Thursday, 29 December 2016

Enough of experts



"...anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" 

Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980) 


It's been an interesting year for evidence and belief. No, scratch that, it's been a depressing year. We've been shown, and left in no doubt, that people generally do not care about facts, truth and reality, and would rather stick to what feels right to them. The name for this phenomena is 'post truth', (Oxford's word of the year) which is defined as:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
So it seems, we’re now living in an era of ‘post-truth’. This came as something of a surprise to me since for the last 5 years I've been writing about linguistic and teaching practices that are widely believed despite having little or no evidence to back them up


I work in EAP which is similar to language teaching but with an academic twist. One thing we have to do is to insist student know the value of criticial thinking and supporting ideas with evidence. We drill 'where is your evidence for this claim' and 'how do you know this?' Here are some of the things my EAP colleagues have told me over the years:
  • Climate change is a hoax. 
  • Microwave ovens destroy the nutrients in food
  • The moon landing didn't happen
  • Wifi causes cancer 
  • Horoscopes are credible 
  • The earth is only six thousand years old
The people who espouse these views are well-educated and thoughtful people. They are not alone in holding beliefs like these. For instance, in order for homoepathy to work, physics would have to be wrong and yet it is a 6 billion dollar a year industry. So to my mind, we haven't suddenly slipped into a 'post truth' era, we've been living here for quite some time. Perhaps the only difference is how in-your-face it is, now? And are things really any different with regards to education?

Enough of experts
Brexiter Michael Gove when confronted with the fact that almost every economist thought Brexit was a bad idea said simply "I think people in this country have had enough of experts". Turns out he was right.

The denigration of experts is nothing new. Climate scientists have predicted dire consequences for us if we continue to put CO2 in the atmosphere. 97% of scientific institutions worldwide agree that human activity is causing this problem and yet 52% of Brits don't believe them (there's that number again). They've had enough of experts, they know better. 



In a discussion with an ELT teacher about learning styles (see picture) the person in question told me that no amount of research could dissuade her of the notion that learning styles were real. She actually tweeted "Why I believe in learning styles despite what researchers say". How much more 'post truth' could you get? 


At IATEFL one teacher trainer stated that he thought the TEFL world was getting too obessed with searching for evidence and trying to prove things. I found this quite a surprising claim since education seems to be one of the least evidence informed professions I can think of. 

He went on to say he was suspicious of any claims that a teaching practice could be said to be proved to work. Interestingly, he also argued that teachers should just try something out in class and then reflect on whether it worked or not. I couldn't help but wonder since 'nothing can be proved to work' how teachers were supposed to know if what they tried in class had been successful or not. 

Speaking of experts Brian Cox recently said:
“[cynicism towards professional expertise] is entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.
Caves are dark places, but they're also warm and safe. 



20 comments:

  1. Two things: 1) seeking the "truth" takes work (some are lazy) and 2) the "truth" is seldom dichotomous or all-or-nothing endeavor. Changing a person's mind is all about approach. An instructor will consistently ignore the literature about what we already know about teaching and learning until the individual feels there is a vested interest in making such a change. Having a vested interest in something boils down to simply caring about oneself and others. You get enough of these like-minded instructors together who ignore the literature and change becomes even more less likely. This is precisely why all instructors have a moral responsibility to continue daring, sharing, and caring so that others can decide to change on their own. This is done without using terms like "truth", "right and wrong", etc. The "truth" resides in variation, degree, and context.

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    1. Hi,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment. I 'think' I agree with you... :)

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  2. I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for the defunition of 'post truth', I had heard it quite a lot diddn't know the meaning. I agree with Benjamin, no matter the amount of evidence you give, many educators are just lazy to change anything they do. Post truth or not at least this is what I see. Plus they 'just want to have fun' at congresses. Thanks for sharing your thoughts,have a great 2017!

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  3. I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for the defunition of 'post truth', I had heard it quite a lot diddn't know the meaning. I agree with Benjamin, no matter the amount of evidence you give, many educators are just lazy to change anything they do. Post truth or not at least this is what I see. Plus they 'just want to have fun' at congresses. Thanks for sharing your thoughts,have a great 2017!

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    1. glad you liked it, and thanks for reading. :) have a great 2017.

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  4. Hi Russ, enjoyed the post as always. Not sure if you've listened to it, but the freakonomics podcast series on bad medicine describes the traditional influence of 'eminence-based' over 'evidence-based' medical practices. Couldn't help but think it seemed a pretty apt description of ELT too.

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    1. Hi Ben,

      Yes, I'm a fan of the podcast. Do you think things will change in education any time soon?

      Russ

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    2. Well there's definitely a trend at the moment thanks to you and others. No idea whether it will be sustained or not though!

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  5. But the experts don't even appear to agree with one another. Some of them accuse others of cavalier disregard for evidence. What's a poor boy to do?

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    1. I absolutely agree! BUT! Crucially the answer to this is not to throw the whole lot away and go with your 'gut'. Both supersymetry and the multiverse can't be true...only one, but we don't decide to go back to soothsayers. I'm not worried about disagreement, only on what level the disagreement occurs. :)

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    2. I have no beef with your insistence on the importance of evidence, especially since our 'gut' is so unreliable. But your post seemed to be a defence of expertise. I guess the point of both my comments is; how do we know who the experts are? How do we know Brian Cox is an expert and Russell Grant not? If Kenneth Rogoff and Paul Krugman have a disagreement about economic policy, how, apart from my gut, am I to choose between them. They certainly both know wildly more about it than I do, and in order to rectify that I'd have to become as expert as they are, and if I did that I'd have no need for experts. Arguments from authority are something that critical thinking teaches us to watch out for. How can we reconcile this with a proper respect for expertise?

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    3. I'm glad we agree (on something!!)

      How do we know who the experts are? Hmm good question. I suppose that's a lot easier to say in a field where expertise exist. A doctor or a musician for instance. In education it's a tough call to say who is 'an expert' isn't it? I agree with the point you're making here. I think my answer is in my previous post. "I'm not worried about disagreement, only on what level the disagreement occurs". That is, I don't mind a discussion about whether "Kenneth Rogoff or Paul Krugman" should be listened to but I draw the line at the point someone with no knowledge or the field says 'All these economists are wrong, you shouldn't listen to any of them. ' Such as claim would, I think, require impressive evidence.

      Arguments from authority have validity when the person is an expert, don't they? The issue is when an great linguist, for instance, tries to speak on subjects like politics. ;)

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  6. Brian Cox doing a bit of false dichotomy there. Spending your life studying something and having a vested interest are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, many astrologers have spent their lives studying astrology and those who claim that the world is only 6 thousand years old are also often very energetic in their research. Doesn't this suggest that there's a problem with Cox's 'spent their lives studying something' defence of experts and expertise?

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    1. I'm not sure Cox suggests they are mutually exclusive. He says "You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it." Seems like quite careful language...

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  7. Post-truth is a phrase too clever by half. We need to recognise things for what they are, in their banal and everyday disreputableness: lies and half-truths. The quest for truth is not assisted by speaking as if a new world of mendacity – the post-truth era - were irrevocably set in stone. It isn’t - unless we allow it to be; and we start to allow it to be by cravenly employing this highfalutin, and unnecessary, expression. “Lies and half-truths”, and possibly, “more lies and half-truths than ever before” are expressions enough.

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  8. Interesting post.

    Although in terms of fingerpointing and culpability for who is most responsible for bringing about a 'post-truth' world I think it's important to acknowledge - or admit, depending on your point of view - that a stubborn unwillingness to listen to experts and an enthusiasm for ignoring evidence isn't confined to crystal healing hippy homeopaths, fundamentalist Christian Creationists, climate change skeptics or front-bench Conservative Ministers.

    Higher education, especially in the arts and social sciences, have devoted the greater part of the last five decades or more to demonstrating why the authority of expert voices should not be trusted and how to deconstruct their messages.

    Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault have certainly had an influence on Norman Fairclough and his Critical Discourse Analysis - likely much the same can be said for Teun van Dijk or Norman Fowler, too.

    Foucault, if I remember rightly, did as much as anyone to inspire critics of medical 'discourses' and to undermine the authority of medical experts. Worse, his approach to criticism didn't come from within those medical sciences, but from without - undermining the very grounds on which the experts could lay claim to expertise - and supposedly exposing the network of power relations and domination that was the source of their real authority.

    Is it any wonder, then, after more than five decades of Foucault and three decades or so of Fairclough that expert voices have such a tough time being heard?

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    1. Thanks for the reading and thanks for commenting. I'm afraid I don't know much about Foucault or Gramsci.

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  9. No, scratch that, it's been a depressing year. We've been shown, and left in no doubt, that people generally do not care about facts, truth and reality

    Clearly, if someone disagrees with me about something, the only possible explanation is that they don't care about facts, truth and reality.

    It cannot possibly be the case that they don't believe me when I and my friends tell them what facts, truth and reality are. After all, I instruct them so very firmly.

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    1. I'm not sure of the point you're trying to make? How about, rather make a sarcastic comment, you actually try to make a point?

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  10. This article about an education policy based on "Learning Styles" backs up the need for more evidence and fewer "gurus": https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jan/29/knowsley-education-catastrophe-a-levels-merseyside

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