justification for my work !

As every, the British media provided me with inspiration, when I came across this article, published in the Daily Mail on New Year’s Eve, and headlined ‘Chemotherapy may cause breast cancer to SPREAD: Two commonly used drugs encourage the disease to develop in the lungs’.

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Even before I get to the details of the reporting, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the potential impact of this article. Imagine reading this article as a patient undergoing breast cancer treatment. You’re first reaction might be to telephone your doctor, but it’s New Years Eve, so the chances are that you won’t be able to speak to anyone about it until after the New Year’s Day holiday. Thus you’d have two days of dwelling on the idea that the treatment you were currently getting might actually be harming you.

Before I get into the details, it’s worth saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the underlying research here, indeed it’s work from a reputable group, published in a reputable journal. I’d suggest that the fault here lays with the reporting of the original research. So have a look at what the issues might be :

  1. No link to the original paperThe original paper on which the article is based is freely available online, and thus it would have been simple for the newspaper to link to it. You might argue that the vast majority of readers wouldn’t understand the detailed content of the paper (me amongst them !!!), but having access to it does let the unqualified reader pick up some points that the newspaper ‘glossed over’ !!!
  2. Details of the study – The newspaper article refers to working with ‘experimental tumour models’, but nowhere does it explain that these ‘experimental tumour models’ are actually mice ! Return for a moment to putting yourself in the shoes of a cancer patient reading that article, and imagine how less stressed you Ould have been had the headline included the additional two words ‘…in mice’.
  3. Burying what the original authors said – As is often the case, the newspaper article buries the original authors comments at the very end of the article, in this case saying ‘not to jump to conclusions because they don’t if they’s get the same results with human breast cancer’. If you’d only ever read the Daily Mail article that seems like a very odd think for the original author to say, as you’d be assuming that the whole thing was about human, rather than mouse breast cancer.
  4. Ignoring important stuff – Additionally, if you had access to the original journal article you’s find another line that the Daily Mail omit to mention completely. Towards the end on the paper the original authors say ‘However, it should be cautioned that we did not study the survival of mice in association with the various treatments, so we currently ignore whether increased metastatic seeding and outgrowth in response to chemotherapy-elicited EVs would trans-late into shorter survival in our experimental cancer models’. So, the very variable that our imaginary reader might be most worried about (survival rate) wasn’t even studied !!!


Why is any of this even vaguely relevant to teaching rational thinking ? I’d argue that it’s two-fold:

  1. A reader who is clear on some of the basic tenets of rational thinking i.e. media literacy, how science works, and reading journal articles, would be in a position to be much less stressed that they otherwise might be about such reporting.
  2. This might be wishful thinking, but a populous educated in rational thinking might encourage newspapers to stop this sort of reporting !!!!


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