Tag Archives: The Psychologist

Being rational about conspiracy theories

11 May

Conspiracy theories can be a great way to introduce ideas about rational thinking, and as I’ve discovered this year also a way of getting students to evaluate competing theories.

At a very basic level it’s worth getting students to think about the practicalities of maintaining a conspiracy. My favourite example of this is the idea that the Americans faked the Apollo moon landings. The first thing I ask them to think about is ‘how many people would they have had to pay off to keep it quite for forty years’. I then show students the most recent photos of the moon’s surface that show the Apollo landing sites in detail. A few students usually suggest that these might be fake as well, but this leads on to a discussion of how the Americans might go about preventing the Russian or Chinese governments from exposing such an obvious fake (as you would assume that they too have the ability to photograph the lunar surface). This simple exercise is a nice way to demonstrate to students that they don’t need to be experts a particular field in order to think rationally about it. It’s possible to do this same exercise using Alien Landings as the example, with questions like ’why do they always land in the back woods of the USA’ and ’if they have the technology to get here why do they hide once they arrive’.

I’ve discovered this year that conspiracy theories can also be a good vehicle to get students to evaluate competing theories. I was inspired by a great article in The Psychologist to teach a lecture on the psychology of conspiracy theories, and found that students could readily see that whilst theory A might explain conspiracy theory B, it didn’t really fit with conspiracy theory C that was better explained by theory D. This also seemed like a way of introducing students to the idea that their might not be a definitive answer to a particular question yet.

One slightly worrying by product of this teaching was the realisation that lumps of history that I had assumed were common knowledge were far from it. I was genuinely surprised by the level of shock that a showing of the footage of Kennedy’s assassination produced.  In retrospect, it maybe isn’t so surprising that concepts like ‘Communism’ that might represent part of the ‘lived experience’ of a 45 year old academic might just be ancient history to an 18 year old. However it has made me think about how lack of understanding of context may hamper students understanding of particular behaviours, particularly in relation to Social Psychology. It makes me think that ‘historical context’ should be an explicit part of many more lectures than it currently is

I would offer one word of caution about using conspiracy theories as a vehicle for teaching. You may be surprised by how many students believe at least one conspiracy theory, and indeed I’ve come across one colleague who assures me that the Americans definitely faked the moon landings !

Psychic Powers, Replication and the collapse of psychology ???

27 Apr

As part of my teaching I focus on students gaining an understanding of how knowledge progresses by the employment of the scientific method. One of the tenets of this teaching is the idea that you would never accept a hypothesis after one positive result, but would seek to replicate the finding with different samples and different experimental methods. When students begin to read scholarly journals they may gains rather different impression of how knowledge progresses, as the world appears to consist of positive findings associated with new theories and hypotheses. This absence of replication would seem to be one of those unwritten rules of academia, but recent developments seem to suggest that it might be beginning to unravel.

In 2011 the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper by Daryl Bem suggesting the existence of precognitionhttp://www.dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf As you might imagine, a paper in a leading peer-reviewed journal reporting experimental evidence of a psychic phenomena produced a good deal of interest.

Three British psychologists Stuart Ritchie, Richard Wiseman and Chris French set about trying to replicate Bem’s work, and unsurprisingly failed to reproduce his findings. This is where the story gets interesting, as they struggled to get their failed replication published. In particular it was rejected by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who had published Bem’s original work. Ritchie, Wiseman and French have written about the saga of trying to get their replication published in the May 2012 edition of The Psychologist.

All of the above makes for an interesting discussion with students, Psychic powers to engagement initially, the idea that we should be looking for replication and the evidence that we actually aren’t really interested in publishing it. However, another development makes it an even more interesting topic for discussion. A group of researchers started something they call The Reproducibility Project that is aiming to replicate all the work published in three leading journals Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition during 2008. There is an interesting article about this project in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s interesting to speculate about what might happen if they fail to replicate much of the work from three such prestigious journals

Issues with replication

16 Apr

When learning about the scientific method it’s easy for students to miss the importance of replication. After all, if they are reading journals they will see very little replication, and a huge number of ‘shiny new’ findings.

A recent debate in the ‘Psychologist’ nicely illustrates what seems like a big issue for the discipline


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