Tag Archives: Politics

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.


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.


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’ :;


How important is rational thinking ? It’s a matter of life and death !

22 Aug


In the UK the sceptic movement has become very ‘rock and roll’ in the last few years with it’s own resident stand up comedian (Dara O’Briaian), and one of it’s biggest stars (Prof Brian Cox) having been a pop start in a ‘previous life’. Against this background it’s often difficult to keep in mind that in some countries scepticism can literally be a matter of life and death.

This week a leading Indian rationalist Narendra Dabholkar has been shot dead whilst campaigning for a law to ban black magic. There seems to be a range of things here that would be worth discussing with western students. The idea alone that ‘black magic’ might be something that one of the world’s leading economies might consider it necessary to legislate against seems to me to be seems worthy of consideration (especially as so many of my students can trace their family origins back to the Indian subcontinent). In the West we are so used to there being legislation which limits the promotion of patently spurious medicines etc that I think we forget that even in highly developed countries like India superstition is hugely powerful. Equally, the next time a student questions why what I’m teaching is relevant to their psychology degree I’ll role out this story.

The real irony of the story of the murder of Narendra Dabholkar is that following his death the government of the State of Maharashtra have passed an emergency law banning ‘black magic’.

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

British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows

17 Jul

One of the great pleasures of teaching what I do over a long period of time is that colleagues send me newspaper articles that provide me with raw materials for new lectures. This week I received a link to a wonderful story in ‘The Independent’ Newspaper headlined ‘British public wrong about nearly everything’ !

The story reports a survey conducted for The Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, where the polling company Ipsos Mori questioned the great British Public about facts concerning the major political issues of the days. For example, ‘What proportional of public money is spend on state pensions in comparison with unemployment benefits’, of ‘What percentage of under 16-year girls become pregnant every year’. In each case the public demonstrated a spectacular ignorance of the the facts. Full details of the survey can be found on Ipsos Mori’s website. I’m not entirely sure whether this says more about a lack of understanding of percentages, rather that the underlying questions, but either way it’s of interest. I was particularly taken with the average response to the question about ‘What percentage of under 16 year old girls become pregnant every year was 15%. Can people really think that 1 in 7 under 16 year old girls are pregnant at any one time ?? (The actual answer is 0.6%). When you read stories like this is becomes clear why politicians have so little interest in evidence-based policy making. After all, the very people that elect them seem to have little understanding of evidence.

It occurred to me that this would make a lovely teaching exercise, to demonstrate to students the necessity of researching the background of a particular question before coming to a conclusion. I’m thinking about asking what do they think and what do they think ‘the average man in the street’.

I shall try this in September and report back.

More on US Gun Laws (and my own biases exposed !!)

14 Jan


Since writing about US Gun Laws last week I’ve been putting together material for a lecture and have come across a couple of things that might be of broader interest. I’ve been looking at the US media coverage in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook attack, and in particular the uproar caused by the pronouncements of the British journalist Piers Morgan.


Piers Morgan is a British tabloid journalist who rose to the position of editor of a number tabloid newspapers before being fired from the editorship of the Daily Mirror after publishing fake pictures of British soldiers assaulting prisoners. He subsequently reinvented himself via a number of TV shows including ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’, before ending up in his current position where he replaced Larry King on CNN Television’s premier interview show. I think it would be reasonable to say that Piers Morgan’s journalistic abilities are not widely respected in the UK, and so the strength of the opposition when he offered the standard European view that the USA’s gun laws seem a bit ‘mad’ came as something of a surprise. A White House Petition to deport Piers Morgan, that garnered in excess of 100,00 signatures, produced particular hilarity in the UK where the default reaction was ‘we don’t want him back’.

Alex Jones a Texas Radio phone-in host,one of the supporters of the ‘Deportation’ petition, appeared on Morgan’s US TV show in the days following the Sandy Hook attack to support the US Gun Laws. As you’ll see from this clip he is quite a ‘character’.

I’d originally come across Alex Jones ten years ago when appeared in Jon Ronson’s excellent book ‘Them: Adventures with Extremists’, and thus wasn’t in the least bit surprised by his extreme ‘performance’ on the show. What’s interesting is that I automatically assumed that booking Jones for Piers Morgan’s show was a fairly ‘cheap’ trick to discredit the gun lobby by having their views voiced by someone who appeared slightly ‘deranged’. I then came across a second clip from Piers Morgan’s show, of someone called Ted Nugent, that seems to confirm my assumption:


What I found interesting was that having watched these two clips I’d settled on the view that the ‘clever liberal’ anti-gun people had tricked the ‘simple conservative’ pro-gun people into undermining their own argument by booking seeming ‘deranged’ contributors. What really surprised me was that I’ve subsequently discovered that Ted Nugent is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association, the hugely powerful pro-gun lobby group. So, the question that arises is was my view that he looked ‘slightly deranged’ a produced on my own European liberal bias, or is he as ‘mad’ as he looks and sounds ?

All in all it seems like I need to work a lot more on a lecture on cultural differences. With this stuff and the debate around abortion that appeared during the US Elections last year there is a lot of material. Psychology’s own literature has quite a lot to say about cultural differences but most it it is focused on differences between Eastern and Western culture rather than between North America and Europe.

Trying to think rationally about US gun laws

4 Jan


Since the dreadful attack on The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut just before Christmas I’ve been thinking about the debate that followed might be integrated into my rational thinking teaching. I’m sure that for those teaching in other disciplines there will be other parts of the debate that will seem relevant, but for my students (who are studying psychology) I’ve settled on two points. Firstly, the idea that the attack was ‘evil’, and secondly the question of the cultural differences between Europe and the USA.

The Psychology of ‘Evil’

In the immediate aftermath of the attack the Connecticut State governor Dannel Malloy visited Newtown and was reported to have said ‘Evil visited this community today’. I was immediately struck by how unhelpful this was in trying to explain the attack. It seems to me that calling the attack ‘evil’ removes any requirement to understand why to attack happened i.e it happened because the attackers was evil. It will be interesting to discuss this idea with students, particularly as psychology does have something to say about the aetiology of ‘evil’ acts whether it be Zimbardo’s ‘Situationist’ approach or Baron-Cohen’s more recent work on ‘evil’ and the absence of empathy.

Cultural Differences between Europe and the USA

Possibly of more general interest is the apparent difference in reaction between Europe and the USA. I’ve previously written about the idea that students tend to not differentiate between Europeans and Americans, and yet this is an example where the vast majority of Europeans struggle to grasp the attachment of many  (50%) Americans attachment to the right to bear arms. For the average European the post-attack reaction of the American National Rifle Association (NRA), suggesting that the attack could have been prevented had the school teachers been armed seems so extreme as to be difficult to believe.

Trying to uncover rational thought about US Gun Law is difficult, and often confounded by the lobbying power of the NRA, but I’ve come across a few articles that are of interest :

Silencing the Science of Gun Research – From the Journal of the American Medical Assocation takes a look at the avaialble research

The Riddle of the Gun – By Sam Harris is an interesting take on why some completely rational Americans might have to desire to own a gun, and an excellent critique of Sam Harris’s article

Finally, I found “Should Gun Owners Have To Buy Liability Insurance?” a really intriging idea that balances the need for regulation with the sense of so many Americans that they ‘need’ to own a gun.

I’ll report back after I’ve taught this stuff in February.

More on cognitive dissonance and abortion. Pregancy from rape is ‘something God intended to happen’ !

29 Oct

A few weeks ago I wrote about an American politician Todd Akin, and suggested that the somewhat bizarre views about rape and abortion that he had expressed might have been a product of cognitive dissonance. I’ve now come across a second example of what seems to be the same phenomena.

Richard Mourdock is a Republican candidate for an Indiana Senate seat who holds very firm views on abortion believing that there are no circumstances in which it should be allowed. However,  the interesting stuff began when Mr Mourdock was questioned about his views on rape. As any right thinking person would be said that he ‘abhorred rape, as did God’. When the discussion moved to his views about pregnancy as a result of rape you see the dramatic ‘problems’ caused by cognitive dissonance. Mr Mourdock was confronted with on one-hand his ‘abhorrence’ of rape (and presumable the view that it wasn’t part of God’s plan) and on the other hand his opposition to abortion under any circumstances. It seems to me that cognitive dissonance can be the only rational explanation for Mr Mourdock’s subsequent statement that pregnancy as a result of rape was ‘something that God intended to happen’.

Both Akin and Mourdock’s statements over the last few weeks seem to me to be great illustrations of quite how powerful an influence on the mind cognitive dissonance is. It’s all to easy for European liberals to dismiss such statements as being slight ‘mad’, but I think that seeking rational explanations for them is much more interesting.

Equally, this seem like another useful example to get students to think about differences between American and Western European culture. All to often students are prepared to uncritically accept evidence from the USA when these examples seem to illustrate another gaping cultural difference. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘mainstream’ British politician of any party making statements similar to those of Akin and Mourdock without seeing a rapid end to their political career.

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