Coursera is Wonderful! But Don’t Just Take My Word For It

Any of you who have the misfortune of reading my blog regularly (i.e. more than once) might have noticed a bit of a trend, in that I tend to rather effusively extol the virtues of Coursera.org and the courses I have taken with them. Well, it seems I am not alone, as the site recently won both the official award and the people’s choice award in the Education category in the 2014 Webby Awards. Continue reading Coursera is Wonderful! But Don’t Just Take My Word For It

Does researching casual marijuana use cause brain abnormalities?

The recent “findings” that casual marijuana use causes brain abnormalities lit up my Facebook news feed over the last few days. I had to admit, I was suspicious, but didn’t look into it any further. Lion Pachter has written a great critical analysis of this study, and how warped its findings have been by the researchers and the media. This is fairly ridiculous, and a bit scary in how quickly bad science can be reported by the media. Pachter goes on to say:

“I believe that scientists should be sanctioned for making public statements that directly contradict the content of their papers, as appears to be the case here. There is precedent for this.”

Bits of DNA

In reading the news yesterday I came across multiple reports claiming that even casually smoking marijuana can change your brain. I usually don’t pay much attention to such articles; I’ve never smoked a joint in my life. In fact, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. So even though as a scientist I’ve been interested in cannabis from the molecular biology point of view, and as a citizen from a legal point of view, the issues have not been personal. However reading a USA Today article about the paper, I noticed that the principal investigator Hans Breiter was claiming to be a psychiatrist and mathematician. That is an unusual combination so I decided to take a closer look. I immediately found out the claim was a lie. In fact, the totality of math credentials of Hans Breiter consist of some logic/philosophy courses during a year abroad at St. Andrews while he was a pre-med student…

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Bioethics and Bad Reasoning: The Slippery Slope of Using Slippery Slope Arguments

Slippery Slopes and Euthanasia

A ‘slippery slope argument’ (SSA) is a particular style of argument which particularly raises my ire (a phrase I’ve always wanted an excuse to employ) as they are so often raised against points I am trying to make, but also worries me in the frequency and potency of its use. These arguments are used to disrupt or even halt debate on some particularly controversial and important themes, and – tragically – are often simply accepted at face value, as they seem powerful at first glance, but perhaps do not stand up to logical scrutiny. In its most basic form, the Slippery Slope Argument suggests that if we allow position A to come about then it is highly likely, even certain, that, through some direct or indirect connection, position Z will eventually also come about.[1] However, the validity of many of these arguments is questionable at best; David Enoch goes as far as to point out that they are often referred to as ‘slippery slope fallacies’.[2] Nonetheless, these types of argument have been used in the legal, philosophical and political spheres for many years and in debates ranging from conspiracy theories about a One World Government[3] to the question of stricter firearms control in the US[4] to discussion about abortion law reform.[5] A key aspect of SSAs is that position A is often regarded as not inherently wrong, or at least not nearly as wrong as Z, and yet it is argued that A should not be allowed happen because it may lead to Z – the primary reason for prohibiting A itself in fact has very little to do with the characteristics of A alone. Continue reading Bioethics and Bad Reasoning: The Slippery Slope of Using Slippery Slope Arguments

Homo Irrationalis: Consumer Policy, Information and Irrationality

Whenever justifying to myself and others precisely why I spend several hours a week taking part in online classes with Coursera rather than actually working on more pressing responsibilities, such as my job as a research fellow at the German research centre for consumer law or my nascent PhD thesis, I inevitably turn to the excuse that these courses are part of a broader continuing education, as well as being of interdisciplinary (such a useful term) relevance. Imagine my pleasant surprise then recently, at a conference co-organised by our research centre (Forschungsstelle für Verbraucherrecht) on consumer protection and investors, to find that not only once, but at multiple points during the conference my most recent sources of undisciplined distraction were of direct relevance to the talks being given. In a room packed with legal academics, practising lawyers, economists and various consumer protectors it is perhaps not that surprising that my new-found interest in behavioural economics, thanks to Dan Ariely’s fascinating “Beginners Guide to Irrationality” class, became extremely useful; furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly given the reputation of us legal-types for being amoral argumentative robots, my recent experiences of Paul Bloom’s “Moralities of Everyday Life” turned out to be relevant. The latter was discussed in reference to Daniel Kahneman‘s dual process theory of human reasoning – (1) intuition, and (2) reasoning – which I first encountered as a way of judging how and why we initially judge something as moral or immoral, but which of course is also of the utmost relevance when discussing how consumers reach decisions in a behavioural economics world. The former was discussed repeatedly as speakers discussed the failings of current preconceptions about the behaviour of “rational” consumers. Continue reading Homo Irrationalis: Consumer Policy, Information and Irrationality