Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bogus quotes and graphs used in learning conferences

Over-used futurist quote
Ever heard that oft-repeated, tech quote, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”? Oh how we laugh! How stupid could these old timers be! But I groan when I hear this quote or see it on a PowerPoint slide by some showboating presenter who describes him or herself as a ‘futurist’. My most recent experience was at an OEB keynote in Berlin. For me, it has become a touchstone. Whenever I see or hear it, my bullshit alarm rings and I’m eyes down on my laptop doing something else. I groan, first because it’s an overused cliché, used by lazy speakers, second, because the quote is a lie.
No evidence
Kevin Maney tried but failed to find the quote in any contemporary document, speech or account about Watson or IBM. It doesn’t appear anywhere until over 40 years after it was reported to have been said by Watson in 1943, first in a book by Cerf and Navasky (1984). Unfortunately the quote seems to have been lifted from an earlier book of Facts and Fallacies. It then pops up on a newspaper column (May 1985) and seems to have spread virally on the nascent internet from its first mention on Usenet, in 1986.
The fact that the quote was a myth was even discussed as early as 1985 and certainly in the Economist in 1973, "revealing that Watson never made his oft-quoted prediction that there was 'a world market for maybe five computers.'" Of course, the absence of evidence does not mean that it didn’t happen but the next time an overeager academic quotes this on his or her slides, I’m going to call for a timeout and ask for a citation.
Watson’s no saint
Although we can absolve him from blame on the quote, Watson did something far worse. He flew to meet Hitler in 1939 and sold him a primitive punch-card Learning Management System. As told in in the excellent book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black, it stored data on skills, race and sexual orientation. Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and homosexuals, were identified and selected for slave labour and death trains to the concentration camps. I once mentioned this to Elliot Masie at a breakfast meeting in Florida. He went apeshit, as it was a rather uncomfortable truth. (IBM was a sponsor of his conference).
Next up is Einstein. I once wrote a spoof blog about a course generator I had invented, that automatically generated schemas of words all beginning with 'C' and an Einstein quote generator. No look at the future is complete without an Einstein quote. Yet many he never said and some are just made up. Take "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." He never said it. "play is the best form of research"." He never said it. Or "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." He never said that either. There are literally dozens of these.
Not just quotes
Ever seen this graph, or one like it? It's still a staple in education, training and teacher training courses. I've seen it this year in a Vice Chancellor talk at a University and by the CDO of a major learning company. It’s bogus.
A quick glance is enough to be suspicious. Any study that produces a series of results bang on units of ten would seem highly suspicious to someone with the most basic knowledge of statistics. 
But it’s worse than nonsense, the lead author of the cited study, Dr. Chi of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert on ‘expertise’, when contacted by Will Thalheimer, who uncovered the deception, said, "I don't recognize this graph at all. So the citation is definitely wrong; since it's not my graph." What’s worse is that this image and variations of the data have been circulating in thousands of PowerPoints, articles and books since the 60s.

Further investigations of these graphs by Kinnamon ((2002) in Personal communication found dozens of references to these numbers in reports and promotional material. Michael Molenda ( (2003) Personal communications, did a similar job. Their investigations found that the percentages have even been modified to suit the presenter’s needs. 

The one here is from Bersin (recently bought by Deloitte). Categories have even been added to make a point (e.g. that teaching is the most effective method of learning). The root of the problem is an image by Edgar Dale’s depiction of types of learning from the abstract to the concrete. He has no numbers on his ‘cone of experience’ and regarded it as a visual metaphor implying no hierarchy at all. 
Serious looking histograms can look scientific, especially when supported by bogus academic research. They create the illusion of good data. This is one of the most famous examples of not ’Big’ but ‘Bad’ data in the history of learning.

Lessons from all this? So-called 'futurists' largely just plunder debris from the past. To be honest, even if Watson did say that misued quote, he would have been justified, as it was years before computers were to move beyonf mainframes. Interestingly, with the new resurrected Watson, IBM is going back to a massive computer with a set of algorithms, available on the cloud, to deliver solutions to a myriad of problems. ‘Five’ may also not be too wide of the mark - a giant server farm for each of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon?