Monthly Archives: March 2012

Public speaking (short)

Optional videos of interest:

Word count: 247. Don’t judge a tome by its cover.

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Ignorance is king

This week I’m going to post on a remarkably similar topic to last week: anti-intellectualism.

During my speech last week, some people mentioned that they had personal experiences with science teachers who believe in creationism – like I said then, people are entitled to believe whatever they like so long as they’re not harming anyone else – but the trouble is that teachers can and do let their beliefs interfere with their job of educating children (the very fact that some of you knew that your teachers were creationists demonstrates this), which results in children being lied to.

I posted a link to FSTDT last week, but this site deserves more attention: it’s a compilation of quotes from all different kinds of fundamentalists. Some are hilarious (and there are plenty of examples of pseudoscience, by the way), some are extremely worrying – but they all embody one shared view: I don’t care what those other books say; my mind’s made up (common sense tells me that gravity doesn’t exist). A central part of pseudoscience is a distrust of scientific consensus – while a healthy dose of scepticism is laudable, anti-intellectualism probably isn’t.

Why’s it a problem?

Not by any means a new phenomenon, anti-intellectualism is usually based around defensible and praiseworthy causes (e.g. greater humaneness in education, “good character” to great scholarship”). You need only look at the Khmer Rouge to see why this kind of sentiment is so damaging, however: they systematically wiped out Cambodia’s intellectuals, crippling the country. Mao’s Four Pests campaign (and the Great Leap Forward in general), which led to widespread famine. Republican primaries in which unabated lies are repeated and are left completely unchallenged. News sources that make people mistake obvious satire as genuine belief, more ignorant, and less informed than if you don’t read the news at all (yes, it’s Fox News), and treat T.G.I. Friday’s promotional research with the same credence as actual research.

I'm sure Norwich is flattered it could be mistaken for London.

More specifically to education, it has been said to threaten “the respect [of clinical psychology] as a profession”.

Anti-intellectualism is often just antipathy towards intellectuals, rather than towards  knowledge. There’s evidence that this is because of a perceived elitism. (More on that in a bit.)

When we’re dealing with antipathy towards knowledge, however, it’s usually because of a perception that intellect and common sense are mutually exclusive – you can’t live in the real world and be a bookworm. In fact, there’s no need for any kind of dichotomy in the way we think about the two (p. 151) – they may be different ways of thinking, but even within an educational setting they are equally valuable (e.g. common sense in humanities), although sometimes we try to get students to understand things ‘within the systematic discipline’ (i.e. using an approach that’s best for that situation – but surely that’s some kind of meta-common-sense?).

(Willful or contrived ignorance, on the other hand, isn’t an issue of education.)


It leads to a situation where people are proud that they lack basic life skills like numeracy. So why would someone be proud of the fact that they’re not very good at maths (as if it’s proof that they’re not some basement-dwelling neckbeard), and yet saying “I can barely read” with a smug expression doesn’t garner the same response?

What’s the solution? 

There is obviously an element of elitism in even the idea of anti-intellectualism; putting anybody on a pedestal because they’re intellectual, or dismissing others because they’re not, is a terrible idea. There’s also plenty of evidence for the idea that we’re too easily impressed by things we don’t understand, e.g. neuroscience. It has even been said that university faculty members whose “traditionalism and smugness approach the incredible…create a false but pervasive dichotomy between thinking and feeling, resulting in mistrust and rejection of the latter as a source of insight and knowledge”. So one of the most important elements of dismissing the myth that ignorance is something to take pride in, is combating this idea that you have to either be a cold, clinical automaton working in some ivory tower (e.g. “Big Pharma”), or stick with a “common sense” approach.

As I said in mentioning that there’s no real dichotomy between the academic world and the real world, a problem lies in people’s attitudes towards intellectualism. They see this false dichotomy, and if it were a choice between being memorising facts, consigning myself to a solitary life in a dark corner of a library constantly reading, or being able to function in the ‘real world’, I’d probably choose the real world too. You can enjoy reading and keep your basic social skills, too. If only people thought of it that way.


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What is pseudoscience?

Eve & Dunn (1990, p. 10) defined pseudoscience as ideas “for which their proponents claim scientific validity, but which in actuality lack empirical support, or were arrived at either through faulty reasoning or poor scientific methodology.

Thagard (1980 – see Martin, 1994) defined a theory/discipline purporting to be scientific as pseudoscientific iff:

P1. It has been less progressive than alternative theories over a period of time, and faces many unsolved problems;

P2. Despite P1, the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problem, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory relative to others, and is selective in considering confirmation and disconfirmation.

It’s possible that some pseudoscientific beliefs result from ‘folk psychology’ and other similar concepts; Rodriguez (2006)describes how terms from neuroscience have diffused into everyday language and brain-based explanations, albeit more reductive, are now becoming acceptable in everyday explanation. Some beliefs, e.g. that ‘photographic memory’ means being able to see any memory in photograph-like resolution, might conceivably have originated from misinformation or something. Many, however, have their fan clubs, public funding, and build museums to spread their views – often using pseudoscience to justify their assertions.

So why is this a problem?

Rosenthal (1993) says that unscientific/pseudoscientific beliefs seriously hinder attempts to improve scientific literacy. These ideas are resistant to change; Eve & Dunn (1990) showed that a substantial percentage of secondary biology teachers hold many pseudoscientific beliefs.

You don’t have to look far to see the incredible damage that holding false beliefs (especially if they’re held as being scientific fact) can do. They can give false hope, scam people out of money, and waste significant public resources.

One well-known example of pseudoscience is The Bell Curve (Hernstein & Murray, 1994), which is infamous for two arguments: firstly, that the average genetic IQ of the United States is declining due to the tendency of the more intelligent to have fewer children than the less intelligent, for the generation length to be shorter for the less intelligent, and through the large-scale immigration to the United States of those with less intelligence (and arguing against policies of affirmative action…) – in other words, the plot of Idiocracy; secondly, that IQ is predicted by race (here’s some examples: African Americans on average have an IQ of 85; Whites 103; Asians 106). There were hundreds of critical reviews of the book; aside from the various problems with IQ measurement in the first place, the book was never submitted to any kind of peer review; much of the work referred to in the book was funded by the Pioneer Fund, which is notorious for promoting scientific racismHerbert (1994) puts it best, in a NYT review of the book: “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.” (Nastier words were used that I’ve chosen to omit.) Herbert also points to Murray’s cross-burning past – at the very least, it’s evidence of extreme, active prejudice.

Noam Chomsky (1972) said that even if there were a correlation between race and intelligence, it would have no “social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right, but as a representative of this category…In a non-racist society, the category of race would be of no greater significance [than height].”

Is there anything we can do?

Rosenthal found that a learning cycle approach seems to stimulate students who hold pseudoscientific beliefs to examine them more critically, if not abandon them (the learning cycle approach has been shown to be effective in bringing about conceptual change) – that’s a great start, but clearly we need to do more.

Part of the problem appears to be that the people who buy into these beliefs are just misinformed – for example, the ‘photographic memory’ example is easily corrected. For such cases, factcheckers built into browsers point these things out as the user reads them – so once a decent database is built up, it would be easy to judge the reliability of a source. The other group of people who hold pseudoscientific beliefs, however, will hold on to their beliefs no matter what – as Thagard’s definition says, they’re “selective in considering confirmation and disconfirmation” – in other words, they believe whatever fits in with their previous belief set (cf. Rosenthal again). Some people very sincerely hold these kinds of beliefs, and evidence will never dissuade them – they may believe that any evidence countering their beliefs are part of a wider conspiracy, for example. These people are obviously harder to reach – they can even hold contradictory beliefs about conspiracies.

There’s also a huge issue in how scientific discoveries are reported – newspapers have their own agendas to support, which in itself results in biased reporting. They also have a low quality threshold, calling surveys by restaurant chains “studies”. Reliability and validity is assumed for all studies. As a result, you get people believing reductive and possibly false versions of scientific theories/discoveries.

So the best thing we can do, in my opinion, is address these kinds of beliefs (starting with the most popular ones), keep them out of the NHS etc. (which means governments critically examining them in the first place), encourage responsible journalism that doesn’t make wild, baseless claims, and teach critical thinking skills in schools from an early age. What does everyone else think?

P.S. I couldn’t leave this out, nor could I fit it in – but it’s very relevant and worth watching if you have a spare 8 minutes.


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Here’s what I’d do:

In response to growing criticism about the length of my blogs, I’ve tried to keep this one concise – it’s still above 500 words, so I’ve failed, but you should have seen it before. Enjoy it.

  • Increase opportunities for students who are (statistically) likely to under-perform – we can see from the success of KIPP and other schools that given the right circumstances, all students can reach their full potential.
  • Extend learning hours, but regularly intersperse periods of classroom teaching with other activities; ensure that every school, especially ones with high intake of students from deprived backgrounds, have a decent and comprehensive set of after-school-hours activities. Schools in predefined area boundaries should collaborate and offer activities that include pupils from all schools in that area. (Would particularly help in rural areas, where this could result in significantly increased choice.)
  • We should do much more to encourage educational mobility. There’s plenty of evidence that low SES means children are more likely to leave school without qualifications (Ermish & Francesconi, 2001). This needs to be addressed, but more fundamentally we need to re-assess what we consider to be a successful education: is three A*s at A-level really what every student should strive towards, or maybe alternative measurements – e.g. PISA – are more appropriate? What’s wrong with qualitatively assessing students? – we could give a descriptive analysis of what a student is like; surely (purely from an employability perspective) that’s more valuable to employers than how many UCAS points you’ve accumulated?
  • Computer games provide motivation. These can be integrated into lessons.
  • Make sure that children don’t grow up with the snobbish and harmful perception that vocational courses are somehow lesser than traditional degree subjects – they provide a valuable education by focusing on (a) valuable, transferable skills, and (b) specialist knowledge increasingly employability in that sector (;

At the same time, not everything we teach needs to be geared towards future employability, or even developing a skill – knowledge should be recognised as an end in itself. If somebody wants to spend three years writing a thesis on how Duns Scotus used citations, good on them. Considering what people have discovered by experimenting or exploring for its own sake (;, it seems absurd to insist that all learning has to serve a direct purpose.

  • Scientific journals’ business model is unsustainable – charging £30+ to view a paper online for 24 hours makes no sense. The effects of free distribution of collective knowledge will benefit everyone but the publishers. From a pedagogical point of view alone, free and open access to scientific studies will allow teachers to implement the most efficacious evidence-based techniques.
  • Ignore what Mark C Taylor thinks we should do to revolutionise tertiary education: his ideas have been widely criticised as “unbelievably misguided”, “reckless” and “wrong-headed”; for example, his proposal to abolish permanent university departments and replace them with short-lived problem-focused programs would be a huge structural change, bringing few conceivable benefits. Those benefits could alternatively be achieved by encouraging inter-disciplinary collaborations on projects in such “zones of inquiry”, and this is where its application in classrooms applies: by encouraging students to synoptically develop an understanding of an area from multiple subjects’ perspectives, knowledge can be applied in a new way that encourages a greater depth of understanding and a holistic view of said area.


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