Tag Archives: Evaluating sources

Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think

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 !!!

Another two stories for my penis and sperm lecture !

20 Mar

 

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I’ve written before about a could of penis and sperm stories that have been really useful in engaging students with rational thinking. I’ve talked about both a very odd celebrity sperm bank and an even stranger peer-reviewed journal article about penis size. Now I’ve come across another story that looks like I may be able to put together a whole lecture based on male genitalia !

This week the Daily Mail have printed the above story suggesting that men’s sperm is healthiest in winter and earlier spring, and thus this is the best time to conceive a baby. The story is based on a study conducted at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The irony of the Mail’s coverage is that the reporting is pretty accurate, however the original study makes no mention of the best time of year to conceive even though this exactly what the Mail’s headline says ! A lot more detail about this study can be found on the NHS Choices website, but it seems like an excellent way to encourage students to read beyond the headlines.

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Whilst I was looking up the material for this post I came across another Daily Mail ‘Sperm’ story published this week. Headlined ‘Bad news for the 220-mile high club: Researchers find sex in space could lead to life-threatening illnesses’, the story is strange in that whilst the headline mentions ‘sex in space’ the article itself focused on the effects of zero-graviry on plants. Again, this is a great way of getting students to read beyond the headlines.

I’m going to put all of these odd ‘sperm and penis’ stories into one lecture next year. Should encourage student enagement 😉

Blondes have more fun and David Cameron has a successful ‘political face’ !!

26 Jan

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Doing what I do, I read a lot of weird news stories but I came across something this week that was the strangest thing I’ve seen in some time. At first glance the story seemed like standard fayre, suggesting that facial traits are related to success and leadership. It goes no to say that women with dark hair are more successful in business than those with blonde hair (somewhat surprisingly illustrating successful business women with pictures of Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middlleton !!), and suggesting that men with squarer jawlines are better leaders (illustrated with a picture of David Cameron).

I was just about to move on, dismissing the story as too silly to think about, when two points peaked my interested. Firstly, the study on which the story is based seems to have been written by a respectable academic, Dr Chris Solomon from the University of Kent, and secondly his study was funded by the UK TV channel ‘Dave’, which is now for its  re-runs of comedy shows. This reminded me of a case from a few years ago, where headlines such as ‘All men will have big willies‘ were prompted by a report written by Dr Oliver Curry of the LSE, and funded by the TV channel ‘Bravo’.

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This link made me dig a little further, and I came across a couple of very strange things.

17th November 2008 ‘Fresh faced Cameron beats sunken-eyed Brown on ‘face you can trust’ issue’, based on Dr Solomon’s research funded by TV channel ‘Alibi’

6th November 2010 ‘How Cheryl Cole and David Beckham have ‘perfect faces” based on Dr Solomon’s research funded for the launch of ‘Beauty and the Beast ‘ on Blu-Ray disc

13th July 2009 ‘Scientists unveil the face of ‘the perfect boss’ based on Dr Solomon’s research funded by Vauxhall Motors for the launch of their Insignia model

Now, I haven’t been able to track down the research on which any of these four articles are based, and thus it’s difficult for me to draw firm conclusions, but at the very least it seems like a good way of getting students to think about where the border between science and public-relations lays !!

Are fish oils good for you or not ???

20 Nov

I was very impressed last week by a story in the Daily Mail finally accepting that fish oils weren’t a magical cure for any number of health problems. This made me think about ways of getting students to understand the reliability of any particular source of information. After all, reading this one article would make you think that the Mail was a useful source !

After a little thought I typed ‘fish oil’ into the search box on the Mail’s home page and came up with a whole range of ‘interesting stories, a selection of which are listed below:

11 September 2012 “Fish oil supplements ‘do NOT cut risk of heart attacks and strokes”

28 July 2012 “Are you hooked on fish oil yet? The natural wonder drug proven to treat a range of conditions”

13 June 2012 “Elderly warned that taking fish oil pills ‘does not prevent brain decline'” 

31 January 2012 “Taking fish oil during pregnancy ‘protects babies from eczema'”

28 February 2012 “New proof daily dose of fish oil does help keep your brain young”

3 January 2012 “Fish oil may hold key to leukaemia cure”

26 October 2011 “Fish oil supplements ‘can slow growth of prostate cancer cells in just four weeks'”

31 May 2011 “Fish oil could curb binge drinking by reducing desire for alcohol”

8 July 2010 “Fish oil may cut breast cancer risk ‘by a third’ 

24 May 2010 “Health news: Why pregnant women should drink more milk, tackle knee pain with sound waves and could fish oil reduce asthma?”

20 January 2010 “Is fish oil the elixir of life ?”

11 August 2009 “Could a fish oil pill add years to your life?”

22 May 2007 “Heart attack victims should take fish oil pill daily”

15 May 2006 “Fish oil ‘boosts pupil performance'”

I’m not particular interested in the research underlying all of this, (If you are there is an excellent chapter on the ‘fish oil and brain power’ story in Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’). However this seems like a great illustration that students do not have to be experts in a particular subject to see that fish oils are unlikely to be the cure for all of these ills. It may well be, once all the research has been conducted, that fish oil does have valuable health properties but that is very different from the panacea presented above !

My penis is bigger than yours ! Quality psychology research ??

7 Oct

As I’ve hopefully demonstrated elsewhere on this blog, newspaper science articles are a great way to get students to hone their rational thinking skills. However the aim of such education is to get those students to employ their newly honed skills when they are reading the academic content of the rest of their undergraduate course. Achieving such ‘transfer of training’ isn’t easy, indeed psychologists have spent the best part of 100 years arguing about the extent to which it happens at all. It is entirely possible that our own teaching methods may actively discourage students from critiquing the content of academic journals. I’m sure many HE teachers spend a long time with new undergraduate students talking about the importance of ‘peer-review’ and how ‘peer-reviewed’ sources are much more reliable than students just ‘googling’ a topic.

One way to try to encourage students to use their rational thinking skills on academic papers is to try to collect ‘peer-reviewed articles’ that contain glaring methodological flaws. In most cases these are flaws that only become obvious years after publication, but htis week I’ve come across current article from a prestigious journal that serves this purpose perfectly.

My interest was piqued by an article in the Daily Mail headlined ‘We knew it all along: British men have bigger penises than the French according to new survey’. These sorts of story are usually obvious nonsense, but I was intrigued by two things, that the story was a report of an article published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’, and that even the Daily Mail had highlighted methodological problems with the study

The story is based on the paper ‘An examination of Rushton’s theory of differences in penis length and circumference and r-K life history theory in 113 populations” by Richard Lynn. Ignoring the slightly eccentric theory behind the paper,three very obvious point appear when one reads it. Firstly, the data from the 113 population is presented to a surprising level of accuracy. Mean penis length is quoted for each population, and detailed down to hundredths of centimetres. I was immediately drawn to thinking about what type of measuring equipment would be necessary to achieve this level of accuracy. Secondly, many data points listed from the 113 populations were followed by a small asterisk. Turning to the bottom of the table you find out that the asterisk denotes ‘self-report’. YOu can only speculate how naive you would have to be not to questions the reliability of ‘self-report’ of penis length. Finally, reading through the method section of the paper you find that the data was not collected by the author, but rather culled from a website (http://www.everyoneweb.com/worldpenissize/). A quick skip through the web site leads you to a list of the sources from which they complied their data. WHilst some of them seem to be legitimate sources a number seem quite surprising:

The Elle/MSNBC.com sex and body image survey. Elle, pp. 111–113. Magna-RX. (2005, March). Does size really matter to your lover? More than you can possibly imagine! For Him Magazine, p. 117

The Happy Hook-Up: A Single Girl’s Guide to Casual Sex. Alexa Joy Sherman, Nicole Tocantins. p208. Ten Speed Press, 2004.

Argionic Desire. (2005, March). Argionic desire: Innovative penis enlargement product for men. For Him Magazine

Taken together these three things make me really wonder about the peer-review process. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’d question this sort of stuff it I saw if in a third year student’s thesis and yet it is apparently acceptable is the ‘gold-standard’ for academic writing. Having run through this paper with my 1st year undergraduate class I’d recommend it to anyone trying to encourage students to be active in critiquing ‘peer-reviewed’ material. Not only does the content guarantee you a cheap laugh from the students it gives them an understandingg that they can spot things that journal editors miss (or possible choose to ignore ???)

Wikipedia !

23 Apr

I’m sure that getting students to evaluate sources of information has always been a challenge, but the advent of the on-line age, and thus the end of the students only source being the university library, would seem to have multiplied the challenge hugely.

The strange thing is that under some circumstances students are perfectly able to recognise an unreliable website. Ask students if they would type their credit card details into a sight called http://www.cheapoflights.ru, and you get a uniformly negative response. Yet students seem perfectly happy to cite a range of questionable websites in their essay, chief amongst them being Wikipedia.

While teaching an understanding of concepts like peer-review us undoubtedly vital in getting students to successfully evaluate sources if believe that it should not be the first step, as it neglects the fact that in the modern era the web is the primary source of information for most people. Thus the first point in any plan to teach the evaluation of sources ought to be the Internet, and specifically the ‘chief’ source Wikipedia.

I use a couple of newspaper stories that illustrate some of the issues with the reliability of Wikipedia. The first story details the manipulation of Wikipedia for political ends, while the second demonstrates how false information planted in Wikipedia can easily end up being repeated in multiple media outlets.

I like to finish up with a Daily Mail story in which they accuse Wikipedia of containing many inaccuracies . Having looked at previous Mail stories the students usually spot the irony of this one !

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