28 November 2008

On bad science in education

Do read this disconcerting account of a medical scientist's attempt to get someone from an educational awarding body to explain the presence of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in an Edexcel Level 3 qualification in Health and Social Care. (The reference to Alan Sokal in the heading banner makes a tenuous link to the previous post.)

In brief the argument is that "it's not true and it doesn't work so you should not be teaching it." I have a great deal of sympathy with that argument, and it has particular potency in relation to alternative medicine (assuming that the positivist account is the only legitimate one). But go beyond the "health" component and start looking at "social care", and you will find very little which is demonstrably "effective" or "true". The corpus of "knowledge" in this area consists largely of best guesses and conformity with current values in the services, and not always shared by the population at large. It's not that there is a conspiracy to foist principles of "valuing diversity" or "empowerment" on any one; it is just that in the "care" arena no-one knows how to test and research the ideas. And it is not for want of trying.

(It's exactly the same in teaching—viz the egregious rubbish about "learning styles", and even "e-learning" which has been puffed over the past few years.) Until you have agreed and uncontested criteria of "effectiveness" or "truth", you can't aspire to a gold standard of what works.

The issue may not be about what is to be taught; after all, complementary medicine is out there and is big business, so it cannot be ignored. And social care has to work on some basis, even if we don't know which. Perhaps it ought to be about the stance which is taken towards it; why, for example, do many people—both practitioners and patients—believe that CAM works, even if the research (I know—they contest the methodology) says that it doesn't? They are not all charlatans and dupes, after all. The placebo effect is much more complex than is often portrayed, for example.

But—to come back to Edexcel Level 3 awards—can learners at that level (perhaps more significantly at that typical age) actually sustain that distanced stance. Must the wave of uncertainty collapse for them into true/false, right/wrong etc.? Some research suggests that it must.

Oh dear.

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