Sunday, 20 April 2008

Thoughts on the Brain Gym Fiasco and Scepticism

The Brain Gym has been very much in the news recently. Mostly because any pretensions to science behind it have been demolished - most publically by Jeremy Paxman.

This critical piece is typical of the tone of the critics. It includes some short interviews from teachers, headteachers, and childern who have bought into the Brain Gym message. The comments are on the lines of:

This headmistress must be feeling quite embarrassed right about now.

With reference to the Paxman interview:

Ooooh this is a good, good day.
You must watch the glory below. It is radiant.

Ben Goldacre writes in his blog and the Guardian:

Beyond the stupidity of some headteachers, how has Brain Gym survived?

There is a definite tone of exultation in the humiliation of not only the inventor of Brian Gym but all the teachers and headteachers who have bought into it (the children who have bought into it are of course portrayed as innocent victims).

I don't want to defend Brain Gym. Scientifically it is a fraud. But let's not be juvenile in our response. I doubt it it was a total waste of public money and time. Even the fiercest critics acknowledge as an aside that there is a merit in having children do refresher exercises during school. And there is immense scope for a placebo effect. If a child believes something is making them cleverer their confidence and enthusiasm will grow and the child is very likely to try harder and do better. There is a long tradition of teachers using metaphors and images that are not true but very helpful. My wife's singing teacher tells her pupils that the voice should come out of the top of the head. I don't know whether she literally believes this, and I don't care. She is a brilliant teacher and the image works.

That poor headteacher has a real problem. Now that Brian Gym has been exposed, she has to either tell the children not to believe what they hear (i.e. lie to them) or somehow explain that it was an error without letting down all that confidence and energy. I don't want anyone to pretend that Brain Gym is science when it isn't. But sceptics should be wary of gloating over their superior knowledge. By and large they are not the ones on the spot. Many teachers found something they could use. Now it is going to be a lot harder to use it. The greatest blame should lie with Paul Dennison (the founder) but might the sceptics consider the positive side as well as well as the negative. Why not say "this may be useful in practice, but you should know that the underlying science is wrong" rather than accusing teachers of being stupid and gloating over their discomfort? Of course, that wouldn't be nearly so interesting a thing to write.


Lave said...

Hello! I'm the author of Skeptobot, and I've just read your opinion on the view point I took with the brain gym newsnight coverage.

And to be honest I see a lot of sense in what you say, I'm vey open to criticism. The blog has a tone thats very much one of 'preaching to the converted' and is read mainly by people who have been working hard to expose brain gym.

And it is because of this that the tone of the post comes from a sense of exasperation Especially since the fact that brain gym is founded on nonsense should be apparent to anyone with GCSE science, so to see teachers fooled by it is both worrying and deeply concerning.

The quote:

"Ooooh this is a good, good day.
You must watch the glory below. It is radiant."

comes from the fact that a concerned group of us have been trying to explain the problems of Brain Gym for 4 years without success. The celebration is in the awareness not in the misfortune of the teachers involved. My own girlfiriend is a teacher so I've been very intimately connected to this issue. But I see and except your point.

Saying that I have strong issues with the last two paragraphs. In the 2nd to last paragraph you say that "I doubt it it was a total waste of public money and time." but as a days training in Brain Gym cost £800 then it's a huge issue when you simple common sense is all that is needed to use the principle. Back when I was at school my teacher used something similar and it cost the school nothing.

You say that " If a child believes something is making them cleverer their confidence and enthusiasm will grow and the child is very likely to try harder and do better. " and it's impossible not to agree. But there are limits to what lies are acceptable to pull in order to achieve that. And completely undermining the nature and method and process of science is way beyond that limit. it's akin to allowing history teaches to pretend that the holocaust or the crusades didn't happen because it makes the pupils feel better.

And on the Headteachers problem then I see none. It's a wonderful opportunity to talk about the scientific method, and how it learns from its mistake and gets better. They can explore the science and see what parts of brain gym are good (the fact that it makes them focus and work together) and what's bad (the science and the cost).

We've been saying:
" "this may be useful in practice, but you should know that the underlying science is wrong"
For four years with teachers ignoring us, so obviously it's reasonable to become exasperated and so the recent events are going to be celebrated rather enthusiastically.

And putting loaded comments like 'stupidity' aside, Brain gym is clearly the tip of an iceberg. But not one of stupidity, just one of massive, istitutional ignorance of science. And that is the true problem, and one that it's up to the scientific community to do something. We need to reach out to teachers and explain things. And the teachers need to start listening, and not just once they've been embarrassed on TV.


Mark Frank said...


Thanks for your comment. We are 95% in agreement. My post was intended more as "watch out - let's not get too carried away" than a disagreement.

Scientific scepticism is rather fashionable at the moment. I am glad. But as it gathers pace there is a danger that sceptics come over as the scientist chaps with PhDs who enjoy showing off how much cleverer they are than the poor chaps who actually do things.

Things that lead to this include:
* mutual back-patting
* enjoyment of the discomfort of those who are wrong
* saying a lot about what is wrong, but little about what to do instead
* mocking the lack of scientific standards of evidence in contexts which they don't understand (this one doesn't apply to Brain Gym)
* lack of respect for the people on the spot who have to make decisions with limited evidence, time and money (and therefore make mistakes).

To succeed in increasing acceptance of science it is important to be appealing as well as right! I think from the tone of your comment that you are well aware of this.

PS I think that head teacher does have a problem. To announce “you thought you were making yourself cleverer, but you weren’t – what a great opportunity to study the scientific method” is a hard sell! Especially if you are not that interested in science.

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Helen said...

We were also discussing this in Germany ...


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