Don’t forget the succussion

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I am currently rereading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. In the chapter on homeopathy, Goldacre sets out a number of problems with the practice. Specifically, he mentions the kinds of dilutions used by homeopaths. He asks us to picture a sphere of water with a radius equal to the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A homeopathic dilution of 30C would contain 1 molecule of the active substance in a sphere of water this volume. Homeopaths answer this critique by suggesting that water retains some kind of ‘memory’ of the active ingredient, even after it has been diluted.

Given that every water molecule has come into contact with countless substances, Goldacre finds this amusing:

“How does a water molecule know to forget every other molecule it’s seen before? How does it know to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov’s faeces? I wrote this in the newspaper once, and a homeopath complained to the Press Complaints Commission. It’s not about the dilution, he said: it’s the succussion. You have to bang the flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that’s what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid.” [Original emphasis]

There is much in this that reminds me of education’s homeopaths. We have the intense fear of ridicule. Satire is a devastating weapon against nonsense, so much so that Goldacre’s homeopath feels the need to complain about his argument to a higher authority. We have seen similar tactics in the social media education debate where offended parties threaten to launch defamation cases or complain to people’s employers.

More subtle, perhaps, is the appeal to spurious and irrelevant context. Bloggers like me are often accused of being reductive and not understanding the subtle nuances that more sophisticated and discerning pedagogues appreciate. For example, when I suggest that inquiry-based learning is ineffective for novices, there will be those who roll their eyes and shake their heads. It’s far more complicated than I appreciate, they will claim. In fact, inquiry-based learning works quite beautifully if you first bang it ten times on a leather and horsehair surface.


4 thoughts on “Don’t forget the succussion

  1. “inquiry-based learning works quite beautifully if you first bang it ten times on a leather and horsehair surface.” How many times have we heard something like this. I recently had Boaler’s book waved in my face while being told that “all the research supports this” while noticing that the spine wasn’t broken. Three months later the same book came out with nary a crease in the spine. The book, like the leather and hose hair, is just a prop… there is always some talisman that can be shaken and, when it isn’t effective, the lack of belief in the talisman is blamed.

    But, as long as careers can be advanced by the enthusiasm of the talisman shaking (judged by those above who have made their own careers by vigorously shaking voodoo dolls.) not much will change.

    *critical thinking tip #132: Reading many books will allow you to critically evaluate if a book being waved in your face was actually read or not*

  2. “Bad Science” is a superb little book. It was critical for me personally in gaining a proper understanding of why so many silly educational fads, which I knew from experience were worthless at best and harmful at worst, had so many “studies” confirming their efficacy. Unfortunately, to this day plenty of teachers are fooled/cajoled/intimidated into not checking whether these “studies” are dodgy and designed to reach a predetermined conclusion – which, in my experience, about 95% of them are.

  3. And… right on que. Here is one of the university professors in charge of the new Social Studies Curriculum in Alberta berating a journalist.

    It is the first of eleven tweets and it has everything.

    1) an appeal to Spencer (1860)
    2) telling him that knowledge isn’t important because “whose knowledge” and power.
    3) The obligatory “Knowledge doesn’t equal understanding”
    4) A completely made up student who got 97% on a test mostly of definitions- Standardized of course (the most evil of tests)- and then has no idea of what a dictatorship is. I can only assume that I was extremely lucky to have some of the only teachers in the province who actually discussed this in class because everyone else was just memorizing definitions word for word… I must’ve had a different standardized test as well (big issues for validity and reliability).
    5) The obligatory appeal to Blooms (all hail bloom)
    6) Then, of course, who needs to memorize “Google, anyone?” (Direct quote).
    7) Then states that you can either think critically or memorize stuff in complete opposition to what Cognitive Science tells us.
    8) Then this: “This push for knowledge recall reveals a vast misunderstanding of the purpose of education generally and social studies in particular.”

    I have three questions:

    A) Does Goldacre have a prize for the most pseudoscience in a single thread? I know she didn’t mention learning styles but it is in some of her on-line material (why not?) Honourable mention at least?
    B) Does Tom Bennett have some sort of Bat Signal that the people of Alberta can shine onto the night sky… an outline of a learning triangle perhaps? Upside down I’m guessing?
    C) Is the google reference the leather or is it the horse hair?

    I almost broke my promise to my wife and joined twitter to refute when I saw this.

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