Scientism: a belief that you can't believe until the belief has been quantitatively certified by a believing scientist.
— William M. Briggs (@mattstat) April 18, 2016
Here’s the headline. (It’s NPR, so don’t expect much.) “Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away”. And here’s the relevant sad bit:
For one thing, research shows that laptops and tablets have a tendency to be distracting — it’s so easy to click over to Facebook in that dull lecture. And a study has shown that the fact that you have to be slower when you take notes by hand is what makes it more useful in the long run.
Research shows. Research shows. Research shows. Research shows that two of the most dismal words in the English language are “research shows.”
Only scientism of the first kind accounts for the necessity to undertake a study to discover whether laptops can distract students.
Scientism of the first kind, as pithily described in the tweet linked at top (or here), is the idea that only facts certified by scientists, or by experiment, or that have been studied in some official way, are worthy of attention and that all other knowledge is suspicious, dangerous, or false.
Commonsense and routine observation can’t be trusted because they might—might—lead to error. So even though all experience shows laptops, and other “devices”, are distracting at some times to some students in some situations, laptops might not be distracting in some future group at some time in some place. Or something.
This is confused because it’s not clear what the objection is to the commonplace observation that laptops distract. Perhaps it’s that knowing, via plain observation, laptops distract does not quantify the phenomenon. We can’t put a number on the precise number of students in some future class who will be distracted. Hunger for needless quantification is another symptom of scientism.
Heck, we don’t even know if all races, sexes, sexual desires, class types, times of day, income statuses, and on and on and on are equally distractable. There may be disparities! Can you imagine the horror if white men were to be discovered, via a formal study, to be less distracted than, say, female transsexuals?
I’m teasing, but my joke has a good chance of being true (I refuse to check).
Obviously, one reason for scientism is the relentless desire for academics to publish something, anything, that resembles scholarship. Since there are so many academics, publications rise like a tsunami. A peer in need of a paper will see the journal article “Laptops distract (p < magic number)” and will realize that, while this is a fine study, it hasn’t been conducted in introductory sociology courses at universities of the type he coincidentally works at. And is there a difference between tablets and laptops? Let’s test!
So he’ll repeat the study, and add to the world’s knowledge by an infinitesimal amount. Given that he’ll use statistics, he’ll, like everybody, forget that correlation isn’t causation, and use the certified-by-hypothesis-tests correlations to “prove” various theories about why laptops distract.
Suddenly, then, there are two papers on this most important subject. There are many more than two academics, however, and they all need papers (their hunger for them is insatiable), and so a few more will enter the burgeoning new sub-sub-sub-field of laptop distraction studies. Soon, one will speak of the “literature” of laptop distractions.
The whole thing will take the patina of science. It all looks so formal! At that point, none would dare write a news story in a respected outlet without seeking a quote from an authority, a quote which will begin with the words “Research shows…”
Too gloomy an outlook? NPR continues:
In the study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning.
“When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” Mueller tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”
Look at all those words to say what everybody already knew! Note the serious tone. The story continues:
Mueller and Oppenheimer cited that note-taking can be categorized two ways: generative and nongenerative. Generative note-taking pertains to ‘summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,’ while nongenerative note-taking involves copying something verbatim.
We finally reach theory, the most essential part of any scientific work, because it is theory that leads to the four most-cherished words in any paper: “More research is needed.”