Pseudoscience and Confirmation Bias

PhrenologychartI take the train into London every day, and I must say I enjoy the experience on the whole. I have time for marking, reading, and of course writing blog posts. On the vast majority of days, the trains are punctual. But occasionally something happens: someone falls on the line, or a freight train holds up the express passenger service. I look around me sometimes when such incidents occur, and see people shaking their heads and muttering ‘typical’. Because of course, British trains are rubbish, aren’t they?

And then there’s British weather. There are often spells of sunny, dry weather, but as soon as it turns wet (to the relief of the farmers), the moaning begins. Because it’s always raining in Britain, right?

Confirmation bias is our tendency to find proof for that which we already believe. Even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, we will tend to filter it out, and focus in on factors which bolster our cherished ideas.

This tendency to seek out proof is one of the major reasons that pseudoscience has succeeded so remarkably in taking hold of our education system in recent years. Remember that pyramid with percentages about how much pupils retain of what they read, hear, teach to others and so on? Those percentages are a complete fabrication. And yet they were thrust down our throats by management at a particularly doctrinaire comprehensive at which I worked a few years ago. When I explained to two senior managers at the school that their proof was mere fiction, they ended up by saying that regardless of the actual validity of the statistics, it just sort of fitted into experience that pupils would remember little what they had heard. And so the campaign to stop teachers teaching or pupils listening continued, untroubled by the need for any evidence to justify its experiments on the minds of the young.

Make no mistake about it: the evidence is in favour of traditional methods. But even before the discoveries of modern cognitive science, or the recent overwhelming proof of the efficacy of direct instruction, educators should have been more sceptical about the claims of progressive theorists. Surely it is our duty as educators to be cautious in the extreme about innovation, until it can be conclusively proven to be effective? Without this healthy scepticism, we could end up inflicting any old unproven trendy fad on the minds of those in our care.

Above all, we must be convinced that reason and objective evidence are more important than mere anecdote. G K Chesterton once said that once people cease to believe in God, they start to believe in anything. We could broaden this and say that in the last fifty years, educators stopped believing in objective truth and reason, and so they started to believe in anything. Thus it has been that for ideological reasons with no basis in objective fact, the darkness of ignorance has been inflicted on countless young people.

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6 thoughts on “Pseudoscience and Confirmation Bias

  1. Thank you – this made me think very hard. What follows is jumbled – so please don’t take it as a refutation or denial of what you have said – more (I hope) as an extension of what you have already said so clearly.

    Is there a touch of confirmation bias working at the end of this piece? I see no problems with your account of the way that any old data or anecdote will supercede apparently robust knowledge or evidence in a fight with belief.

    What I find less easy to follow is the confidence of your assertion that “the evidence is in favour of traditional methods”, aligned with your anecdote about a school you worked in.

    My contrary (but not at all simple or coherent) position is that teaching is a highly complex and contested activity. Very little of what happens is simple or discrete enough to assert that it “works” or “doesn’t work”. Teacher behaviour is only one of many forces at acting on how learning happens, what children are learning or at what levels of personality, knowledge or skill development they are at or aiming for.

    What ought to be learned, what must be taught, what the organisational context of schooling is and how children are likely to respond in the long term are, taken together, so fundamentally entangled that a genuine answer to any serious question about teaching or learning in school has to start with a long intake of breath followed, tentatively, with the phrase, “well, it depends…” Neither tradition nor recent research findings are likely to replace the never ending search for enlightenment.

    I would wish for a school system where all teachers were active researchers and learner s at some level as part of their whole lifetime’s professional work.
    Perhaps only the need to keep searching is constant.

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    • Obviously this post was not intended to offer an explanation of the proof that traditional methods work best. For this, you could try reading Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Seven Myths About Education’, and for more detail about progressive fallacies, E D Hirsch’s ‘The Schools We Need’.

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    • I think that the real issue is that traditional methods and strategies did work. Maybe not for 100% of the students but for the vast majority. That many have been thrown out in favour of what is ultimately opinion, conjecture and baseless suggestions is the problem with the progressive approach.

      Anecdotes litter the ideas and theories which are based on them and real experience is not considered. In this way progressive approaches are experimental but those who employ them tend to develop an emotional attachment to them. Take nurture groups – it is based on one teachers experience of dealing with one child. Boxall reported it as positive and started to use a range of assumptions which now are very much part of the ‘nurture’ approach. However, there is nothing to back this up.

      Studies into this are full of confirmation bias, and do not provide evidence that for the idea of ‘nurture’, which favours the emotional development over all other types (academic, social, spiritual), with any evidence. Neither is there any critical analysis or thought to the impact on the child, the class, or in the long term of such as approach. As late as 2013 Ofsted published a report into nurture groups where much of the data was missing from the schools that were supposedly following best practice. In addition, they were asking for a longitudinal study – this is 40 years after these ideas and millions of pounds have been spent on them.

      This is merely one example. Innovation has its place in education but what the progressives have tried to do is to dismantle the traditional approach to teaching and in its place we have pseudoscientific fads and misinformation.

      The biggest single failure of the progressive approach is that it is based on assumptions that are based on quite a lot of middle class prejudice about poor children and their parents, low expectations, a drive towards the emotional needs above the academic (with no proof of that this is really needed or desirable in a school setting) and a failure to take on board empirical evidence which is anyway contrary to the ideological position. Progressivism (which doesn’t really deserve the name as there is nothing progressive about it) is a reductive theory which dismissed millennia of human experience in favour of a set of ideas about children which are based on figments of their imagination. Their idea of ‘childhood’ is just as socially constructed as the Victorian idea for example and stems not from the experiences of children but from what they think children should want. Peter Pan syndrome at its best.

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  2. I am neither for nor against traditional methods (although I am not sure what counts as “traditional”) but thanks for the references, I shall follow them up. I was interested in your use of the confirmation bias idea to suggest that there was an antidote for its power while seeming to have your own confidence in an established set of techniques. Science in its broadest sense is a domain of systematic (and unending) enquiry rather than a store of knowledge or certainty.

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    • The antidote to confirmation bias is to seek genuine evidence, not just anecdotal evidence, for any theory. We can have practical certainty based on this, even if we don’t yet know everything about something. For example, I have practical certainty that the law of gravity exists, and I act accordingly. I don’t jump off cliffs. But scientists have not yet explained what exactly gravity is.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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