Tag Archives: Reading original sources

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 😉

Butter is good for your heart !!

10 Feb

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This story from last week interested me, as it seemed to contradict all of the health advice we’ve received for years. According to the headline replacing butter with polyunsaturated fat margarine ‘doubles heart risk‘. The story is based on a paper recently published in the British Medical Journal. The first thing that set me thinking was that the study is a reanalysis of missing data from a student conducted with Australian men between 1966 and 1973. Based on this alone it would be interesting to get students to think about whether you could generalise from a sample of Australian men from forty years ago. I may be adopting a dreadful stereotype, but I suspect that the diet of a 1960’s Australian male hugely different from today’s average thus making sensible comparisons rather difficult.

Secondly, the newspaper article is a great example for encouraging students to read all of an article. Towards the end of the article two academics are quoted who clearly don’t think the story has much strength:

Professor Tom Sanders, of King’s College London, said the study was ‘enormously underpowered’, of ‘little relevance to diets today’ and its findings had been refuted by recent better studies.

Professor Brian Ratcliffe, of  Aberdeen University, said: ‘This paper does not provide evidence for changes to the current recommendations for a healthy diet.’

FInally, this story is a lovely example of one of the key points of the rational thinking curriculum/syllabus that I’m trying to assemble. It you read through the reader comments attached to this story you can see the Naturalistic Fallacy at work. Many of the Mail’s readers seem to conclude that it is obvious that butter is more healthy than margarine because butter is ‘natural’ and margarine in ‘manufactured’. A moment’s thought exposes flawed logic of this argument, and yet it is hugely widespread.

It’s of note that the original article is freely available on the BMJ website, and thus for once academic journal paywalls aren’t actively hampering rational thinking !

My penis is bigger than yours ! Quality psychology research ??

7 Oct

As I’ve hopefully demonstrated elsewhere on this blog, newspaper science articles are a great way to get students to hone their rational thinking skills. However the aim of such education is to get those students to employ their newly honed skills when they are reading the academic content of the rest of their undergraduate course. Achieving such ‘transfer of training’ isn’t easy, indeed psychologists have spent the best part of 100 years arguing about the extent to which it happens at all. It is entirely possible that our own teaching methods may actively discourage students from critiquing the content of academic journals. I’m sure many HE teachers spend a long time with new undergraduate students talking about the importance of ‘peer-review’ and how ‘peer-reviewed’ sources are much more reliable than students just ‘googling’ a topic.

One way to try to encourage students to use their rational thinking skills on academic papers is to try to collect ‘peer-reviewed articles’ that contain glaring methodological flaws. In most cases these are flaws that only become obvious years after publication, but htis week I’ve come across current article from a prestigious journal that serves this purpose perfectly.

My interest was piqued by an article in the Daily Mail headlined ‘We knew it all along: British men have bigger penises than the French according to new survey’. These sorts of story are usually obvious nonsense, but I was intrigued by two things, that the story was a report of an article published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’, and that even the Daily Mail had highlighted methodological problems with the study

The story is based on the paper ‘An examination of Rushton’s theory of differences in penis length and circumference and r-K life history theory in 113 populations” by Richard Lynn. Ignoring the slightly eccentric theory behind the paper,three very obvious point appear when one reads it. Firstly, the data from the 113 population is presented to a surprising level of accuracy. Mean penis length is quoted for each population, and detailed down to hundredths of centimetres. I was immediately drawn to thinking about what type of measuring equipment would be necessary to achieve this level of accuracy. Secondly, many data points listed from the 113 populations were followed by a small asterisk. Turning to the bottom of the table you find out that the asterisk denotes ‘self-report’. YOu can only speculate how naive you would have to be not to questions the reliability of ‘self-report’ of penis length. Finally, reading through the method section of the paper you find that the data was not collected by the author, but rather culled from a website (http://www.everyoneweb.com/worldpenissize/). A quick skip through the web site leads you to a list of the sources from which they complied their data. WHilst some of them seem to be legitimate sources a number seem quite surprising:

The Elle/MSNBC.com sex and body image survey. Elle, pp. 111–113. Magna-RX. (2005, March). Does size really matter to your lover? More than you can possibly imagine! For Him Magazine, p. 117

The Happy Hook-Up: A Single Girl’s Guide to Casual Sex. Alexa Joy Sherman, Nicole Tocantins. p208. Ten Speed Press, 2004.

Argionic Desire. (2005, March). Argionic desire: Innovative penis enlargement product for men. For Him Magazine

Taken together these three things make me really wonder about the peer-review process. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’d question this sort of stuff it I saw if in a third year student’s thesis and yet it is apparently acceptable is the ‘gold-standard’ for academic writing. Having run through this paper with my 1st year undergraduate class I’d recommend it to anyone trying to encourage students to be active in critiquing ‘peer-reviewed’ material. Not only does the content guarantee you a cheap laugh from the students it gives them an understandingg that they can spot things that journal editors miss (or possible choose to ignore ???)

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 )

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