Tag Archives: naturalistic fallacy

Butter is good for your heart !!

10 Feb

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This story from last week interested me, as it seemed to contradict all of the health advice we’ve received for years. According to the headline replacing butter with polyunsaturated fat margarine ‘doubles heart risk‘. The story is based on a paper recently published in the British Medical Journal. The first thing that set me thinking was that the study is a reanalysis of missing data from a student conducted with Australian men between 1966 and 1973. Based on this alone it would be interesting to get students to think about whether you could generalise from a sample of Australian men from forty years ago. I may be adopting a dreadful stereotype, but I suspect that the diet of a 1960’s Australian male hugely different from today’s average thus making sensible comparisons rather difficult.

Secondly, the newspaper article is a great example for encouraging students to read all of an article. Towards the end of the article two academics are quoted who clearly don’t think the story has much strength:

Professor Tom Sanders, of King’s College London, said the study was ‘enormously underpowered’, of ‘little relevance to diets today’ and its findings had been refuted by recent better studies.

Professor Brian Ratcliffe, of  Aberdeen University, said: ‘This paper does not provide evidence for changes to the current recommendations for a healthy diet.’

FInally, this story is a lovely example of one of the key points of the rational thinking curriculum/syllabus that I’m trying to assemble. It you read through the reader comments attached to this story you can see the Naturalistic Fallacy at work. Many of the Mail’s readers seem to conclude that it is obvious that butter is more healthy than margarine because butter is ‘natural’ and margarine in ‘manufactured’. A moment’s thought exposes flawed logic of this argument, and yet it is hugely widespread.

It’s of note that the original article is freely available on the BMJ website, and thus for once academic journal paywalls aren’t actively hampering rational thinking !

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A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

4 Dec
The_Thinker_Musee_Rodin
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.

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