Tag Archives: BBC

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

More on the benefits (or otherwise) of coffee

13 Jan


Coffee, or more specifically caffeine, crops up in a lot of places in my teaching. The Daily Mail has a strange obsession with things that cause or prevent cancer, and over the years coffee has been placed in both the ’cause’ and ‘prevent’ categories. Equally, one of my favourite Daily Express headlines ‘Two cups of coffee a day stops Alzheimer” was based solely on a study in mice. It is, however, slightly depressing when this overzealous reporting of caffeine -related stories begins to infect the BBC.

On the 12th Jan 2014 the BBC website reported a story headlines “Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory'”. The story reports a study of 160 participants, whose memory for images, over a 24 hour period, improved when given a 200 milligram caffeine tablet. The study comes from a very reputable source, and I have no reason to doubt the validity of the science involved, but I am intrigued that the BBC’s reporting of the story seem to fall half way between the extremes of the Mail and Express and actually applying some rational thinking. For example, the BBC report includes the line ‘The Johns Hopkins University study involved people who did not regularly eat or drink caffeinated products’, but makes no further comment on why this might be significant. Now, a sample of American participants who don’t drink tea, coffee or cola seems like it might be less that representative.

To give the BBC some credit, they do include ‘a voice of reason’ at the end of the story ( and I really pleased that in this case it was Dr. Ashok Jansari, a colleague from my own department).  Ash rightly points out the potential negative effect of caffeine, but what I find slightly odd about this is the apparent need to ‘contract out’ rational thinking, as if it isn’t something we should expect from the journalists reporting the story. After all you only need to type ‘caffeine’ into the search box of the BBC website to find a whole range of stories about the possible negative effects of caffeine including the idea of a ban on highly caffeinated drinks for under 16s.

All in all, this seems like a nice story to get students thinking rational at science (i.e. what’s the ecological validity of the original study) but also about the reporting of science and the idea that by learning some simple skills they can seemingly do the sort of thinking that BBC journalists seem to be avoiding. It’s also worth noting that ‘caffeine pill could boost memory’ is a story that is likely to be very appealing to students facing exams, and anything that gets across the message that cans of Red Bull may not be the answer to good exams results can only be a good thing 😉

Is democracy overrated ??

12 Aug

Badge - 2008 election

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating article on the BBC website entitled ‘Is democracy overrated?’, and it seems like excellent source material for the Importance of historical context’ thread of my rational thinking syllabus.

For most students in western European and North American universities, the idea that democracy is a good thing and should be encouraged in all societies is an article of faith. This article pushes the reader to understand that it isn’t democracy alone that underpins ‘western society’, it is more complex ideas like ‘individual rights’ and ‘judicial independence’. It will be interesting to see what the idea that democracy alone might not be that good has on students !

In the past I’ve used examples from my own discipline to illustrate the idea of the importance of historical context to rational thinking, but this seems to me like a much better generic example that would be useful for students of all disciplines. I will try this out in my lecture this semester and report back

What makes for a good university teacher ???

13 May


A few weeks ago I received an award from the students of my institution for ‘Most Innovative Lecturer’, and since then I’ve been thinking about what makes a good university lecture, and whether anyone can do it. I’ve always been of the opinion that what I do isn’t ‘rocket science’, and that with a small amount of instruction most university teachers could deliver engaging lectures.

All these thoughts were bought into focus yesterday as I watched a brilliant BBC documentary celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman. I suspect that if you’re reading this Feynman will need no introduction, so I limit myself to saying that he was unusually a genius both in his chosen discipline of physics and in teaching. Watching clips from the Feynman lectures again made me realise that ‘innovation’ isn’t what good teaching is about at all, after all Feynman gets by with chalk and a blackboard. The whole trust of the documentary was that what made Feynman a great teacher came from within him, it was simply the desire to pass on the spirit of inquiry to others and it seemed like this personality trait had been fostered by his own father.

What’s intriguing here is that if you look at how universities go about trying to improve the quality of teaching it’s all about technique. It’s course on ‘How to use PowerPoint’ or ‘How to work with Moodle’. In reality, I now wonder whether much of this is worthwhile. If someone isn’t motivated to teach no amount of instruction is going to make them an engaging lecturer. British institutions have a particular issue, in that staff receive ‘tenure’ very early in their career and subsequent career progression is focused much more of research than teaching, thus UK university teachers have little external incentive to produce engaging lectures. Of course, for those with an internal motivation to be engaging (like Feynman had) none of this matters.

So, where does all that leave my initial thought about engaging lectures not being ‘rocket science’. Well, I still think that most university lecturers could deliver engaging lectures. However, the question now seems like ‘do they want to’ ? I end up with a question for university managers, how do we provide external motivation for those who don’t have Feynman’s internal desire to explain ???

As ever, please leave comments below, I’d love to know what people think

All the warning about the MMR vaccination turn into reality

5 Apr

A few years ago I used to regularly use the great UK MMR vaccination fiasco and the discredited work of  ‘Dr’ Andrew Wakefield as an example in my rational thinking classes. If you are interested in the whole MMR issue Ben Goldacre (as ever) has a very accessible summary. Over the last couple of years I’ve dropped it as a topic, as I rather naively assumed that with Wakefield work being so publicly discredited it was a piece of ‘history’ and not necessarily something that would engage students.

In recent months we’ve seen a very strange case of an Italian Court deciding that all the science is wrong, and now in the UK we have a major measles outbreak.


In the South Wales city of Swansea 588 measles cases have now been reported. This seems like both the ‘perfect’ ending for a new lecture on the MMR fiasco, and also a very good way to get students to think about complex ideas about what happens when ‘herd immunity’ drops. South Wales appears to be something of a blackspot for immunisation, with 1 in 6 children not vaccinated.


This graphic from America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases is a nice introduction to the idea of ‘herd immunity’. I’ve also found this website which has a series of online simulations of various disease scenarios (including the ‘Swansea’ situation with a blackspot of low immunisation).


All things considered, the MMR lecture will definitely be making a comeback in October with an ‘all new’ section on herd immunity. As a postscript to this blog I’ve just searched for ‘Swansea measles’ on the Daily Mail website. The top three responses (see image below) are illuminating !


In ten years we seem to have ‘progressed’ from 75% of the public wanting an inquiry to ‘measles can kill’. If only we’d had more rational thinking in 2002 !!!

Watching TV will do your children no harm, or possibly turn them into monsters !!

27 Mar

In a week when the UK has been repeatedly told how vital a ‘free press’ is to the future of the nation (in the wake of the News International ‘Hacking’ scandal) it’s ironic that to UK National Newspapers could report exactly the same science story, with two completely contradictory headlines. “Do television and electronic games predict children’s psychosocial adjustment? Longitudinal research using the UK Millennium Cohort Study” was published this month in Archives of Diseases in Childhood, and reports the TV and gaming habits of 11,000 UK five year olds.

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The Independent’s take on the study was that three hours of TV per day didn’t do children any harm, a view that was backed up by the BBC’s reporting of the study, that was headlines ‘TV time does not breed badly behaved children’. The strangeness begins to appear when you look at how this study was reported elsewhere in the British press.

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The Daily Express’s story reporting this study was headlined ‘Too much TV turns children into monsters’, and slightly less extreme versions of this appeared in the Daily Mail (More than three hours of TV ‘makes youngsters naughtier by the age of seven and the Daily Telegraph (Television link to behaviour problems in young children’). As ever, there is an excellent summary of the research available from the NHS Choices web site.

From a teaching perspective this saga offers a number of opportunities. The original study is publicly available online, so students could go back and  see for themselves which newspaper most accurately reported the study’s results. More straightforwardly this seems like a great way to illustrate to students that different branches of the media may have different agendas that they want to prompt, and this may well bias their reporting of what would seem an entirely factual story. A the most basic level it would be interesting to get students to read each of the newspaper versions of the story. IT’s interesting that the Daily Mails version of the story (More than three hours of TV ‘makes youngsters naughtier by the age of seven), acknowledges within the first few lines that the effect of TV viewing is very small.

One final point of interest this that some months ago I wrote about Aric Sigman’s widely reported view that any form of ‘screen time’ for children was damaging. Even the most biases reading of this really interesting study would conclude that it provided very little support for Dr Sigman’s views !!!

City University wants to review Friday prayers ‘sermons’ for ‘appropriateness’ BEFORE they are delivered.

28 Feb

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I’ve just come across this odd little story that City University have locked their Muslim Prayer Room, as the students using the room have refused to submit their Friday prayer ‘sermons’ for vetting for ‘appropriateness’ before they are delivered. The BBC story suggests that three years ago there was some evidence of extremist views amongst City’s Islamic students but seems to be no indication of that being the trigger for the current ‘lock-out’ . Given what I teach I have fairly strong views on what university should be about, and it seems to me that this story goes straight to the heart of this question.

I’m slightly bewildered that a university’s administration could set themselves up as arbiters of what is ‘appropriate’ to be said on university premises. Surely, unless there is evidence that the law is being broken, university should be the very place where anything can be said. I can think of several groups who would find the things I say in lectures very inappropriate (homeopaths, creationists, conspiracy theorists) and ye tI don’ t see any of my institution’s management wanting to pre-screen what I teach.

I’m quite looking forward to asking students what they think might be  behind this story. For me, university’s ought to follow that famous Voltaire quotation ‘“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” with my addition “and my right to say what you say is rubbish”

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