Tag Archives: BBC

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”

Does homeopathy really do any harm ?

28 May

Getting students to initially engage their rational thinking skills can be relatively straightforward, in that you are really only asking them to be skeptical about what they are presented with. The bigger challenge is to get then to ‘unpick’ a more complex argument using all the skills they have learnt. Again, homeopathy can provide a useful vehicle for encouraging this deeper level of rational thinking.

As I’ve previously discussed I use homeopathy as a teaching example, as it’s an area where basic skepticism will lead students in the right direction. However, this basic skepticism leads stronger students to two questions,’if it’s making them feel better why should we worry about it’ and ’if it’s oh water it can’t be doing them any harm. These questions confirm that students have understood the basic issues that rationalism has with homeopathy (i.e. It’s water and it’s a placebo) but also show that they need to be encouraged to delve a little deeper.


Some years ago the BBC’s Newsnight programme ran an investigation into homeopathy in which they used hidden cameras to record UK-based homeopaths recommending a homeopathic remedy for malaria prophylaxis. As you might expect, in a subsequent interview with Emily Maitlis a representative of the UK regulatory group for homeopaths condemned the prescription of such remedies.
Many of my students recognise the usual prophylaxis treatment for malaria, and as such begin to realise the possible harm that homeopathy might do. One could, of course, employ the ’bad apples’ defence against this evidence in that it only shows two ’dodgy’ homeopaths amongst many hundreds. However, this brings me to a strange exchange I had with a homeopath following a recent post here.

My post, “Homeopathy as a teaching example” prompted a series of comments from an Indian homeopath seeking to ‘educate’ me about homeopathy. You can read all the comments for yourself here. I was unfailingly polite in my reponses to the comments, and as i like to see everything as an opportunity for collecting teaching materials I decided to ask what she’d recommend for malaria prophylaxis. Given the drive from UK homeopaths to be taken seriously I was fully expecting to be referred to my GP, but surprisingly I received a very rapid response suggesting a homeopathic remedy.

So, the answer to the question ‘Does homeopathy do any harm’ would seem to be YES especially if one considers the modern wecb-connected world.

I suspect this post may generate more responses from homeopaths, which will hopefully generate more teaching examples.

Homeopathy again !

18 May

I often use homeopathy as a teaching example, as there are so many resources available to liven up teaching. Some years ago the BBC’s flagship documentary programme, Horizon, ran a film on homeopathy that is still accessible via YouTube.


The documentary provides both useful background on homeopathy, and an interesting test of its effectiveness.

More recently, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee produced a report on homeopathy. Amongst the evidence taken by the committee was a comical  exchange between the committee chairman, a representative from Boots, the UK’s largest chemist (drugstore) chain and largest retailer of homeopathic remedies, and a representative of UK homeopathic manufacturers. The representative of Boots said that he had no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. When asked the same question the manufacturers representative said that he has a range of evidence showing the efficacy of homeopathy. With a heavily ironic tone the committee chairman then suggest that he might like to pass the evidence on to his largest customer. Even more revealing is the admission from the Boots representative that he stocks homeopathic remedies not because they work but solely because customers demand them.

The video of this exchange always produces intersting discussion with students. They are particulayl interested in the idea that Boots promote themselves as being able to offer health advise, but are happy that they have no evidence of the efficancy of homeopathy.

Encouraging students to recognise their own skills

30 Apr

It can often be difficult to get students to recognise that they have acquired new cognitive skills, and that it is a skills that others might not possess. For the last couple of years I’ve been using an example aimed at demonstrating to students how unusual their rational thinking skills are.

In 2009 the world’s media picked up the story of a Belgium man , Rom Houben who had been diagnosed in 2006 as suffering from Lock-in syndrome, when for the previous 23 years he had been treated by doctors as if he was in a persistent vegetative state. Put simply, he had been conscious for 23 years, but un able to communicate with those around him. This story ran in the media around the world, including the USA, Australia, the UK and Germany.

What made the story particularly compelling was the quotations from Mr Houben, explaining how he felt during the 23 years of his isolation. The following is a selection of the quotes reported:

“Powerlessness. Utter powerlessness. At first I was angry, then I learned to live with it,”

 He told doctors he had “travelled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether”. Sometimes, he said, “I was only my consciousness and nothing else”.

“I’ll never forget the day that they discovered me,” he said. “It was my second birth”.

 “Just imagine,” he wrote. “You hear, see, feel and think but no one can see that. You undergo things. You cannot participate in life.”

At this point, having talked students through the story I stop and ask them what they think about it. The usual reactions are ‘horror’ at the impact on Rom Houben, and ‘anger’ at the medical profession for allowing it to happen.

At this point I show the students a video of the BBC NEWS report of this story, and ask them if they notice anything unusual. This is usually enough of a prompt that the students will ask about Mr Houben means of communication, in particular that he is using one finger to type on a keyboard, but that finger appears to be being directed by a health care work. This process is known as ‘facilitated communication’. I usually then give the students a break and invite them to see what they can find out about ‘facilitated communications’. 

Given that most students are in possession of at least one internet-enabled device, it doesn’t take long for them to begin questioning the validity of the quotations from Rom Houben. I then conclude by showing them an article from the BBC website some months after the first report, in which they retract the original story and say that sadly Mr Houben could not communicate after all, and that the quotations produced where coming from the health care worker involved.

All of this leads to two discussions with students, the impact on Mr Houben’s family of having their hopes raised and the dashed, and the fact that the students were able to recognise an issue that the BBC (and all the other media outlets) seem to have missed. Hopefully this excercise encourages students to realise that they are gaining valuable skills in learning to think rationally, and that these skills aren’t very widespread

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