Show me the evidence! Why education needs more science interpreters.

In his otherwise laudable Really Bad Powerpoint, Seth Godin writes:

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain.

This assessment of the hemispheres’ respective functions is about right, albeit oversimplified. But my problem with the above quote is that the relative locations of the factual and emotional centres of the brain have no real bearing on the argument, and come across as window-dressing to make the whole argument seem more scientific. (I am not suggesting that Seth did this deliberately, merely pointing out how it reads.) Seth asserts that people want to be entertained (that is, be stimulated emotionally) as well as being given the facts, and I doubt any psychologist, educator or presenter would disagree. But what he needed to say was:

1. People respond to emotional as well as factual arguments.

2. The emotional and factual centres of the brain are in opposite hemispheres.

3. There is evidence that arguments which increase activity in both hemispheres are more persuasive.

(I don’t know if there is any evidence for (3), but I think you would need some to make this point convincingly.)

This might sound picky, but it’s important: people see the shiny science bit and their critical faculties just switch off. We don’t ask how, or why, and we don’t demand evidence, because we are persuaded and reassured by the presence of an ‘expert’. (This is perhaps best typified by Milgram’s infamous obedience study of the 1960s. The 50s, 60s and 70s — a period I like to think of as B.E., Before Ethics — were a golden era in terms of understanding human behaviour but then people realised that it was perhaps a bit mean to do this or this to people without some serious questions being asked. How the wheel turned again and we got from the post-60s ethics backlash to Big Brother, I’m not really sure; I guess wheels just do that.)

Anyway, this abdication of our critical faculties in the face of ‘science’ is regularly exploited by advertising — look at the proliferation of ‘experts’ in commercials for things that clean, or that claim to protect you and your family from harm. But as the man in the white coat has deservedly become an advertising cliché, so people with something to sell have begun to look for a newer, shinier, more cutting-edge science with which to hawk their wares.

Enter neuroscience.

Neuroscience-as-sales-tool is huge. At face value, it doesn’t represent much of an advance over old-school advertising: “Look: science!” But in fact, its value is extraordinary: “Here’s a picture of the brain of someone using our product!” Think about that for a moment and realise the awesome power of being able to say This is what’s happening inside someone’s head while they experience our product. That’s pretty amazing.

Advertisers have quickly realised the potential of neuromarketing. Some movie distributor or other wanted us to use it while I was doing my PhD, but we couldn’t turn the images around quickly enough for their deadline (fMRI takes time — or used to, anyway). Coca-Cola did it, though I’m not sure they controlled for the fact that caffeine can act as a vasoconstrictor. Anyway, get used to those images of brains, because they’re here to stay — at least until we find the Next Shiny Thing.

Here’s my sad realisation of the week: education, which has been a bit slow to adopt technology but is finally waking up to neuroscience — education is taking advantage of our human weakness for experts and shiny-looking science.

The other morning, I worked myself up into a fine old froth over a website* written by someone with impeccable educational credentials, that seems to exist for the sole purpose of encouraging people to consider neuroscience (and related fields) when constructing the educational experience. I mean, this site is clearly out to make the world — and education in particular — a better place. A place informed by science.

Criticising this site would be like kicking a well-meaning little old lady, right?

Well, I’m gonna.

(Disclaimer: I would never kick old ladies, and what you do in your own time is your business — but if I find out you are spending it kicking little old ladies, I am going to come over there and Have Words.)

The big, insidious problem at the interface between neuroscience and education is that there are many people talking the talk, but not so many walking the walk. Like the old Far Side cartoon, when I see websites like this, all I hear is:

blah blah blah blah neuro blah blah blah blah education blah blah blah neuro neuro neuro!!!!!111!!11! education education neuro blah blah blah blah neuro!!

This specific website was a prime example: lip-service to informing education through neuroscience: pages and pages. Evidence and specific examples of how this can be done: zip. Nada. Nothing.

This little old lady’s been feeding the urban pigeons, a kindly but perhaps misguided act. She’s been siphoning off her pension to fund an underground fascist group on whom she dotes, because they seem like such nice, polite boys. She looks so sweet, but she’s actually perpetuating harm, because educators everywhere are losing their grip on the need to use science and evidence responsibly. If their role models don’t do it, why should they?

It would be okay — and so would my blood pressure — if this were an isolated example (goodness knows the ‘Net has its share of crazies), but it isn’t. Online educators are obsessed with neuroscience, but often don’t clarify the relationship between the educational practices they espouse and the neuroscience fairy-dust they are currently sprinkling over everything. Evidence, people. Evidence and concrete examples.

In a crankier moment earlier this week, I wrote:

You don’t get to co-opt my science without following its rules.

And the #1 rule of my science is this: show me the evidence.

Maybe this is too harsh. There are issues here about elitism and the availability of expertise: if neuroscience isn’t your background, isn’t it a bit unreasonable to expect you to understand it and write about it coherently?

Well, maybe. Certainly it seems unfair for the taxpayer to fund education and get nothing back — we need to make academic findings easier to access and easier for the layperson to understand, rather than hiding everything behind a journal paywall. But also, I think it’s incumbent on those of us who do speak neuroscience to educate those who don’t — not just about our findings, but also about responsible interpretation of those findings.

Last thing. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at TCUK09 about how bullet-point-loaded slides might be less memorable than sparser slides . (Olivia Mitchell has a great summary of the research here).

Reponses to our work have been either:

1. “Fantastic — finally evidence for something we’ve known or suspected all along!”


2. “Hi. I work for X, selling Y, and I wonder if you can tell me/are interested in … ”

But overwhelmingly, it has been (1).

I think this is really positive — that people do actually get excited about evidence. And I think we can, and should, build on that willingness to be excited by scientific data, until it becomes unremarkable that non-experts are capable of critically evaluating scientific arguments.


* I won’t link to it here, because I don’t wish to offend anyone or start some kind of internet tiff** — and besides, there are many such sites out there, so why single one out?

** tiff, for those of you younger than 30, has other meanings besides ‘a graphics file format you almost never use’.



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22 responses to “Show me the evidence! Why education needs more science interpreters.

  1. Mike K Smith

    “In God we trust… All others must bring data.” – W. E. Deming.

    Neural imaging shows that a dead salmon can percieve human emotions!:

    “Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” – G.E.P. Box

    I’d say the salmon neuroscience model is pretty wrong.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Yeah, I love that dead salmon paper :) Very useful reminder that any brain measurement anchored in probability needs to be interpreted carefully.

      I’m not sure that the salmon paper necessarily means the entire field of brain imaging is bunk, though.

      • MikeKSmith

        As a statistician I see abuses of my scientific field pretty often (sadly)… The old statement about “lies, damned lies and statistics” bugs the hell out of me. Usually it’s lies, damned lies and idiots using statistics badly. Or worse idiots misinterpreting the findings of a perfectly reasonable statistician. (8 out of 10 cats say their owners don’t pay attention to statistics).

        The dead salmon paper illustrates Type I error pretty well – significant findings when in truth there’s nothing going on. It’s a lesson that many researchers take a long time to learn… ;-)

        Great blog. Great Twitter feed. Thanks.

        • finiteattentionspan

          Yeah, statistics abuse is rife. We get cranky with undergraduates for wanting one-size-fits-all rules, but it’s sometimes hard for academics not to do exactly the same thing with statistics. I know I have a lot to learn!

          And thanks for your comments! Much appreciated :)

          (Hmm, these comments are playing weird games – sorry, that was a reply to Mike)

  2. usablelearning

    Beautiful (not that I’ve ever -erm- been -cough, cough- guilty of overgeneralizing neuroscience research myself — oh look! Shiny!).

    You might enjoy this brain-based learning smack-down from Daniel Willingham:

    I think there’s also a “telephone game” effect, where a perfectly reasonable research study with appropriately documented constraints and acknowledgement that it’s correlation *only* gets distilled into a press release, which gets distilled into a blog posting, which gets distilled into presentation slides, etc. and eventually winds up simplified beyond all recognition.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Ooh, thanks for the vid – will check that out shortly :)

      Don’t be too hard on yourself – I can actually live with overgeneralisation in all but its most egregious forms, because to some extent all research has this. A little generalisation is okay; else all research would be hopelessly, pointlessly niche.

      And absolutely, re the telephone effect. It could be better — we could be more literate about the scientific method and statistics, and press reporting of science could be better-informed and more rigorous. I guess one of the challenges of 21st Century education is to try to improve those things in schools, but I also think the press is shirking its responsibilities a bit there. Could try harder ;)

    • finiteattentionspan

      Ha! Turns out, I’ve seen that video before, though I didn’t know who Daniel Willingham was at the time. “Why Don’t Students Like School?” arrived the other day, and I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into it :) Thanks!

  3. Olivia Mitchell

    Hi Chris
    Oooh – I am so attracted to bright shiny things and interpreting them to say something relevant about presenting! I live in fear that I will one day over-generalise – ‘cos I do want to keep the respect of the scientists. So I like your point (in the comments) that “A little generalisation is okay; else all research would be hopelessly, pointlessly niche.”
    [breathes sigh of relief]. Let me know if I ever go over the line, please.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Olivia,
      You’d be in good company if you ever did overgeneralise ;) I think it’s actually encouraged by the system in which people publish and disseminate (“Justify your relevance! Vindicate yourself!”). I don’t think you have anything to worry about though — the fact that this concerns you is a really healthy sign to me, because it shows that you’re thinking about it. Mostly, I worry about the people who don’t think about it ;)

  4. I have a badly formed thought in my head about this, I’ll just dump it here in the hope I’m not barking up the wrong lump of still growing wood.

    Where is the line between science and experience?

    Take a specific example, the world is full of text heavy powerpoint slides. However there is a trend towards the more simple content that you talk about.

    Now, I don’t know all the ‘science’ behind it but I do know which experience I enjoy more.

    So at what point does it tip over and, I guess, make the science redundant? Will it ever?

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Gordon,

      Wow, what a great question!

      This is a hard one: sometimes we just know, intuitively, when something is better/more useful/more effective. But there’s a wealth of psychological research showing that intuition can also sometimes be quite wrong – for example, the long-time belief that the world was flat, or persistent ideas like “opposites attract” – both of which can be demonstrated, empirically, to be false. Authors writing in this area point to the numerous ways in which human cognition and perception are biased, such as our lamentable grasp of probability and probabalistic reasoning.

      The message, I guess, is a complex one (see tweet earlier today re the lack of “stickiness” of complex messages): sometimes intuition is right, and sometimes it’s really, really wrong. So with regard to slides, I’d want more evidence first! This is just two smallish studies, which isn’t a lot. While intuitively, I suspect it’s the right direction to be heading in, I think we still need more data. As for the tipping point, I’m not sure – some of it’s hard to quantify, such as the relationship between enjoyment and learning that might result from better slides.

      Oh dear, this is a thought process that’s going to fester … ;)


  5. usablelearning

    This is probably relevant, but irritatingly firewalled

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Julie

      That looks fascinating! I’ll see if we’ve got an online subscription that would allow me to access the whole thing (and if we do, I might be able to arrange you a copy :-)



  6. Excellent. I agree, especially that “we need to make academic findings easier to access and easier for the layperson to understand.”

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Nathan

      Yeah, it’s a real issue. Since the taxpayer is footing the bill for a good deal of scientific research (though obviously some of it is paid for by private interests — drug companies and so on), it seems only reasonable to explain to them what it’s being spent on.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment; much appreciated :)


  7. In your reconstruction of the argument needed:

    1. People respond to emotional as well as factual arguments.
2. The emotional and factual centres of the brain are in opposite hemispheres.
3. There is evidence that arguments which increase activity in both hemispheres are more persuasive.

    you comment that you are not sure that there is evidence for 3. I don’t think you go far enough. I am not sure why anyone wants 2 and 3 to add to the basic point already in 1. What seems window dressing to me is the entire excursion into neurology.

    In the original argument, there’s the extraordinary comment: ‘people want to use both parts of their brain’. No they don’t. They never want to use any part of their brain at all, except insofar as this is simply a kind of metaphorical statement for concentration.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Tim

      This article found me yesterday and I thought it might interest you: it’s about the widespread use and abuse of neuroscience in subjects far removed. It seemed somehow pertinent ;)

      The excursion into neuroscience has, at this point, become an unstoppable exodus. A good deal of it is window-dressing, but some of it might actually be useful if it helps us to understand the neuronal underpinnings of cognition, etc. (It occurs to me that, even after your talk, I don’t know the extent to which you accept that there are neuronal elements to cognition. For me it’s a given, but that’s my neuroscience background speaking.)

      I sort of infer from the original text that people ‘wanting to’ use their brains is Seth Godin’s shorthand for ‘people feel pleasure when many different parts/functions of the brain are stimulated at once’, but I could be quite wrong. I am a huge fan of Seth’s, actually, but this was one of those rare times he managed to piss me off by co-opting my discipline in a very clumsy way.

      • I am sure that that is what is meant by ‘wanting to use their brains’. I didn’t mean that he was just writing ‘iggle wiggle piggle’, complete nonsense, as it were. But all the work seems to be happening at the level of the whole person. He has an account of what makes for a good presentation where the evidence seems to be what happens at the level of interest rather than fMRI studies. That’s why the whole excursion seems to be window dressing to me. Would it matter, eg, if we discovered that the people on whom presentations had been tested turned out not to have two-hemisphere brains at all?

        Are there neuronal elements to cognition? Well I wear a cycle helmet because preserving my brain seems a good way to preserve my cognition. But are there ‘elements’? I’m not sure what means. There are small wiggly sided elements in a jigsaw puzzle. And there are pitch and timbre elements in a note. But ‘element’ has a different function in both cases. And the word ‘in’ looks a bit dark to me to!

        In truth I don’t have a settled position. I used to believe in non-reductionist supervenience until I came across the criticism I described last week:
        Supervenience requires that normatively described person-level happenings mirror non-normatively described sub-personal happenings over time, without providing any explanation of this ‘pre-established harmony’.

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  9. There’s a horrible downward spiral fuelled by interaction between those selling and those buying pap served on a bed of pseudo-science. This is especially true in my field of workplace learning and development, where a gap in the professional understanding of how the brain works leaves an open field for peddlars of nonsense, who find a willing, uncritical audience.

    I’ve written quite a lot about this (eg this on the myth of the right hemisphere being the seat of human creativity) .

    This has had no effect at all, but it makes me feel a little better. What makes me feel much better is that there are people like you, Chris, who are waving the flag for critical thinking.

  10. Hi Donald,

    Thanks for your lovely comment :) I’d love to read your post but your link seems to bring me to a different post entirely?

    And back atcha’ about critical thinking!

    (Also, I finally added a link to this post about how people stop thinking critically when there’s science in there that somehow got cut from the original)

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