Tag Archives: Ben Goldacre

Do academic journals hamper rational thinking ?

21 Sep

Earlier this week I came across a news report of a study by Dr. Jeremy Osborn of the Albion College Michigan Department of Communication Studies entitled “When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment”.

The news report suggests that Dr. Osborn’s paper proposes a link between belief in TV postrayals of romantic relationships and difficulties in individual’s own romantic relationships. As you might imaging this peeked my skeptical antenna, and so I set off to do exactly what I try and teach, and find and read the original paper.

As others (Ben Goldacre !) have often complained about, this story appears in many media outlets, but very few of them reference the original paper, and even fewer link to the original source. Eventually I discovered that the paper appeared in the September 2012 issue of ‘Mass Communication and Society’, and so off I went to my institution’s Library Catalogue to find the original paper. This is where the trouble started.

I work in a reasonably well-resourced UK higher education institution, and thus I have access to a huge range of academic journals straight from the computer in my office. I was delighted to find that we has a subscription to ‘Mass Communication and Society’, but then I discovered that the e-sunbscription has an eighteen month publication lag. I was half way through filling out a British Library request form when it occured to me that it’s not an option easily available to my students and even more difficult for a member of the general public.

All of this got me to thinking about how ‘the man in the street’ could think rationally about this paper. If you can’t access the source material you can only rely on third parties (i.e,. the popular media) who are less than reliable. This makes me think about the irony that academic journals, with their elaborate paywalls are actually actively hampering rational thinking. So, there are some limits to rational thinking, and ironically thay are being mainatined by the very people who ought to be breaking them down !

I’m off now to e-mail the journalist that wrote the original story to ask if they have access to the paper. Surely a member of the British press wouldn’t have written a story just froma university press release !! (You might want to look at Nick Davies’s excellent ‘Flat Earth News’  for a measure of the likelihood of this )

The ethics of being a skeptic

28 Aug

One of the questions that often comes up in my classes is ‘are they doing any harm ?’. More specifically, students ask if we have any right to get involved if adults want to spend their money on consulting Sally Morgan ( the UK’s ‘best-loved’ psychic) or on buying very expensive bottles of sugar pills to ‘cure’ any number of ailments. I’ve always combated this argument with examples of homeopaths prescribing ‘remedies’ for life threatening diseases (i.e. Malaria) and thus incurring potential expense for the NHS, which we all pay for.

I was drawn to think about this when I read a recent story about a church in the north of England peddling a highly questionable cancer ‘cure’. The same church had previously been fined £25,000 by OFCOM, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, for broadcasting cancer ‘cure’ claims on their TV channel Believe TV. Religion is always a topic I’ve avoided directly addressing when teaching, using the defence that faith is inherently unfalsifiable , and thus not amenable to scientific enquiry. Of course, this defence itself has raised questions from students since Richard Dawkins published his book ‘The God Delusion’. However, I’m left with the conundrum that I’d happily talk about someone peddling olive oil and Ribena as a ‘cancer’ cure in lectures but I avoid discussion of prayer curing cancer. This particular case interested me, as Ben Goldacre tweeted about it suggesting that those involved in purchasing the Ribena and Olive Oil cure need to take responsibility for their own actions. I’m not sure I agree with that view completely, in that I think skeptics ought to warn against such things.

All of this makes me think about where the limits of skepticism lay. Should we comment on everything, or are there points where we should step back and say ‘if you fell for that it’s your own fault ?’. Equally, is my decision not to discuss religious faith in class a rational one, or just me avoiding a controversial topic. I don’t really have and answer to either of these questions, so I’d love to hear what others think. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Homeopathy as a teaching example

3 May

I talk about homeopathy with my students, as an example of applying their rational thinking skills. I’ll write more extensively about how I integrate it into teaching over the summer (when marking has finished), but in the meantime a couple of things that have caught my eye.

FIrst, Ben Goldacre has just posted on his blog about UCH promoting a homeopathy course to their doctors.  I usually ask students if they think the NHS should pay for homeopathy, but asking if they should teach about it takes things to a whole new level.

Second, for the most part I shy away from using comedy in lectures, as I’ve suffered a few ‘tumbleweed’ moments during the past, but this example is too good to miss and after my lecture on homeopathy students seem to find it funny.

Ben Goldacre’s work

24 Apr

Doctor/Journalist Ben Goldacre has done a great job in the UK of promoting rational thinking, through his Guardian Column, web site and book he has written accessibly about ‘dodgy’ science and ‘dodgy’ science reporting.

FRom the point of view of teaching it’s particularly useful that many video recordings of Ben are available around the web. Students seem to find videos a very attractive medium, and hopefully by watching they they are attracted to reading Ben Goldacre’s written work.

I’ve included links below to some of my favourite Ben Goldacre videos

A talk from TED on his attempts to combat Bad Science

NHS video on the Placebo Effect

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