Tag Archives: YouTube Clips

Celebrity Sperm Bank Fiasco

29 Oct

Teaching a university course in ‘Thinking’ can be very different from most other courses, In that it isn’t immediately apparent to students how they are benefiting from the course. To get over this I try to regularly include items that demonstrate to the students that they are acquiring an uncommon skill, that out in the ‘real world’ very few people possess. This week I came across a great example that went down very well with the students.

The website famedaddy.com details a sperm bank with a range of celebrity donors. It doesn’t take much of a look to realise that the website is a very well executed joke. When I showed the website to my students I’d estimate that 60% realised that it was a joke site immediately, and the remainder did so after watching the video on the front page of the website.


What is interesting about this case is that not everyone realised that famedaddy.com was a joke. The UK daytime TV show ‘This Morning’, picked up the story of famedaddy.com and ran a live interview with its ‘founder’. For readers in the USA, ‘This Morning’ would roughly be the equivalent of ‘Live with Regis and Kelly’


Showing students this website, letting them examine it, and then showing them the video of the ‘This Morning’ is a great way of getting them to understand that they are acquiring a set of skills that are valuable, and that many apparently ‘intelligent’ people don’t possess.

Interestingly, this formed about a ten minute section of a three-hour lecture, and yet it was the one thing the students wanted to speak to me about afterwards !

Even the best students might not be very clear on ‘science’

12 Jul

I’ve just come across this great video that demonstrates scary levels of misunderstanding of very basic science. I’m wondering if by showing students how poor their science knowledge is we might be able to prompt them into action

So, if you ask Harvard graduates (regularly listed as the world’s best university) to explain the cause of the change of seasons  they produce very poor results. Seems like there is that makings of a very nice in-class demonstration of poor science understanding here. I suspect school kids are all taught the ‘real’ cause of the change of seasons so it will be interesting to see how many 1st year undergraduate students actually know. I shall try this out in October, and report back !! ( Slightly worried that the results may be depressing)

Does homeopathy really do any harm ?

28 May

Getting students to initially engage their rational thinking skills can be relatively straightforward, in that you are really only asking them to be skeptical about what they are presented with. The bigger challenge is to get then to ‘unpick’ a more complex argument using all the skills they have learnt. Again, homeopathy can provide a useful vehicle for encouraging this deeper level of rational thinking.

As I’ve previously discussed I use homeopathy as a teaching example, as it’s an area where basic skepticism will lead students in the right direction. However, this basic skepticism leads stronger students to two questions,’if it’s making them feel better why should we worry about it’ and ’if it’s oh water it can’t be doing them any harm. These questions confirm that students have understood the basic issues that rationalism has with homeopathy (i.e. It’s water and it’s a placebo) but also show that they need to be encouraged to delve a little deeper.


Some years ago the BBC’s Newsnight programme ran an investigation into homeopathy in which they used hidden cameras to record UK-based homeopaths recommending a homeopathic remedy for malaria prophylaxis. As you might expect, in a subsequent interview with Emily Maitlis a representative of the UK regulatory group for homeopaths condemned the prescription of such remedies.
Many of my students recognise the usual prophylaxis treatment for malaria, and as such begin to realise the possible harm that homeopathy might do. One could, of course, employ the ’bad apples’ defence against this evidence in that it only shows two ’dodgy’ homeopaths amongst many hundreds. However, this brings me to a strange exchange I had with a homeopath following a recent post here.

My post, “Homeopathy as a teaching example” prompted a series of comments from an Indian homeopath seeking to ‘educate’ me about homeopathy. You can read all the comments for yourself here. I was unfailingly polite in my reponses to the comments, and as i like to see everything as an opportunity for collecting teaching materials I decided to ask what she’d recommend for malaria prophylaxis. Given the drive from UK homeopaths to be taken seriously I was fully expecting to be referred to my GP, but surprisingly I received a very rapid response suggesting a homeopathic remedy.

So, the answer to the question ‘Does homeopathy do any harm’ would seem to be YES especially if one considers the modern wecb-connected world.

I suspect this post may generate more responses from homeopaths, which will hopefully generate more teaching examples.

Homeopathy again !

18 May

I often use homeopathy as a teaching example, as there are so many resources available to liven up teaching. Some years ago the BBC’s flagship documentary programme, Horizon, ran a film on homeopathy that is still accessible via YouTube.


The documentary provides both useful background on homeopathy, and an interesting test of its effectiveness.

More recently, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee produced a report on homeopathy. Amongst the evidence taken by the committee was a comical  exchange between the committee chairman, a representative from Boots, the UK’s largest chemist (drugstore) chain and largest retailer of homeopathic remedies, and a representative of UK homeopathic manufacturers. The representative of Boots said that he had no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. When asked the same question the manufacturers representative said that he has a range of evidence showing the efficacy of homeopathy. With a heavily ironic tone the committee chairman then suggest that he might like to pass the evidence on to his largest customer. Even more revealing is the admission from the Boots representative that he stocks homeopathic remedies not because they work but solely because customers demand them.

The video of this exchange always produces intersting discussion with students. They are particulayl interested in the idea that Boots promote themselves as being able to offer health advise, but are happy that they have no evidence of the efficancy of homeopathy.

Strange developments in the psychic world

8 May

Sally Morgan is, at least according to her web-site, ‘Britain’s best-loved psychic’, who provided psychic reading to the late princess Diana.

As ‘Britain’s best-loved psychic’, she has peaked the interested on the ‘skeptical’ community, and there are a number of recent articles about her work which are worth discussing with students. At a performance in Dublin in Sept 2011 some members of Sally’s audience reported hearing a voice apparently feeding inform to her whilst on stage. Subsequently she was accused of wearing a concealed earpiece to allow her staff to communication information about members of the audience during the performance. Subsequently the illusionist Paul Zenon wrote about this incident in a story in the Daily Mail. Morgan is now suing both the Mail and Zenon for libel.

Following this incident Simon Singh examined the reviews of Sally Morgan’s shows blogs and found a fall in her ratings after the Dublin incident. Singh took care to point out that he was not suggesting that this was as a result of no longer being able to use an earpiece.

The story gets even more convoluted in Feb 2012, when Drew McAdam attended Sally Morgan’s Edinburgh show. McAdam reports planting a story that Morgan subsequently repeated during her show. Sally Morgan has, obviously, vigorously challenged McAdam’s claims.

This whole story makes for a great ‘knock-around’ teaching session. Students seem to love anything about ‘psychic-powers’, and the McAdam portion of the tale is a nice illustration of how some psychics might work. It’s worth getting students to think about how they might objectively test claims of psychic powers. For students interested in such work, the work of Chris French at Goldsmiths is worth following

In addition, it’s interesting that the Daily Mail come out on the right side of this story !

At interesting postscript to this story is that very little seems to change in relation to psychic powers. Below is a video of James Randi investiagting Uri Geller in the early 1970’s. Much of what Randi reports seems to be replicated in the above story

Homeopathy as a teaching example

3 May

I talk about homeopathy with my students, as an example of applying their rational thinking skills. I’ll write more extensively about how I integrate it into teaching over the summer (when marking has finished), but in the meantime a couple of things that have caught my eye.

FIrst, Ben Goldacre has just posted on his blog about UCH promoting a homeopathy course to their doctors.  I usually ask students if they think the NHS should pay for homeopathy, but asking if they should teach about it takes things to a whole new level.

Second, for the most part I shy away from using comedy in lectures, as I’ve suffered a few ‘tumbleweed’ moments during the past, but this example is too good to miss and after my lecture on homeopathy students seem to find it funny.

Ben Goldacre’s work

24 Apr

Doctor/Journalist Ben Goldacre has done a great job in the UK of promoting rational thinking, through his Guardian Column, web site and book he has written accessibly about ‘dodgy’ science and ‘dodgy’ science reporting.

FRom the point of view of teaching it’s particularly useful that many video recordings of Ben are available around the web. Students seem to find videos a very attractive medium, and hopefully by watching they they are attracted to reading Ben Goldacre’s written work.

I’ve included links below to some of my favourite Ben Goldacre videos

A talk from TED on his attempts to combat Bad Science

NHS video on the Placebo Effect

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