Tag Archives: rational thinking

Rational Thinking about what’s happening in the USA

8 Mar

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt

My last few posts here have discussed critical thinking/rational thinking in the light of the current changed political climate in the UK and USA, but this week I’ve focused on a couple of more concrete examples. Since the beginning of the US Presidential Election campaign we’ve got used to Donald Trump eccentric use of Twitter, but this week has seen a couple of tweets from the President that are particularly interesting :



Whilst the accuracy of both of these tweets has been fairly rapidly questioned, I found the second, in particular, interesting about what it says about the rational thinking both of the President and of the 50,000+ people who have ‘liked’ it on Twitter. Within minutes of that tweet it has been demonstrated that of the 122 Guantanamo detainees who had returned to terrorism after release only 11 had been released during Barack Obama’s Presidency, the remaining 111 had been released by previous Republican President, George W Bush.

Now, what interested me here was the President’s thought process around this tweet. It seems to me that there are a couple of potential explanation:

  1. The President believes his sources of information i.e BreitBart and Fox News, and doesn’t question their content
  2. The President is aware that only 11 were released by Obama, but knows that the tweet will reinforce the view of Obama held by his supporters, and thus they will not question the accuracy of the information.

Both of these explanations have serious implications for rational thinking. If the first explanation is correct, it suggests that it’s possible to win the US Presidency without the media literacy we’d expect of an undergraduate student. The second explanation, suggests a highly honed understanding of rational thinking and a deep understanding of ideas like confirmation bias. Whilst explanation No.1 is appealing to those of a liberal mindset, it seems to me that explanation No.2 is much more likely, and much more serious for those interested in critical/rational thinking.

Up until now, the development of thinking skills has been a fairly esoteric discussion limited to those directly interested in education but it now seems more than ever that Roosevelt’s quote that opens this post is vital. Those of us interested in such things can no longer tolerate vague scholarship, as it the very vagueness in the scholarship of critical/rational thinking that can be used against us. I’ll end with a question:

What would you say if the lead administrator of your School/University came to you and said “If you can’t even agree amongst yourselves about what critical thinking is, why am I paying you to teach it ?”


My first attempt at making video content

6 Mar

I’ve just finished my first attempt at making short video content focused on teaching rational thinking. My intention is that this will be the first of a series, but I’d really value any feedback

Why I dislike ‘Critical Thinking’

27 Feb

You’ll see from the title of this blog that I don’t like the phrase ‘critical thinking’, and think that it activity works against encouraging rational thought in students. Ironically, the only time that I tend to use the phrase ‘critical thinking’ is when I’m talking to other academics, otherwise they don’t know what I’m going on about ! In working on a larger piece of work about my view of developing rational thought I’ve hit upon a great example of what I think is wrong with the current critical thinking literature.

If you grab a select of the critical thinking textbooks that will undoubtedly appear in your nearest library you’ll find that the identification of logical fallacies is a consistently addressed topic. With my ‘teacher’ hat on I’ve always found logical fallacies an appealing topic. There are wonderful on-line resources with many engaging examples that will appeal to students and it’s straightforward to design an assessment to measure whether students recognise logical fallacies. The trouble is that when you delve into the rationale for teaching students to identify logical fallacies things begin to unravel.


For anyone who spends their life attending meetings with other academics, the rationale for teaching logical fallacies would seem obvious, as phrases like ‘ad hominem attack’ and ‘that’s just a strawman’ are mainstays of academic ‘debate’. However, we can’t really justify curriculum content based on the ability to win an argument in a Faculty meeting. Which leads me to ask what is the utility of understanding logical fallacies for the average undergraduate ? Surely what we want our students to be able to do is to disentangle the evidence for a particular argument from the rhetorical devices being employed to make that argument, after all it would be perfectly possible for a position that has all the evidence behind it to be proposed with an argument entirely riddled with fallacies.

My own view is that the appearance of logical fallacies in so many critical thinking texts is a products of the roots of critical thinking itself, rather than in any belief in it’s utility for students. Critical Thinking was a product of the academic discipline of philosophy, where the understanding of formal logical is a central skill. Thus , we’ve ended up teaching a topic not because it has directly relevance to our students, but because it is a component of a discipline at least once-removed for m that which we are teaching.

In my previous post here I mused on the teaching of rational thought in the new ‘alternate facts’ world, and it occurs to me that in this ‘New world order’, the teaching of logical fallacies might actually be counter-productive. I could see an argument that a book chapter on logical fallacies could easily be read has ‘how to win an argument even if you don’t have any evidence’.

Lots of sexual partners is apparently good for you !

5 Nov

Even by the standards of the British media this is a very strange bit of reporting. Last week a number of usually fairly conservative parts of the British press reported on a study suggesting that having more that twenty sexual partners could reduce a males chances of developing prostate cancer !


Each of these newspaper stories is reporting a paper by Spence, Rousseau and Parent called ‘Sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, and prostate cancer risk’ published in the journal  Cancer Epidemiology.

As a teaching example, this story has two great things going for it. First, as I’ve previously written about, ‘sex’ stories are a great way of engaging undergraduate students, and second you don’t have to be a urology expert to start demolishing this story. A moments thought about what hypothesis might be being tested here is worthwhile. Initially you might imaging some sort of ‘exercise’ theory, but of course we’re not talking here about frequency of sexual intercourse, but number of sexual partners (one could have had 21 sexual partners and only had sex 21 times, or one sexual partner and sex many hundreds of times !), which leaves me to think that we might be talking about a ‘promiscuous personality’ in some way inoculates against prostate cancer. As you might imagine, what you actually find is only post-hoc theorising about causality !

When you actually delve into the paper itself two things emerge, firstly that the 19% reduction in cancer risk reported in the newspaper stories wasn’t statistically significant, and secondly that the effect reported only appeared with 20+ sexual partners, 19 partners made no difference at all.

As the wonderful NHS Choices websites speculates, you do wonder if this isn’t an example of just recycling the press release, rather than actually reading the original paper, and whether those writing these stories have and ‘science’ knowledge to back up their work. I shall try this out with my students next week, and report back on the impact !


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

14 Oct


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 !



Are ‘screens’ really damaging our children ? I’m not convinced

26 Aug

I’ve written before about the idea that electronic devices are damaging children’s development, and this week has seen the reporting of another study that seems to suggest that electronic devices are cause harm to our children. Uhls etal report in a study published in ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’ that depriving children of interaction with electronic devices improves their ability to read facial emotions.

Put simply, this study looks at a group of children in a five-day residential camp where no ‘screens’ are allowed, and finds that their ability to discern facial emotion improves after the five days of screen-denial. On the face of it this seems like an interesting finding, in that is compares with a control-group of kids not at the camp. But I’ve got real misgivings about this, as I’m not convinced that this is a genuine control group.

It seems to me that the logic of this study is that if you give participants five days of practice at X (using the time that they would usually be engaged in Y), then performance on X will improve after five days. In this case X is face-to-face interaction and Y is ‘screen time’. I’m not clear why the cause of the improved performance is the five days of practice, rather than the denial of screen time.

If you truly wanted to test the hypothesis that the issue lays with the ‘screens’ would you not want to replace ‘screen time’ with some other solitary activity (i.e. reading a book). Of course, the conclusion that reading a book damages the ability to read facial emotions might not be quite the one people are looking for.

These sorts of study seem to be to be a great example for slightly more advanced students, in that they need to apply their rational thinking skills to seemingly plausible stories, rather than one’s that intuitively seem flawed.

Even more on the ‘value’ of university sport… oh the irony

22 Jul

Only yesterday I wrote about a story from the USA about how university sport ‘allegedly’ makes you cleverer, and then this morning the Sports Centre of my own institution tweeted a link to a UK story suggesting that university sport makes you more employable and results in you earning more money !!!!. This story comes from what seems an unimpeachable source, an academic study funded by BUCS.

As with the study I wrote about yesterday from the US, in the 59 pages of the BUCS report I can find no mention of the Socio-economic of the students surveyed. I am well aware that there are a some honourable exceptions to this (my own institution is based in an economically reprieved area but has a successful rowing club !), but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that universities that draw their students from higher SES groups make larger investments in sports, and students at those institutions have a higher disposable income and more free time (not working part-time) and thus more time to devote to sport. It’s hardly surprising that students from such institutions are more employable and earn higher salaries. I’m just not convinced that the sport is what is driving the higher salaries !!!

Now of course I’m not suggesting that university sport is a bad thing, but people really need to look at the source of stories. One wonders if BUCS would have funded a study that said ‘Students at Russell Group Universities (the UK equivalent of the Ivy League) have a higher disposable income and more free time that students at Post-92 universities (State unis in the US) and go on to earn more’. That’s rather more a point about the socio-economic climate that it is a point about university sport..

As ever the take home message of this is that just because you find a correlation it doesn’t mean that variable A causes condition B !!!!!!

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