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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 !!!!


My 2017 Rational Thinking Book of the Year

3 Dec

At the beginning of 2017, having been bed-ridden with pneumonia, I discovered the wonderful world of podcasts. I’ll write a separate post about why I love podcasts, and what my favourite ones are, but this is the story of a book I discovered after listening to an episode of the excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast.


In this particular Freakonomics Radio episode, Stephen Dubner interviewed the economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about his work and his new book “Everybody Lies: What the internet can tell us about who we really are”

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If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by behavioural economics, and Stephens Davidowitz’s work in particularly interesting as during his economics PhD he hit on the idea of using Google Searches to study human behaviour. If you listen to the podcast you’ll get a good feel of the idea, but put simply, it addresses two problems that dog a lot of psychology research. Firstly, Google’s almost monopoly position means that they have an enormous volume of data from populations all over the world (addressing psychology’s issues both with relatively small samples and over reliance on student participants), and secondly people’s on-line behaviour is more reflective of their actual views than might be the case in face-to face discussion (The ‘social acceptability’ problem). Stephens-Davidowitz nicely illustrates this point with is discussion of racism. In traditional face-to face psychology research it is very unlikely that participants will explicitly express racist views, and yet by looking at Google searches for obviously racist terms one can access a sea of information that would be otherwise hidden.

“Everybody Lies” is written in an entirely accessible style, so would be comprehensible for a non-social scientist, but I’d hugely recommend it to anyone interested in psychology, sociology or indeed politics. Indeed, given the omnipresence of Google it maybe ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the future and the currently fashionable topic of ‘big data’. Certainly, if your looking for a Christmas present for anyone of an ‘academic’ disposition this is the book to go for.

Finally, for the more scientifically inclined, my own conclusion from reading ‘Everybody Lies’, was that there maybe a paradigm shift coming in how science works. I’ve grow up with the idea that science begins with ‘theory’, and one collects data to test that ‘theory’. My thought was that ‘big data’ does away with theory i.e if we can conclusively demonstrate from the data that A is related to B do we any longer need to thing about WHY A might be related to B ? As it turns out this is not the most original of thoughts, but is is intriguing to think that in the future scientists job might be the ‘why’ part of the question, because ‘big data’ analysts will already have demonstrated the ‘what’.


Why I dislike ‘Critical Thinking’

27 Feb

You’ll see from the title of this blog that I don’t like the phrase ‘critical thinking’, and think that it activity works against encouraging rational thought in students. Ironically, the only time that I tend to use the phrase ‘critical thinking’ is when I’m talking to other academics, otherwise they don’t know what I’m going on about ! In working on a larger piece of work about my view of developing rational thought I’ve hit upon a great example of what I think is wrong with the current critical thinking literature.

If you grab a select of the critical thinking textbooks that will undoubtedly appear in your nearest library you’ll find that the identification of logical fallacies is a consistently addressed topic. With my ‘teacher’ hat on I’ve always found logical fallacies an appealing topic. There are wonderful on-line resources with many engaging examples that will appeal to students and it’s straightforward to design an assessment to measure whether students recognise logical fallacies. The trouble is that when you delve into the rationale for teaching students to identify logical fallacies things begin to unravel.


For anyone who spends their life attending meetings with other academics, the rationale for teaching logical fallacies would seem obvious, as phrases like ‘ad hominem attack’ and ‘that’s just a strawman’ are mainstays of academic ‘debate’. However, we can’t really justify curriculum content based on the ability to win an argument in a Faculty meeting. Which leads me to ask what is the utility of understanding logical fallacies for the average undergraduate ? Surely what we want our students to be able to do is to disentangle the evidence for a particular argument from the rhetorical devices being employed to make that argument, after all it would be perfectly possible for a position that has all the evidence behind it to be proposed with an argument entirely riddled with fallacies.

My own view is that the appearance of logical fallacies in so many critical thinking texts is a products of the roots of critical thinking itself, rather than in any belief in it’s utility for students. Critical Thinking was a product of the academic discipline of philosophy, where the understanding of formal logical is a central skill. Thus , we’ve ended up teaching a topic not because it has directly relevance to our students, but because it is a component of a discipline at least once-removed for m that which we are teaching.

In my previous post here I mused on the teaching of rational thought in the new ‘alternate facts’ world, and it occurs to me that in this ‘New world order’, the teaching of logical fallacies might actually be counter-productive. I could see an argument that a book chapter on logical fallacies could easily be read has ‘how to win an argument even if you don’t have any evidence’.

Issues with replication

16 Apr

When learning about the scientific method it’s easy for students to miss the importance of replication. After all, if they are reading journals they will see very little replication, and a huge number of ‘shiny new’ findings.

A recent debate in the ‘Psychologist’ nicely illustrates what seems like a big issue for the discipline

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