Thursday, May 20, 2010

Evidence and values, revisited

Yesterday I wrote about how any invocation of expert authority is enough to stop most parents from questioning educational policy decisions, even though those decisions often hinge on value judgments that parents are just as qualified as experts to make. If, for example, the focus stays on whether behavioral rewards “work” to make children more obedient, parents can be quickly cowed by anyone who cites an empirical study. But if we focused on the value judgments that necessarily have to come first -- for example, whether schools should put their main focus on qualities other than blind obedience -- the institution could no longer pull rank on the parents by claiming special expertise.

As it turns out: brain research shows that when people are given expert advice, the decision-making parts of their brains often shut down. (And if a scientific study says it, it must be true!)

This topic has gotten me to thinking about my email exchange with Alfie Kohn last October. Kohn agreed that we need to challenge the behaviorists on issues of values, but good-naturedly scolded me for ceding the question of evidence to them. Any thorough analysis of the evidence, Kohn has argued extensively in his books, shows that reward systems do not promote the desired behaviors over the long term, and ultimately have negative consequences. So, Kohn argued, we should challenge the behaviorists’ evidence as well.

I see Kohn’s logic, but I also know what happens when experts start debating the merits of their evidentiary claims: the average person throws up his hands, and the institution gets its way. If I’ve noticed this effect, and brain scientists have even studied it, you had better believe that school administrators have noticed it too. I can’t help but think that they welcome any opportunity to change the subject from what values we should pursue to what evidence the experts can summon.

..How can I comment?