Tag Archives: Conspiracy Theories

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.

trump

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.

sagan

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’ :;

 

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Reflections on teaching the ‘Psychology of conspiracy theories’

8 Mar

Just finished another really interesting teaching session looking at the psychology of the belief in conspiracy theories. A number of things came out of it that seem worth of discussion here :

1) The prevalence of belief in at least one conspiracy theory

Initially it was quite surprising how widespread belief in at least one conspiracy theory was amongst my students, and how many of them seemed to have quite detailed knowledge of some of the ‘evidence’ supporting conspiracy theories. However, when you look at recent research things become a bit more explicable. Swami & Coles’ (2010) paper in The Psychologist is a nice summary of the research, and talks about recent studies finding relationships between ‘Big-Five’ personality traits and conspiracy theory belief particularly ‘Openness to experience’. You’d hope that students were high on ‘openness to experience’, and thus maybe their overt interest in conspiracy theories isn’t as inexplicable as it initially looked.

2) Cognitive Dissonance Example

I’ve previously written about US Republican politicians getting themselves in all sorts of trouble when talking about abortion as being a great example of cognitive dissonance at work. I had the chance in this lecture to show students the examples I’d collected. Both videos seemed to work well to illustrate what a very powerful effect cognitive dissonance can be.

3) Historical Background knowledge

Academics make a lot of implicit assumptions about the background general knowledge that their students have, and on more than one occasion this year I’ve questioned quite how reliable these assumptions are. In yesterday’s lecture I showed the ‘Zapruder’ film of Kennedy’s assassination, and was surprised by the number of audible gasps of shock that it elicited. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most academics would assume that this film is so ‘well worn’ that everybody would have seen it many times, and yet yesterday’s evidence would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. It does make me wonder about how many more assumptions we make might be flawed. Sometimes I think we forget that events like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred 23 years ago i.e. long before the birth of undergraduate students !

4) ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are a great way to engage students in rational thinking

I written before about the habit of some ‘scientists’ of cherry-picking evidence to suit their own pet theory, and conspiracy theories seem like a great way of getting students to see that you have to consider ALL of the available evidence.

All in all it seemed like a really successful teaching session to me, although final ‘proof’ will have to wait until next week’s mid-module feedback and May’s exams !

Being rational about conspiracy theories

11 May

Conspiracy theories can be a great way to introduce ideas about rational thinking, and as I’ve discovered this year also a way of getting students to evaluate competing theories.

At a very basic level it’s worth getting students to think about the practicalities of maintaining a conspiracy. My favourite example of this is the idea that the Americans faked the Apollo moon landings. The first thing I ask them to think about is ‘how many people would they have had to pay off to keep it quite for forty years’. I then show students the most recent photos of the moon’s surface that show the Apollo landing sites in detail. A few students usually suggest that these might be fake as well, but this leads on to a discussion of how the Americans might go about preventing the Russian or Chinese governments from exposing such an obvious fake (as you would assume that they too have the ability to photograph the lunar surface). This simple exercise is a nice way to demonstrate to students that they don’t need to be experts a particular field in order to think rationally about it. It’s possible to do this same exercise using Alien Landings as the example, with questions like ’why do they always land in the back woods of the USA’ and ’if they have the technology to get here why do they hide once they arrive’.

I’ve discovered this year that conspiracy theories can also be a good vehicle to get students to evaluate competing theories. I was inspired by a great article in The Psychologist to teach a lecture on the psychology of conspiracy theories, and found that students could readily see that whilst theory A might explain conspiracy theory B, it didn’t really fit with conspiracy theory C that was better explained by theory D. This also seemed like a way of introducing students to the idea that their might not be a definitive answer to a particular question yet.

One slightly worrying by product of this teaching was the realisation that lumps of history that I had assumed were common knowledge were far from it. I was genuinely surprised by the level of shock that a showing of the footage of Kennedy’s assassination produced.  In retrospect, it maybe isn’t so surprising that concepts like ‘Communism’ that might represent part of the ‘lived experience’ of a 45 year old academic might just be ancient history to an 18 year old. However it has made me think about how lack of understanding of context may hamper students understanding of particular behaviours, particularly in relation to Social Psychology. It makes me think that ‘historical context’ should be an explicit part of many more lectures than it currently is

I would offer one word of caution about using conspiracy theories as a vehicle for teaching. You may be surprised by how many students believe at least one conspiracy theory, and indeed I’ve come across one colleague who assures me that the Americans definitely faked the moon landings !

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