Scientists regularly contend with irrational denialism of simple facts. In our classrooms, communities and the media, we hear patently absurd things like:
- The world isn’t getting hotter, or even if it is, it’s not from carbon emissions.
- Humans didn’t evolve from nonhuman ancestors.
- Transgenic foods are unsafe.
- Vaccines cause autism.
Any scientist who operates on the basis of evidence will regard those ideas as total bunk*.
But, as I’ve mentioned before, people aren’t rational beings. Especially when their emotions are involved (and they usually are), they’re not prone to think an expert is correct if their intuition tells them otherwise.
So I am not entirely surprised, but I am disheartened, when scientists are guilty of their own flavor of denialism: Education Research Denialism.
Here’s a selection of things that I’ve heard many scientists claim to be true:
- If a lecturer is good, then student attention span does not wane over the course of an uninterrupted hour-long lecture.
- If you ask a question to your class, students learn just as much from volunteering to answer by raising their hand, compared to having all students discuss their answer with the person sitting next to them.
- Active learning methods only increase student learning if the professor isn’t good at lecturing.
- Whether a professor is likable does not affect student learning
Based on my familiarity with the education research literature (which is admittedly selective and heavy on secondary sources like these two), it seems pretty clear that those statements above are patently false. Research has shown them to be untrue. Counterfactual. Not correct.
If you’re one of the (many) scientists who denies some of the above facts, then what’s the reason for this denial? Here are my guesses that might apply:
- You reject the validity of education research that created these facts.
- You reject the notion that published education research findings can apply to what happens in your own environment.
- You trust your own experiences, intuition, and non-peer-reviewed personal investigation over the findings published by education experts who do this research for their careers.
- You suspect the research is driven by an pre-existing educational agenda and that the studies were conducted in a way that cannot adequately refute findings that go against the agenda.
- Education research is so filled with jargon and tautological ideas that it’s not possible to generate findings that outsiders can find to be objectively true.
- Education researchers have to pretend that their findings are novel and important to get funding, earn money as consultants, and to advance their careers.
- Educational researchers are all talking to one another so closely that they are in an information bubble and are not willing to consider outside ideas.
- There is a social pressure among the education community to accept these ideas as true because it would be “politically incorrect” to say otherwise**.
- Many people have been operating under the notion that that this education research is not true for a long while now and everything seems to be going just fine.
- What constitutes educational fact might just be a matter of personal belief, and your sources of information are widely held and respected and are more valid than the relatively new educational ideas that might be short-lived.
Now, I ask you to browse through items 1-10 again, but this time, read them and whenever you see the word “education” you substitute it with “science,” and whenever you read “educational,” you substitute it with “scientific.”
Aren’t these the arguments that you have to suffer from from your science-denying uncle-in-law at family events and on Facebook?
The reasons that scientists deny education research findings are the same reasons that other folks deny scientific research findings.
If you think that scientific research is fundamentally different than education research, and that what we learn from the field and the lab is different from studying human beings within the classroom, how about we heed the words of Jeremy Yoder: “If you are, like me, someone who studies things that are not humans and you’re interested in studying humans, you absolutely need to talk to people who do that for a living.”
A non-scientist denying scientific results isn’t all that different from a non-education researcher denying educational results.
Yeah, there is a lot of annoying jargon pushed by corrupt consultants with big egos who misuse information to push their own agenda. Do you think that the previous sentence is about scientists or education experts? Hmmm.
Next time you find yourself talking about what works in the classroom and what doesn’t, you don’t want to find yourself saying, “I’m not an expert researcher in the field but…” because that’s precisely what republicans are saying on Fox News every day about evolution and global warming. Consider whether your argument is more valid. And if so, can you couch it in a way that has more credibility?
Do I believe everything that education researchers tell us is true? Of course I don’t. Because knowledge isn’t a matter of belief. I don’t believe in education research any more than I believe in global warming. There are just a bunch of facts that I accept on the basis of evidence — and to some extent, yes, taking the word of experts.
I haven’t done the phylogenetic reconstruction to confirm for myself that the closest extant relatives of whales are hippos. But you know what? I’ll take their word for it. I haven’t run all of those experiments to show that after fifteen minutes, students start learning less in a lecture. But I’ll take their word for it.
It’s okay with me if you feel like denying education research, but if you do, the quality of your argument better be a helluva a lot better than the silliness you hear from science deniers.
*Just in case you didn’t get the memo, let me be really overt that those statements above are wholly, entirely, factually incorrect. Each one has a mountain of evidence supporting the exact opposite. People burning carbon are making the world hotter. Humans are evolved from other apes, and even from unicellular organisms. There’s no evidence showing that transgenic foods (like “GMO anything”) are a risk to human health, and many studies so no association between vaccines and autism, and the one study that had purported such a link was retracted because of falsified data.
**Whatever “politically correct” means. I think it just means treating people with respect.