Tag Archives: science

Reflections on teaching rational thinking in 2017

23 Feb

The last year have seen some huge changes in the world, with the arrival of Brexit and President Donald Trump, and it seems to me that these have quite a dramatic impact on how to address rational thinking with students. I’ve long argued to students that the skills of weighing evidence and producing rational argument are the keys to success both in university and in the world beyond, but with the happening of the last year I’m not so sure that that particular argument is going to work
in the coming years. It almost seems like the deployment of irrational argument, and the denial of evidence that doesn’t fit your worldview, is now the route to success.

Last summer, back when Donald Trump was still the candidate we all joked about, the UK’s Brexit referendum produced an extraordinary example of how the world has changed. Throughout the referendum the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign travel the country is a bus, on which was printed the phrase ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’ (NHS =National Health Service).Boris Johnson MP  addresses members of the public in Parliament

In the days following the declaration of the referendum result all of the leaders of the ‘Out’ campaign explained that the slogan on the side of their bus didn’t actually mean that the NHS would receive any more money. In a world of rationality you might assume that this ‘interesting’ campaigning technique might have had some consequence for those involved, and yet within days Boris Johnson (pictured above with the bus) was promoted to become the UK’s Foreign Secretary (The UK’s equivalent of the US Secretary of State). So here is a situation where a serious debate has been won by the deployment of an ‘untruth’, and the consequence is promotion for those involved.

If you look at the traditional critical thinking literature, one of it’s central tenets is the teaching of the recognition of logical fallacies, and the understanding that the deployment of logical fallacies is poor argument. Yet, even the briefest of examinations of the Brexit campaign shows the construction of ‘Strawmen’ and the deployment of ‘Ad hominem’ attacks on a daily basis, and those campaigning methods leading to victory.


Last summer it appeared that Brexit might be a passing threat to rational thinking, but the subsequent arrival of President Trump has raised the threat to a whole new level. Over the last few years I’ve used belief in conspiracy theories, as a mechanism to teach rational thinking and it’s been very successful. One of the earliest attempts an explaining conspiracy belief was what Hofstadter called a ‘paranoid style’ of thinking that was the product of ‘uncommonly angry minds’.  For the last few years I’ve used videos of Alex Jones, the renowned conspiracy theories, to nicely illustrate this idea. Alex Jones broadcasting style looks to an outside observer as ‘paranoia’ i.e. any attempt at gun control by the federal government is a precursor to military dictatorship !! This year’s lecture was rather different, as we now know that the ‘Leader of the free world’ is a fan of Alex Jones, and has appeared on his show. It’s thus rather more difficult to dismiss Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories as the product of paranoia.

This has all left me wondering where teaching rational thinking can go over the next four years, with conspiracy theory belief and ‘alternative facts’ become mainstream in the USA, and UK politicians have no problem with denying their own campaign slogans with days of a vote. I was driven back to looking at what originally inspired me to start teaching rational thinking, and came across a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt :

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

This alone seems to be a good reason to plough on with rational thought, in the face of a changed world, but I then came across a quotation from Carl Sagan’s book ‘The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark’ that truly sums up why it’s vital to continue teaching rational thinking.


Astonishingly, Sagan wrote this over 20 years ago for me it’s a call to continue doing what I’m doing. I just need to figure out how to adjust my teaching materials to the ‘New World Order’ :;


What makes for a good university teacher ???

13 May


A few weeks ago I received an award from the students of my institution for ‘Most Innovative Lecturer’, and since then I’ve been thinking about what makes a good university lecture, and whether anyone can do it. I’ve always been of the opinion that what I do isn’t ‘rocket science’, and that with a small amount of instruction most university teachers could deliver engaging lectures.

All these thoughts were bought into focus yesterday as I watched a brilliant BBC documentary celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman. I suspect that if you’re reading this Feynman will need no introduction, so I limit myself to saying that he was unusually a genius both in his chosen discipline of physics and in teaching. Watching clips from the Feynman lectures again made me realise that ‘innovation’ isn’t what good teaching is about at all, after all Feynman gets by with chalk and a blackboard. The whole trust of the documentary was that what made Feynman a great teacher came from within him, it was simply the desire to pass on the spirit of inquiry to others and it seemed like this personality trait had been fostered by his own father.

What’s intriguing here is that if you look at how universities go about trying to improve the quality of teaching it’s all about technique. It’s course on ‘How to use PowerPoint’ or ‘How to work with Moodle’. In reality, I now wonder whether much of this is worthwhile. If someone isn’t motivated to teach no amount of instruction is going to make them an engaging lecturer. British institutions have a particular issue, in that staff receive ‘tenure’ very early in their career and subsequent career progression is focused much more of research than teaching, thus UK university teachers have little external incentive to produce engaging lectures. Of course, for those with an internal motivation to be engaging (like Feynman had) none of this matters.

So, where does all that leave my initial thought about engaging lectures not being ‘rocket science’. Well, I still think that most university lecturers could deliver engaging lectures. However, the question now seems like ‘do they want to’ ? I end up with a question for university managers, how do we provide external motivation for those who don’t have Feynman’s internal desire to explain ???

As ever, please leave comments below, I’d love to know what people think

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

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

22 Jan

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 22.11.46

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 ?

A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

4 Dec
I presented my work at a recent university conference, and it led me to think about how what I do could be developed. I’m a psychologist, and teach psychology students but the more I think about it the more it seems that what I do has a broader relevance. There is a long tradition in British higher education of the generic nature of graduate skills. One of my favourite quotations about the nature of graduates comes from one of John Henry Newman’s lectures in 1852, where he suggested ‘to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant’ were the key characteristics of graduates. One hundred and forty years later Newman’s quotation crops up in another attempt to define ‘graduateness’ in the HEQC’s 1985 paper ’Clarifying The Attributes Of ‘Graduateness

I’ve written elsewhere about my dislike of the traditional critical thinking literature, and thus I’m not convinced that it has much to contribute trying to contruct a rational thinking curriculum. However, psychology’s own empirical literature does offer a number of areas that can offer a start. At the end of his book ‘What is Intelligence ?’, that offers an explanation of the strange phenomena of ever-increasing IQ scores, the brilliant Jim Flynn proposes a list of ten concepts that might result in continuation of IQ growth:

1) Market forces

2) Percentages

3) Natural Selection

4) Control Groups

5) Random Samples

6) Naturalistic fallacy

7) Charisma effect

8) Placebo

9) Falsifiability

10) Tolerance school fallacy

I would add to additional concepts of my own to Jim Flynn’s list :

11) The importance of historical context

12) Heuristics and biases

I’d suggest that you can group these items into three broad areas:

1) The scientific method (4,5,8 & 9)

2) Useful concepts (1,2,3,11 & 12)

3) The structure of logical arguments (6 & 10)

As my rational thinking course has evolved over the last five years I’ve covered many of these concepts, but given that I’ve always taught psychology students I’ve tailored the examples I’ve used towards psychology. However, I’m now thinking that it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to recast those examples to appeal to a generic student audience and the address the basic curriculum I’ve outlined above. Over the next few months I’m going to try to put together generic examples that fit into the framework I’ve detailed above. I’ll post the examples here as I progress.

The Irrationalists have landed. Another Americanism crosses the Atlantic !

19 Sep

A few week’s ago I wrote about cultural differences between the US and the UK, and talked about the Texas Republican Party’s decision to try to outlaw critical thinking. The subtext of much of the writing about this bizarre position (including my own writing !) was ‘we Europeans are much saner than those odd Americans’, but a couple of things that I’ve read over the last week make me think that the irrationalists may well have crossed the Atlantic and established a bridgehead in the UK Government.

Last week’s Government reshuffle in the UK led to the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health, running one of the worlds largest employers with a multi-billion pound budget. Things become interesting if you delve a few years to an Early Day Motion put before the House of COmmons in 2007. EDM 1240 stated :

‘That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets’

It is worrying enough that 206 MPs supported this motion, but amongst those MPs was Jeremy Hunt. We thus now have the slightly odd position of the British National Health Service being run by someone who doesn’t think ‘Science’ is the best approach to medicine. There is an interesting postscript to this, in that one of Hunt’s constituents wrote to him to question his support for EDM 1240, and received the following response :

Dear Mr Ellis,

Thank you very much for your letter regarding EDM 1240 in support of Homeopathic Hospitals. I appreciate that you are disappointed that I added my name to this motion, and read your comments on this issue with interest.

I understand that it is your view that homeopathy is not effective, and therefore that people should not be encouraged to use it as a treatment. However I am afraid that I have to disagree with you on this issue. Homeopathic care is enormously valued by thousands of people and in an NHS that the Government repeatedly tells us is “patient-led” it ought to be available where a doctor and patient believe that a homeopathic treatment may be of benefit to the patient.

I am grateful to you for taking the time to write with your concerns. I realise that my answer will be a disappointing one for you, but I hope that the letter helps to clarify my view.

Yours sincerely,


Jeremy Hunt Member of Parliament South West Surrey

You’ll notice here that Hunt’s has moved slightly from suggesting there is evidence supporting homeopathy to suggesting that ‘because people want it the NHS should pay for it’. You can find more of this story in an excellent summary written by Tom Whipple

The man charged with running the NHS being an advocate of homeopathy is worrying enough, but a second recent story suggests that ‘irrational’ thinking may well be spreading across the UK.

As part of the UK’s move towards state-funded schools being run by private organisation a number of new ‘Free’ school are due to open shortly. Amongst these are schools run by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. Steiner already run an academy in Hereford where some disturbing evidence has appeared. The Hereford Academy has written to parents seeking permission to treat students using homeopathic medicines (including for burns !!!) and uses a Science textbook that questions the Darwinian explanation of evolution.

For anyone who might be imagining that this is a party-political point, it’s worth noting that the 206 MPs who signed EDM 12040 came from all three major political parties including some who really should know better (Vince Cable). ‘Irrationalism’ doesn’t seem to be associated with a particular political view.

(Just as I was about to post this piece live seen Mitt Romney’s ‘47%’ speech. Maybe the UK still has a way to go to reach the USA level of ‘Irrationalism’ !!!)

All of this seems to me to suggest that the ‘irrationalism’ that looks rampant in the USA is spreading to this country. It makes me even more convinced that universities need to be producing a generation of graduates who are equipped with the rational cognitive skills to fight back !

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