October 27, 2006

Ridiculing Pseudoscience

There is a legitimate place for ridicule, sarcasm, and satire when arguing a position, especially when the opposing position is inherently ridiculous. Such is the case when arguing with many educrats who hold positions based on pseudioscience bordering on religious fanaticism.

These people typically have an absolute attachment to a particular position and rational argument cannot dissuade them. In that case, ridicule is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes it's the only way to illustrate the absurdity of an opponent's position.

Ridiculing an opponent based on his irrational position is not the same as making an ad hominem argument which is merely a personal attack. Someone needs to explain the distinction to these guys. Not that'll do any good at this point; they've drunk the Kool aid.

I raise the issue because a little debate has broken out between Allen and Anon in the comments due to Professor Plum's ridiculing of educrats as imbeciles.

Here's Allen's position:
Plum's quite a guy but in this he's wrong and it should be self-evident.

His assertion, "they are imbeciles", is clearly not true. Ed school profs, school administrators, school board members and teachers are not imbeciles at least not in the classic, definitional sense. This is Plum's way of dismissing a point of view with which he disagrees and that results in practices which he can prove don't work. Yet they, the "imbeciles", are unimpressed by his proofs and continue espousing and using bad methods.

What possible explanation could there be for preferring unproductive practices over productive? Plum's response is dismissing the plyers of educational snake oil as imbeciles.

Since they aren't imbeciles - they drive cars, write checks, dress and feed themselves, write dissertations - there must be some other, rational explanation for preferring dull tools over sharp. A reason Plum, and all the other edu-pundits I read, either can't or can't be bothered to try to understand.

That's a lousy attitude to hold if you're trying to diagnose an institutional illness because without understanding these seemingly illogical actions you've reduced your own actions to dart-throwing. Whatever remedies you want to apply, without an understanding of the cause of the situation, they're made random due to that ignorance.

Anyone care to proffer a reason one batch of edu-crats might choose constructivism or whole language and another batch choose direct instruction and phonics? To make the task more difficult, and worthwhile, any answers that are inherently self-inflating, are forbidden. That means no psych evaluations of insanity which imply the sanity of the diagnostician and no intelligence estimates which imply the brilliance of the estimator.
And, here's Anon's position.
Allen, I hear what you are saying. You are arguing that if Prof. Plum can't pinpoint exactly why Constructivists do what they do, then he should not instead resort to a type of name calling, for this is an example of coming to a conclusion without valid premises. Such conclusions, I hear you saying, do not follow the principles of logic and are thus invalid. Is this your basic argument here?

But allow me to present you with the following:

What would you conclude if you were trying to understand why an educated person say, wouldn't agree that 2+2=4. First you tried using manipulatives, showing this person that if you first gave him 2 M&Ms, and then you gave him 2 more M&Ms, that he now had 4 M&Ms. But the person said no, that what was in his hand did not prove that 2+2=4. So, you continued to make you explanation more detailed, going further and further into a discussion of mathematics, and what the concept of numbers represent, etc. Yet, the more you talked to this person, the more you found out that the person did not believe there was a such thing as integers, despite epochs of legitimate mathematical discovery on the subject.

But this individual just keeps insisting that 2+2 does not equal 4, and that no math is real, it is all a theory. No matter what, this person will not admit anything.

Would you proffer a reason this educated person might say such nonsense? Would you defend him by coming up with euphemisms to describe his point of view, or coming up with a term to describe his philosophy? Would coming up with a term to describe his philosophy then validate his philosophy, by virtue of the fact that you either came up with a term for it, or that the philosophy was well known, and already had a term? Or would you still insist that this guy is wrong, that everybody knows 2+2=4, and that no amount of his rationalizing and theorizing was going to change that fact?

Is there any chance you might resort to characterizing him as stubborn, nutty or just plain contrary for the sake of being a pain in the ass? Or would you instead, label him, and refuse to try and characterize him because his belief system has a name?

Would you never conclude this person was imbecile, or stubborn or ignorant?

What if you discovered that this person had fiduciary links to the philosophy via a say, a TV-based religion, or a line of self-improvement books and tapes, and the guy was making a lot of money spreading this philosophy? Would that change your tact on any of the way you'd handle his arguments?

Just curious as to what you think...
I think I side with Anon on this one (as does SteveH). Allen raises some good points, but I think you go down the rabbit hole when you try to determine the motives behind some of these positions. Motives likely vary, but the nuttery is a constant.

Update: Mr. Person of Text Savvy has his taken on this imbecile business and threatens more to come.


Anonymous said...

Where did you get that photo? No, I really don't want to know.

The problem is that these views are so dominant - almost 100 percent in Ed Schools. On top of that, they feel so confident in their opinions that they do not hesitate to force them on everyone else. How did this happen? Usually in any field (including science)there is never such unanimous agreement.

You think they would at least say that this is their opinion and that others might rightfully feel differently. No, they get up in front off the classroom and tell very educated parents that MathLand is great and the people at www.mathematicallycorrect.com don't know what they are talking about. They really are not imbeciles; they are ignorant.

It could also be that they know exactly what they are doing. That is worse than being an imbecile.

Instructivist said...

I think that Allen is being overly literal. These educationists are not imbeciles in the clinical sense. They are imbeciles in the figurative sense of believing things that fly in the face of reason, common sense and evidence. Likewise, we might call someone an idiot for doing or believing stupid things even though that person may be educated otherwise.

Still, the question remains why educationists do and believe what they do. I think of them as cultists who get some nebulous spiritual satifaction of out educrap. After all, educrap wraps itself in euphonious rhetoric. It's not human nature to be cooly rational, analytical and empirical. Emotions, delusions and spiritual quest are the rule.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to take a stab at this (without conceding the point!). Why *do* we keep getting things like Whole Language and Constructivism
and Authentic Portfolios?

I think it is because more traditional approaches:
*) Can be tough to learn.
Empirically, some stuff is
just hard. A good teacher
will be "mean" enough to
force unwilling kids to
learn this material, but
this requires being "mean."
Most people don't want to be

*) Allow one to quantify the
amount of learning. Some
kids will do better than
others. Creating winners
and losers is "mean", too.
Portfolios are much harder
to quantify and seem to be
preferred for this reason
(note that the SAT is moving
in this direction with the
new writing component).

*) Allow one to quantify the
amount of learning (again).
Some teachers will do better
than others. Again,
creating winners and losers
is "mean", too.

Which eventually boils down to:

*) Given a choice, many/most
people prefer to duck
accountability. Whole
Language (can't test for
skill!) and Constructivist
Math (same deal!) enable

*) Most people don't like to
be "mean". Army bootcamp
drill sergeant is a skill
position because being mean
has a purpose. Most people
can't do it, and most
people don't want to do it.

So ... the new (except they aren't)
approaches let people duck accountability and also let them be nice. It makes things *easier* for the people doing the work than older/harder/meaner approaches.

The only real problem with this is that being nice and avoiding accountability often results in highly under-educated kids.

But the educators responsible won't be around for the reckoning.

-Mark Roulo

TurbineGuy said...

Natalie Solent has it pegged:

I would add that it can be boiled down to wishful thinking combined with ideology.

That is, first they succumb to the ridiculous notion that most people are intelligent. The average IQ of an American is 100, with half the population having IQ's of under 100. 100 is a low number, try having a serious intellectual conversation with someone with an IQ of 100, and you will be met with blank stares. Educrats in their ivory towers have not grasped this concept. They secretly cling to the idea that nurture is everything... if they just put enough books in a child’s home, if they just give enough positive reinforcement, if they just give the kids the opportunity that the kids will somehow miraculously gain 50 IQ points and become the next Einstein. This simply is not going to happen... people are for the large part un-curious idiots. Most people couldn't care less how their electricity is made, they just want to know that when they flip a switch, stuff works.

Society doesn't need a bunch of scientists, they need people who are capable of making informed decisions based on solid facts... facts which need to be taught to them in a methodological manner and reinforced many many times.

Anonymous said...

"The only real problem with this is that being nice and avoiding accountability often results in highly under-educated kids. But the educators responsible won't be around for the reckoning."

Good comments Mark. In our town, they keep on with the feel good education until they dump them into high school. Those kids are gone, and so are their problems.

Here is my variation of the Ed School fable.

Katie wants to be a (K-6) teacher because she likes kids and wants to work with the learning disabled. Everyone thinks that is wonderful, and that makes her feel good. She had trouble in math but feels that her difficulties will make her a better teacher. Her friend, Jill, who was always good in math, wants to become a math teacher in high school. They both go off to the same college. Katie takes mostly education courses, but Jill has to take real math and science courses in those departments.

The professors of education at this college, being "professors", needed to have their own academic turf to call their own. It couldn't be math. It couldn't be literature. Those courses are handled by the other departments. Of course, these professors were probably ones who were not interested in the hard sciences or even content-driven subjects like history.

What can they do?

Being a college, rather than a vocational school, the professors set out to define their own turf. They had to create their world, and it had to be a lot more than just the same old ways of teaching. It had to be new and important, with lots of research money and grants. It couldn't be about domain content and skills because they don't do that.

Ahhhh! Process. They will raise process up to the heights and sagely ponder the wonders of how the brain works and the many ways of multiple intelligences. (It doesn't matter whether or not they have the technical background to understand the scientific reports.) This sounds much more exciting at cocktail parties than courses on classroom management and testing.

Ahh! Testing. No more! Rubrics. Portfolios. Authentic Education. Now we're starting to raise our image to the level of the physics department. And while were at it, let's corner the academic market on social development in education. In fact, anything that revolves around fuzzy opinion is ours. That way, we can do research and get grants and nobody can prove that it's wrong - external forces! Poverty. Toothaches! What a formula!

So Katie dives right in and absorbs all she can about multiple intelligences and constructivism. It's all so scientific! People are doing research! Meanwhile, Jill is struggling with her math department courses, but she is making progress and learns real skills with tangible goals.

After college Katie and Jill go back to their old home town. Katie teaches third grade (using Everyday Math) and Jill teaches 9th grade math.

Katie is thrilled. The kids are so nice and everyone is working well together in their mixed-ability, child-centered groups. Katie has time to work with the slowest learners and she is proud of the way the advanced kids help out. However, she does not like testing. "Education is much more than 'mere facts'!". She also doesn't like how the school forces her to take time to prepare for standardized testing. "These are little kids!", she says. "Some kids are just not ready to memorize the times table."

Jill, up in 9th grade, however, notices that many of the kids coming into her Algebra I classroom struggle with the basics. These are not the top students, but then again, they are way above the lowest students. Jill knows what it takes to pass a calculus course in college and realizes that these kids should have been prepared better in the lower grades. She has to slow down her course and spend time trying to bring the kids up to speed.

Jill decides to talk to the teachers in the lower schools. They have to understand what skills are needed for Algebra I. She is told that she can't do that. "We have no authority over their curriculum." "Perhaps you can give them a talk and suggest that what the kids need are better study habits."

Jill is discouraged, but decides to talk to her old friend Katie. She will tell her what she can do. So Jill met with Katie and after a while got to the subject of math. Katie blurted out that she just loves Everyday Math. They get just a little bit of information at a time and the spiraling means that there is no pressure.

Jill is worried now. She tells Katie that it sounds great, but the kids are not mastering the basics and are having trouble in algebra. Katie starts to get defensive. "Math is much more that drill and kill." "My kids are learning mathematical concepts like place value and how it works with partial sum addition." The conversation deteriorates after this and ends with Katie telling Jill, "You just don't understand!"

So nothing changes, as the other high school teachers would tell Jill later. You just have to suck it up and try to get the kids to meet the 9th grade standards, but you can also join with us and complain that the tests are unfair.


Colleges of education don't teach any real content or skills, but they do have an opinion that is worthy of a college degree. If you take away their opinion, then they have nothing.

Anonymous said...

"The professors of education at this college, being "professors", needed to have their own academic turf to call their own. It couldn't be math. It couldn't be literature. Those courses are handled by the other departments."

Many ed schools teach their own "content" courses, so ed majors with, say, math specializations only have to take a few of these ed school "math" courses to graduate.

Redundant programs are de rigueur at universities, you know.

Anonymous said...

"Many ed schools teach their own "content" courses, so ed majors with, say, math specializations only have to take a few of these ed school "math" courses to graduate."

I know about this a little bit. Back when I taught college math and computer science, other departments (like nursing and education) didn't like the Math Department courses. They complained, but nothing changed, probably only because of money issues. I guess they've won this battle by now.

Anonymous said...

"Many ed schools teach their own "content" courses, "

Of course, for the record, there is little content in these courses, and absolutely none, if you limit it to college-level content.

Instructivist said...

Ed schols teach so-called method courses for the various subject areas, not the subject itself. Method courses like social studies were devoid of academic content in my experience. Math was better. Science was all hands-on activities without having to understand what one was doing.

Anonymous said...

"Ed schols teach so-called method courses for the various subject areas, not the subject itself."

I know of two large ed schools that teach their own content courses, much as departments teach their own stats courses.

Instructivist said...

Prof. Plum's shorthand characterization of ed perfessers that some find objectionable isn't just a whim. The good prof has done a lot of heavy lifting. See here: http://www.educationation.org/page5.html