Tag Archives: History

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.

Is democracy overrated ??

12 Aug

Badge - 2008 election

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating article on the BBC website entitled ‘Is democracy overrated?’, and it seems like excellent source material for the Importance of historical context’ thread of my rational thinking syllabus.

For most students in western European and North American universities, the idea that democracy is a good thing and should be encouraged in all societies is an article of faith. This article pushes the reader to understand that it isn’t democracy alone that underpins ‘western society’, it is more complex ideas like ‘individual rights’ and ‘judicial independence’. It will be interesting to see what the idea that democracy alone might not be that good has on students !

In the past I’ve used examples from my own discipline to illustrate the idea of the importance of historical context to rational thinking, but this seems to me like a much better generic example that would be useful for students of all disciplines. I will try this out in my lecture this semester and report back

A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

4 Dec
I presented my work at a recent university conference, and it led me to think about how what I do could be developed. I’m a psychologist, and teach psychology students but the more I think about it the more it seems that what I do has a broader relevance. There is a long tradition in British higher education of the generic nature of graduate skills. One of my favourite quotations about the nature of graduates comes from one of John Henry Newman’s lectures in 1852, where he suggested ‘to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant’ were the key characteristics of graduates. One hundred and forty years later Newman’s quotation crops up in another attempt to define ‘graduateness’ in the HEQC’s 1985 paper ’Clarifying The Attributes Of ‘Graduateness

I’ve written elsewhere about my dislike of the traditional critical thinking literature, and thus I’m not convinced that it has much to contribute trying to contruct a rational thinking curriculum. However, psychology’s own empirical literature does offer a number of areas that can offer a start. At the end of his book ‘What is Intelligence ?’, that offers an explanation of the strange phenomena of ever-increasing IQ scores, the brilliant Jim Flynn proposes a list of ten concepts that might result in continuation of IQ growth:

1) Market forces

2) Percentages

3) Natural Selection

4) Control Groups

5) Random Samples

6) Naturalistic fallacy

7) Charisma effect

8) Placebo

9) Falsifiability

10) Tolerance school fallacy

I would add to additional concepts of my own to Jim Flynn’s list :

11) The importance of historical context

12) Heuristics and biases

I’d suggest that you can group these items into three broad areas:

1) The scientific method (4,5,8 & 9)

2) Useful concepts (1,2,3,11 & 12)

3) The structure of logical arguments (6 & 10)

As my rational thinking course has evolved over the last five years I’ve covered many of these concepts, but given that I’ve always taught psychology students I’ve tailored the examples I’ve used towards psychology. However, I’m now thinking that it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to recast those examples to appeal to a generic student audience and the address the basic curriculum I’ve outlined above. Over the next few months I’m going to try to put together generic examples that fit into the framework I’ve detailed above. I’ll post the examples here as I progress.

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 !

A theory on the way to being right

19 Apr

Phrenology is a nice example for students of how theories evolve. Whilst phrenology las long been know it be wrong, it shows students that the roots of the idea of ‘localisation of function’ go back further than they might imagine.

It’s also interesting to show students that whilst ‘science’ moves on, ideas can remain in the popular consciousness for many years. The film below is from 1932, many years after ‘science’ progressed from phrenology. It;s also worth pointing out to students that as late as 1932 this phrenology was being referred to as an Astrologer and psychologist !


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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