Sowing division, and other distractions
Why people object to truth-telling and what this means
There’s only one way to tell the truth but countless ways of objecting to it.
I have been on Twitter since June 2012 and for that entire time, education pundits have complained that it is not what it used to be - that it has fallen from a pristine state when everyone used to politely debate the issues and is now full of boorish vulgarians. These tend to be the same hypocrites who, although inclined to write ‘be kind’ in their profile, resort to personal attacks or even threats to contact an employer within about three tweets of the most innocuous disagreement. And that’s fine because they are the good guys. Politeness standards only apply to the bad guys.
When I was a child, I used to visit my grandfather on a Sunday evening. He was a retired chainmaker and communist who admired Joseph Stalin and who wanted to abolish the monarchy. After sandwiches, made with leftovers from the Sunday roast, and a chat, sometimes about politics, we would switch on the television. If it was a variety show and a performer was spinning plates, right on cue, my grandfather would exclaim, “The things some people will do before they go out and work for a living!”
Examining Twitter, I am sometimes minded to exclaim, “The things some people will do before they actually respond to the argument!” Rather than disagreeing with another person’s claim, something that can be done dispassionately, they will do pretty much anything else, and that includes leveling accusations that the person making the argument has the wrong politics.
To misquote Paul Graham’s excellent essay about online disagreement, if a paper coming from a ‘right wing think tank’ or having ‘a lot of self referencing’ means that its authors make incorrect conclusions, then it is far more convincing and useful to point out what these are and why they are wrong. If not, it does not matter.
Although elements of Twitter have remained constant over the years, I have not. In my early days on the platform, I spent a lot of time pointing out people’s bad arguments. I suppose I thought they just did not know that they were engaging in logical fallacies and by informing them, they might make better and more useful criticisms. But this was never going to work. Once a person has publicly backed themselves into a corner, they will hardly ever budge. Instead, they twist and turn, find irrelevant points to make, redefine words, escalate, question motives, refer to sources that are publicly unavailable, become nasty and generally do anything that does not involve conceding the point.
In about 2015, it started to occur to me that I was never going to be able to convince these critics and that I did not need to. There are a handful of people publicly making arguments on Twitter but far more who are observing the debate. These are the teachers who work each day in classrooms, who are trying to do their best for their students and who are looking to resolve some of the paradoxes of teaching. These are the folks who turn up to researchED conferences, introduce themselves to me and demonstrate a detailed grasp of the issues, even though I’ve not seen them involved online. They are the ones who email me, sometimes to express support, sometimes to ask for advice.
They are not swayed by bad arguments. And why should they be? When a critic cannot explain why they disagree with something and instead contorts themselves into one of these other postures, the critic is tacitly admitting the strength of their opponent’s argument.
And once you start discussing education research, a funny thing happens involving a specific kind of pose. Say, for instance, you point to empirical data demonstrating the effectiveness of explicit teaching, you may find that instead of directly challenging this data, you will be accused of being a ‘positivist’ or you may be invited into a discussion about ‘epistemology’. Essentially, you are being asked to consider whether data is even appropriate to a discussion of education.
Obviously, data is perfectly appropriate and you know this, but it’s enlightening to consider what is going on and why ostensibly intelligent people would bother with such transparent absurdism.
Science has been a powerful tool for progress because everyone agrees on the rules of the game. Firstly, science has built structures to actively foster disagreement, making use of the fact that although we are vulnerable to biases, we are excellent at spotting other people’s errors. And scientists agree how to resolve these disagreements. If I come up with a hypothesis, test it against reality and find it is not supported by data, observations or other empirical facts, it must be rejected. That’s it.
This is because science has won the battle against relativism - the idea that there are many truths and no objective reality. Education has not won this battle. Far from it. It has no clear means of resolving disagreements and is ambivalent about whether disagreements are even a good thing - are they not just different truths?
This is why a large amount of education research, perhaps the majority, is utterly worthless. It is manufactured out of the ether. It goes something like this: A French philosopher once made-up the concept of ‘conceptivism’ and so a researcher has applied the concept of conceptivism to a set of interviews he has conducted with three pre-service teachers or maybe to an autobiographical reflection. It is as untestable against reality as it is futile.
Without the corrective effect of testing against reality, there is no way disagreements can be satisfactorily resolved and there is no means of pruning the bush of ideas. Unconstrained fields multiply and bifurcate. This serves the needs of those involved and of nobody else.
Because it has no self-corrective - or rather because it accepts no means of self-correction or even the possibility of it - it is difficult to improve the field from within. The best alternative is to build something new, in parallel to the old structure that is based on firmer foundations. That is what we need to do.
For my part, I will continue to share my thoughts and challenge bad ideologies that damage kids. If those from the old system want to debate with me on the substance of my arguments, are not too tedious and can refrain from involving my employers, then fine.
But it’s not really them who I am talking to.