Educational Research in Practice, 1

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

I liked the introductory chapter 1 and want to share two criticisms.

p 3
... working [doing research] on the basis of inadequate or false assumptions could result in unnecessary difficulties, delays or even invalid outcomes. [bold mine]
The word "even" here is used to emphasize something surprising or extreme. But it wouldn't be surprising or extreme if one's false assumptions led to false outcomes for one's research. The passage would work better with "even" deleted.

p 3
What people do in the name of research is influenced by their assumptions about knowledge...
Our own assumptions about the growth of knowledge draw on the philosophy of Karl Popper...
The correct word is "ideas" not "assumptions". "Assumption" is a negative label suggesting lack of rational consideration. But our research can be influenced by our well-considered ideas -- which may still be mistaken -- rather than by assumptions. And Swann and Pratt's own views about Popper are not assumptions but things they've thought through.


The rest of this post is about chapter 2, "A Popperian approach to research on learning and method", which is by Swann.

p 11
Personal and broader social purposes sometimes conflict, as in the seemingly rare cases in which researchers falsify findings in order to further their reputation.
But is falsifying research an effective way to achieve personal success or fulfillment? Not at all. It's a terrible and ineffective approach. The approaches which actually work personally are also good more broadly -- there is no conflict.

Whether or not there are conflicts of this type is an important issue. If there are, they are insoluble problems because there are legitimate interests on both sides, and the meaning of conflict here is that both sides can't get what they want, so at least one side has to lose, and if someone loses that isn't a solution.

But all problems are soluble as explained in The Beginning of Infinity, and this is important to liberal political philosophy. If there must be winners and losers, that implies there will be force. There can't be a way to agree on who will be the losers because no one will agree to lose. Conflicts of interest means persuasion can't be a universal method of conflict resolution -- as liberalism wants it to be -- and therefore opens the door for the use of force.

(Force is something like the opposite of persuasion. And there isn't a neutral, middle ground, similar to how actions can't be partially voluntary.)

Further, the idea of such conflicts contradicts the idea of objective moral truth. Either there is a best thing to do -- which, being the truth, everyone can agree to and which is best for everyone -- or there isn't. To say there isn't an objective moral truth is basically to say that men must struggle for the outcome best for them and bad for others, and fight over who shall win. And that they have no way to resolve their differences by persuasion, because persuasion requires reference to one truth.

The very concept of criticism is about deviation from the truth. If there is no truth, there can be no criticism. If there are multiple truths best for different people, then why should you care if your ideas deviate from my truth? We'll each offer criticism with regard to the truth we care about, and we won't persuade each other.

So it's important to deny that there are any conflicts of interest, even in rare cases. People do sometimes believe there are conflicts of interest, and have conflicting ideas, but that is a mistake and they can get past it by learning better ideas. And if they do get past it, they will be better off and it won't hurt anyone.

A good source for persuasive arguments against the conflicts-of-interest idea is The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand (chapter 4). Another good philosopher on this topic is William Godwin (who, by the way, did educational philosophy around 1790 that is still ahead of its time today).

pp 14-15 has a good summary of part of Popper's epistemology. Two things I would add are discussion of explanations and that the majority of criticism of scientific theories is arguments not experiments. The approach of criticizing ideas with arguments does not set philosophy apart from science.


p 15 says the word "knowledge" in the education field is often used to mean "true belief". I found this comment a little odd. The usual description of the conventional view of knowledge -- by both its advocates and opponents -- is "justified, true belief". Why omit the "justified"? Do most educational philosophers drop it for some reason?


p 15 follows Popper in using the word "theory" to refer to all sorts of ideas (including things not always considered ideas such as "implicit assumptions and unstated expectations"). I think this is a mistake because the word "idea" is better suited to the task.

p 15-16 attributes the invention of the idea of induction to Francis Bacon. But Popper blames Aristotle and considers it a much older idea. Swann doesn't tell us why she differs from Popper here. I wonder if she's aware of his The World of Parmenides (see e.g. p 265) (there are a lot of Popper books in the bibliography, but not this one).

p 19
Central to understanding a Popperian account of learning is the recognition that learning is often - indeed, mostly - an unconscious activity, implicit in situations
I agree and want to add an example. When we have conversations we have to learn what ideas the other person is trying to communicate. There is no other way to know them but learning what they are. Like all learning, it must be done with trial and error, guesses and criticism, piecemeal refinement and improvement of ideas. We can't simply know what they are talking about, we must think and learn and figure it out.

But we aren't normally aware of all this. Most learning is an unconscious activity.


p 20
What distinguishes a learning organism from a non-learning organism is the ability of the former to acquire new expectations, that is, expectations which are not purely the outcome of genetic inheritance.
I think Swann overuses the concept "expectation". Not all learning is the creation of new expectations. Learning is about creating all types of new ideas, not all of which are expectations. Some are new perspectives on problems, others are new mathematical derivations, others are understanding of what a conversation partner is talking about. Expectations are an important type of idea but not the only important type.

I do not, however, think that Swann's criterion turns out to be wrong. Due to universality (see: The Beginning of Infinity), organisms either can use the method of guesses and criticism to create new ideas of all types, or can't. If it can create new expectations then it's using a universal method and could create other new ideas too. Because it's an all-or-nothing issue, looking at capability in one area turns out to reveal the whole answer.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 2

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

(Still in chapter 2) p 20 amused me by quoting Popper saying "All life is problem solving" and specifying page 100 in the cite, even though the quote is also found as the book's title.

Some more general comments: so far I'm finding the writing pretty clear and not meant to impress, haven't found appeals to authority, haven't found anti-human sentiments, and have found the statements about Popper's ideas pretty accurate (by contrast, most Popperian books are wildly inaccurate when they talk about Popper's ideas).

For example some of the criticism of induction is good. Swann comments that David Miller is better qualified to defend Popper's philosophy but I think she underestimates herself. So far I like her writing on this topic better than Miller's. I hope Swann hasn't been dazzled by math and logic and a more authoritative writing style.

I'll give two comments on Miller here. One I posted previously (btw if you like my comments on Popperian writing, you'll love this older post with a lot more of the same regarding a bunch of different authors):

http://curi.us/1503-critical-rationalism-essays-for-joseph-agassi
David Miller / How Little Uniformity Need an Inductive Inference Presuppose

Discussing induction with formal symbols and a formal style does not suddenly make it interesting. Popper refuted it more than enough times, and this isn't even a refutation. Most of this is tedious analysis of many possible meanings of sentences inductivists have uttered. It also comes to a conclusion about how the more evidence you have, the less strong of an inductive principle is needed. This is a vaguely pro-induction conclusion which Miller follows up by insulting induction for some reason. And anyway it can't be true unless Popper was wrong about induction's non-sequitur status, e.g. this whole argument presupposes you can have positive evidence for statements which actually you can't.
My other comment is about Critical Rationalism by David Miller. On page X, Miller describes Popper's epistemology, as explained in _The Logic of Scientific Discovery_ as "falsificationism". He also explains Popper's epistemology in section 1.2 "Outline of Falsificationism" in which he focuses exclusively on science and speaks of rejecting ideas from science when he means rejecting them as false.

But science isn't the only legitimate field and any good epistemology ought to be general purpose: it ought to reach to all fields. Popper's epistemology does work for all types of knowledge, and presenting it as being specific to only science is a mistake.

Falsificationism is a bad description of Popper's philosophy because it has been repeatedly misunderstood as meaning to justify theories by how well they withstand criticism and their rivals don't.

It's also bad because it is taken to mean empirical falsification to be used only in science -- which it often is used to mean -- but most criticism is not empirical even in science (as David Deutsch has pointed out in his books, e.g. with the example of the idea that eating grass cures the common cold, which we reject without testing). And because of Miller's heavy focus on only science, I don't even know if he meant only empirical falsification or meant criticism in general -- that ambiguity is another flaw.

And, finally, "falsificationism" a bad description because Popper himself explicitly rejected it in print! In Realism and the Aim of Science, p xxxi, Popper says, "... my views on science (sometimes, but not by me, called 'falsificationism') ..."

Back to Swann's book, I was also glad to see Popper's schema included (though I don't like abbreviating the terms, and have expanded them below):
Problem 1 -> Trial Solution -> Error Elimination -> Problem 2
Also I didn't find any anti-Popper stuff like advocacy of justificationism so far. Maybe it's sad that that's even worth mentioning, but it matters and a lot of people don't even manage that much.

The comments on what a problem is on p20 are good. Including:
The educational implication of this alternative view [of problems] is that the teacher's role should be construed in the context of problems that originate with the students (hence the idea of student-initiated curricula, discussed later in the chapter).
p 20
When problem solving involves learning, a greater degree of creativity is involved
But all problem solving involves learning. How can a problem be solved other than creating knowledge of what the solution is? Or in other words we solve problems by learning what would solve the problem (then there's also doing it, which is trivial with sufficient knowledge and only hard when our solutions are inadequate or incomplete).

p 20
Within a process of learning, there are two points at which creativity is entailed: at P, when a mismatch [between expectations and reality] is turned into a problem (as mentioned above), and at TS, when a solution to the problem is devised. [P and TS refer to Popper's schema: Problem and Trial Solution]
But the Error Elimination step in the schema also involves creativity. We must think creatively to come up with good criticisms and find mistakes and also to think of good experimental tests.

p 21
Although the logic of learning applies equally to human learning and to the learning of creatures such as cats, dogs and chimpanzees, the scope of our learning is, of course, considerably greater than that of other creatures.
But cats never learn anything. All their knowledge is biological, they don't create new knowledge. All cat behavior can be explained without attributing learning capability to cats.

We also see here the common view that ability to learn comes in degrees. But it doesn't. How can the method of learning -- guesses and criticism (aka conjectures and refutations) -- come in degrees? Either something does the method or doesn't. And if it does do guesses and criticism, what is to limit learning? The method is powerful enough for all types of learning.

And Deutsch's explanations about universality are relevant here.

p 21
Two significant features distinguish us [humans] ... our facility for descriptive and argumentative language ... and ... our creation of and interaction with a world of objective ideas
I'm a little confused now. If only humans have ideas, then what does it mean to say cats learn? How does learning differ from creating good or useful ideas, in Swann's view? If Swann agrees a cat can't create new ideas, then in what sense does it learn and what does that have to do with the usual concept of learning?

Trying to guess what could be meant: sometimes people abuse language and say things like that computer hard disks learn, and try to refer to all information storage as learning. Cats do learn just as much as computer hard disks do: they store information and later retrieve it for use in computations. But that isn't learning in the usual sense that humans do. Swann has not made this mistake and hopefully won't.

Previously Swann tried to explain learning in terms of gaining new expectations. Cats, however, never gain new types of expectations that are not already defined by their biology/genes. Dogs will make a better example here since cats don't do as much. When we teach a dog a command like "sit", "stay" or "fetch" it's easy to confuse that with learning. But it isn't going beyond the dog's biology. But it sort of looks like it is. I'll explain:

When we teach the "sit" command the dog remembers it (stores information) and seems to gain a new skill. And we could try to phrase this in terms of creating a new expectation: the dog now expects that after hearing "sit" it will get rewards for sitting and complaints for walking around.

But the whole thing is scripted by the dog's genes. The "teaching" process for the command, the storage of information, the retrieval of that information, the behavior algorithms that take into account that information when present. Dogs don't actually have expectations in the human sense: they aren't actively thinking and wondering about what will happen and coming up with ideas and predictions and expectations. Rather, dogs don't think, they just run computations like Microsoft Word or Angry Birds. Those computations compute what behavior the dog will perform, taking into account input data from both the dog's senses and memory (information storage).

If you try to teach a dog a trick that doesn't fit with its genetic programming, you will never succeed. If you try to teach a dog to form an expectation that white has a large material advantage in a chess position it can see then white will usually win unless it's an odds game or white is about to get checkmated or something, then the dog will never be able to create that expectation. Dogs can't create expectations in general, they can only store information that is taken into account by the algorithms that control all their behaviors.

p 22 makes some points connecting Popperian epistemology, and a rejection of conventional epistemology, to education. I agree and think this is important. For example it points out that the following list of common ideas about what learning involves are wrong:

  • direct instruction from the physical or social environment
  • direct copying of what we see
  • the exact replication of something we have done previously
  • the accumulation of confirming evidence
However then p 22 says:
The case in support of a Popperian position, and against the common assumptions stated above, is complex.
But it's a non-Popperian mistake to judge issues by how much "support" they have or to believe ideas can be supported at all. That is justificationism!

The book then provides some references and leads for getting further information and moves on to the topic of attempts to apply Popper's ideas to education in the UK. Taking Children Seriously, David Deutsch's Popperian educational philosophy, is not mentioned.

Swann gives a list of things she thinks should be avoided when promoting learning (p 23):

  • restricting autonomous activity
  • discouraging confidence and desire
  • penalizing the discovery of error
  • offering inappropriate and inadequate criticism
  • offering 'unwanted answers to unasked questions' (Popper 1992b[1974], p. 40)
  • using objectives-based (in contrast to problem-based) planning and evaluation
What is inappropriate criticism?

And what is inadequate criticism for that matter? Our ideas, including our criticisms, are never perfect. We always use and learn from flawed criticisms.

I agree with the others.

Swann goes on to talk about "safe" learning environments without explaining what "safe" means. She also, in the same paragraph, praises a "critical attitude towards ideas". So presumably "safe" doesn't mean never being told you're wrong, as some people might mean it. But what does it mean? Does it merely mean that no one should be mean or hurt each other? Does it mean no "inappropriate" criticism, whatever that is?

p 24
A distinctive feature of the approach we have adopted in our own educational practice, and advocate in our publications, is the development of student-initiated curricula, whereby students are responsible, with tutor support, for devising their own learning programmes based on their own self-formulated learning problems.
It's good to allow students to do this. But what if they don't want to? Making them responsible for doing this sounds bad to me. I think they should have the option of using default curricula as much as they want, and using their own as much as they want, too.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Educational Research in Practice, 3

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

This post finishes discussion of chapter 2.

p 28
If, for example, a team of teachers wishes to improve its teaching of literacy, it is insufficient for the teachers merely to learn more about literacy. At some stage they will have to implement change and evaluate the outcomes.
Evaluate the outcomes? How and why?

Wouldn't it make more sense for students to evaluate their own outcomes and then choose the educational help and methods they find most useful? Why should the teacher be the one deciding what goes on and evaluating what is good? Teachers should be helpers not directors.

Many outcomes shouldn't be evaluated at all. For example, it is immoral to whip children for low test scores. Suppose a school ends whippings. And finds that over the next 2 years, average test scores decrease. So what? Should they start whipping kids again? If something is immoral, stop doing it whatever the outcome.

Many school policies are immoral and should be halted without concern for whether the teachers evaluate the outcomes positively or not.

If you give kids freedom, many of them will not focus on doing the thing that get them positive evaluations from their teachers. But the purpose of freedom is not to get high teacher evaluations -- it isn't to please others. Freedom lets people please themselves.



Chapter 2 offers a lot of generality about improving education but doesn't bring up many concretes, like these:

- most children do not like school and do not want to attend. making them attend is therefore immoral and the situation is not suited for learning anything. learning works best in voluntary situations because the learner must take an active role and can't be forced to do that (if he's being forced, the forcer is taking the active role)

- most children do not like tests or homework. but teachers impose these on students anyway, disregarding the students' preferences

- many children disagree with the moral values behind the evaluations (by the people in charge) of their life outcomes -- in other words they may not wish to be what their teachers (or parents) want them to be

- teachers commonly pressure students to participate in class, such as by answering the teacher's questions in public, even if the student doesn't want to

- many children are unsafe at school, due to bullies (more broadly, due to dealing with other children in a situation that isn't based on voluntary association), and have other stuff to worry about besides education

- children are expected to show up at school on a regular schedule even if their preferences about how to spend their time don't match that schedule. even children who like school have days where they would prefer to do something else. teachers are not sympathetic.

- school authorities routinely betray children. for example they say things like, "if you have a problem (like another student being mean), tell a teacher". but most teachers aren't particularly helpful most of the time. so some children try to solve their own problems that their teachers aren't solving for them. then, sometimes, they are punished for taking initiative and self-defense.

- teachers have a great deal of arbitrary authority and sometimes use it, sometimes very badly

- initiative and confidence are valuable in life, but schools teach kids to ask permission from authority to even use the bathroom

- schools typically expect students to follow a lot of instructions (often quite exactly and rigidly) and are intolerant of people with different ideas about what to do

- there is a conflict of interest when the same person does both teaching and testing or evaluation on a subject. If I give the lectures and also write the test, then I have to try to be "fair" about how closely the test matches the lecture material. I have to hold back on how helpful my lectures are so the test isn't too easy. In a better situation, I would do my very utmost to make the test easy with my lectures, and there would be no problem because I don't know exactly what's on the test and it isn't my responsibility to look out for the interests of the test maker.

- school tests often use simplistic question types such as multiple choice. success can come from test taking technique rather than topical knowledge. but whenever teachers try to grade anything without clear objective criteria for scoring, there are severe problems with arbitrariness and, from the student's point of view, vagueness about what is being asked of them.

- teachers commonly refuse to answer student questions. there is an idea that it's bad to tell kids the answer, even if they specifically ask. teachers routinely thwart their students in even the most basic ways.

- the interests of all the students in a class are far from identical. yet they are subjected to the same activities and course material

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 4

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

Chapter 3 is by a postmodernist, Elizabeth Atkinson. I chose not to read it. I did take a look at the start where she states the main points of what she means by postmodernism that she advocates. Here's what it's like:

p 35 opposes and scare quotes "certainty" and presents postmodernism as a voice of dissent against too much certainty. It also says the author does work to do with "social justice".

p 36 has a list summarizing postmodernist ideas. Here is the complete list:


  • resistance towards certainty and resolution
  • rejection of fixed notions of reality, knowledge or method
  • acceptance of complexity, lack of clarity, and multiplicity
  • acknowledgement of subjectivity, contradiction and irony
  • irrevernce for traditions of philosophy or morality
  • deliberate intent to unsettle assumptions and presuppositions
  • refusal to accept boundaries or hierarchies in ways of thinking
  • disruption of binaries which define things as either/or
So if you were wondering how postmodernists see themselves, now you know.

While I appreciate the goal of criticism, I disagree with their values like: lack of clarity, not resolving issues, ambiguity ("multiplicity"), rejection of philosophy, and rejection of values (disrepect for morality). And I do not think unclear criticisms that don't resolve any issues are valuable, so I don't think that really leaves anything to like.



Chapter 4, by John Pratt, says on p 54
A Popperian approach has an important benefit for research into policy. Policy is concerned with doing things. In policy, it is important to do the right things. Policy-makers need to choose policies that are likely to be successful. Merely to experiment is dangerous, and, in this context, even immoral.
If one wishes to take a Popperian approach, first one must understand Popper's epistemology. But Pratt does not. This passage says to act on probabilistically-justified ideas rather than unjustified conjectures. It says it's dangerous to act on ideas without enough epistemic status, and that epistemic status is a matter of probability.

But Popper is the philosophy that taught us epistemic status and justification are mistakes. And that we are fallible and do not know how good our ideas are. We can't justify our ideas as true, nor as probable. And we don't need to in order to act.

The Popperian method is to act on ideas that survive criticism, not ideas that are "likely to be successful". Popper repeatedly emphasized that surviving criticism does not make ideas likely to be successful.

Lack of understanding of Popper by self-declared Popperians -- even ones who do understand a fair amount -- is common. Here's Swann, earlier on p 30
Recognize that although it might feel good to find evidence that supports an idea, the discovery of such evidence plays no direct role in learning.
One can see here an intention and attempt to be Popperian. But this statement assumes, contrary to Popper, that there is such thing as evidence that supports ideas. Popper refuted the concept of epistemic support.

Back to Pratt, he continues not to be a Popperian, e.g. p 55, immediately after quoting Popper we're told:
...we should have some grounds for believing that the outcomes of policy will be what we hope...
This is seeking "grounds" or in other words foundations or support for one's ideas. That's just the sort of thing Popper primarily criticized and rejected. E.g. Popper's comments about science being built on a swamp in LScD, with no solid ground underneath.

p 55 also arrogantly claims that "I and others ... have gone beyond Popper..." Don't you need to catch up to Popper first? Otherwise you're not going past him but simply in a different direction.


If you want to be a Popperian, that's great, but please study Popper adequately first. What's the point otherwise? Popper has valuable ideas to teach, but only if one makes the effort to learn them.

I realize that people can understand parts of Popper, and benefit from this partial understanding. Pratt learned something from Popper about a problem-centric approach to life. That's good. But people ought to pay more attention to the limits of their knowledge. Knowing about one's ignorance gives one the option to do something about it. If one wants to be a Popperian, then it's important to be self-critical about how well one understands Popper or one will never achieve his goal.


Popper's most important idea, and largest contribution, was his non-justificationist epistemology. This challenges and corrects many of the assumptions of virtually everyone. Philosophers would do well to take note.



Chapter 5 is by a Hegel quoting Marxist who thinks discussion between Marxists, neo-Marxists and postmodernists will be fruitful. No further comment.



Chapter 6 makes no mention of Popper. It is in favor of science having a role in educational research. It ends on pp 95-96 with a list of "Key points we wish to convey to new researchers":


  • Develop a solid understanding of critical meta-theoretical issues in the philosophy of science.
  • Do not adopt a radical postmodernist view of science.
  • Reject the incompatibility thesis.
  • Understand that scientific research can involve either quantitative or qualitative data (or both).
  • Learn how to develop a clearly defined research question that stems from a well-developed theoretical framework.
  • Always let the research question dictate the research methodology, not the other way round.
  • Follow Quine and Ullian's dictum that 'whatever there is to be said can, through perseverance, be said clearly
  • Avoid naive, retrograde empiricism (that is, hypotheses without theory)
  • Learn the basics of research design and statistics, even if only to understand the published research of others.
  • Realize that educational research is more than just telling stories or analyzing discourses.
Pretty basic and agreeable.




Chapter 7 starts out by saying Western ideas are biased and hinting they are bad. It talks about the Maori a bunch and doesn't mention Popper. No further comment.


Chapter 8, p 119
In place of the scientific generalization, which states what is, I have introduced the idea of a fuzzy generalization, which states what may be. With this perspective it is possible to generalize (in fuzzy terms) from a single case.
So it's like induction but with more making up whatever you want without any pattern, and even less clarity. This guy would do well to study Popper.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 5

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

Chapters 9-12 are dialogues, each with one Popperian and one other person. I found them strange to read. To begin with, there isn't enough back-and-forth. People will sometimes speak for a page or two without interruption or comment. By the time the other person speaks, many issues have been raised, most of which will never be analyzed. I thought people talked past each other a lot and glossed over some details.

Sometimes Joanna Swan would ask the same question several times. She wanted to get people to talk about what sort of concrete ideas they had about what to actually do differently. But it was hard to get much out of them. And when people speak a lot at one time, and space is limited, you can only ask the same question a few times before the dialog is over.

The way people speak is also interesting. It's full of a ton of big words and pretty vague (the non-Popperians more so). I think it takes a lot of effort to learn to speak that way. And it's one of the things which (rightly) marginalizes academic discourse. Why don't people speak more clearly and straightforwardly? Some reasons are:

  • That'd lower their prestige, make them seem less like experts visiting from ivory towers
  • Sunk cost invested in learning bad approach
  • It'd make their ideas easier to criticize by anyone
  • They have nothing important or useful to say and need to hide this
  • It's a tradition with momentum. Whoever changes first will have a hard time
  • Speaking and thinking well and clearly is a skill which has to be learned. That's hard
  • Learning to think well and clearly would involve learning lots of ideas with some general purpose use and this would actually imply abandoning positions like postmodernism or Marxism. A clear speaker advocating such bad ideas would be a contradiction because clarity of thought leads to improving one's ideas to the point they aren't Marxist/etc
  • The process of learning to speak in the obscure academic way is difficult and people have to mess up their psychology to succeed at it, and then that keeps it entrenched
This is all a bit ironic given they were talking about things like how postmodernism loves to dissent and challenge established views.

One of the things that stood out to me was how people use their allegiance to some position as part of their argument. Like, "I can't accept X because one of the premises of postmodernism is Y, and I'm a postmodernist." It was closed minded. People shouldn't just pick camps and stick to a single camp. They should try to openly improve any of their ideas in any way, piecemeal, even if that means not having a clear identity as a postmodernist or Marxist or other group member.

p 131 says, "Postmodernism simply cannot accept this, although it offers useful conceptual tools..." But shouldn't the issue be what's true? (Actually that particular thing was a straw man. The postmodernist was eager to create disagreements and found an easy way to do that: by not figuring out what Popperian ideas are about and attacking a bunch of straw men, e.g. the idea that knowledge floats around in the ether and that all people have the same values.)

Chapter 12's dialog was a big attack on Popper which I don't think was handled very well. It was very silly and involved replacing all assertions with fuzzy assertions: rewordings of claims to make them irrefutable due to added vagueness. Basically instead of saying, "X will happen" you say "X might happen". Or instead of saying, "X causes Y" you say "X might cause Y, sometimes". Or instead of, "The laws of physics say inertia is universal and applies to all objects and motion" you say, "Inertia is an idea that might happen sometimes". By avoiding all bold or even meaningful assertions, one has a ready-made way to disregard all refutation.

If we aren't going to make useful statements in the usual way, what will the replacement be? Authority. "professional assessment" (p 165, italics in original). Everything is a "might" and then the authorities get to assess how likely stuff is.

It's weird how people mix together what seems like an epistemology of skepticism -- saying we don't know anything solidly, all our ideas just "may" turn out right sometimes -- with an epistemology of authority. BUt I guess there is a sort of logic to it: if you don't get any knowledge from rational means, but you still have to life live, make decisions, etc, -- things skepticism fails to help with -- then what's left? Irrational approaches like authority.


Chapter 13 by Joanna Swann and John Pratt advocates an approach to educational research involving: purpose, rigour, imagination, care for others, and economy. All good things. One of the interesting points, I thought, is that you should pick a problem you want to solve and then figure out an appropriate research method to address your problem. Apparently some people do it the other way around: they come up with a research methodology then go looking for a problem it can address. That's a little like people who take words and then go looking for concepts to use to define them. It should be the other way: first have a clear concept, then pick a word or phrase to denote it. Whenever someone asks, "What are qualia?" or "What is consciousness?" they have things backwards -- they are starting with a word instead of a concept and trying to find the concept second.


p 203, in the glossary, discusses induction
As Hume pointed out, there is no logical reason to assume that the future will be like the past.
I don't think this is the best criticism to make. People read this as saying the future can't be proved to be like the past, but they think it still will be. Actually, the future is always like the past in some ways, but not in other ways. A large part of their mistake is selective attention: when they think the future will be like the past, or "things will continue", they have in mind some things and aren't thinking about other things that will change in the future and not continue.

It is this selective attention which lets them falsely believe that the future will be like the past in most important/relevant/notable ways, even if we can't prove it. But that's wrong. The laws of physics will be the same in the future, but our knowledge of physics will be different. Both are important.

What it comes down to is that induction tries to use a general principle -- the future is like the past -- which does not hold generally. So that's a big problem. It doesn't just go one way or the other in all cases, in goes both ways. What we have to do is come up with reasons that the future will be like the past in selective ways, explain our reasoning, and critically evaluate it. In so doing, we'll find that in many ways the future will be different than the past -- which is good, that is a requirement for progress.

Inductivists constantly forget that there is more to life than what they are parochially focussing on, and in addressing induction it's crucial to remind them of that. By simply saying there is no logical reason for their position, one isn't addressing their selectivity mistake. They are still going to see ways the future will be like the past which they have good explanations for, and they will be right not to be too concerned if those explanations are logical proofs. And as long as they aren't also noticing the ways the future won't be like the past, they will be confused and not realize that figuring out which is which is a big step instead of something to just assume.

The glossary goes on to explain several Popperian ideas about induction, but doesn't discuss this point which I think is crucial.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)