Tag Archives: media

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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When ‘consensus’ doesn’t mean what you think it means

14 Oct

Tom-And-Jerry-Picture

I’ve just started teaching my new cohort of students, and this week used my favourite example of questionable peer-reviewed research, in which conclusions are drawn from self-report data on penis size ! As ever, even though the student were one-week into a three year degree programme they were well able to see that the paper, although published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, was clearly nonsense. I was therefore really please to receive another great example this week from our brilliant librarian Ian Clark.

Last week saw a lot of reporting of a paper from ‘Psychology of Popular Media Culture’ suggesting that there was a consensus view that media violence leads to childhood aggression. The general tone of the reporting can be seen in this article from Time magazine. This example is in many ways far better that my favourite ‘penis-size’ paper, in that at first glance it looks entirely sensible and is published in a peer-reviewed journal from the august body that is the American Psychological Association. However, a few interesting points appear when one starts to delve:

  • The paper uses the words ‘broad consensus’ In it’s title, yet it appears that 69% of the participants agreed that media violence led to aggression. I may be a raging pedant, but when I see the phrase ‘broad consensus’ I was expecting something rather higher than 69% !
  • The study is essentially an opinion poll, none of the participants appear to have been asked if they have any evidence to back up their view. Whilst opinion polls are interesting, I’m not sure a peer-reviewed scientific journal is the place for them.
  • Even if one doesn’t think that the above two points are an issue, the fact that 36% of the participants in the survey had no further qualification to comment on the topic than that they were parents is truly worrying. Surely, a peer-reviewed journal ought to be soliciting the views of those who have conducted evidence-based research on the question to hand.

One final point, that I won’t dwell on here, but is very intriguing is the second  footnote that appears on page four of the paper:

 

The version of this manuscript initially submitted and

accepted was based on a different analysis, with communication

scientists and media psychologists combined in one

group as media researchers and identifying consensus as a

significant difference from the midpoint in groups’ average

responses. In reviewing an earlier draft of this manuscript,

the authors of a comment on this article (Ivory et al., in

press) correctly pointed out that these results could not be

interpreted as consensus. The editor gave us permission to

conduct a new set of analyses using a different operational

definition of consensus.

 

All in all this seems like a great way to demonstrate to students the necessity of reading beyond the headlines, even when reading a reputable peer-reviewed journal !

 

 

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