Tag Archives: rational thinking

Personal Reflections of John Radford’s ‘A liberal science’ lecture

24 Oct

This week I watched John Radford, the ninety year old founder of our Department deliver a lecture on his view of psychology as ‘a liberal science’. It made me reflect on my own views ….

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

I’m beginning to think that this summary of Voltiare’s views, which have long been the definition of the liberal approach to freedom of speech might actually now be beginning to undermine liberal democracies. Today the phrase ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ has become a mantra across the political spectrum, and often seems to actually mean ‘you are not allowed to question my opinion’. I have spent twenty years attempting to teach the primacy of evidence over opinion, and yet we seem to be moving rapidly towards a position where evidence and opinion are either equally valued, or worse opinion trumps evidence. For someone is has spent so long teaching rational thought, it’s disturbing to see the very language of rational thinking being appropriated by those who advocate the primacy of opinion. When I started teaching this stuff to be ‘sceptical’ was to be ‘rational’, and yet today to be a climate change ‘sceptic’ means to deny the weight of scientific evidence. 

It’s ironic that this position has arisen at a time when the previous battle between faith and science seems to be dying down. Beyond the real fringes, the world’s religions seem to have shifted away from denying things like evolution via natural selection and yet, at the same time in both the US and the UK political divisions have arisen over what would have previously been scientific questions. For example, the UK government is now in the paradoxical position of advocating the wearing of face masks in confided populated spaces, whilst not doing so themselves and refusing to legislate for such. It is difficult to see this as anything other than a victory for those who’s opinion is that they should not be required to wears masks over the evidence that it may ease the spread of Covid-19. 

My guess is that those who advocate the primacy of evidence over opinion may need to balance their support for the Voltairian position on freedom of speech, from my opening quotation, with a thorough understanding of  Karl Popper’s Tolerance paradox. It’s ironic that Popper may have been thinking of religious, racial and political intolerance, but it maybe that we need a degree of intolerance of ‘anti-science’ in order to defend our ‘tolerant’ society.

I do think that psychology has a small but significant part to play in defending against ‘anti-science’ by ensuring that we do question practice that isn’t evidence-based. For example, colleagues at my own institution have done sterling work questioning things like withdrawal from anti-depressant medication, or the use of ECT. However, as a discipline we could do much more. It may sound a trivial example but has every Psychology Department who’s institution promotes ‘learning styles’ to their students been public in demonstrating the astonishing lack of evidence for learning styles ? Sadly I suspect not. 

None of this will be easy, and I would confess to a good deal of cognitive dissonance over the idea that I should be more active in questioning those with strongly help opinions that seem to contradict the available weight of evidence. It’s so much easier just to smile sweetly and move the conversation on to a different topic, but in doing so am I letting down the discipline ?

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 :

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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.

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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 !

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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 !

 

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