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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.

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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’.

 

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Rational Thinking about what’s happening in the USA

8 Mar

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt

My last few posts here have discussed critical thinking/rational thinking in the light of the current changed political climate in the UK and USA, but this week I’ve focused on a couple of more concrete examples. Since the beginning of the US Presidential Election campaign we’ve got used to Donald Trump eccentric use of Twitter, but this week has seen a couple of tweets from the President that are particularly interesting :

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Whilst the accuracy of both of these tweets has been fairly rapidly questioned, I found the second, in particular, interesting about what it says about the rational thinking both of the President and of the 50,000+ people who have ‘liked’ it on Twitter. Within minutes of that tweet it has been demonstrated that of the 122 Guantanamo detainees who had returned to terrorism after release only 11 had been released during Barack Obama’s Presidency, the remaining 111 had been released by previous Republican President, George W Bush.

Now, what interested me here was the President’s thought process around this tweet. It seems to me that there are a couple of potential explanation:

  1. The President believes his sources of information i.e BreitBart and Fox News, and doesn’t question their content
  2. The President is aware that only 11 were released by Obama, but knows that the tweet will reinforce the view of Obama held by his supporters, and thus they will not question the accuracy of the information.

Both of these explanations have serious implications for rational thinking. If the first explanation is correct, it suggests that it’s possible to win the US Presidency without the media literacy we’d expect of an undergraduate student. The second explanation, suggests a highly honed understanding of rational thinking and a deep understanding of ideas like confirmation bias. Whilst explanation No.1 is appealing to those of a liberal mindset, it seems to me that explanation No.2 is much more likely, and much more serious for those interested in critical/rational thinking.

Up until now, the development of thinking skills has been a fairly esoteric discussion limited to those directly interested in education but it now seems more than ever that Roosevelt’s quote that opens this post is vital. Those of us interested in such things can no longer tolerate vague scholarship, as it the very vagueness in the scholarship of critical/rational thinking that can be used against us. I’ll end with a question:

What would you say if the lead administrator of your School/University came to you and said “If you can’t even agree amongst yourselves about what critical thinking is, why am I paying you to teach it ?”

 

My first attempt at making video content

6 Mar

I’ve just finished my first attempt at making short video content focused on teaching rational thinking. My intention is that this will be the first of a series, but I’d really value any feedback

Reflections on teaching rational thinking in 2017

23 Feb

The last year have seen some huge changes in the world, with the arrival of Brexit and President Donald Trump, and it seems to me that these have quite a dramatic impact on how to address rational thinking with students. I’ve long argued to students that the skills of weighing evidence and producing rational argument are the keys to success both in university and in the world beyond, but with the happening of the last year I’m not so sure that that particular argument is going to work
in the coming years. It almost seems like the deployment of irrational argument, and the denial of evidence that doesn’t fit your worldview, is now the route to success.

Last summer, back when Donald Trump was still the candidate we all joked about, the UK’s Brexit referendum produced an extraordinary example of how the world has changed. Throughout the referendum the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign travel the country is a bus, on which was printed the phrase ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’ (NHS =National Health Service).Boris Johnson MP  addresses members of the public in Parliament

In the days following the declaration of the referendum result all of the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign explained that the slogan on the side of their bus didn’t actually mean that the NHS would receive any more money. In a world of rationality you might assume that this ‘interesting’ campaigning technique might have had some consequence for those involved, and yet within days Boris Johnson (pictured above with the bus) was promoted to become the UK’s Foreign Secretary (The UK’s equivalent of the US Secretary of State). So here is a situation where a serious debate has been won by the deployment of an ‘untruth’, and the consequence is promotion for those involved.

If you look at the traditional critical thinking literature, one of it’s central tenets is the teaching of the recognition of logical fallacies, and the understanding that the deployment of logical fallacies is poor argument. Yet, even the briefest of examinations of the Brexit campaign shows the construction of ‘Strawmen’ and the deployment of ‘Ad hominem’ attacks on a daily basis, and those campaigning methods leading to victory.

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Last summer it appeared that Brexit might be a passing threat to rational thinking, but the subsequent arrival of President Trump has raised the threat to a whole new level. Over the last few years I’ve used belief in conspiracy theories, as a mechanism to teach rational thinking and it’s been very successful. One of the earliest attempts an explaining conspiracy belief was what Hofstadter called a ‘paranoid style’ of thinking that was the product of ‘uncommonly angry minds’.  For the last few years I’ve used videos of Alex Jones, the renowned conspiracy theories, to nicely illustrate this idea. Alex Jones broadcasting style looks to an outside observer as ‘paranoia’ i.e. any attempt at gun control by the federal government is a precursor to military dictatorship !! This year’s lecture was rather different, as we now know that the ‘Leader of the free world’ is a fan of Alex Jones, and has appeared on his show. It’s thus rather more difficult to dismiss Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories as the product of paranoia.

This has all left me wondering where teaching rational thinking can go over the next four years, with conspiracy theory belief and ‘alternative facts’ become mainstream in the USA, and UK politicians have no problem with denying their own campaign slogans with days of a vote. I was driven back to looking at what originally inspired me to start teaching rational thinking, and came across a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt :

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

This alone seems to be a good reason to plough on with rational thought, in the face of a changed world, but I then came across a quotation from Carl Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark’ that truly sums up why it’s vital to continue teaching rational thinking.

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Astonishingly, Sagan wrote this over 20 years ago for me it’s a call to continue doing what I’m doing. I just need to figure out how to adjust my teaching materials to the ‘New World Order’ :;

 

Today, more that ever, I’m proud I do what I do

9 Nov

For the last ten years I’ve taught a rational thinking course to new undergraduate students, and with today’s  news I’m proud that that’s what I do. 

Over the years it’s looked at times that I was becoming redundant, with the demise of quack remedies like homeopathy, the understanding of complex ideas like global warming and the majority of new students finding conspiracy theories hilarious ! But this morning, I realise that teaching rational thought might be just about the most important thing I could be doing. We can live in hope that the parallels with Brexit are even closer than we thing, and that in the same way that ‘£350 million a week more for the NHS’ was rapidly forgotten about, President Trump will quickly say ‘I only said that stuff to get elected’. At the moment I can’t shift the thought of my lecture on ‘understanding historical complex’, and the disturbing parallels with 1933.

Anyway, amongst the fear I have renewed vigour for the importance of teaching rational thought. Although I suspect that my Week 11 lecture on ‘US v UK Cultural differences’ and my Week 24 lecture on ‘The psychology of politics’ may need quite substantial revision.

My two biggest drivers of web traffic: Jeremy Clarkson and ‘The Flipped Classroom’ !

12 Nov

SOME MORE CONSIDERED THOUGHTS ON THE FLIPPED CLASSROOM – THE NORMAL BLOG MATERIAL WILL RESUME SHORTLY !

In the three years that I’ve been using social media to further my teaching two things have driven more web traffic that any other. About a year ago I innocently replied to a tweet from an ex-student suggesting that Jeremy Clarkson might not be ‘a paragon of journalistic virtue’, and was deluged with some fairly abusive replies, and two weeks ago a blog post on ‘the flipped classroom’ produced a week and a half’s worth of web traffic in one day ! For those who have not come across it before, the flipped classroom is the fairly simple idea of asking students to consume material in advance of a particular class such that class time can be used for something more productive than the transmission of information.

I should confess at this point that I have always used blogging as a ‘quick and dirty’ means or recording what’s going on in my head at any particular moment, and thus what I write isn’t that deeply considered before it’s published. However, the responses to my post about the flipped classroom have made me think rather more deeply about the topic, and I’ve set these out below:

1) The first thing I’ve learnt is to be very careful with the language I use. I have the habit of referring to any session in which I am in a classroom with 200+ students as ‘a lecture’. However, having now read the literature than many correspondents sent me (including a huge meta-analysis of studies of ‘flipping’) ‘a lecture’ seems to be defines as ‘continuous exposition’ by an academic. I’ve always attempted to break up my teaching with material designed to encourage students to think about what I’ve said, and employ the skills I’m trying to impart, so I guess I don’t ‘lecture’. I’ll thus try to stick to ‘class’ and ‘teaching’ to replace ‘lecture’ and ‘lecturing’.

2) I maybe overly naive, but I find it depressing that any academic is still indulging in ‘continuous exposition’ as a teaching method, surely we’re all established by now that ‘deep’ processing of information is necessary for learning, and that’s hardly likely to happening if all that occurs in a class is the academic imparting information and the students writing it down frantically. That said, this seems to be to be more of an issue of ‘poor practice’ than necessarily a reason for ‘flipping’ a class.

3) Leading on from this is a point that was made by more than one correspondent, that learning is about ‘the construction of knowledge not the transmission of knowledge’, and by flipping the classroom you free up time for working on the ‘construction of knowledge’. Now, being a pedantic psychologist I’d argue that learning is about BOTH ‘the construction and the transmission of knowledge’, in that one would have little to construct if something first hadn’t been ‘transmitted’. One can, of course, argue about the weighting of these two components. Having thought about it a lot this week, I think that my real worry about the ‘flipped classroom’ is that whilst it seems an excellent method for facilitating the ‘construction of knowledge’ it may have neglected the idea that ‘transmission of knowledge’ needs to take place somewhere, and that the quality of that ‘transmission’ is important for the subsequent ‘construction’. Indeed, I wonder if in ‘flipping’ we aren’t, in some cases, abdicating responsibility for ‘transmission’ to textbook publishers. At a ‘Lecture Capture’ conference I attended recently the ‘Keynote’ speaker on ‘flipping’ had used lecture recordings from previous years as his vehicle for ‘transmission’. This suggests either that ‘lecturing’ IS a good vehicle for transmission or transmission is of vastly secondary importance.

It’s clear from the literature that, at least in STEM disciplines, flipping does improve academic performance but I wonder a little more focus was put on how best to facilitate ‘transmission’ this improvement might be even bigger.

My resolution for the next academic year is to try out ‘flipping’ a class, but to focus on how transmission will take place before I do so.

Lots of sexual partners is apparently good for you !

5 Nov

Even by the standards of the British media this is a very strange bit of reporting. Last week a number of usually fairly conservative parts of the British press reported on a study suggesting that having more that twenty sexual partners could reduce a males chances of developing prostate cancer !

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Each of these newspaper stories is reporting a paper by Spence, Rousseau and Parent called ‘Sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, and prostate cancer risk’ published in the journal  Cancer Epidemiology.

As a teaching example, this story has two great things going for it. First, as I’ve previously written about, ‘sex’ stories are a great way of engaging undergraduate students, and second you don’t have to be a urology expert to start demolishing this story. A moments thought about what hypothesis might be being tested here is worthwhile. Initially you might imaging some sort of ‘exercise’ theory, but of course we’re not talking here about frequency of sexual intercourse, but number of sexual partners (one could have had 21 sexual partners and only had sex 21 times, or one sexual partner and sex many hundreds of times !), which leaves me to think that we might be talking about a ‘promiscuous personality’ in some way inoculates against prostate cancer. As you might imagine, what you actually find is only post-hoc theorising about causality !

When you actually delve into the paper itself two things emerge, firstly that the 19% reduction in cancer risk reported in the newspaper stories wasn’t statistically significant, and secondly that the effect reported only appeared with 20+ sexual partners, 19 partners made no difference at all.

As the wonderful NHS Choices websites speculates, you do wonder if this isn’t an example of just recycling the press release, rather than actually reading the original paper, and whether those writing these stories have and ‘science’ knowledge to back up their work. I shall try this out with my students next week, and report back on the impact !

 

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