The Era of the Plausible

Somebody, I can’t remember who, once said: “There is always an easy solution to every problem; neat, plausible and wrong“. The plausible bit is what interests me.

Much of what we do  these days is driven by plausibility rather than being truly evidence-based; something of an irony in this scientific age. For example, the persistence of many alternative medical treatments is due to there being an air of plausibility about them. Manuka honey has been shown to have antimicrobial activity so surely it is worth spending €35 on a jar of it! Homeopathy is a notable exception to the plausibility rule, being completely ridiculous.

But look at the way we organise many initiatives in education and research. The default policy seems to be to set up a ‘centre of excellence’ to generate a critical mass. For example, DCU’s President has recently made a call for “ a centre of expertise (in online learning) that can support all institutions”. In research, the current paradigm seems to be that research is best conducted through large centres of excellence, although individuals still get funded. There are well over 30 research centres in DCU alone. It sounds so much more credible on the radio if you can say you’re from the ‘Centre for Advanced Materials’, rather than the ‘School of Materials Science’.

There is no doubt that many areas of current  science require this approach; high-energy experimental physics being an obvious example. In that field, people often work on a single common problem such as the hunt for the Higgs. But most centres, it seems to me, as an outsider, tend to consist of many people sharing a common interest rather than a single common problem; nanotechnology or immunology or sustainability or whatever. This approach is very plausible because words like “critical mass”, “synergy” and “collaboration” have a very strong appeal. Furthermore, the idea of being able to bounce ideas off a colleague does sound attractive, especially to someone like me who has worked mainly with biologists throughout my career. And, there is no doubt that the sheer cost of modern experimental science is a good argument for centres where equipment can be shared and used optimally.

But, the centre approach tends to marginalise some researchers, often of an introverted disposition, who work best on their own with time and space to think. They are not managers or organisers or networkers like many successful scientists are these days. Many studies on creativity show that a high percentage of creative people are of this type; people who are not necessarily good at working in groups or collaborating or having limits placed on them by the need to deliver on a ‘work package’ or to work within a strategic context. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, once advised: “Artists work best alone. Work alone.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should be a recluse and have no interaction with the academic community but you may be the type of person who needs time and space to thing about original  ideas and problems in a way that is not driven by the consensus.

Of course, the standard reply to this argument is that we are now in a brave new world and the demands of the 21st century are such that new ways of working and doing science are required. The old days of the individual are gone; the group is the thing. This all sounds plausible because the world is a very different place now, at least in its connectedness. But my point is that plausibility should not drive policy. In so far as possible, we should make decisions based on evidence. Can we say definitively that creating centres creates better, more far-reaching ideas? I don’t know but the question is worth asking.

On the education side of things, there is widespread ‘belief’ in the idea of learning styles. The theory goes that people learn in different ways; visually, aurally, kinetically and so on. The recommendation is that instruction should be tailored to the particular learning style of individual student, no mean feat for a teacher or lecturer even in a relatively small class. But the consensus among neuroscientists and cognitive scientists (Susan Greenfield and Daniel T. Willingham being among them) is that there is no evidence for learning styles, at least for learning styles having any effect on learning outcomes. Willingham, for example, argues strongly that the optimal mode of instruction is determined by the content rather than the supposed learning style of the student. Yet, the learning style concept persists, potentially putting huge pressure on teachers to present content in a variety of ways simultaneously and perhaps confusing students in the process. DCU even has its own web page encouraging students to discover their own learning styles (using online questionnaires) and to tailor their study accordingly. This persistence of the learning style concept is due to the fact that it is plausible. But until there is good evidence for it, we should not let the learning style concept intrude on teaching and learning practice.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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