Sunday, June 24, 2018

Speaking of stories

I think part of our role as educators is to have a good story to tell about our particular area(s) of expertise. Part of my narrative is that I am trained as a scientist first and foremost. As a scientist and as an educator, my job is to understand the facts available to the full extent possible. In the process, I am quite aware that not all facts are created equal, and that some are unintentional digressions whereas other facts my be intentional misdirects. Regardless, those of us who use those false narratives as we tell our own stories are going to lead our students astray and give us a false sense of security that those of us involved in a very young science have it all figured out.

For the longest time, I found the treatment of research in textbooks to be highly frustrating. Students gain the impression that research is just one string of successes, which then build upon other successes. The process on the surface appears seamless. And yet, when my students conduct their own original research, rarely do they find clean results. Often - sometimes because of their own methodological mistakes and sometimes because the research literature from which they draw is a bit murky - the process of doing science is far from seamless. The seams are not only visible, but visibly fraying. I find comfort in knowing that, and I try to communicate to my students that a large part of conducting research is getting it wrong, making mistakes, and then attempting to figure out what can be learned. It is a painstaking process, and one in which we're really still trying to get some sense of what we can know and what is yet to be known. We don't need to have all the answers. We do need to ask good questions and to keep our minds just open enough to abandon what is clearly not working.

So when I discuss zombies, whether in the form of ego depletion, the process and outcome of the Stanford Prison Experiment, any of a number of findings on subliminal priming and implicit attitude tests, I do so in order to make sure that my students have the other side of the story: our science is far from perfect. We sometimes appear to have a handle on a phenomenon, only to find out we never did. Sometimes, our colleagues pull one over on us and make it appear as if they found something they never really did. And in due time, we manage to eventually sort it out. The Stanford Prison Experiment is now a cautionary tale. There may be other findings that were more or less artifacts of various questionable research practices. We should not fear these findings, nor should we shy away from confronting the truth and conveying the truth as it becomes available. I'd rather do something other than tell my students that portions of the material in their textbooks are little more than psychobabble that should be (perhaps tentatively, perhaps permanently) dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence. And yet here we are. There are zombies in our field. I seriously doubt there is a full fledged zombie apocalypse, but we should be at least aware of the undead theories and findings that are walking among those findings that are truly alive and well.

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