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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 on April 18, 2012


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