"...anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"
Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)
It's been an interesting year for evidence and belief. No, scratch that, it's been a depressing year. We've been shown, and left in no doubt, that people generally do not care about facts, truth and reality, and would rather stick to what feels right to them. The name for this phenomena is 'post truth', (Oxford's word of the year) which is defined as:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
So it seems, we’re now living in an era of ‘post-truth’. This came as something of a surprise to me since for the last 5 years I've been writing about linguistic and teaching practices that are widely believed despite having little or no evidence to back them up.
I work in EAP which is similar to language teaching but with an academic twist. One thing we have to do is to insist student know the value of criticial thinking and supporting ideas with evidence. We drill 'where is your evidence for this claim' and 'how do you know this?' Here are some of the things my EAP colleagues have told me over the years:
- Climate change is a hoax.
- Microwave ovens destroy the nutrients in food
- The moon landing didn't happen
- Wifi causes cancer
- Horoscopes are credible
- The earth is only six thousand years old
The people who espouse these views are well-educated and thoughtful people. They are not alone in holding beliefs like these. For instance, in order for homoepathy to work, physics would have to be wrong and yet it is a 6 billion dollar a year industry. So to my mind, we haven't suddenly slipped into a 'post truth' era, we've been living here for quite some time. Perhaps the only difference is how in-your-face it is, now? And are things really any different with regards to education?
Enough of experts
Brexiter Michael Gove when confronted with the fact that almost every economist thought Brexit was a bad idea said simply "I think people in this country have had enough of experts". Turns out he was right.
The denigration of experts is nothing new. Climate scientists have predicted dire consequences for us if we continue to put CO2 in the atmosphere. 97% of scientific institutions worldwide agree that human activity is causing this problem and yet 52% of Brits don't believe them (there's that number again). They've had enough of experts, they know better.
In a discussion with an ELT teacher about learning styles (see picture) the person in question told me that no amount of research could dissuade her of the notion that learning styles were real. She actually tweeted "Why I believe in learning styles despite what researchers say". How much more 'post truth' could you get?
At IATEFL one teacher trainer stated that he thought the TEFL world was getting too obessed with searching for evidence and trying to prove things. I found this quite a surprising claim since education seems to be one of the least evidence informed professions I can think of.
He went on to say he was suspicious of any claims that a teaching practice could be said to be proved to work. Interestingly, he also argued that teachers should just try something out in class and then reflect on whether it worked or not. I couldn't help but wonder since 'nothing can be proved to work' how teachers were supposed to know if what they tried in class had been successful or not.
Speaking of experts Brian Cox recently said:
“[cynicism towards professional expertise] is entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.
Caves are dark places, but they're also warm and safe.