Sunday, 16 December 2018

Woo watch: Science / fiction

I wrote about Carol Black's attempts to discredit opponents of learning styles as racists and sexists hereBlack's piece troubled me not just for it's unpleasant accusations but also because a number of sensible people told me they thought her argument was compelling. I think I understand why they think this. Black was a writer for The Ellen Show and 'The Wonder Years', both very successful US TV shows. She is clearly a very talented writer. I think that some commentators are possible confusing 'well written' with 'well argued'. These are very different things. 

There are at times some interesting observations in the piece but what there is is obscured by the poor reasoning Black employs to make her case. In fact Black's piece can be used to illustrate a number of well-known cognitive fallacies and techniques which are commonly used to make persuasive looking arguments in lieu of evidence. I will examine these in detail below. 

Teach the controversy

A popular technique of creationists who want to force their views on school kids despite not having any empirical support is to demand that teachers 'teach the controversy'. Unreasonable demands to include religion in science class are presented as merely teaching kids the 'full range of scientific views' and who could argue with that? The problem is that presenting things like climate change or evolution as a two sided debate is to seriously misrepresent the weight of evidence on each side. 

to be clear, I don't think what Black advocates is anything like creationism. The point is merely that the tactics are the same. Black wants us to teach the learning styles controversy. She accepts that there are "are extremely reputable scientists on both sides of this debate". She's just asking for a fair hearing -and who could object to that?

The problem is that Black has already made up her mind and no amount of evidence is going to convince her otherwise. So what we see in her post is the pulling on of any strand, no matter how unpleasant, in order to bolster her preconceived beliefs. In short, this is a masterclass in motivated reasoning

Despite claiming there are reputable scientists on both sides, she is happy to make the argument that 'debunkers' are mostly men talking down to women. She ignores the fact that her 1/3 of the panel of "respected scientists and education researchers" who agree with her, are also male. She also ignores female researchers, like Lethaby and Harris or Rogowsky, Calhoun and Tallalall women and all 'debunkers' of learning styles. This omission is particularity ironic in a section in which she is complaining about Willingham "failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views."

So does the existence of researchers who still carry out research into learning styles mean it's wrong to say to say LS shouldn't be dismissed? There are two problems:

1) There are lots of researchers in education who continue to promote the idea of learning styles. In my field, for instance, some of the most famous in fact; Hyland, Oxford, Nunan, Brown, Richards and so on. There had been no articles in the ELT research literature which were critical of the idea of learning styles, until 2015 when researchers published a critical piece. since then pieces continue to be published promoting learning styles. The pro v anti count is, I would guess, about 100:1 at this point. This tells us exactly nothing about the veracity of the claims of these writers. 

2) Black implies that as some researchers have published on topic X then topic X is still up for debate. To try to show the problem with this idea, here are a few examples of recently published papers. 

  • Another paper suggesting graphology might help with depression. Again this was published in 2018 in a journal with an actual impact factor. Does this mean the debate about handwriting analysis is still ongoing? No, it does not. 
The homeopathy example is especially interesting in light of this tweet. 

Black bristles against the idea that LS should be considered on a par with  something like homeopathy yet the identical arguments she makes for LS could be made for homeopathy.  As noted above, legitimate researchers in good institutions continue to research homeopathy and publish their results in fairly reputable journals. 

So why is Black so dismissive? Why is she "failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views" about homeopathy? The answer is that Black has an ideological investment in the idea of learning styles that she does not have in homeopathy. Science and evidence only matter to her when they can be usefully marshalled to defend things that align with her worldview. 

This is a frequent feature of Black's work. In another article she dismisses all the research evidence about phonics teaching because her home-schooled daughter didn't seem to like the approach. It should go without saying that anecdotal evidence is not good evidence. Black writes:  
The “scientific consensus” about phonics, generated by a panel convened by the Bush administration and used to justify billions of dollars in government contracts awarded to Bush supporters in the textbook and testing industries...
Science is "science" when Black disagrees with it. When in produces results she agrees with it becomes plain old science again. Note too in this quote that Black attempts to poison the well by linking phonics to the educational boo words of 'textbooks' and 'testing'. That Bush convened a panel and that billions of dollars were awarded to various companies tells us very little about whether the conclusions of the research were valid or not. I do not know very much about phonics research but if Black wanted to persuade me she was right, a few links to good research would do far more than innuendo and smear. Learning that Einstein was a racist does not mean E no longer equals Mc2. 

Argument from popularity 

Black claims that because a lot of people believe in learning styles there must be something to them. She writes that 'Most people believe they exist, of course (including the vast majority of teachers)' but does not provide any evidence for this claim. She is, as it turns out, correct as Dekker et al (2012) and others have shownBlack is not the first to make the claim that popularity indicates validity. Hatami and Stobart have both made that argument in ELT literature. 

The problem with this argument, as I've noted several times on this blog, is that believing something doesn't make it true and increasing the number of people who believe in a thing does nothing to increase the possibility that it is true. A lot of (the same) people who believe in learning styles, believe in left brain and right brain learning. They also believe that humans only use 10% of their brains. A huge number of people believe in the Christian God and an equal amount believe in Allah. They cannot both be right. Should we look into penis theft or Korean fan death if enough people believe in these phenomena? 

The retort to this is usually to claim that those things 'are different' somehow and learning styles is more credible. Those wishing to make that argument should therefore tell us exactly which popular views should be taken serious and which ones should not and what criteria we are to use to know the difference. Black could start by telling us why, despite its popularity, she is so dismissive of homeopathy? 

Argument from authority 

Another technique that Black employs is the argument from authority. Authors who agree with her are "respected scientists and education researchers" with "legitimate competing views". Whereas most of those who criticise learning styles are mentioned only by name, her favoured researchers are presented in their full academic pomp:
Li-Fang Zhang, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Education Psychology...
...And, as it happens, the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology chapter on "Cognitive Styles" by Harvard researcher Maria Kozhevnikov says the same thing. Researchers Carol Evans (University of Southampton), Elena Grigorenko (Yale), Stephen Kosslyn (Keck Graduate Institute), and Robert Sternberg (Cornell), agree.
No mention of  'Daniel Willingham (Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia). Instead his ilk are "male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational", "patronising" and speaking with a "paternal [sic] tone". The attempt to discredit learning style pundits by reference to their gender is of course also an ad hominem as their maleness (or whiteness or whatever) has no bearing on the truth of learning styles. 

Burden of proof 

Black attempts to dismiss Willingham and Pashler's work as being too simplistic and thus not capable of showing the reality of complex creativity classrooms. The issue with this position is the following:

  • Person A claims that learning styles are real and can help with students learning. 
  • Person B tests this claim and finds it false 
  • Person A says the tests were not sensitive enough to find the results 
  • Person B tests again with more sensitive tests and still finds it false
  • Person A says the tests were STILL not sensitive enough to find the results
Can you prove there isn't a teapot orbiting the sun? It's too small to be seen by telescopes but I'm sure it's there. Prove me wrong! This analogy is known as Russell's teapot and Bertrand Russell proposed it to show that the burden of proof rests with the person making the claim. At what point should person A accept the responsibility to provide evidence for the claim they are making? If no tool is sensitive enough to measure the effects of learning styles in the classroom on what basis can they be said to be useful?


Black claims she wants to DISMANTLE arguments that learning styles are a myth. If she really wanted to do this she could have simply done, or linked to, good experimental research showing the effectiveness of the approach. Instead she has marshalled arguments from authority, popularity, and has attempted to discredit opponents with accusations of racism and sexism. What's clear is that research and academia are tools and props for Black to further promote her worldview. For her, citations are so much cargo cult academic decoration.  

When Black is building her case against 'debunkers' she writes that people like me argue that "cognitive biases, emotions, denial, irrationality, etc., are what prevent untrained people from accepting this conclusive body of scientific data." Ironically, in this case, she's absolutely right. 


  1. I'll add one further critique. Published articles that use learning styles as a construct are not articles on learning styles research. That is, they are not attempting to measure their existence. Instead, they take learning styles as a manifest, real construct and use it to measure other things. Those things, therefore, are being categorized and measured by something that may not exist.

    I have not looked carefully at her references, but if she is counting articles like these as support by learning styles scientists, her premise is even further undermined.

    1. good point. You are abolsutely right about most ls articles.

      I briefly looked into her references and the ones I saw did not use Learning styles in anything like the VAK sense (which is the main educational one). I would've looked into in more but really why bother? If she really wants to 'dismantle' this stuff good research would be much more effective.