Monday, 26 November 2012

Fantastic Dr. Fox

In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation tex2html_wrap_inline1393 under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'': this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the tex2html_wrap_inline1395 of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone


What you just read is complete and utter unadulterated nonsense.

But it's important nonsense.
 

Gobbledgook


The quote is from a published paper called "transgressing the boundaries" by a physics professor at New York University called Alan Sokal. Sokal had a theory that much of what was published in literature journals at the time as post-modernism was nothing more than meaningless pseudo-babble and he decided to test that theory. The essay was submitted to the journal "social text" and was published. Later Sokal admitted that the whole thing was a parody. This became known as the Sokal affair. The fact that what was essentially meaningless rubbish was published in a prestigious journal is the central theme of this post.

So ask yourself this question; would you be able to see through complex sounding hogwash if you saw it?

The answer is most likely "no".

As Ben Goldacre notes here, the use of complex terms and irrelevant but scientific sounding information tends to make it harder for non-experts to spot poppycock. This is a worrying finding for the field of TEFL in which teachers with very little training may have trouble distinguishing legitimate but complex descriptions of linguistic and mental phenomena (inverted pseudo-cleft sentences, lexical priming and voiced alveolar fricatives) from equally impressive sounding balderdash.
 
Jargon can often mislead people and  "blinding with science" really is a thing. In the same way that putting on a white coat, a suit or a uniform gives someone an air of authority, big words and fancy terms can cow critics and help to convince others of the legitimacy of an idea. So can "dressing up" daft ideas in TEFL help to give them more credibility?  Here's a quote from the Neuro-linguistic programing TEFL representatives Revell and Norman:
 

The Meta Model in NLP defines and challenges linguistic imprecision. It consists of a list of different kinds of distortions, deletions and generalisations (often called Meta Model violations) and a parallel list of suggestions for challenging them (= Challenges) The Meta Model is too large to be described here in its entirety...but we can start with prt of it known as the precision model. (English teaching professional)

 
NLP writers are not the only ones guilty of this. Swan in a piece criticising the directions of EFL, notes that at IATEFL the array of complex sounding presentations is a worrying phenomena which might be discouraging for new teachers and notes here that the balance between language teaching and those things which are peripheral to it seems somewhat off. In another article he charts the rise of this kind of terminology, which he describes as "impenetrable", during his days as a young teacher and adds that after grappling with these ideas he came to the conclusion that "If I couldn't understand a professional book, perhaps it wasn't my fault after all." 

 

Dr Fox



And it's not just laypeople who can be fooled. In the 1970s an actor was paid to pretend to be an academic; the impressive sounding Dr. Fox. He gave a completely meaningless lecture on the made-up subject of "mathematical game theory as applied to physician education" to a group of psychologists, therapists and educators. He practised the speech the night before and despite this, comes across as sounding very authoritative and crammed his speech full of intellectual sounding nonsense. The experiment was carried out three times and each time he was rated as being stimulating and those in the audience felt that they had learnt something from the lecture. I think that this is a cautionary piece of research for those of us in the TEFL world especially when watching conference speeches
 
 


Pluralistic ignorance.



One more factor which might stop you pointing out how awfully nude the king looks is pluralistic ignorance. Basically this is the situation whereby everyone secretly knows something is fishy, but they think everyone else is a believer and so are reluctant to stick their neck out and be the one to invite derision. Last year I was going to give a short presentation skeptically tackling reading skills and learning styles at a small EAP conference in the East Midlands. I ended up getting cold feet the day before and backing out. I had a horrible feeling that the room would fill with an embarrassed silence, my peers whispering "how did this guy ever get a job teaching EAP!?" I do regret that now because as the people who follow this website have shown me, I'm not the only one who thinks there are some dodgy ideas floating around out there.

I think we need to be less afraid to criticise sacred cows, common sense and received wisdom of EFL and education in general, it's very healthy for the industry as a whole. Science uses complex terminology because it talks about very complex ideas. Calling a negative thought a "meta model violation" doesn't, to my mind, move us any further forward and is just so much cargo cult science. We have no reason to try to outdo scientists or throw around impressive sounding words, -as English language teachers surely we should be skilled at, and proud of making things as accessible as possible. We need to be on guard against this kind of language, as "Tom" at Englishdroid writes:

superficially impressive jargon, when it’s not obscuring the bloody obvious is all too often obscuring the bloody ridiculous or at best highly questionable. Against such a background, is it any wonder that so many dangerously irrational and anti-scientific ideas flourish


 





 




 






4 comments:

  1. Great post and hilarious experiments. Just found your blog today through @michaelegriffin and have been working my way through the last year or so.

    Would have loved to have seen your aborted conference talk!

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  2. Thanks for your comment eltstew! Hope I can write some stuff you'll enjoy this year too.

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  3. "I think we need to be less afraid to criticise sacred cows"...
    Yes, I agree and we should encourage our students to critique them too! In-class discussions on referencing conventions have led me to want to slaughter the academic cow and invite my students to grab an axe!

    Is this jargon and unchallenged 'rules' (referencing systems have that many variations it makes me wonder) just an attempt to lionise those who use it and exclude those who don't. Isn't it some form of academic ostracism, to keep those inferior non-users awe-inspired? There's a great Calvin and Hobbes I like where Calvin reveals that writing can be an intimidating and inpenetrable fog and then exclaims, "Academia, here I come!".

    I'm sure Freire would have a field day on the power of jargon as a tool of oppression...now where did I put my copy???...

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    1. hi absolutely!

      The whole purpose of academia should be to question, shouldn't it? Not to just accept what someone says because they're a "big name".

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