Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Current Chaos Manor mail: Subject: The rediscovery of phonics


The reference to scientists proposing a cure for dyslexia http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,8122-1000267,00.html By rediscovering old methods got me to thinking. For one thing, this is what Roberta did for years, and she was able to teach almost every one of her dyslexic criminal children to read.

The alphabet is a powerful tool because it maps to phonemes. It makes reading much easier to learn. I once read a study, for example, with Chinese children who were taught Pin Yin (the PRC's method of Romanizing the Mandarin language) instead of characters in their early school years. These kids learned to read as fast as kids in Europe, and their misspellings could be deciphered. That was in contrast to learning the characters, where if you make a mistake it can make what you're writing unintelligible.

I was taught phonetically with Dick and Jane in the mid-1950's in Southern California, which was then an educational wasteland where outmoded methods were used. I have no trouble seeing and pronouncing new words. My wife, OTOH, is 5 years younger than I and was educated in Syracuse, where the presence of the progressive Education Department at Syracuse University insured that modern teaching methods were used locally. She was taught what words look like, not how to sound them out. In essence, SU and its partners had reinvented millennia-old Chinese educational methods--methods that long kept all but a few people illiterate. Even today my wife has difficulty decoding new words.

It's heartening to see scientists returning to what works, but it's sad that educators have taken us on a fifty-tear educational detour. I guess they never looked at the data. It reminds me of how geologists would not accept Wegener's data about moving continents until they had a mechanism to explain it. I wonder what other data is being ignored?


This is one reason why I do NOT believe "peer review" is the best method for allocation of grant money. It's fine for the bulk of the money, but once Big Science gets determined that things are a certain way, they will allocate nothing to test hypotheses contrary to those views.

Now of course many "radical" views are sheer crackpottery. Martin Gardiner did us a big favor with Fad and Fallacies IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE by showing us what crackpots look like and how they act; but every now and then a crackpot turns out to be right, ie. wasn't a crackpot at all. Ignatz Semmelweiss is the best example I know but there have been others.

And when it comes to the Voodoo Sciences (usually called the "Social Sciences") it's generally worse. Big Education with its Big Unions is the worst offender here: you get hot new theories by generally second rate minds in University Departments of Education and they are applied by third raters, then passionately defended by everyone else in the union. It took real brain power to set reading back 5,000 years to ideographs: but in fact most of the teachers defending "look-say" had never heard of the Phonetic Alphabet in its historical context, and never understood why reading was widespread among the Phoenicians and later the Greeks while restricted to priestly classes in ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics for the hierarchy indeed!

California was among the worst. I am sure Honig and his cohorts "meant well" but they imposed illiteracy on a generation, and ruined what had been an excellent school system. We have not recovered and will not recover in my lifetime from the attentions of these well meaning morons who insisted that the latest "scientific" fad be imposed and enforced in all the classrooms, and never quite understood why Catholic schools had higher literacy rates than the products of the much more expensive public schools.

Education is a Voodoo Science as is nearly all of Sociology and "Social Psychology", and the one thing you can be nearly certain of is that a PhD in the Voodoo Sciences will know neither real science nor real humanities: will know no history, and so far as science is concerned, will know mostly how to apply cookbook statistics without any understanding of statistical inference. The exceptions are rare.

Once Big Science, especially the Voodoo Sciences, gets off onto the wrong track, "peer review" sees to it that it stays there. Once again let me bring up Duesberg: he may be off his head, and his hypothesis the HIV is not the "cause" of AIDS but something associated with it may well be entirely wrong, or may be wrong in part (the real truth may be some kind of synergistic causation) or merely statistically wrong (certainly some cases of immune system collapse are brought about by more traditional stresses -- Senator Gann being one of the best examples -- and HIV is entirely incidental to that particular case). The point is that it would not cost much to do the crucial experiments Duesberg advocates -- but in a decade he hasn't been able to get funding. Now he may be a crackpot, but he wasn't always -- heck he discovered retroviruses to begin with -- and given the amounts being spent on AIDS research it wouldn't be out of place to put 1% of that into tests of alternate hypotheses generated by people whose opinions would be respected if they put forth almost anything but an alternate hypothesis. But it won't happen.

And Education "Research" is still the same, most of it being spent to justify the methods in use now; just as "peer review" of professionalism turns out to be unionized defense of really awful teachers who anyone with common sense wouldn't let within a mile of a classroom, as well as mismatched people -- some of those who would be excellent in teaching really young kids are awful when they have to do 4th grade and above where facts and knowledge of some real history and science are important, but the unions will defend their "right" to a job even if they are no good at it.

And I see you managed to push a button. I have work to do and I have said most of this before.
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