Tag Archives: Reading original sources

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 !


Do tight belts give you throat cancer ?

23 Oct


On 1st October the Daily Telegraph reported that wearing tight belts increased your risk of throat cancer. Unlike much popular science reporting this looked like a very straight report of a study, in that it explains the methodology of the study , details where it was published and even quotes one of the authors.

The story gets interesting for teaching purposes it you actually go to the original journal article, as it makes no reference to throat cancer ! What the study actually reports is a link between wearing tight belts and developing acid reflux, equally importantly it was only a very small study (24 participants) that ran for only a few days. It appears that the link to cancer came from an interview with one of the lead authors where he mentioned to small increase in cancer risk that acid reflux caused.

This story seems useful in both encouraging students to read original sources, but also makes a good point about how scientists communicate about science. A scientist talking to another scientist about a tiny increase in cancer risk, will come away with the idea that it isn’t much to worry about. One suspects that a member of the public (or worse, a journalist) would come away from such a conservation just with the phrase ‘CANCER RISK’.

Regular sex makes you rich. (I give up !)

16 Aug


My list of weird penis and sex stories has just got even longer. The Daily Mail’s story today reports a study conducted by Dr.Nich Drydakis of Anglia Ruskin University that reports an apparent correlation between income and frequency of sexual intercourse. Unusually for such stories, and very usefully for teaching purposes, the original paper is freely available on the internet.

This story could be useful for illustrating a whole range of things :

1) Correlation and causation – Does this mean that if you have more sex your income will increase ?

2) Can self-report be relied on ? – I’ve written before about the perils of self-report studies in relation to penis-size, and this seems to me like another example where it’s entirely possible that people who exaggerate about sexual activity might also exaggerate about their income

3) Generalisation – The Mail’s report of this study reports that it used 7500 participants. At face value this seems this it might add to the generalisability of the studies findings. However, I’m interested to see what my students make of all the participants being Greek. Can we draw conclusions about the UK from such a sample ?. It seems to me that even if the data is reliable, the vast cultural differences might bias the conclusions

All in all this looks like a really useful example that I look forward to trying out with the students

Kids can’t count up to ten. Really ?????

11 Jul


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I’m always looking for newspaper stories to use to illustrate points in my lectures, and last week I came across a particular class. Last Thursday the Daily Mail reported that a third of British five year olds couldn’t count to ten. What is particularly lovely for my purposes is that further into the story the following line appears ‘Some eight per cent of boys cannot count up to ten, compared with five per cent of girls’. Even if one accepts the Mail’s line about poor standards of maths education in the UK, it’s very difficult to make 8% and 5% add up to one third !. There is a great article from fullfact.org which summarises the background to this story.

This is another useful example of encouraging students to read critically, after all, merely my reading the whole of this story one can readily see that it’s somewhat flawed ! I’m going to try this one out with our new cohort of students in their first week in September, as I hope it will establish with them early that they can’t just be passive ‘receivers’ of information.

Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think

Laptops in Lectures – Help or hinderance ?

18 Apr

I’ve just come across a paper that seems like a great way to stimulate class discussion, and to encourage students to think rationally. Get a group of academics together and you will find wildly differing opinion on student use of electronic devices during lectures. Some will see this as ‘the future’ and not worth trying to hold back the tide, whereas others will see is as an excuse for students to play ‘Angry Birds’ or update their Facebook status, and thus something to be banned from lecture rooms. Students will undoubtedly have equally vehement views on the use of laptops/iPads in lectures. This alone ought to be a good prompt for debate, but it becomes more interesting when you throw in some research.

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This is a recently published piece of research suggests that use of laptops in lectures is actively detrimental to learning. It would be interesting to give this to students and see what they make of it. Two things immediately jumped out at me when I read the paper this morning. Firstly it was done with a very small class size (I wonder how easily it would replicate with 300 students ?) and secondly the participants had no incentive to be learning the material presented in the study (so can we really extrapolate to ‘real world learning situations ?).

This paper ought to appeal to students irrespective of the discipline they are studying, and it would be interesting to see what they make of it. I have to admit to secretly worrying what my less technically literate colleagues will make of it 😉

Another two stories for my penis and sperm lecture !

20 Mar



I’ve written before about a could of penis and sperm stories that have been really useful in engaging students with rational thinking. I’ve talked about both a very odd celebrity sperm bank and an even stranger peer-reviewed journal article about penis size. Now I’ve come across another story that looks like I may be able to put together a whole lecture based on male genitalia !

This week the Daily Mail have printed the above story suggesting that men’s sperm is healthiest in winter and earlier spring, and thus this is the best time to conceive a baby. The story is based on a study conducted at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The irony of the Mail’s coverage is that the reporting is pretty accurate, however the original study makes no mention of the best time of year to conceive even though this exactly what the Mail’s headline says ! A lot more detail about this study can be found on the NHS Choices website, but it seems like an excellent way to encourage students to read beyond the headlines.


Whilst I was looking up the material for this post I came across another Daily Mail ‘Sperm’ story published this week. Headlined ‘Bad news for the 220-mile high club: Researchers find sex in space could lead to life-threatening illnesses’, the story is strange in that whilst the headline mentions ‘sex in space’ the article itself focused on the effects of zero-graviry on plants. Again, this is a great way of getting students to read beyond the headlines.

I’m going to put all of these odd ‘sperm and penis’ stories into one lecture next year. Should encourage student enagement 😉

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