The Others



Medicines stupid people use (nb., I'm not one of them).

“How can skeptics have a dialogue with homeopaths?” Michelle asks that modern well of insight and wisdom, ‘Yahoo’. “[W]ithout pointing out the stupidity of their arguments? I’m thinking about the paranoid ramblings about big pharma as well as the ignorance of simple science.”

Ignoring for a moment the framing of Michelle’s query, I was interested to scan through the responses for a solution two centuries of debate on the topic might have overlooked.

“Crucially, homeopaths lack the educational level to understand how their potions can only be water,” says Dave, a top contributor. Another top contributor says, “They only start with the fallacies to avoid providing evidence – so no matter what they crap on about, keep dragging them back to evidence.”

“Never argue with an idiot, they’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience,” says Flizbap 2.0.

And on it goes. There are some that advocate avoidance of engagement without resorting to well-poisoning or flippant antagonism, but for the most part the advice involves engaging in a behaviour anthropologists and other social scientists refer to as ‘othering‘.

Regardless of the intentions, the practice involves judgments of inferiority or impeded progress based on observations of contrasting social beliefs, behaviours and values. It is born of ethnocentrism, where observations are made with the assumption that one’s own experiences define what is objectively desirable. The result is a sense that a group of people, ‘them’, is inferior to one’s own company, or ‘us’, on account of differences in beliefs and values.

By the dawn of the 21st century, however, ethnology has had enough of an influence on the developed world that it’s become difficult to ‘other’ non-local cultures without seeming naïve or xenophobic. Most people have come to see that subsistence farming or hunter-gathering is not a mark of inferiority or low intelligence, and limited technological dependence is a socioeconomic issue rather than a cultural or cognitive failing. Openly claiming a village in the Papua New Guinea highland is ignorant, stupid or indulgent in logical fallacies would probably raise eyebrows, leading such discussions on cultural practices to be couched in less derisive terms. While the debate over racial intelligence might continue, it’s harder to find people who justify their beliefs by pointing out contrasting traditions, lifestyles or cultural practices.

However, within national borders, ethnocentrism returns with all of the ignorance of our colonial ancestors. If it’s one habit we can’t seem to shake, it’s that our nationalistic heritage has embedded in us a strong correlation between culture and country, as if by being white and sharing an accent our cultural values must be homogeneous. As a result, othering occurs far easier with those who appear (at least superficially) to share an ethnic background.

What’s missed is that within our own community there are shades of culture and sub culture that pool, ebb and overlap. Healthcare is just one example, yet one that has significant consequences beyond other examples of cultural behaviour such as art or language. Medicine in the context of a scientific product leads many to interpret healthcare as a ‘culture without a culture‘. Science and medicine is typically presented as timeless, truthful and above all, objectively correct. It’s strictly biophysical, with its sociocultural component reduced to a vestigial nub.

As such, it’s far easier to other those who demonstrate contrasting medical behaviours. Lack of intellect or education can be easily held up as reasons for their alternative beliefs without evidence, as it’s assumed that all else must be equal. As such, archaic and empty solutions such as ‘better education’ or legal enforcement is suggested as a way of making people see sense.

In truth, there is a multitude of reasons why people use alternative medicines, few of which (if any) have much of a direct link with a level of education or cognitive deficiencies. Rather, values in what constitutes good evidence, familial traditions, cultural identities and distrust of contrasting sociocultural groups play far greater roles in determining health behaviour than university degrees or brain function. In other words, the very same factors medical anthropologists deal with abroad when studying any other health culture are responsible for the same alternative beliefs in our own community.

The question on how best to address culture change is also just as relevant here as it is elsewhere. It’s all well and good that African or Indigenous communities retain their cultural heritage, but what does one do when it conflicts with treatments for HIV, alcohol abuse or diabetes? This is a question a good friend of mine is currently researching through the Australian National University; as you might expect, the resulting discussion demands more than a simplistic ‘they need better education’ or ‘they’re just stupid’. Yet it’s not a novel dilemma; whether it’s vaccination, water sanitation, nutrition or infant care, the question of how to effectively assist diverse communities in improving and maintaining their health and wellbeing has occupied anthropologists for years, producing rich debate and diverse results.

Ironically, those who propose answers for Michelle seem to identify as individuals who would normally value science as a way of presenting useful solutions to a problem. Why then do few seem to be informed by research? Why are the answers without citations or references, seeming to be based on little more than personal hunches or folk wisdom?

Based on my own experience, few would be inclined to look further as they already assume to be correct. Science works for some things…unless you already think you know, at which point it’s all rhetoric and pedantry. Social science is a soft science, therefore gut feelings and intuition are as useful (if not more so).

Michelle’s question and many of the answers reveal the roadblock we face here in our efforts to address alternative healthcare. Rather than treating it as a legitimate sociological question, where science might provide some insight, the issue is reduced to a dichotomy of smart vs. stupid, of educated vs. naive. When those are the questions we ask, we certainly can’t hope for any productive answers.


Saint Nicked

Ho, ho, ho - Merry Christmas evil child!

I’m far from the first parent in history to weigh up the pros and cons of indulging their child in the wonder that is the Santa mythos.

On the one hand, as somebody who values rational thinking, I find it hard to reconcile my desire to encourage an appreciation for the wonders of the universe with the necessity to lie, or at least play word games, in order to weave such fantasy. But I also cannot downplay the power of social beliefs, nor simplify the processes by which we learn how to think critically into a strictly didactic exercise.

In raising this dilemma among other parents, a common response is an aghast,’Oh, but Santa adds such magic to a child’s life,’ followed by the insinuation of how it’s important to facilitate imagination and wonder with folktales. Perhaps, but the Santa mythos hardly communicates the social values I want my son to embrace.

For example, I’ve never been comfortable with using material goods – whether it’s a present, food or money – as a means of discipline. Sure, teaching a kid to work towards a reward is great, but telling a child that a magical being will bring them a toy if they behave isn’t in line with my form of behavioural management (either as a teacher or parent). Thankfully in modern Australia, I can avoid the need to deal with the traditional European contrasting figures of Black Peter or the devil Krampus, who physically punish or kidnap those who are naughty.

Secondly, the ‘magic’ of Christmas is tangled with the joy of a stranger bringing them something. Less than being about family and the joy in engaging in gift exchanges or cooking together or visiting friends or relatives you don’t get a chance to see often during the year, the excitement is more about the supernatural transportation of loot into the living room on Christmas Eve.

If it sounds like I’m staunchly anti-Sinta Klaas, you’d be half right. There is a side of me that feels that there are potentially useful lessons that can be communicated via the Nick narrative. For example, unlike most religious beliefs, it is one that is traditionally accepted as having an end point. Nobody expects adults to continue to believe that a fat, bearded elf will bring them white goods and i-Pods care of gravity-defying hoofed mammals if they refrain from breaking the law. This ‘exit clause’ (*ahem*) provides social pressure for older children to critically consider the role and persistence of myths.

Just as I believe religious schools combined with critical thinking in the curriculum creates more atheists, it’s possible that the Santa mythos – in spite of its conflicting values – might paradoxically teach the beauty of science and reason in the face of impossible tales. Could the disenchantment of a relatively ‘harmless’ belief system act like a practice run for religious stories? Is there merit in the thought of Santa’s demise founding the way for other iconic deaths?

Maybe. But that still doesn’t make it an easy sell for me. I’m  not sure how I’ll comfortably nod at my son at Christmas when he asks if Santa is coming. I don’t think I’ll find it any easier to spin answers to ‘Is he real?’, claiming ‘He is if you believe enough’. Yes, I can turn it back on him when he asks, reflecting the query and nudging his critical evaluation in the right direction, as I would with any other curious inquisition.

But as others speak enthusiastically of this traditional jolly fellow’s nocturnal gallumphings, how loud will my silence on the matter sound? One thing I’m sure of; on Christmas morning in years to come, when he is old enough to appreciate it, there will be at least one gift under that tree addressed to my son that isn’t labeled ‘from Santa’.

Published in: on December 16, 2010 at 10:57 am  Comments (2)  
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ACARA’s bent spoon

Charles Darwin - the perfect anti-creationist picture

Let me be upfront and honest about something – I’m no great fan of anti-accolades at the best of times. You know the ones; an ‘award’ for the worst dressed/stupidest/most laughable actor/book/production/product and so on. I simply don’t see the point, outside of a smug satisfaction that the awarder feels in superiority to the awardee. But, given human nature, I rarely say much as it’s hardly worthy of comment.

I didn’t attend TAMOz this year for numerous reasons. But I did hear on the grapevine that the annual ‘Bent Spoon Award’ was presented in absentia to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for the imminent National Curriculum science framework.

And, frankly, I was pretty gobsmacked.

First, some background. The Bent Spoon Award is an annual raspberry blown by the Australian Skeptics at ‘the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.’ As such, it must have been decided that of all paranormal and pseudoscientific acts, products and claims made in 2010, the National Curriculum must be the worst offender. Given I’d spent a good part of the year reading through it, I naturally presumed there was a sizable chunk of witchcraft, alchemy, geocentrism, voodoo or spiritualism I must have missed.

Fortunately that’s not the case. What was it that was so offensive in this draft framework? According to the nomination, it was for ‘devaluing the teaching of evolution in schools, allowing creationism to be taught, and for teaching alternative theories such as traditional Chinese medicines and Aboriginal beliefs as part of the Science Curriculum.’

Not for removing evolution altogether, and going down the dark path of Texan education. Not for putting creationism or intelligent design or Raelianism into the year 7 classroom. Nothing quite so definitive. It was a vague ‘devaluing’ of education that Australian Skeptics wanted to advertise to the world as the most deserving of scorn over all other media items, pseudoscientific products or audacious claims. One would hope that they had some pretty strong evidence to support the connection between ACARA’s choice of content and a loss of educational ‘value’.

Education is, of course, valuable. Anything that reduces the effectiveness of the system in preparing children and adolescents for their future should be addressed. A quick flick through my blog is enough to gauge my views as far as the topic goes. Indeed, it’s so important, I take claims that it is ‘devalued’ quite seriously.

Before we look at the criticism and ask whether the curriculum really warrants its prize, it might pay to quickly establish some context.

Australian education is a responsibility of the state level of government. As such, all states have an education act that prescribes what and how people will be taught important knowledge and skills. An example can be found at Queensland’s Department of Education and Training site. All states have similar documentation, which in part dictates the creation of units or subjects in schools that reflect a curriculum created by a state body. How this is assessed varies between the states, but typically includes the collection of student work samples along with a syllabus that demonstrates significant effort has been made to follow the curriculum’s framework.

It has been a concern for a long time that while there is strong similarity between all state curricula, order and timing of the skills and content taught has the potential to create difficulty for population movement. A student whose family moves from Perth to Sydney might face disadvantages by having missed some topics while replicating others. This led to growing support for a national curriculum.

In April 2008 a national curriculum board was put together with the purpose of meeting this challenge. In early 2010, ACARA released Phase 1 of its kindergarten to year 10 National Curriculum for feedback, which covered mathematics, English and science subjects. Later it opened Phase 2, covering geography, language and the arts for public review.

It appears that science is the field that will be revised most rigorously in the future, as the dominating criticism through feedback was that a sense of perspective was lost by focusing on certain details. To go into detail on my personal views on the strengths and shortfalls of the document would fall outside of the scope of this post. Overall, in spite of certain small reservations, I felt as far as science went it was a robust framework that balanced the diverse needs of the community it was serving.

Having been responsible for working on unit plans and analysing curriculum frameworks, I can sympathise with their creators, especially when faced with a wall of teachers and community members who feel their particular pet field is more important than the others. We’re all familiar with the ‘overcrowded curriculum’, and knowing what is vital for the future citizen to know is no easy task. Keeping everybody happy while delivering a working structure is a nightmare.

Which brings us to the nomination for the Bent Spoon. It states that the teaching of evolution;

‘become virtually sidelined, appearing in one section of Year 10 only.’

Evolution does indeed appear explicitly as the first point in Science Understanding in Year 10. I question the author where else he feels it should be. In my experience as an educator, covering it explicitly as a topic in its own right is difficult prior to a student’s ability to grasp abstract concepts, which more or less rules out going into much depth before years 6 or 7. I’ve never covered it as a concept before year 10. Of course, content based on biological categorisation – which is important for grasping evolution later – can be covered, and is in year 4. Physiological adaptations are usually covered in year 8 or 9, although fossils (and discussing ancient animals) is covered early in about year 3. Genetics typically works alongside evolution in year 10 (as is the case here). So while the word only appears once, concepts that are fundamental to understanding evolution litter the curriculum.

“The evolution of man is not part of the syllabus, and all the examples of evolution given as ‘Elaborations’ in the syllabus deal with non-controversial or small scale applications of natural selection (e.g. ‘the impact of cane toads on the evolution of Australian Predators such as snakes.’)”

The evolution of man has never been part of the K-10 curriculum of any state to my knowledge (happy to be corrected) as it is covered in detail in senior subjects. One can argue for it being moved forward or made compulsory, and I can think of arguments for and against doing so. However, I can’t but help that this isn’t being argued with a pragmatic necessity in mind, but rather as a defensive posture against potential religious indoctrination.

But more on that later.

The elaborations in the document aren’t official necessities, but suggested guidelines on how it might be approached. They are typically suggested with relevance to prior knowledge in mind rather to make it easier for the teacher to determine a useful way to introduce the topic.

What of teaching that dreadful ‘Aboriginal’ science? What does the framework have to say about that?

Specific knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is incorporated where it relates to science and relevant phenomena, particularly knowledge and  understanding of nature and of sustainable practices. For example, systematic observations by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures over many generations of the sequence of various natural events contribute to our scientific understanding of seasons in Australia.”


“Students should learn that all sorts of people, including people like themselves, use and contribute to science. Historical studies of science, mathematics and technology in the early Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures extending to modern times will help students understand the contributions of people from around the world.”

Given my upcoming book more or less goes into some depth on this topic, I’d like to think I’ve got something of an informed opinion. I feel the demarcation problem makes it difficult to describe precisely what science is and isn’t. Indigenous Australians have developed systems of describing nature, which might be viewed as scientific. They definitely created technology. Personally, I’m inclined to define science as values that described natural events in an impersonal fashion, so would see this as an interesting contrast, where I’d present to students the question ‘Is science the same as technology?’. Nonetheless, I think it’s a valuable contrast in the classroom, and one (when taught in accordance to the skills implicit in the curriculum) that would benefit student’s comprehension of how science isn’t simply defined.

“Thus the syllabus leaves open the option of teaching Creationism, while teaching just the basic theory of Natural Selection to Year 10 students only, omitting any reference to the evolution of man, and not mentioning Darwin once. This must be of great concern to sceptics as this document will form the basis of Science teaching for the next generation.”

Here’s the core of the matter. ACARA was found guilty of peddling pseudoscience because there it didn’t seal up the cracks, preventing the possibility of creationists slipping their venom into the ears of kiddies. That’s it – it didn’t account for the reds under the beds.

What troubles me most is that in spite of a greater focus on good scientific thinking, in spite of a move towards evaluative tools and promoting a critical epistemology more than any prior document, they got their wrist slapped because they didn’t put in enough Darwin. The assumption is that this is what impedes creationism in the classroom – evolution put in bold ink and underlined in a state-enforceable document.

There is a valid concern of pseudoscience slipping into the curriculum. I’ve encountered it all before – teachers who believe that the spin of a planet causes gravity; conspiracy theories; dolphins are a type of fish. But greater detail in the curriculum would not have made a lick of difference, given the existing documents failed to dissuade such errors or misinformation. Putting another evolution topic in primary school and adding Darwin to the list of great scientists will not safeguard schools against creationist teaching, and for that to be the focus of attack demonstrates a complete ignorance of pedagogy.

For skeptics, nothing should be more important than the arming of students with the fundamental skills that allow them to hear nonsense and identify it. This is not a question of content, but skills.

What does make a difference, then? A number of things. Better trained teachers. A school culture that reinforces cross-curricular skills. Improved career prospects for teaching and non-teaching staff. Good resources. Community involvement in the classroom. It’s not a simple solution, let alone one that can be addressed through a liberal dose of public mockery. Rather, differences are made by proactively contributing to the discussion with good information on pedagogy, cognitive psychology, best classroom practices etc.

The draft science curriculum is certainly not without its faults, and can definitely stand improvement. Nobody would argue otherwise. Informed and constructive feedback is vital and groups like the Australian Skeptics should well have pulled together a team of sceptical educators and produced well supported feedback grounded in research, which could have been promoted on its website to demonstrate its measured approach to education. Discussing how to go about this would be worthwhile.

Yet what is the likelihood of their being taken seriously by any curriculum council when its response is to instead ridicule ACARA, effectively calling them pseudoscientists because their conclusions don’t have enough evolution for their liking? Not great, I’m afraid.

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Comments (18)  
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Let me demonstrate

The good ol' days, when all the best toys meant you didn't grow out of childhood

I love my job. Sure, there are aspects of it which can be frustrating, or even boring at times, as there is with any occupation. But to indulge in a moment of sinful pride, I’m in that enviable position where I get paid to do something I would do for free. For the past three years I’ve essentially trawled through old books, magazines, and the web for science activities and demonstrations, and then tested them. If they worked and were simple enough, I wrote it up and sent them to literally tens of thousands of people. If not, I put them to the back of my head in case I ever found a way to make them work.

Stacked in my mental archive are a number of toys, gizmos, demonstrations and experiments which explicitly exhibit some scientific phenomenon. While our official archive now has over 400 science activities, I’ve personally found (or in some cases, invented) about 150 of them. A percentage I’d come across before as a teacher or during my time as a science presenter, rejigged from a classic textbook. But each and every one I have tested, evaluated and tweaked to make it suitable for its task.

My goal is simple – I am a metaphor maker. I imagine what my audience might already know and manufacture a scenario which leads them to make connections between the islands of knowledge that sit scattered through their mind. The ideal result is a mental model of nature that can be further built upon with additional observations as the person continues to learn.

I can take a burning teabag and an explanation of a dance party and provide a foundation for understanding what makes it storm. Give me a stocked kitchen (with perhaps a thing or two from the laundry or bathroom) and I can explain all manner of electromagnetic, thermodynamic or entropic principles.

For all of my classroom experience, I’m still learning what makes for a good science demonstration. There are degrees of success and a wide variety of factors that confound expectations. Amongst them are the obvious – enjoyment, simplicity, predictability; yet there are always exceptions where the most strict rules are broken, turning an awesome display of fascinating science into a yawn-inducing act of excruciating boredom while making a tedious act provide hours of intense exploration.

Nonetheless, some bets are more guaranteed to pay off than others when it comes to creating resources that effectively communicate science. If I could write guidelines to a certain 20-something education student who abandoned his career in medical science to embark on a fool’s quest to teach adolescents the virtues of thinking scientifically, here’s what I would say;

1)      Science education cannot be captured in a tweet, catchphrase or banner slogan. No matter how many opinions, studies and years of experience you have, you’ll still be surprised.

2)      Science is not restricted to the subject you teach at school. It crosses disciplines, just as English is more than what you do in an English class, mathematics is not just number crunching and art isn’t just what you paint in a session of crafternoon.

3)      Science is not a method – it is a methodology. No strict sequence of steps can teach you how to evaluate an idea for its pragmatic worth in explaining the relationships between what we observe in the universe.

4)      One demonstration cannot explain a scientific phenomenon accurately. Two is a good start. Three gives you something to talk about.

5)      All explanations are effectively metaphorical. Not all metaphors are equally good as explanations.

6)      It’s impossible to form a belief without evidence, just as it’s possible to use non-scientific values to determine what that evidence is. My job is to show why scientific values do a better job of it.

7)      Scientific thinking emerges from discussion between equals over shared observations, not dictation from above over observations one hasn’t experienced.

8)      Arthur C Clarke was right – complicated technology might as well be magic. Never underestimate the combined power of a simple object and a good storyteller.

9)      Words aren’t what you find in a dictionary – they mean precisely what your audience understands them to mean.

10)  Ignore advice contained in a list. If it can be contained within a sentence, it’s probably too simplistic.

Now, if only I could invent a way of emailing this back to myself a decade ago.

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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The real education gap

The teacher had to stay back to do their homework.

On 17 November there is an online event bringing together a number of well known and fascinating people in the name of addressing the eternal problem of how to engage young minds in maths and science. I applaud this effort…yet looking through the notables, I am reminded that there is a constant gap that persists in educational outreach, where those who deal with the issue day in and day out might be forgiven for believing they evidently have nothing to contribute to the presentation in spite of their experience.

Of any profession, I’d lay a heavy bet that education ranks amongst the hardest to pull in star speakers. While you’d be hard pressed to find a politician, actor, writer or sporting celebrity who wouldn’t happily promote education as important in modern society (stay in school, kids!), finding one who might attend a gathering of teachers, principles or educationalists (such as academics in pedagogy) is a Herculean task. And who can blame them; given the realistic nature of many of the papers and presentations, it’s hardly considered to be the most glamorous of engagements. Getting popular faces to speak on education might be an impossible challenge.

Yet here we are; rationalist events such as  The Amazing Meeting – where intellectual celebrities gather to fire the passion of an audience to go out and change how people form beliefs – are becoming more common. Skeptics in the Pub gatherings are multiplying through taverns faster than London flames in 1666. There is an obvious desire for public ignorance to be attacked and science and rationality to be championed. For so long, educators have dreamed of a day when a popular  force  would step up and offer them a hand in developing and disseminating decent resources, perhaps even helping them encourage their students with an inspiring word and fight the good fight.

And yet…something is still missing. Like a tornado, the blustering whirlwind is relatively empty inside. Of all of the celebrities who speak publicly on educational matters, the smallest minority have any experience in actually teaching. Of those, even fewer have extended studies in educational practices, curriculum design or epistemology. That doesn’t make them less inspiring or less passionate, yet where is the expertise? Where are the voices from the coal face itself?

I’ve been personally told I’m mistaken, and that any form of outreach can be considered educational. Those who speak on television, write books or regularly stand before a hall of tertiary students and instruct them in the mechanics of chemistry are still teachers. By some regard, they might be considered to imbue others with information, ergo ‘teach’. But to risk pedantry, there is something of a difference between presenting information and engaging with a learner. In today’s world, there is a glut of presenters, and a famine of educators.

In an online Guardian article, teacher, science writer and film maker Alom Shaha ruffled feathers by asking why skeptics seemed to be happier talking to other skeptics rather than engaging with the public. While the responses varied from supportive to defensive (not to mention the irony of a number of skeptics dismissing the message out of a distaste for the tone in which it was delivered), I question how many subsequently contacted their nearest school to inquire about running a monthly science club, or looked up programs where they might get more involved in community education programs. How many asked if they could talk to students about media, or physics, or health? I wonder how many Australian skeptics read it and decided to ask around about national programs like Scientists in Schools, and perhaps invite a local representative to talk at their next pub event.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told by somebody how ‘broken’ the education system is. And, fair enough, everybody is entitled to an opinion. Yet if it’s broken, there is the question of how to fix it, which means knowing precisely why it’s broken and what can be done about it beyond complain.

I believe this surge in rationalist gatherings is worth encouraging, especially when they advertise their desire for improving the education of others. The virtual town hall meeting described above is by no means to be dismissed, providing worthy inspiration for students.

But education is problematic precisely because it is a difficult field to tease apart. Inspiration is necessary, but limited in its impact. If the issue was simple, there would be no crying out for skilled teachers. Resources would be relatively easy for anybody to construct. Curricula would not be difficult to write. There’d be no education gap. While there is a need for inspirational role models, there is a greater need for a meeting of experienced minds who can offer insight into the reality behind all matters pedagogical.

As long as there is a willful ignorance on what education is and is not, there will be no solutions. While education remains to be seen as an expertless discipline, where there is a substantial gap between those who orate on solutions and those who better understand the actual nuts and bolts of the real problem, there will be a lot of steam with little progress out of the station.

Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 1:47 pm  Comments (13)  
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