Tag Archives: books

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.


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.


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’ :;


Rational Thinking Books of the Year Part 1

30 Dec
I recently attended one of Robin’s Ince‘s great secular Christmas Shows ‘Nine lessons and carols for godless people’. The particular show I attended fell on the anniversary of the death Carl Sagan, the great American scientist and sceptic. As a tribute to Sagan, Robin Ince read an excerpt from Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted world’. As a child I can remember watching Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, and like many others I enjoyed his novel ‘Contact’, and its subsequent film but I have to confess that as an adult who teaches rational thinking I have never read any of his non-fiction word. The excerpt Robin Ince read is from the first few paragraphs of the chapter on psychics, and is a beautifully written and move account for why however comforting the idea of life after death maybe, it is eventually facts that provide use with a solid basis for genuine comfort. (I’d recommend that you stop reading me immediately, click this link and read the first seven paragraphs now !)
On my way home from the Christmas show I ordered two of Sagan’s books from Amazon, and read them very rapidly. Thus my first rational thinking book of the year was actually published over a decade ago and is Sagan’s ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark‘. It is one of the most beautifully written explanations of why rational thinking is vital in a modern society that I have ever read. Sagan’s writing style makes the book accessible for most readers, but I’s strongly recommend it to anyone who is attempting to teach rational thinking (or indeed critical thinking), as it will cement the importance of the work they are doing.
Interestingly, Sagan pops up again in the second of my books of the year @


My rational thinking books of the year (Part 2)

3 Jan

I’ve been thinking for some time about trying to codify my thoughts on teaching rational thinking into a coherent curriculum, and in researching the idea I came across a new book by one of my academic heroes, Jim Flynn.


‘How to improve your mind’ is let down by a cover that makes it look like a dreadful self-help manual, when it actually contains Flynn’s views on the concepts for intelligence growth that first appeared in his 2007 work ‘What is Intelligence ?’. The twenty key concepts that Flynn identifies provide a powerful basis for teaching rational thinking.

For those who might have only read Flynn’s works on Intelligence ‘What is Intelligence’ and ‘Are we getting smarter ?’ might be surprised by the tone of the book. Those two books draw very heavily on the available data with pages of tables and references, whereas ‘How to Improve Your Mind’ reads much more like a conversation with Jim Flynn in that it written in a precise but occasionally acerbic style.

I’d recommend the book for anyone considering teaching rational thinking although I’m not sure about using as a textbook for a rational thinking course. Flynn himself suggests that his key concepts ought to be taught to final year undergraduates, and I can see that the book might appeal to students at that level. However, for the 1st year undergraduates that I teach the book might be pitched slightly to high.

One final word of warning, Jim Flynn has a particular liberal world-view that comes across vigorously in this book. If you object to liberal politics you might want to avoid his work. (That said, if you’ve read this far you probably won’t have any problem with his views !!)

My rational thinking books of the year (Part 1)

30 Dec

This time of year the newspapers seem to be full of articles listing celebrities favourite books of the year, so I thought I’d join in. Although strictly it was published at the end of 2011, my 2012 rational thinking book of the year is ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.


Daniel Kahneman is one of the world’s most influential psychologists, who has led research on how we think for nearly forty year. In addition he won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics. ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow” is an accessible summation of the literature on thinking that was spawned by Tversky & Kahneman’s seminal 1974 paper ‘Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases ‘. If you’re interested in teaching rational thinking you really should know about Kahneman’s work, and this book provides a great introduction that doesn’t require any background knowledge of psychology. For me, it provides the material for one of the components of my rational thinking curriculum.

I’d happily argue that graduates of any discipline ought to have a basic understanding of the content of this book. For most this might come by being taught the material, but for strong students I’d encourage them to read the book for themselves. It’s current available for £6.29 from amazon.co.uk, and I can think of many worse ways for students to spend any spare cash !

Reviews of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow”

Association for Psychological Science 

New York Times

Financial Times

%d bloggers like this: