Tag Archives: current-events

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’ :;


Suddenly, looking at ‘screens’ might actually be good for you.

17 Sep

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the spate of reports that computer screens are addling the brains of teenagers. Imagine my delight to this week come across a paper saying that playing video games and watching TV might actually be good for you !

What’s interesting about this is that is seems a quite plausible study, and actually suggests that the reason that some people don’t benefit from ‘relaxing’ in front of the TV is that they negatively interpret it as procrastination. This seems quite valuable in a teaching situation. The idea that a popular idea i.e. ‘the internet is bad for children’ might get more media coverage than a less popular idea i.e. ‘watching TV might do you good’ might be a good way of getting students to thing about sources of information, and whether they might only ever hear about ideas that are ‘popular’

It also occurs to me that this is a lovely illustration of the necessity of reading around the literature, not just relying on one study !

Does no one in public life have a grasp of science ???

15 Oct


The UK press this week has seen a lot of reporting of the views of a Dominic Cummings, a ‘special advisor’ to Michael Gove the Education Secretary. Amongst Cummings views was that 70% of a child’s intelligence is inherited, and thus teaching was not the big influence people think it is. If, for the moment, you ignore the smell of eugenics hanging around this statement it just demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the basic science.

I’m no genetics expert, but the first thing that occurred to me when I read this story was the concept of a ‘environmental multiplier’. This is an idea I first came across in Jim Flynn’s work, and simply says that environmental factors can have a multiplying effect of relatively small genetic advantages. Imagine an eight year old male child who is 20% taller than other children his age in his class. This is undoubtedly a genetic advantage. Now put that child in a suburb of either London or Chicago, and ask yourself which is more likely to result in a world-class basketball player. Clearly the child in Chicago is more likely to grow up to be a world-class basketball player, but no because of his genetic advantage alone but because of the multiplying influence of his environment. THe Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker precisely summed up this idea when he said than money and recipes run in families, but that doesn’t mean they are genetic !

Now, this alone isn’t that interesting a story, in that we have a ‘special advisor’ to government who either doesn’t understand, or is deliberately misinterpreting science for political ends. But, a follow-up to this story today is particularly illuminating.


In Polly Toynbee’s column in todays Guardian she does the right thing about Dominic Cummings ‘70%’ idea, and asks a geneticist if it makes any sense. However, the story runs under the headline ‘…wealth is considerably more heritable than genes’. I understand the Polly Toynbee will not have had any input into the headline of her column, but it is unbelievably depressing that a Guardian sub-editor could write such a clearly ridiculous headline, and that headline could work its way right through the system and get published. Just for a moment try to imaging how anything could be more heritable than genes !!!

All of this adds to my conviction that it is vital that the general public are educated about the basics of science. On a more cheerful note I’m also quite proud of the fact that by the end of my rational thinking course my students will clearly know more about science than the average Guardian sub-editor.

What do I need to add to my rational thinking course ?

13 Oct

My own department is current working on a rewrite of our undergraduate programme and as a result my current rational thinking course will change from being taught over one semester to being taught across a whole year, i.e. The amount of teaching time I have will double. I’ve written before about my ideas for a rational thinking syllabus, but a doubling of the length of the course means that I’m going to need additional material.

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘context’ in relation to rational thinking. I’ve already included the idea of ‘historical context’ in my rational thinking syllabus but it now seems to me that ‘context’ is a much broader idea than the strictly ‘historical’, for example can a decision be truly rational unless it takes into account the social and political context in which it is made ? One of the most obvious examples of this is the frequent debate in the UK about how various drugs should be classified by the criminal justice system. Essentially, a ‘rational’ review of the evidence, without consideration of ‘context’, leads to the conclusion that alcohol should be treated at least as seriously as some drugs that are currently illegal in the UK. However, as soon as you factor ‘context’ into the situation the decision becomes much less clear cut. For example, historical ‘context (i.e. The USA’s prohibition of alcohol) suggest that any ban would lead to a growth in organised crime.

Equally, social context seems important for quality decision making. For example, my own students’ evaluation of research conducted in the USA can often be biased by their assumption that they have a good understanding of American society. This assumption seems to be borne out frequent exposure to America television and film. However, as soon as one delves into American society in any depth one finds clear differences with norms in Europe on topics as diverse as gun control and abortion.

All of this leads me to an idea that has been circulating my own institution for a few months, without finds a good home. The idea of ‘cultural capital’ has been around since the early 70’s, encompasses non-financial assessed that enable social mobility. If one discounts ‘education’ from this concept, you are still left with too major ideas and appreciation of the arts and an understanding of the ‘context’ ideas that I’ve been talking about.  So over the next few months I’m going to be thinking about how I can best integrate ‘context’ into my existing syllabus.

Rational Thinking and the iPhone 5s

29 Sep

I’m always on the lookout for topical examples of rational thinking, and this week offered a lovely example. Being a huge Apple fan I stopped at my local mobile phone shop on the way to work last friday to pick up my new iPhone 5s (the one with the fingerprint sensor). When I arrived at work a colleague suggested to me that my new phone was dangerous as ‘muggers would now want to cut off my finger’ along with stealing my phone. This seemed a little melodramatic, but i did a brief internet search, and came across the newspaper story below.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 19.14.46

This story floats the image of iPhone thieves cutting off the fingers of their victims, even though the story immediately says that only fingers with a pulse will work. When I presented this to students in my first lecture of the year it was interesting how rapidly that finger amputation was very unlikely. One only had to picture an image of a iPhone thief pulling his newly stolen phone from his pocket and then having to pull out a bloody amputated finger to unlock it to realise how silly this story is.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 19.33.08

The Daily Mail followed up a few days later with a story that the new iPhone sensor had been ‘hacked’. Ignoring the somewhat strange use of the word ‘hacked’ , the story presents a means of bypassing the fingerprint scanner using a print copied from a photograph. Again, just by asking students to think about their image of an iPhone thief, and whether they might be capable of using the complex process the story outlined it was easy to get students to recognise just how unlikely this story was.

Sadly, this idea is only really useful over the next couple of weeks, but it did very rapidly demonstrate to new students that they were perfectly capable of seeing through a bit of poor reporting.

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