Tag Archives: Falsification

Using history to further psychological understanding

19 Apr
As a result of having a great history teaching when I was at school I’ve always been interested in using compelling historical examples of the use of the scientific method as a means of convincing students of it’s value. The example that I have been using for a number of years is John Snow’s discovery of the cause of cholera in Victorian London. This story has particular impact on my students as it took place around 7 miles from our campus, and so they know many of the sights involved.

I won’t rehearse the history here but I’d recommend Steven Johnson’s excellent book on the subject ‘The Ghost Map’, and the UCLA School of Epidemiology host an excellent on-line resource

(Steven Johnson talks at TED)
The story of cholera in victorian London allows me to introduce the students to a whole range of ideas :
The importance of publication – Snow constantly wrote about his work, and without his writing it may have been many more years before cholera was widely recognised as being waterborne
Being open minded – Snow was often dismissed as being slightly eccentric because he didn’t support the prevailing theory of the time.
Willingness to abandon theories when the evidence contradicts them (useful when teaching about the move from behaviourism to cognition)- the health authorities stuck with their theory of cholera transmission, making no attempt to test its validity and ignoring disco firming evidence
Falsification – Snow set out to conduct natural experiments to test his theory
Methodology – snow discovered the cause of cholera using ‘pencil and paper’ at a time when no microscope was capable of ‘seeing’ the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. This point can be really helping in convincing students that not all studies need a large computer and an fMRI scanner.
I’m sure their must be other historic example of the use of the scientific method that would make engaging teaching examples.
On a similar note, I’ve been surprised I recent months my the lack of historical perspective in undergraduate students and how this can undermine their grasp on the psychology of much modern behaviour. For example in the last year I’ve come across Muslim students who are hugely well informed about American interventions in Iran and Afghanistan, but have no knowledge at all of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 that saw nearly 1 million deaths. On the opposite side of the spectrum I have spoken to evangelical Christian students who are bewildered by the idea that modern western understanding of subjects such as geometry and algebra came from Arabic copies of ancient Greek works that had been unknown in the west for hundreds of years, and we’re only saved for ‘western civilisation’ by Islamic scholars. With such lack of insight one can rapidly see how subjects like the psychology or terrorism might easily be polarised into ‘The evil Americans’ versus ‘the Islamic enemies of civilisation’.
All of which has led me to think about working much more historical perspective into all of my lectures in future years.
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