Monday, 5 November 2012

Cargo Cult Science

One of my favourite stories about human beliefs is the story of Cargo Cults described here by Richard Fenyman:

 In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. (1974)

The whole piece can be heard here and is well worth a listen. He goes on to talk about cargo cult sciences and includes education among them. A cargo cult science is one which emulates science, but only superficially. So is applied linguistics guilty of being a cargo cult science? Well at times it doesn't cover itself in glory. One thing I'd like to look at here is the use of supporting quotations in EFL writing. 

Citations are obviously necessary and useful for identifying sources and avoiding plagiarism but I'm a bit suspicious of some of the ways in which they are used at times. There follows a couple of examples of what I'm talking about. Recently writing a piece on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) I came across this odd discovery:
NLP claims to help achieve excellence of performance in language teaching and learning, improve classroom communication, optimise learner attitudes and motivation, raise self esteem, facilitate personal growth in students and even change their attitude to life (Thornbury 2001:394)

This quote is from a paper by Millrood (2004)  promoting the use of NLP among EFL teachers that appeared in the ELTJ.  What I would like you to think about is, what function does a quote like this serve? If you're anything like me then you probably innocently assumed that page 394 of Thornbury's article contains some glowing recommendation of NLP or at least, a description of NLP that mirrors the one above. Here is the reference in question:
More often, the discourse of therapy is interwoven into quai-humanaistic and anodyne concern for personal growth and social hygiene....Personal growth in this kind of discourse [NLP] is often associated with improved self-esteem, but it often seems that it is as much the teacher's self esteem that is being targeted as that of the students. Unsurprisingly, NLP literature can only be found in the self-help section of book stores...a strong health warning should be attached to therapeutic practices when applied to non-therapeutic situations.

Now I've edited this a bit, for example Thornbury doesn't think this is a reason not to use these kind of techniques, but the tone of the section could be fairly summarised as cautious and critical. There is also a reference to NLP, which does mention some of these factors but it is Thornbury quoting another author, and so should probably appear as  secondary citation. So then what exactly is the function of Millrood's citation? The first problem is that it only tangentially resembles what Thonbury wrote. Secondly, anyone reading the first article would assume that Thornbury was quite upbeat about NLP which seems quite far from the truth. We could argue that the word "claims" exculpates Millrood, but why include the Thornbury reference in a piece which promotes NLP and is not in any way critical of the practice? The only reason I can think of, is that the name of Thornbury adds a certain weight to the quote. But I'm ready to be corrected.

Another slightly different use of quotation which worries me is when the "authority" has been discredited or is somewhat dubious. Takeo Doi was a Japanese writer who wrote about a 'uniquely Japanese' phenomena/emotion called "amae" Doi's work is highly influential though it's not at all clear why. He didn't test his theories nor did he produce any evidence for this unique Japanese behaviour.  Critics suggest that Doi's ideas are unsubstantiated nihonjinron (theories of Japaneseness): 

[Nakae and Doi] rarely supported their arguments with objective information. Instead their claims of Japanese uniqueness are mostly supported by stories episodes personal anecdotes Japanese specific language expressions and other kinds of examples. (Mouer & Sugimoto 1986; Sugimoto & Mouer 1982 quoted in Kubota 1999: 754)
Dale (1986) is even more critical of Doi noting that numerous sections failed to appear in the English translation because ‘the logic is so circuitous that, were it included, Doi’s whole programme, with its semantic juggling, would have been exposed to withering ridicule.’ (1986: 132)   The notion at the centre of Doi’s work that since the term amae does not exist in Western languages it must be a uniquely Japanese concept is harshly criticised by Dale who notes that Doi only knew two European languages.

Yet Doi appears unquestioned in TEFL literature. For example, in an article on the 'the acquisition of communicative style in Japanese' (1992) Clancey examines conversations between Japanese mothers and children in order to highlight the Japanese communicative style which she characterises as 'intuitive and indirect especially compared with that of Americans' (1992:213) Clancey then cites Doi to orientate her theory noting that 'The Japanese view of communication arises from and contributes to amae.' (217) Somehow calling upon an authority figure gives this spurious claim more weight and once published, in turn, further retrenches Doi's position as an authority figure. 

If you only read Clancey or Millrood, you would not have the slightest inkling that there was any contention about the theories of amae or NLP. Putting quotation marks, the name of an expert and a page number in an article like this is the same as wearing coconut headphones, sitting in a bamboo air control tower and waiting for planes.  You might look the part, but you're missing something crucial.


Clancy, P.M (1992) The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese in schieffelin, BB & -Ochs, E. (Eds) Language Socialization Across Culture Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dale, P. (1986) The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness. Oxford: London. Nissan Institute, Croom Helm.

Doi, T. (1981). The Anatomy of Dependence English Tokyo: Kodansha

Kubota, R. (1999) Japanese Culture Constructed by Discourses: Implications for Applied Linguistics Research and ELT TESOL quarterly 33(1), 9-25.

Millrood, R. (2004). The role of NLP in teachers’ classroom discourse. ELT Journal. doi:10.1093/elt/58.1.28-37

Thornbury, S. 2001'The unbearable lightness of EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402





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