Saturday, March 28, 2015

Systematic rational failures and SLOs: part I

     I am particularly interested in rational failures that are attributable to communities of experts or to groups in some sense guided by experts. These failures are interesting if only because one naturally supposes that intelligent and specially trained thinkers would avoid serious and systematic rational folly, but such is not the case.*
     Examples of this kind of group error include the problem of increased instances of fraud in scientific research (no, not especially regarding climate change) in recent years and the problem of bias toward positive results (failing to publicize negative results) in scientific journals. (See also the File-drawer effect.)
     Some so-called expert communities are themselves a kind of systematic rational failure: consider the benighted “education” community’s efforts to develop a “culture of evidence.” None exists now and none is ever likely to exist, so benighted and removed from fundamental notions and standards of evidence or logic (e.g., the importance of replication) are educationists. It appears to me that the field of education is both dismal and pernicious and requires the radical step of being burned clean to the ground, permitting a new start, from scratch, on a bare, clean surface, devoid of people with Ed.D. degrees. I volunteer to bring the matches. (See Scientific Culture and Educational Research.)
   
     THE SELF-ESTEEM MOVEMENT. Education—e.g., the world of education reform—is loaded with examples of systematic and catastrophic rational failure. For instance, years ago, people in the state of California, open as they are to new age notions, got it into their heads that “self-esteem” is the key to our children's success and well-being. (Essentially, the idea—the “SE philosophy”—is that kids with high self-esteem succeed/flourish, those with low self-esteem fail/decline. Hence, kids with low SE need to be caused to have high SE.) A kind of SE movement developed, culminating in a bizarre effort, in the state of California, to set up an evidential foundation for the SE philosophy, a first step before promoting high “self-esteem” in children independently of their efforts and accomplishments. The California Task Force on the Social Importance of Self-Esteem was funded in 1986; it published its report, entitled The Social Importance of Self-Esteem, in 1989.**
     Some of the details of the contents of the report and California's embrace of SE are interesting. According to the late experimental psychologist Robyn Dawes (in his landmark House of Cards),
     In the introduction to the [report], the editor sets the tone by suggesting that we already know that high or low self-esteem as a causal variable leads to desirable or undesirable consequences respectively. He writes: “Intuition also tells us that both benign and vicious cycles characterize various levels of self-esteem and their supposed behavioral consequences.”

He continues:

     Low self-esteem is the causally prior factor in individuals [sic] seeking out kinds of behavior that become social problems…. Or, as we say in the trade, diminished self-esteem stands as a powerful independent variable (condition, cause, factor) in the genesis of major social problems. We all know this to be true, and it is really not necessary to create a special California task force on the subject to convince us. The real problem we must address—and which the contributors of this volume address—is how we can determine that it is scientifically true.
     That is a rather remarkable statement.
     Let me interrupt to endorse that last remark. Yes, very remarkable indeed!
     Dawes continues:
     We “know” something to be true, and what we must now do is to “determine” that it is “scientifically true”—by showing that self-esteem is in fact an important causal variable…predicting behavior…. There appear to be two types of truth involved here. The first is the type of truth we know prior to seeking evidence and independent of evidence, while the second is the type that arises from evidence. The purpose of the second is to confirm the first.
     Let me interrupt to say that the kind of “reasoning” that Dawes is describing here—we might call it the “intuited truth” view of reason—is widespread, even in academia. And it is beyond pseudoscientific. It reflects an utter failure to understand the concept of evidence.
     Dawes seems to agree. He goes on to write: “For most of us…the purpose of evidence is to determine what is or is not in fact true or to modify our prior beliefs.”
     I hope Dawes is right about that (“for most of us”), but I sometimes wonder. The failure to grasp the simple idea that belief should be determined by evidence (and not by such things as pre-evidential “intuition”) is very common, I think. I have certainly encountered this failing often among academics, though not uniformly.
     So, from the start, we see that this “task force” effort is problematic. The report was written by people who “knew” what was true independently of the evidence (by some sort of intuition), and who then sought evidence to “back up” what they “knew” to be true.
     Yes, you say, that’s pretty silly. But such silliness will wither and die when confronted with the facts—if, that is, the evidence points us away from our “intuition”!
     Absolutely nope. As Dawes explains, the authors of the “Self-Esteem” report were not deterred when they could find no evidence for their intuition (when, in truth, they found evidence against it).
     Dawes explains:
     The problem faced by the editor and contributors is that what they “know” to be true turns out not to be “scientifically true.” The editor himself telegraphs this conclusion when he writes: “One of the disappointing aspects of every chapter in this volume (at least to those of us who adhere to the intuitively correct models sketched above) is how low the association between self-esteem and its consequences are in the research to date”….
     This is very odd. If, as the SE philosophy insists, low SE causes failure and high SE causes success, then there should be a correlation between low and high SE and failure and success. But research finds no such correlation. Surely the task report responded by abandoning their thesis?!
     But they didn’t.
     One part of the SE philosophy concerns SE’s causal relationship to child abuse (the idea is that a child’s low self-esteem causes him to be an abuser). The editor of the report acknowledged that “There is insufficient evidence to support the belief in a direct relation between low self-esteem and child abuse.” Further, he acknowledged that “Low self-esteem should not be perceived as the primary cause of child abuse….” Finally, he recognized that “There is no basis on which to argue that increasing self-esteem is an effective or efficient means of decreasing child abuse….”
     It comes as a surprise, then, when he asserts:
Policy interventions to reduce child abuse that involve increasing self-esteem should be encouraged and should include interventions at the individual, family, group, community, and societal levels.
     Wow. You want it to be true, and so it is true, 'cause you just "know" that it is true, even if the evidence says otherwise.
     Wow, wow, wow. Lemme turn in my membership in the human race right here and now.
     Dawes examines the various chapters of the report and concludes:
…[W]e are left with a task force report that does not support the basic idea that self-esteem plays a causal role in determining various social behaviors, let alone that government programs designed to enhance self-esteem will have salutary social effects. … The California task force has performed a valuable service, but not the one it intended. Rather, it created a volume of work demonstrating that the Holy Grail of pop psychology [namely, the SE philosophy] is nothing more than a mirage.
     The accomplishment of this impressive service did not prevent the task force from moving forward with their thesis and promoting self-esteem along with the rest of the dopes of the state of California. We’ve all seen the results, with students inexplicably proud of their skills and abilities, staring uncomprehending upon receiving low grades and lousy scores.
     Amazing but true: despite the evidence to the contrary, many in our state evidently embrace the thesis that the cause of low performance in our educational system was “low self-esteem” among many children.
     Wow.

* * *
     THE "WHOLE LANGUAGE" READING INSTRUCTION PHILOSOPHY. Another example of catastrophic rational error in education is California’s on-again/off-again embrace of the “whole language” reading instruction technique. The core idea of the WL philosophy seems to be that, since those who have mastered “reading” read whole words and phrases (and do not detect and assemble word parts), instruction should, from the start, emphasize whole words and phrases and not the parts. The empirical evidence, however, suggests that, whatever its intuitive appeal, approaches to instruction that (exclusively) teach “whole” words and phrases are less successful than approaches that teach phonetic parts and their assembly. Nevertheless, there are important groups within education who have continued to insist on the “whole language” approach despite the evidence. Some argue that California’s embrace of WL has been disastrous for education in the state, which does poorly compared to other states. (See Whole Language. I should mention that, over time, the war between proponents of WL and “phonics” has increasingly been seen as a false dilemma, that, though the phonics approach is indeed important, elements emphasized in WL also have a place in good reading instruction. The WL crowd is not happy with this judgment.)

* * *
     That brings us to the topic at hand: what are we to make of the “SLO” philosophy that drives so much in higher education these days? Is it all just another rational error of the "systematic" and "catastrophic" variety? (Yep)

* Part II coming soon *

*It would be an error to read this post as expressing a general skepticism toward science or, more generally, toward the pursuit of knowledge. In particular, I am no skeptic regarding the methods and claims to knowledge in the natural sciences. Obviously, such phenomena as occasional fraud and unintended bias toward positive results in journals (etc.) are consistent with general health in the relevant expert communities (i.e., fundamental mechanisms for reliability—peer review, etc.—continue to function). I have no doubt that scientists will increasingly address and resolve these particular difficulties. 
**Please note that I'm not attacking self-esteem or high self-esteem. I am certainly not saying that children shouldn't have high SE! But I insist (as does Dawes) that the possession of high SE should "reflect reality"—that is, high SE should be the product of sustained effort on the part of the child. Students should be encouraged and enabled to see the world such that they are motivated to achieve (appropriate) things and thus to try. That trying is the proper basis for the having of high SE. Skipping the effort part and, instead, getting kids simply to regard themselves highly is absurd and idiotic and a recipe for disaster.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Roy. You've just made an excellent parallel case against climate change junk science. In hindsight we see that the significance tests were way off. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude any causality as pure coincidence. Nevertheless, the same situation has occured where although the scientific community who yearn for a certain result has been proven wrong, they still manage to prescribe that man and nations change their behavior, and that governments emforce it.

Roy Bauer said...

8:22, the cases are not even remotely parallel. The case for anthropogenic climate change does not rest on some initial "significant tests." Get with the program, please.

Anonymous said...

Yes, obviously, the fraud to which Bauer refers is not about climate change science. It is a general phenomenon that has not reached the proportions to justify a skepticism toward science.

Anonymous said...

8:22, Bauer provides a link to an article discussing fraud in his post. Did you bother to read it? Of course not.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like b.s. Dianetics.
Check your thetan.

Anonymous said...

I do see a parallel, Roy. I think 8:22 makes a good point.

Roy Bauer said...

As usual, no argument, no specifics, just assertion.

Anonymous said...

The climate change scientists predicted that in 15-20 years the Oceans will rise a half inch, the average temp will rise a few degrees, the ice caps will completely melt and polar bears die off. None of that has happened, in fact, the opposite has happened. Therefore, what they predicted was of no significance. That is as good as cooincidence. The second point is that even though there is no scientific evidence, those who wish climate change were true inform and advise public policy as though it were true.

Roy Bauer said...

7:01, no one wishes that climate change were true. The question is: what does the data (and interpretation thereof by the relevant sciences) suggest? That scientists two decades ago made predictions that have not come true does not establish that currents judgments (re the occurence and cause of climate change), based on richer and better data, are mistaken. Obviously. Save your sophistry for the rubes. There's no conspiracy here, just the honest judgments of the relevant scientists, where one finds consensus.

Anonymous said...

So, 7:01 tells us that the predictions that "the average temp will rise a few degrees, the ice caps will completely melt and polar bears die off" has not happened--"in fact, the opposite has happened."

This statement is either a calculating and cynical lie, or the product of a significant obtuse fool. Just the sort of person the Kochs love.

Anonymous said...

Obviously 1:37 is just a little toady for 7:41. Who wishes...? The people who benefit from the climate change hoax, of course. People like G. Soros, A. Gore, ya know, all those whacky control and tax freaks, those whacky libs. It's not supposed to be about consensus, but science, Roy. A bunch of people who are wrong that share the same consensus does not make the results correct.

Anonymous said...

8:46, significance tests are needed to establish causality; the degree of association or correlation. Without them one cannot claim "science" with a straight face. Common, you should know that.

Roy Bauer said...

"Significance tests," eh? You don't have a clue, do you? Tell about the conspiracy. Who's in charge? How do they get the word out to all those college professors? Inquiring minds wanna know.

Anonymous said...

I love how the wing nuts love to trot out Soros and Gore as some sort of evil influence peddlers. The men state their positions clearly, for the betterment of the planet, and and Soros puts a relatively few dollars into his causes.

These guys are pikers compared to the Kochs and Adelson, who throw multi millions into shadow campaigns and dark money, subverting the system. And of course we have the propaganda arm of the party--Fox "news."

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see. So, money that goes to support conservative constitutional causes is automatically deemed "dark," dirty and evil while liberal causes, clean and just. How do you square that view with all that dark, dirty, foriegn money Hillary has been taking in from governments that peresecute women? In some twisted way, to you this does not seem unethical, nor subvert our democratic process?

Roy Bauer said...

Re the appeal to "junk science" in dismissing the notion of Climate Change: if you examine the history of the notion of "junk science," you'll find that a central instance of it is not the suggestion that climate change is occurring (that suggestion is "science," owing to the existence of consensus among relevant experts); rather, it is the suggestion that climate change is not occurring and that human activity is not contributing to it. See for example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junk_science

Roy Bauer said...

10:10's comment appears to be a response to 10:27's comment, not to this post

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