Constructivism dealt a blow

One of my tasks, when training to be a teacher, was to use a prepared set of questions to interview a group of 16-year-olds on their ideas about space. I remember that one question was about why satellites went around the Earth and all the students suggested that satellites have engines that are continually running in order to push them around. This is reasonable. These students probably hadn’t given the issue much thought until I asked them about it and many everyday objects work in this way; a car travelling around a circular track is pushed around the track by the driving force of its engine. It is not correct for satellites, however. There are no frictional forces to overcome in space and so the satellite is actually in free-fall; only one force acts on it, pulling it to the centre of the Earth. This is a weird idea to grasp and so I, and many other physics teachers, have devoted quite a lot of time to honing our explanations.

The purpose of the university exercise was to make it clear to me that students are not blank slates. Instead, they already have conceptions about why a lot of things occur and we need to bear these in mind. This is a key tenet of constructivism. I find it extremely useful to know about these misconceptions because I address them directly through explicit teaching. However, this is not the approach that we were encouraged to consider. Instead, drawing on Piaget, the implication was that we should get students to articulate these misconceptions and make predictions based upon them before having their attention drawn to conflicting evidence. For instance, I might point out that satellites couldn’t store anywhere near enough fuel to constantly fire their engines. For other misconceptions, I could perhaps set up a demonstration or experiment to refute the misconception.

I have two main problems with the idea of inducing such ‘cognitive conflict’. Firstly, the process is ego-involving. Making a student articulate an idea that he is not particularly committed to will deepen his commitment. He won’t want to be seen to be wrong. Anyone who has followed education debates on social media will know how irrational people can become when their ideas are criticised. They can start launching ad hominem attacks, objecting to tone or simply dismissing the evidence. It does not seem like something a teacher would deliberately invoke.

Secondly, it is manipulative. I would much prefer to present my ideas to students, tailored by my understanding of the key misconceptions, and let them decide what they wish to believe. I am happy to argue my case. Trying to trick them into it seems like amateur psychology. Even if a student decides that ‘this is what physicists believe and this is therefore what I have to say in physics class but I don’t buy it deep down’ then I think it is her right to do so. I am an incrementalist; I don’t think one big conflict will sort out conceptual change but the scales will gradually tip as the evidence stacks-up. In fact, I think this has happened with a number of education bloggers as they have changed their views on kooky educational theories.

On the other hand, cognitive conflict seems to be a key component of ‘cognitive acceleration’; a strategy that has achieved seemingly extraordinary success in science education, albeit without being widely replicated (although there is a large RCT running at present). The trouble with cognitive acceleration is that cognitive conflict is one of a battery of measures and so we cannot separate-out its effect.

Therefore, it was with interest that I read a new paper on the topic. The researchers designed a stripped back experiment in order to investigate the effect of cognitive conflict alone. It is a little artificial but this is deliberate in order to isolate the effect. As the authors note, no strong evidence has emerged in favour of cognitive conflict from more standard learning situations.

Participants were trained in one way of categorising bacteria before the method of categorisation changed. This enabled the experimenters to ensure that all participants had equivalent prior conceptions. Half the participants were then given both confirming feedback and disconfirming feedback on the new category. The other half were just given confirming feedback. The disconfirming feedback therefore represented the cognitive conflict.

Overall, the researchers found no positive effect of cognitive conflict. If anything, it marginally slowed-down learning. This was perhaps due to the working memory resources required to process the conflict.

Update: Perhaps inevitably, some of the commenters below have questioned whether cognitive conflict is actually a tenet of constructivism. It is probably worth reading my FAQ on constructivism. In this FAQ, I link from an article by ASCD which contains the following quote:

“…constructivist teachers structure lessons to challenge students’ suppositions. All students, whether they are 6 or 16 or 60, come to the classroom with life experiences that shape their views about how their worlds work. When educators permit students to construct knowledge that challenges their current suppositions, learning occurs. Only through asking students what they think they know and why they think they know it are we and they able to confront their suppositions.”


What happened? The purpose of history

I’m writing a little ebook at the moment and had cause to go back to my old blog where I found the following from 2013. I thought it might be worth re-posting.

I attended a comprehensive school in England in the late eighties and early nineties. Until the age of fourteen, I didn’t study a subject called, “history.” Instead, I studied, “humanities.” Despite efforts to obscure the history content, it was pretty clear when we were studying a history topic. We’d flit about through time, like Dr Who in his TARDIS. One week, we’d be trying to work-out the identity of Jack the Ripper. We had no concept of the social context in which the Whitechapel murders took place. The teacher kept going on about Prince Eddie; I wanted to know if Prince Eddie became King Edward (of the potatoes) but this remained unanswered – I don’t know if the teacher was sure.

The next week we would be discussing whether our views of Richard III were based upon Tudor propaganda. I remember very clearly my frustration at that time; I didn’t have any views on Richard III. First, I wanted to know who Richard III was and why he was king. Was he descended from William the Conqueror, for instance? I worked out that this must have all happened before Henry VIII and his six wives, a topic I had “done” at primary school, because the Henry that was fighting Richard III was being referred to as Henry VII. What were these, “wars of the roses,” that our teacher either supposed that we already knew about or had judged far too dull to trouble us with? Instead of answering the questions that interested me, we focused elsewhere. Henry had defeated Richard in the battle of Bosworth and conventional history records that Richard was a hunchback and that he killed the, “princes in the tower,” whoever they were, but was conventional history true? Henry was the victor so were we suffering from a view obscured by the Tudors?

Our task was to do some, “source analysis,” and think critically. One of the sources was this painting (from the National Portrait Gallery in the UK);


Another was Shakespeare’s description from the play Richard III of a man, “deform’d, unfinished.” Shakespeare, apparently, was a Tudor stooge.

How much should we therefore believe? What is the nature of history? Is there a history of the winners and a history of the losers? Are different viewpoints equally valid? This was the substance of our inquiry.

The answer to all this, of course, is, no. Truths about history are not mutable, dependent upon your perspective, as postmodernists would have us believe. We can now clearly resolve one of the key questions that my teacher posed. Richard III was deformed and we know this because they’ve found him in a car park in Leicester.



One of the interesting things about the denial of objective truth is that, in its own terms, such a denial cannot be objectively true. If nothing can be known then neither can the fact that nothing can be known. If all perspectives are situated then so is the perspective that all perspectives are situated. It’s a cheap shot – I know – but these paradoxical loops occur a lot. It’s like the one about ‘learning to learn’; if you don’t already know how to learn then how can you learn how to learn? And if you do then…

I was reading Linda Graham’s debut post today. Linda is an Australian education researcher and a powerful voice on Twitter. The post is an interesting read and a welcome new voice in the debate. But I couldn’t help feeling that I was perhaps in her sights.

Firstly, as an aside, it’s worth just mentioning tone. The thing about tone is that it really is so situated. What we and our friends think is fine might come across differently to others. For this reason, I don’t tend to comment on tone at all. Those that choose to complain about ‘snide invective’ should really pay attention to the way that they go about this. Otherwise, it’s another one of those loops.

I find it valuable that Linda identifies a concept that we can cling to amidst a realm that some of us find so difficult to wrangle. This realm is the ‘posts’ of postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and so on. For Linda, the concept of subjectivity or standpoint – situatedness – are key to these approaches. Yet it is clear that Linda’s position is itself highly situated and this is not really dealt with. Let us deconstruct it a little.

Linda does have thresholds of quality for educational research. This is why she rejects many papers sent to the journals that she edits. However,

“…the thing is, sometimes work that seems esoteric, indulgent and irrelevant to some can be of value to the author herself.”

Of course, people are free to research whatever they like and I am sure that there are personal insights to gain from this. Equally, a person might gain significant personal insights from a hiking tour of India and these might even inspire her to better, more original research in the future. But we wouldn’t expect the India trip to be subsidised through public taxation in the way that university research is subsidised. Claiming a right to indulgent and irrelevant research represents quite an entitled perspective.

I am not arguing that all education research should be purely instrumental. This is not what I believe about knowledge creation. In fact, I think that ‘blue skies’ science research makes a pretty good case for itself with the wider public. My point is that the ‘posts’ do not do this. It is hard even to describe ways in which they impact society at large; so caught are they in reifying new nouns. To their credit, Linda and others such as Greg Thompson have taken on the task of blogging about these ideas for a wider public and so their value may become more apparent.

Linda’s defence also seems to show little insight into the perspective of the attacker. It is more a kind of defensiveness. Why do you think there are those of us out here questioning the value of some forms of educational research? Do we all serve some common agenda, got up by the think tanks and Pearson? Certainly, there is much fretting about shadowy right-wing forces and this has generated plenty of research papers.

No. Let me help explain so that others can understand what drives this. There are a number of bloggers out there in the UK, US, Canada and now even in Australia who share something of my perspective. We wouldn’t agree on everything and our political views are diverse. Contrary to stereotype, we are not all white men. What happened to make us form our views? There is a common theme in many stories and I know this because people have blogged about it.

We went to university to train to be teachers and were fed a specific ideology. We were not told that traditional, transmission methods might be effective for imparting academic knowledge but there were other reasons why we should limit teacher talk and increase student choice and group work. We weren’t told that at all. We were explicitly told that following these latter methods would lead to better academic outcomes. We were told that research proved it to be so; constructivism, Piaget, Vygotsky and the research of our tutors proved that students needed to construct their own knowledge through inquiry.  We were told that poor behaviour was the result of poor teaching and that if we only made activities engaging enough, behaviour issues would be solved. This had all been previously established and the only remaining question was how to get more teachers to teach the right way.

We didn’t realise that this was just a perspective. We were told it as if it was the truth and we believed it as if it was the truth because it was coming from authority figures who we trusted to know what they were on about. Which is ironic, given the same ideology’s criticism of transmission teaching. You’d get a greater range of perspectives explored in a 1960s middle school history class.

Later, when we started to read, question and connect with each other online, we began to realise that we had been misled, intentionally or not. We learnt that some key research showed the opposite of what we had been told and that vast swathes of studies had effectively been forgotten or ignored. And so this is why we are all here, kicking up so much fuss. The trust is gone. We don’t necessarily believe what we are told any more. And we are exerting our right to scepticism, together. I am starting to wonder if silly-sounding research papers are actually just silly. 

Outrageous, I know. What right do upstarts like us have to criticise? And with such a snide tone? We haven’t even passed through the initiation rights to enter into the club. But there it is.

It is not the case that I think that I am somehow free from ideology and that the people I disagree with ideological. The problem is that educational research seems to exists in such a narrow ideological bubble. Yes, there are factions within this and passionate debates to be had and this has convinced many participants that they are part of a robust, pluralistic dialogue. But a good analogy would be the heated disagreements that took place between the many different communists political groups in 1970s Britain. 

And so we have a group that prioritises the study and analysis of subjectivity that presents itself as if it is quite unaware of its own.

Update: Linda Graham has responded to this post here (I think there might be some misunderstanding about wordpress’s ping back system


Tea-time at the hospital

It is tea-time at St John’s hospital. Two surgeons, Mr Barker and Mrs Kaur are sitting and sipping their tea.

Mrs Kaur: Did you meet that young surgeon who came in on Monday? He was here for interview and I showed him around. He completed his training last year.

Mr Barker: No. I think I missed him. I must have been playing golf.

Mrs Kaur: Well he said something that really worried me.

Mr Barker: What was that?

Mrs Kaur: He started talking about ‘balancing the four humours’.

Mr Barker: The what?

Mrs Kaur: The four humours. It’s an old idea that nobody – I thought nobody – in medicine accepts today.

Mr Barker: Oh yes, I remember; Hippocrates and all that. 

Mrs Kaur: Yes. Well you have to question the state of training if surgeons are coming out of it talking about the four humours.

Mr Barker: Steady on! I think that’s a bit of an overreach! 

Mrs Kaur: I don’t think so. I mean, how could it happen?

Mr Barker: We don’t know. Were you at this guy’s training? You can’t know how it was presented. It could have been put forward as an idea to critique in order to develop critical thinking skills.

Mrs Kaur: I don’t think it was because he was talking as if it was fact.

Mr Barker: But you don’t know what the trainers intended. And anyway, it’s just one example and it’s from over a year ago so the training might have changed now.

Mrs Kaur: Do you think so?

Mr Barker: Yes. Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. Anyway, I need to go now. I have a lecture to give to some trainees.

cf. discussions about teacher training and learning styles 


Three education black holes you’ll want to avoid

A black hole is a place in space where the gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. You wouldn’t want to get sucked in to one. And you wouldn’t want to get sucked into any of the following educational practices either.

1. Making everything flashy

Many teachers burn themselves out by spending inordinate amounts of time planning complicated, flashy activities. They think that the students will appreciate these activities or other staff will see them as innovative. If your students are impeccably behaved and respectful, you might have some luck. Otherwise, there is a chance that the activity that you’ve poured you heart and soul into will not be taken seriously and will be a cue for lots of messing around. Take this example from the Edutopia blog which was tweeted earlier by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership:

“Students write down what they learned on a piece of scratch paper and wad it up. Given a signal, they throw their paper snowballs in the air. Then each learner picks up a nearby response and reads it aloud.”


The trouble is, if you start messing with this stuff it becomes an expectation. Just say, “No”, kids. Teach your students something instead.

2. Rubbish Edtech

I am not against all Edtech. If it provides an efficient way of doing something and makes your life easier then that’s great. BUT WHEN HAS IT EVER DONE THIS? In a previous life, I had the job of persuading a school staff to use a particular Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). “Look,” went the pitch, “you can enter multiple choice quizzes and it will score them for you.”

Many staff pointed out that they didn’t use multiple choice quizzes. Those that did, tried the VLE and found that they could not enter mathematical notation unless as an image file. Even without any notation, the quizzes took ages to create. The VLE file system was slow and painful – constantly uploading – and then no students would log on because they had forgotten their password.

We don’t need solutions in search of a problem. We need solutions to problems that we actually have and that are better and quicker than what we’re doing at the moment.

3. Learning Styles

I know, if you are familiar with education blogs then you will already be aware that learning styles are a dodo. However, some folks have recently started to say things like, “I know there’s absolutely no evidence for learning styles but what’s the harm? It’s a bit of fun, isn’t it? What’s the worst that could happen?”

Aside from wasting everyone’s time, the worst that could happen is that male kids or kids from ethnic minorities who are struggling writers get labelled as having a ‘kinaesthetic’ learning style. Instead of getting the intensive extra writing that they need, they will be given mindless cut-and stick activities or blocks to play with and will fall ever further behind.

Labeling children, whether it is with a learning style or a mindset, is never right.

By XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


All explicit, all the time

Dan Meyer has written a blog post about implicit versus explicit instruction. I am not sure that it demonstrates very much but it has led to an interesting conversation in the comments which is worth checking out.

When linking to this post, Ben Riley of Deans for Impact made the following comment:

Riley - all explicit, all the time

This made me wonder: Who is this directed to? Who is arguing for “all explicit, all the time”?

First of all, we probably need to sort-out what we mean by ‘explicit’. To me, ‘explicit instruction’ has two plausible meanings as either a phase of a lesson or a more generalised teaching approach.

In the former, it probably means a period of instruction that is whole-class and teacher-led and where the teacher is relating a narrative, explaining a concept or demonstrating a procedure (I would add that it is better if such a period is highly interactive but this isn’t needed for the definition). It seems improbable that anyone advocates doing this all of the time. Teachers who use this approach are likely to at least move on to a subsequent phase of independent problem solving within the lesson. As students progress from novice to expert then we should see fewer of these explicit instruction phases and more of problem solving. For instance, I hardly did any explicit teaching of this kind in the last few weeks of my 2015 VCE physics class.

The term ‘explicit instruction’ might also refer to a more generalised approach that includes all of these phases but that is characterised by fully explaining new concepts and procedures. It would then be distinct from inquiry learning, problem-based learning and so on where students have to find out some things for themselves.

Where I refer to ‘explicit instruction’, others might use the term ‘direct instruction’. Barak Rosenshine has written a useful paper on ‘five meanings of direct instruction’ which is worth reading. The first meaning is any generalised, teacher-led approach. The second meaning is the form of direct instruction that emerged from process-product studies of effective teaching and he lists the following characteristics:

  • Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.
  • Begin a lesson with a short statement of goals.
  • Present new material in small steps, providing for student practice after each step.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Provide a high level of active practice for all students.
  • Ask a large number of questions, check for student understanding, and obtain responses from all students.
  • Guide students during initial practice.
  • Provide systematic feedback and corrections.
  • Provide explicit instruction and practice for seatwork exercises and monitor students during seatwork.

This definition extends beyond a single phase and includes student practice. So, would I sign-up to doing this ‘all the time’?


I want people to accept that this is a good model for teaching new content to novice students but I also recognise that this is not always the objective. In this piece for The Conversation, I suggest that we might sometimes want to build motivation or to mix things up a bit and so let me expand upon what I mean.

I think we need to be careful with motivation. I have written before that I don’t think it works the way that many people think it does and this is the substance of my disagreement with Dan Meyer. I am not convinced that implicit teaching approaches are more motivating than explicit ones whilst at the same time leading to better learning. However, for some students in a class who are much closer to the expert end of the scale, this may well be the case (due to the expertise reversal effect). “Mixing it up” means that we can occasionally give these students something better suited to them. Of course, you wouldn’t want to do this ‘all the time’ because you would effectively be teaching only the top end of your class.

I think we also sometimes want to build interest in a subject more generally. When I used to teach middle-school science, I would set aside something that I called “T-time”. The “T” stood for “Tangential” and it was an opportunity for students to ask me any question that they liked about science. This was in recognition of the fact that they would have been wondering about things that did not relate to the topic we happened to be covering – ‘do aliens exist?’ was popular. I didn’t want to see those interests extinguished and so I created a space for them. Conducting experiments in science lessons may partly serve a similar function.

In “Why don’t students like school?” Dan Willingham talks of a science demonstration that his daughter was shown. She could not remember the scientific point of the demonstration and Willingham uses this to caution us about flashy hooks that might distract from content. But what if conveying content is not the objective? Sadly, I’ve known many teachers show a movie to their class in the last week of term. I would much rather students saw a series of scientific demonstrations, whether they understood the science or not. The objective would be for them to go away thinking that science is pretty cool rather than for them to understand any specific content.

I think that the kinds of maths games and puzzles that Dan Meyer promotes could have a similar role to play. The problem arises when you place them at the heart of instruction where, for most students, they are likely to be less effective for teaching concepts and content.

All explicit, all the time? No. It depends what you’re trying to achieve and who your students are.


Deep beneath Texas

The scene is a steel bunker, somewhere under Texas. Vader, Voldemort, Moriarty and Gary are meeting to discuss the neoliberal takeover of education. It was Vader’s turn to bring the cake.

Moriarty: Nice cake, Vader. What do you call that?

Vader: It is a Swiss roll [sucks breath through mask]

Voldemort: Gee, it’s my turn next. I might get a Swiss roll too.

Gary: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Can I get a progress report from everyone?

Vader: Well the whole charter school / free school jazz is going well [sucks breath through mask]. We’ve got the U.S. and U.K. deep into it and one of our shadowy think tanks in Australia is on the case [sucks breath through mask].

Gary: Good, good… Just wondering something. We want to privatise education so that big corporations can make money from running schools, right? So why this free school model? I mean, they don’t turn profits and they’re still centrally funded.

Vader: We have to go one step at a time [sucks breath through mask].

Gary: But… like… Private schools already exist. It’s not like they’re unheard of. Why not just privatise all the schools if that’s what we want to do?

Vader: Well poor kids couldn’t afford to go [sucks breath through mask].

Gary: Why do we care? Why don’t we just dish out the money that currently goes to schools directly to parents as vouchers?

Vader: [quizzical expression]

Gary: And about those poor kids – don’t we just want them to be obedient servants who will work as baristas and so on?

Vader: Yes. That is the plan my master [sucks breath through mask].

Gary: So what’s with all this college readiness business? Why do they need to go to college? [Pause] It’s really not good for me but I’m going to have another piece of that Swiss roll [reaches for Swiss roll]

Moriarty: It really is good. I think it’s the best cake we’ve had.

Gary: Steady on… Now I also think there’s something else to resolve. Voldemort, how’s the pro-Microsoft, pro-Pearson, pro-Apple, pro-edtech-industrial-complex going?

Voldemort: Really well boss. We have more systems using computer testing. We’re rolling out computer marking. We have the OECD all up for assessing 21st century skills so our companies will be able to use that to sell their kit. We’ve got up this whole narrative about kids being able to search the net for any knowledge they need, making them dependent on tech.

Gary: Huh. How do we square that with being slavish followers of E D Hirsch’s Core Knowledge agenda? You know, the idea that we should be teaching a core body of knowledge and that things like 21st century skills don’t really exist?

There is an awkward silence

Moriarty: I am not sure about that but the Hirsch thing is going well. We’ve got him presenting at shadowy think tanks. And he’s captured the minds of our blogging foils.

Gary: OK, but about core knowledge – Are will not supposed to be filling up kids with rote, disconnected facts about dead, white, male, European, upper class men?

Moriarty: Yes.

Gary: Well, I’ve been flicking through the core knowledge sequence and there are units on mesoamerica and the Underground Railroad. What’s all that about?

Moriarty: OK. But it’s very facty…

Gary: Alright, alright. Look, on another matter, I want you all to apply yourself to putting the prefix ‘neo’ to as many of our conspiracies as possible. Right? It sounds kinda ominous like in ‘neoliberal’ or ‘neoconservative’.

Vader, Moriarty and Voldemort signal their assent. Vader is fiddling with his phone.

Vader: It appears that a Mary Bousted from a Teaching Union in England is claiming we are responsible for onerous marking policies and workload generally and that we accept no link between poverty and school performance [sucks breath through mask].

Gary: Really? I didn’t realise those were ours. But they’re bad stuff so we’ll take them.

Vader: OK. I’ll add them to the list.

Gary: Anyone got anything else? No? Well I’d just like to thank Lord Vader for bringing along such a nice cake this afternoon – a ‘Swiss roll’ was it? – Moriarty’s up next week.

Moriarty: No I’m not – it’s Voldemort



Education conspiracy theories

The problem with seeing life through the lens of a conspiracy is that it distorts your take on reality. You end up arguing with phantoms.

In education, there is a conspiracy theory that Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish education guru – has labelled the Global Education Reform Movement or ‘GERM’ – germs aren’t nice and they’re infectious, get it? This is essentially about test-based accountability and borrowing ideas from business. Sahlberg likes to suggest that this is the antithesis of what led to Finland’s educational success. However, with Finnish PISA results on a downward path, it’s probably worth reading this piece by Tim Oates to get a broader perspective on Finland.

Expanding on the GERM theme, many on the political left have what you might describe as a ‘neoliberals under the bed’ conspiracy theory. This accepts the GERM narrative but fleshes it out with details about shady think tanks and covert attempts at privatisation.

People like me who are making the argument for a more rigorous approach to teaching knowledge are hapless foils for this conspiracy. We don’t know our own minds. This presentation by Steven Dinham (thanks @corisel) outlines this shadowy movement in Australia in some detail.

The issue is that I agree with some of the reforms and not others (despite Dinham insisting that they’ve all been disproved). I do believe that teacher education needs to be disrupted (in order to improve) but I don’t believe in 21st century skills which are largely unteachable.

The ‘neoliberals under the bed’ narrative, coming as it does from the left, has to have big business as the bogeyman. And so the narrative must impose an instrumental view of education on to any reform; that education is merely about preparing kids for the workplace. And yet this is not what I stand for at all. I believe that knowledge is powerful, enriching and our shared heritage. I believe that knowledge is the best preparation for learning new knowledge. Yes, it makes people more employable but this is not the main point.

Perhaps I am being used by these clever conspirators? Perhaps I am a servant of reform but I’m being kept in the dark until D-Day? I don’t think so. Look at the pantomime villain of education reform, Michael Gove. What on earth was he doing investing so much energy in a new history curriculum given that history is instrumentally useless? Perhaps – just perhaps – we should accept that Gove did this because he believes that knowledge of history is important. Where was Gove’s focus on Business Studies and IT skills?

There is, of course, a tendency amongst politicians to view education instrumentally. But this is through witlessness rather than any coherent ideology – cock-up over conspiracy. If you look at Dinham’s list it is a mish-mash of eye-catching ideas from both the traditionalist and progressive movements in education alongside more recent initiatives on reforming school structures and accountability. I doubt that there is anyone who could sign-up to the whole lot, let alone any kind of ‘movement’.

Conspiracy theories cloud our view and result in us advancing arguments against positions that people don’t actually hold. Let us remove them from the debate and consign them to Hollywood movies and the feverish small hours.


Exemplar of a fallacy 

In my last post, I commented on a piece by Greg Thompson (@GFThommo). He then wrote this rebuttal. It raises some interesting points, not least that we have different understandings of parliamentary democracy (on his final point – I do think that democratic decisions can be made about what to fund with tax dollars – this is precisely what the first English parliaments were set-up to do). 

However, the post is mainly of note for its use of the Straw Man fallacy: Thompson makes a series of arguments against positions that I did not express. I am a fairly reasonable person and so I can handle a little exaggeration. Yet these clearly go too far:

I wrote: “There are several currents in modern sociological (and hence, educational) thought. Although you should never accuse a critical theorist of being a poststructuralist and so on, these theories share certain outlooks.”

Thompson argued against the position that: “All sociological/critical theory/poststructural work share certain outlooks”

I wrote: “I may not understand the equations of string theory but I can pick up a copy of New Scientist and read a pretty straightforward explanation of what it is; enough to get a sense of the debate around whether string theory is science or maths.”

Thompson argued against the position that: “While Science and Maths are difficult, New Scientist (and presumably other publications) make this complex work like string theory easy to understand.”

I wrote: “Indeed, postmodernism has been quite viciously lampooned. From The Sokal Affair to ‘how to speak and write postmodern‘, there are intelligent scholars lining up to take a swipe at it. Is this unfair? Is it a double standard?”

Thompson argued against the position that: “The Sokal Affair showed that postmodernism is nonsense.”

The problem with arguing against a straw man is that it doesn’t advance the argument. 


Dense and complex

Is it a good thing to be dense and complex? Greg Thompson makes a spirited defence of sociological writing in this recent blog post and it has made me think about the value of different kinds of scholarship.

There are several currents in modern sociological (and hence, educational) thought. Although you should never accuse a critical theorist of being a poststructuralist and so on, these theories share certain outlooks. In particular, there is a scepticism about objective truth and a disdain for using scientific methods in the social sciences. This is given the signifier of ‘positivism’.

Thompson suggests that we don’t tend to take sociological theory as seriously as maths and science: 

“…there seems to be a popular view expressed on social media that dense and complex writing necessarily indicates that the work is not worthwhile. This is nonsense, I am in awe of my science and mathematics friends for the complexity of the work that they do and for the years of toil that enable them to do this complex work. I expect to have to study hard to be able to understand this, and I don’t blame them when it takes a long time for me to understand this. Expecting philosophy to be different seems stupid to me.”

Indeed, postmodernism has been quite viciously lampooned. From The Sokal Affair to ‘how to speak and write postmodern‘, there are intelligent scholars lining up to take a swipe at it. Is this unfair? Is it a double standard?

Maths and science can certainly be complex, although rarely needlessly so because scientists tend use the heuristic of Occam’s razor and seek the simplest explanations possible. And science has done a good job of communicating with the tax-paying public. I may not understand the equations of string theory but I can pick up a copy of New Scientist and read a pretty straightforward explanation of what it is; enough to get a sense of the debate around whether string theory is science or maths.

The achievements of science are also quite manifest: space probes, vaccines, new materials and so on. Even scholarship in history or the arts has a popular arm of documentaries and performances in order to build bridges to the public. By contrast, social theory is quite ineffectual.

When I ask questions about social theory, I tend to be told to go away and read a book and then I’ll be ready to discuss it. This doesn’t seem good enough to me. Given that taxpayers are funding thousands of academics to research this stuff, it needs to do a much better job of explaining itself.

Otherwise, a cynic might conclude that it is all just an elaborate peacock’s tail: “Look at me, I’m clever, I use long words.”