Saturday, 28 May 2011

I believe that children are the future. So; no change, then. Brain Gym, Bad Science, and the generational story of stupid.

Excellent article in today's Guardian from the excellent Ben Goldacre, who writes (again) about the car-crash of stupid that is Brain Gym, and the fact that, despite its reliance on the kind of science normally found in the average Green Lantern comic, it persists in being adopted by schools that really should know better. There's nothing more I can add about Brain Gym, other than to say that anyone who still believes it has any utility beyond keeping credulous writers in employment deserves to be placed in  a corner wearing a conical hat.

But there's a point that deserves examination: Goldacre's optimism that, despite the persistence of- often adult- participants in the kind of moonshine and snake oil that so entrances educational experts, the future holds a possible golden age of intelligence. Why? Because as he puts it:

'Information is more easily accessible now than ever before, and smart, motivated people can sidestep traditional routes to obtain knowledge and disseminate it'

Bouchard: You BASTARD.
Information certainly is a lot more available these days, oh boy it is. I remember a GCSE (or equivalent thereof) homework where we were invited to either fill in a work sheet, or research a biography of Pierre Fran├žois Bouchard, the engineer who discovered the Rosetta Stone. Being somewhat friendless and socially gauche, I of course chose the research project, intuitively apprehending its innate complexity, challenge, and geek points. The family picture encyclopaedia was sadly not up to the task; a trip to my local library revealed nothing except for the painful lack of diversity in the Scottish public lending establishment. A further venture to the grand Mitchell Library in the city centre was more helpful. I handed the report in with pride, only to discover that I had carefully recited the life history of another Pierre Bouchard who, unhelpfully, was a contemporary in time and space. Some stories don't have happy endings.

The point is, that with a few stylish finger flourishes, Dame Google can furnish me with more information about the intrepid French tomb raider than I could possibly digest in a month. Instant, endless raw data is now an axiomatic principle of our daily lives. Pub arguments about statements of fact now last only as long as the time it takes to wave an Iphone. Pub Quiz Masters have to emit EMP pulses just to level the playing field; that, or allow everyone an identical phone and speed recite the questions, testing participants on digital dexterity and search-term efficiency instead of scrappy long-term memory and retention of trivia.

The homework task I described would now perfectly exemplify the IT revolution we have experienced, and surely guarantees Mr Goldacre's claim that even children- or perhaps especially so- will be the inheritors of a new age of intellectual rigour and penetration; that armed with the facts, reason and empirical scepticism, New Age rhetoric, Religious cant, and superstition will evaporate like fog in a November night, replaced by precision, degrees of certainty and cool, unexcitable reason. In fact, children should surely be the drivers of this intellectual revolution, given the alleged proficiency and taste they show for digital manipulation, and the familiarity they evidence with the online adventure.

Brilliant! You look like a moron!
But not so, not so; if only it were. This reporter is at Ground Zero on Planet Earth, bringing you the latest, and from where I'm standing it isn't pretty. It pains me to say that, while many children do conform to this description as brave and rigorous denizens of an information superspace, many do not. In fact, you could even say that many of them are just as naive as their slightly older counterparts. They hold beliefs, prejudices and fancies that are just as fanciful, unsubstantiated and unsupported as anything that their generational predecessors could conceive.

For example: t a recent conference for students at a school I was visiting, I showed a group of approximately 100 sixth formers a picture of the 1969 Moon Landing, above which I had written 'Are we being fooled?' Now bearing in mind that I had already announced to the audience that this session would be about conspiracy theories, and how most of them were totally unfounded, you might expect a high level of scepticism. Not a bit of it. When I asked the audience to put their hands up if they thought that Neil Armstrong and his fellow possessors of the Right Stuff had really made it to Earth's little sister, only around a third of the group did so. OK, I reasoned; participant anxiety. So I rephrased the question in the negative: who thought they hadn't really gone, and that the Moon Landings were faked?

Around two-thirds of the group launched their own Apollos into the air, give or take. In my mind, I could hear the Ancient Gods of mysticism laughing at the pretender Reason. When I asked them why they believed such an apparently transparent piece of guano, the usual answers came out: the shadows from the lander; the motion of the flag, and so on and so on. All the usual, cranky suspects. I can't be bothered to retread the well worn path of dispelling this crap, but the answers are out there- you know, on the Internet. I spent around half an hour blowing each conspiracy to pieces, showing them sources, experts, references.

By the end of the session, I asked them to repeat the show of hands. With a trembling lip I saw that the ratio was now an even 50:50. A victory for rationality? I didn't think so. Even when I questioned them later, the nays still reverted to their default prejudices and positions: they 'didn't trust' the official story; there was 'something in' the conspiracies. I was confused. Had I not explained the perfectly simple refutations of these quack ideas? No; they certainly understood.

I realised what was happening. The conspiracy version of events suited their emotional and cultural appetites; the idea that there is 'something going on' behind the scenes of history; that authority narratives are unreliable and manipulative; that doubting the official record enables the powerless to perceive themselves as something powerful; prophets of the truth, discerners of deception, and holders of wisdom. There was, it seemed, at least two worlds: the world as it seemed, and the world as we would prefer to imagine it....even if that world itself contains unpalatable truths, such as the idea that the leaders of every nation state would conspire to conceal the truth of the Moon Landings, or that billions of tax dollars were therefore being diverted to feed...what? The military-industrial complex?

'This looks well proof, innit?'
It doesn't just end at the Moon Landings; it couldn't. Such an attitude has, in my experience, been the foundation of my experiences of working with this Net Generation, these citizens of cyberspace. I teach RS and philosophy, so I understandably attract the conversations of the mystical and counter-rational. That's fine, and for the best; the oceans of the mind are not charted solely by reason and measurement. Other compasses are necessary to understand the black box of the human psyche. So I know first hand the way that children and teenagers often wrestle with issues of meaning, value and experience, empirical or otherwise. And I also know how many of them turn to ideas and belief systems that are not merely counter-experiential, but counter-rational.

Like the scores- and I mean scores- of serious young men who sidle up to me after lessons and ask me if I have heard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and would I be able to discuss it with them? (The Protocols, for the sainted uninitiated is a fraudulent crypto-history/ manifesto, allegedly written by the Jewish Puppet Masters, and 'accidentally' reveals their global ambitions. It is as vile a forgery as you could hope to read, and it has existed for over one hundred years. Despite its utter annihilation as a fake many decades ago, it still enjoys a furtive and political life wherever anti-Semitism needs a prop. Ghastly). There are students who have enquired if I know anything about the New World Order; about the assassination of Diana by the Royals, of JFK by the CIA, and more recently, the enormous number of students who apparently believe that 9/11 was the work of a diabolic Israeli black-op. All of these, theories as empty and aimless as a barrel going over Niagara Falls, yet somehow, inexplicably resuscitated in the minds of the credulous child.

The anti-empiricism doesn't stop there. I teach a unit on 'War and Conflict' to year 9 pupils; I thought it apposite to teach about the Iraq war which, to me at last, still feels relatively recent. Every class I have taught for the last few years has, for the most part, believed that the war was started because of a) Al Qaeda and  b) 9/11. Most of my students believed that Hussein and Bin Laden were in some kind of Axis of Evil, and that Desert Storm was the direct response to the fall of the Two Towers.

Now I'd like to point out that these are the same children who are practically hard wired into fibre optic cables, so ubiquitous is their online experience. They could barely be more connected were they to have a wireless connection node implanted in their cerebella. But still, they seem as susceptible to the storm fronts of illusion and nonsense as any of their 8-bit forebears; just as swayed by fantasy and information tricks as anyone else. Why is that?

'...and if you look closely, you can see a pixie.'
The answer lies in this basic truism: being drenched in facts doesn't make you any smarter; it doesn't provide the possessor of an iota more discernment or critical faculty. This is the difference between facts and knowledge. Many educational half-wits have hailed the Google generation as having been liberated from the tyranny of knowledge; that in an age of universal IT suffrage, any fact can be conjured from the ether like a magician's dove, and we should therefore focus on teaching children skills, not facts. If everyone who thought that was reduced to a single person, I'd spanner them. Our data-rich descendants are fallible after all; the cyber natives are just as liable to err as anyone else.

And why on earth wouldn't they be? They are human, or so I believe, although from a cursory reading of the over-excited froth that is regularly written about them by progressive educationalists, you could be forgiven for thinking they had developed an X-gene that made them the perfected inheritors of a Golden, Utopian tomorrow. I have some news: they're just like us. They ARE us. If a student wants to find out if the world really is controlled by a race of Reptilian overlords, or a more mundane segment of the Primate clan, it isn't as simple as just clicking on a link. Because more often that not, the link will take you a million miles away from anything resembling 'life experienced', and into 'life imagined', realms of fairy tale so fabulous that they resemble a fever-dream. Try it. Search Google for Who killed Diana? and see what kind of balance you find. May God have mercy on our souls.

Searching for the truth involves more than just asking a question: it involves asking the right questions. Not all questions will lead you to the real answers, or as close to the real answer as our epistemological faculties will permit. Asking 'When will Satan end the world?' won't get you an inch closer to the veracity of that claim's assumptions, not on Bing anyway.

The ability to tease apart speculation from cautious theory is a skill that has enjoyed varying respectability as the centuries have progressed. Some reliance on the evidence of our senses has always been with us, otherwise we wouldn't have made it this far. David Hume famously exploded the irrationality, the 'sophistry and illusion' as he described it, of believing in anything that could not be experienced or rationally inferred. The growth of the scientific method has transformed our world, physically at least. But how much of it has penetrated the methodology of our everyday analysis?

I, too have attended training courses on Brain Gym (sponsored and paid for, I hasten to add, by the Fast Track, a by-now deceased arm of the DfE's previous attempt to invite the brightest and best into education. Alas, they got me) and believe me, the first time around, it sounds perfectly plausible. Who's got the time to go away and dig up the data that reveals it to be a load of shit? Besides, the DfE were paying for it, so surely they must have checked it out, right?

We're not swimming in information any more. We're drowning. Children and adults alike are drenched in a deluge of data that takes time, effort and perspicacity to distinguish the dreck from the good stuff. There will always be people patient and stubborn enough to want to get to the bottom of things, and with the advent of the Internet, the resources to do so are now available to more people- children included- to do so. The problem is, not many of them necessarily will bother. We're lazy; we're busy; we're just too damned indifferent to the truth.

And it's one of the reasons that an enormous intellectual cavern exists in educational theory, and why the charlatans, the hucksters and the spivs have moved in to fill it with empty theory and card tricks. the battle, I might point out, goes on...

I'm off now to pay tribute to my Scaly overlords, and see if the Internet can tell me how to build a tinfoil Fascinator to stop the CIA controlling my brain. If I start blogging about Personalised Learning Styles, you'll know they got me, in which case put a diamond bullet through my heart and head for the Vatican. End of Transmission.


  1. You're right TB.
    Ability to access info via the mighty King of Google is both liberating and frightening.
    In pretty equal measure.

    A time existed when if you didn't know a vital fact, (say, erm, what happened at the end of Quantum Leap - vital) you were stuck.
    You had to ask people.

    When no-one knew you were stuck.
    Walking around asking random checkout assistants and the milkman.
    You waited.
    Eventually someone would tell you and you'd feel a rush of enlightened adrenaline.

    Brain Gym is just sitting out there; in the magical land of the faux-edu-sphere.

    It's readily available and it's readily cloaking it's unsubstantiated face.

    It's all a bit quantity over quality.
    Quantity lacking quality all over the t'interweb.

    But, and as a writer I know this to be true:
    (see that but? Right there at the start? I have an English degree and everything.) can't believe everything you read.

    You defo can't believe anything you do in Brain Gym.

  2. And in the land of the blind, the man who claims he has one eye is king.