One of the many challenges facing school research leads and other teachers who use social media – be it Twitter, Facebook and/or blogs – is to try and make sure they do not fall victim to bulls..t. So in this post we will use James Ball’s recently published book Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world to help us both what identify bulls..t is and the strategies to adopt so we are less likely to fall victim to it. However, it should be noted that bullsh.t is not confined to social media and may often be heard, dare I say it, on a regular basis in school staff rooms and senior leadership team meetings
What do we mean by bullsh.t?
Ball draws upon the work of Harry Frankfurt in order to distinguish between lies, untruths and bullsh.t and summarises Frankfurt’s argument as: to tell a lie, you need to care about some form of absolute truth or falsehood, and increasingly public life is run by people who don’t care much either way – they care about their narrative. (Ball, 2017) p6
Ball goes onto cite Frankfurt who concludes
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority, and refuses to meet its demands.
The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it all, by virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Ball argues that a bullshitter will say what works to get the result they want, regardless of whether it is true or not. Ball goes onto say that in his view that this serves as an accurate description of many political campaigns. No doubt there are some Tweeters and other social media commentators who would say that given the performative nature of external school accountability regimes this is also an accurate description of much educational leadership in schools and multi-academy trusts.
So how are you to protect yourself from bullsh.t?
Ball suggests a number of strategies – aimed at social media – which you could use to prevent yourself falling victim to bullshit. However, I argue that these strategies can also be extended to the ‘real’ world and be used in other settings.
Burst your bubble
Ball argues observes that many of us live in an online bubble – where we follow and communicate with people who have the same views as ourselves. Maybe we need to make sure we follow and meaningfully engage with people who have different views than ourselves. With the aim of this engagement being to understand the views of others, rather than seeking to convince other as to veracity of our own arguments. Indeed, in the physical world, the could involve secondary teachers engaging in dialogue and conversation with colleagues in either or both the primary or further education sector. Alternatively, it may be as simple as just spending some time with a colleague who specialises in a subject to completely different to your own, say a science teacher with an art teacher.
Engage system two
Ball makes reference to System One – instinctive reaction and System Two – more deliberative thinking. With System One thinking Ball argues that we are far more likely to quickly RT and share Tweets and other social media which are consistent with how we see things. However, this risks spreading bullsh.t – as we have not subject these Tweets or blogs to appropriate critical scrutiny. On the other hand, Ball argues, that if we subject some of this material to more critical scrutiny and asking - is there evidence to back up the claims being made; where has the evidence come from; do the authors recognise the limitations of the claims being made – then it means we are far more likely not so share bullshit.
Learn some stats
Ball argues that if you have a very basic grasp of statistics then you are far less likely to fall prone to bullsh.t. In the context of your work as a school research lead it would be useful to get to grips of the notion of effect sizes and their limitations. A useful introductory text can be found in the work of (Ellis, 2010) It would probably also be worth dipping into an introductory texts on statistics such as (Cumming & Calin-Jageman, 2017) – which is particularly useful at looking at p-values and confidence limits and which is supported by a range of videos which can be found on YouTube.
Treat narratives you believe in – just as sceptically as those you don’t
Just because a narrative you believe in is being promoted in social media does not mean that it is right. We may see tweets or posts which sees coaching as the magic bullet of school improvement or tweet which supports the use of Lesson Study or that the use of research evidence is the key to improving practices in the classrooms. On such occasions, we may need just to step back and say – is there an alternative view or views on this? If so, what is it? Are there any elements of these alternative views which are robust.
Try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking
Ball argues that in a world of bullsh.t there is a tendency for there to be a rise in conspiratorial thinking – and that others are ‘out to get us’. Where you are tempted to thinking conspiratorially – it is always worth remembering Hanlon’s Razor – which can be described in a number of ways. For example “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" or "Don't assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding."
And some final words
School research leads have a particular responsibility for rooting out ‘bullsh.t’ in schools. On the other hand, school research leads need to make sure they too are not proponents of other people’s bullsh.t and need to adopt an appropriately self-critical stance of their own work. This may not be easy, but that does not make it any less vital.
Ball, J. (2017). Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world. London: Biteback Publishing
Cumming, G., & Calin-Jageman, R. (2017). Introduction to the New Statistics: Estimation, Open Science, and Beyond. Abingdon: Routledge.
Ellis, P. D. (2010). The essential guide to effect sizes: Statistical power, meta-analysis, and the interpretation of research results: Cambridge University Press.