Doctor I have a confession: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog is one of the best I’ve seen; he writes eloquently and with scorn about the ways in which quacks, medicine men, frauds and hucksters misrepresent science to turn a buck. His book is excellent and I’m a big fan.
Education is also full of sham scientific claims; I think it’s more vulnerable to pseudo science than even medicine, because educational theories are informed even more by sociology, psychology etc which are much ‘softer’ sciences than the natural sciences. Basically, it’s easy to verify beyond dispute that water boils at 100 degrees because it’s so easy to test and disprove. It’s much harder to prove that three-part lessons improve child concentration, or that school uniform has a causal link to grade performance, because there are so many factors potentially affecting the outcome that it’s extremely difficult to make any conclusive hypotheses.
But that’s ok. The only problem is when educational con men try to claim that their method is the only way to teach, and all you need to do is sign on the dotted line. A bigger problem is when the Department of Education fall for it and the gullibles try to sell it to us working on the chalkface. But that’s another post, another time.
I never knew I’d run into my own bit of Bad Science bother. It goes like this:
For a while I’ve been doing some freelance writing for the Times Educational Supplement, usually about controlling rowdy classes. The staff journalists at the TES often use me as a rent-a-gob when they want ‘a teacher says’ type quotes. On the 7th May an article appeared called ‘Doctor, Leave Them Kids Alone,’ which was about the issue of Ritalin and do kids really need it. They asked me if I had any experiences.
I’d taught a kid a few years back who was bouncing off the walls, until he was prescribed it- at which point he just kind of vanished into the background. It was a really marked change. Now, I’m not a scientist so I didn’t want to say anything other than my personal anecdotal experience. I’m also of the opinion that our culture tends to believe that all manners of social and cultural problems should be solved by a pill, rather than addressing the complex issues surrounding them (something I think you write about very well). But y’know, I’m not Tom Cruise, and I reckon there’s a happy balance to be struck between turning to the Pink Potion, and maybe dealing with stuff that life throws at us. So I contributed a few quotes about how this somewhat mental kid had gone from uncontrollable to Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and that I understood why the parents did it, but it seemed a shame for the poor kid. Nothing too controversial.
I blew cereal through my nose when I came across the following article a few months later on t’web.
It’s a homeopathic website (you know, that branch of alternative medicine, which claims you can cure arthritis, cancer, gout etc by drinking ….tap water. Sorry, Magic tap water).It quotes me without my permission (which I suppose is pretty small beer), indicating that I in some way endorse their homeopathic gumbo or support the ideas behind it. That’s probably the first problem I have with it. The second is that they then go on to quote from the pupil I discussed, saying, “I know it helps me in some ways, but I hate taking it,” Leon explained, “there are days when I deliberately avoid it. You just don’t feel yourself, you feel so drained out. It makes you feel disgusted and down. Like you’ve got no soul or something.”
Poor Leon. Boo hoo hoo. The only problem is I didn’t give the student’s name (because I like having a job), I’ve taught dozens of kids on Ritalin, and there’s no way they could know I was talking about him. PLUS I’ve never had a kid called Leon Perry. The last problem then is that they imply that the school gave him a ‘drugs or leave school’ ultimatum, which is just so laughable that I can’t imagine a school having the balls saying it to a parent. They’d get sued into the fourth world.
So what have I done? Well, I contacted the Bad Science B’wana himself, Ben Goldacre, because he’s performed a few homeopathic exorcisms in his time. Of course, he might be too busy to offer any advice. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get….
I’m off to drink tap water to get rid of my gout, or something.
PS If anyone reads the homeopathic article, please don’t leave any sarcastic messages for them yet. I need to keep the element of surprise.