Tag Archives: Publication

Eating chocolate and drinking milk will make you a Nobel Prize winner

22 Jan

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You could hardly miss this story, as it seems to have been all over the media this week. The headline of the  Daily Mail version of the story focused on a correlation between a country’s milk consumption and the number of Nobel Laureates from the country. The story went on to cover a similar correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel prizes. The same story appeared around the world including Bangladesh, USA (Time), Pakistan and Ghana.

You might just dismiss this story and the usual newspaper rubbish, but when you read through the story it is based on material from the Practical Neurology (A British Medical Journal publication) and from the New England Journal of Medicine. When you look at the Practical Neurology article one can feel the authors tongues firms in their cheeks and in the second line of the article they acknowledge that correlation obviously doesn’t imply correlation.

This story is useful for two different types of teaching. At a basic level it’s a nice way to illustrate the idea that correlation doesn’t imply causation. In discussion with students I’m pretty sure you could come up with a lot of possible variables that might me mediating this relationship. My own mind wanders to the figures for lactose intolerance in Asian countries being 75% plus.

At a much higher level I think there is an interesting discussion to be had about the responsibility of scientists when publishing correlational data. Whilst both the papers that this story was based on were published in peer-reviewed journals (and were thus aimed at an audience who would understand correlation and causation) it’s not unreasonable to suggest that given the subject matter both the authors and the journal editors would be aware that the popular press were likely to pick it up. Under these circumstances my question is ‘Do the authors and editors have any responsibility to consider the wider audience and their lack of understanding and correlation”? It’s all very well for us to bemoan poor science reporting in the popular press, but we ar least partially responsible ?

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Do academic journals hamper rational thinking ?

21 Sep

Earlier this week I came across a news report of a study by Dr. Jeremy Osborn of the Albion College Michigan Department of Communication Studies entitled “When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment”.

The news report suggests that Dr. Osborn’s paper proposes a link between belief in TV postrayals of romantic relationships and difficulties in individual’s own romantic relationships. As you might imaging this peeked my skeptical antenna, and so I set off to do exactly what I try and teach, and find and read the original paper.

As others (Ben Goldacre !) have often complained about, this story appears in many media outlets, but very few of them reference the original paper, and even fewer link to the original source. Eventually I discovered that the paper appeared in the September 2012 issue of ‘Mass Communication and Society’, and so off I went to my institution’s Library Catalogue to find the original paper. This is where the trouble started.

I work in a reasonably well-resourced UK higher education institution, and thus I have access to a huge range of academic journals straight from the computer in my office. I was delighted to find that we has a subscription to ‘Mass Communication and Society’, but then I discovered that the e-sunbscription has an eighteen month publication lag. I was half way through filling out a British Library request form when it occured to me that it’s not an option easily available to my students and even more difficult for a member of the general public.

All of this got me to thinking about how ‘the man in the street’ could think rationally about this paper. If you can’t access the source material you can only rely on third parties (i.e,. the popular media) who are less than reliable. This makes me think about the irony that academic journals, with their elaborate paywalls are actually actively hampering rational thinking. So, there are some limits to rational thinking, and ironically thay are being mainatined by the very people who ought to be breaking them down !

I’m off now to e-mail the journalist that wrote the original story to ask if they have access to the paper. Surely a member of the British press wouldn’t have written a story just froma university press release !! (You might want to look at Nick Davies’s excellent ‘Flat Earth News’  for a measure of the likelihood of this )

Paper on my work

24 Apr

I recently presented a paper at the Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference for Science , Technology, Engineering and Maths disciplines (HEA STEM) on the teaching approach I use to encourage rational thinking.

All of the papers from the HEA STEM conference are available on their website, and there is some very interesting material amongst them

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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