Part two of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, examines logical positivism
Before I address Professor Biesta’s reply to the question I posed at the end of part one, I am going to spend two instalments discussing logical positivism. Even though this requires a bit of a philosophical dive, I think it is justified because without understanding the fundamental argument about logical positivism, the more concrete disagreements about educational purpose will be difficult to untangle. The elephant represents the fact that all the other, non-elephantine occupants of the room are divided between two almost completely incompatible ways of thinking about truth and logic—they follow incommensurable paradigms, in the approved, post-modernist jargon—and without understanding that important fact, it will not be possible to understand why so many people seem to be talking past each other, almost as if speaking different languages.
The view that I expressed in my question, that objectives which cannot be measured are for that reason meaningless, follows from the principle of verificationism (and Karl Popper’s variation, falsificationism), which is the central tenet of logical positivism. Taken together, these theories represent a viewpoint that is widely thought of by educationalists as having gone out with the ark, the term “logical positivism” being described by Erie Bredo in the The Philosophy of Education: an Enclyclopedia as “a generalized term of abuse”. The truth of this description has been attested by Greg Ashman in a recent blog-post, On the subject of my irrepressible positivity.
Although educationalists often speak dismissively of logical positivism, it remains fundamental to the practice of natural sciences such as physics. Here, for example, is a passage from Einstein’s 1921 Relativity: the special and general theory, which asks what is meant by a statement that two bolts of lightning occur simultaneously (p.26).
The concept does not exist for the physicist until he has the possibility of discovering whether or not it is fulfilled in an actual case. We require a definition of simultaneity such that this definition supplies us with the method by means of which, in the present case, he can decide by experiment whether or not both the lightning strokes occurred simultaneously. As long as this requirement is not satisfied, I allow myself to be deceived as a physicist (and of course the same applies if I am not a physicist), when I imagine that I am able to attach a meaning to the statement of simultaneity. (I would ask the reader not to proceed farther until he is fully convinced on this point.)
Einstein’s description of the conditions under which the term “simultaneity” becomes meaningful represents a straight up-and-down statement of the principle of verificationism. Nor is Einstein kidding when suggests non-compliant readers should put down the book: without understanding that the experiment is not just a way of demonstrating simultaneity but is actually what is meant by simultaneity, you simply cannot follow Einstein’s argument. Yet I suggest that modern educationalists who say that we should adopt educational objectives whose attainment we do not know how to ascertain, would in all honesty have to put down Einstein’s book at this point, being unable to accept the basic principle on which all modern science is premised. Educationalists and physicists have incompatible intellectual models of truth and meaning.
This intellectual chasm was expressed in what became known as the Science Wars in the 1990s. The opening shot in these wars was fired in the form of a leading article in the American edition of the Economist, written by Richard Lewontin and entitled 74.6% of Sociology is Bunk:
The GDP of Denmark is not to be found by asking a statistically significant random sample of people to have a stab at it. What people think, still less what they say, is not a good guide to the way the world is. People don’t know. People lie.
Lewontin attacks the methodology of many sociologists (and indeed educationalists), which commonly focuses on attitudinal surveys or, to use the language of Kant, “phenomenological research”. Such a methodology addresses what people think, which will always be influence by their values, rather than “the way the world is”.
A year after Lewontin’s leader, New York physicist Alan Sokal produced what became known as the Sokal hoax. He persuaded a leading academic journal of postmodern cultural studies to publish a spoof article that he himself had written, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, which he declared on the day of publication to be:
a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.
The eminent journal that had published this nonsense, and the discipline that it represented, clearly lacked discrimination.
In response to these attacks, educationalists come up with a number of reasons for dismissing logical positivism. It might be applicable, it is said, to the natural sciences, but not to the more complex world of human interactions where causal relationships do not apply; it will narrow our priorities to those things that are easy to measure rather than to things that matter; it tends to propose simplistic silver-bullet, black-and-white answers; it does not take account of the variability of human experience or the multiplicity of causal influences that the teacher must juggle; it does not take account of the importance in education of subjective values.
Most of these objections can be quickly dismissed.
Relativity is not a simple thing to verify. At the time that Einstein formulated the theory, no-one would be able to demonstrate its truth by experimental means for several decades to come. Verificationism does not require that the experiment should be feasible or even accurate. Erie Bredo is wrong to say that positivism can be refuted because any experiment might be flawed, as “maybe the electron microscope one is looking through is not working properly” (ibid p.494). That does not matter. All that the principle requires is that you can state clearly what the experiment would be, if you had the means to conduct it, such that it would produce a definite answer of some sort, right or wrong (read through to the top of page 28 in Einstein’s engaging explanation of this point). Positivism is about creating meaningful statements, not true or certain statements. Nor is it about measuring only what is easy or even possible to measure.
Some people dismiss the methods of quantitative research because of the multiplicity of causal influences in the classroom, which, they claim, invalidates the methodology of quantitative research when applied to the classroom. One such academic writes on a community email reflector:
The weight of positivism is heavy…[but] laboratory-type protocols were insufficient to apply to the educational context because no two classes are the same nor behave the same.
This position demonstrates a failure to understand quantitative research methodology. The whole point of Randomized Control Trials is not to harmonize all the confounding variables but to randomize them. The challenge posed by RCTs is not that they cannot on principle be used in educational contexts, but that to do so they require data of a quality and in a quantity that is not generally produced by our current education system. For that, like Einstein, it seems we must wait.
With respect to the supposed impossibility of predicting causal relationships in human interactions, it is true that one can never be entirely sure how other people will react. That does not mean that conclusions which fall short of certainty are invalid or of no use. It is both possible and useful to know, given certain sorts of precondition, what are likely to be the most effective sorts of action in order to attain a certain sort of objective. This is what an orator learns when she learns how to make a better speech or a policeman when he learns how better to manage a confrontation: it is commonplace that people managing human relationships seek useful knowledge about the probable causal relationships between human actions and human responses. Without such causal relationships, the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience would be impossible.
There is nevertheless one criticism of positivism that is, perhaps, more substantive than the others. This states that the empirical evidence which is used to justify a position is itself value-laden and so the act of justification is circular—rigged, you might say. This is a view that has become influential ever since the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn in 1962.
That will be the subject of part three, which will wrap up my discussion of logical positivism and its critics.