Experts can be wrong

Another wonderful book:

Jonah Lehrer: Proust was a Neuroscientist.

The author considers the work of  five avant garde writers (Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf), an artist (Paul Cezanne), a composer (Igor Stravinsky) and a chef (Auguste Escoffier).

He relates the ground-breaking achievement of each of them to the scientific ideas of the time and shows how, by being true to their experience of life, they anticipated the scientific insights of modern neuroscience. This meant that they found themselves in conflict with the scientific pundits of the time.

For example, Walt Whitman’s sense that mind and body are one was in conflict with the Cartesian view that the body was merely a machine to keep the brain working. One of the forms this belief took was the “science” of phrenology (assessing what was in the brain by feeling the bumps of the skull). Another dogma propounded in the nineteenth century was that creatures were born with all their neurons complete and unalterable. Before modern neuroscience showed that, on the contrary, the brain is continually adapting and changing, George Eliot anticipated its findings by showing her characters’ ability to recover from the disappointments of life and find their freedom in moving on. In the field of physiology, the experts believed that there were only four areas of taste. Escoffier and the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, whose experience told them that there was another taste which made food delicious (umami in Japanese). Eventually, this was analysed as monosodium glutamate. Once again the experts were wrong.

In educational linguistics, the main obstacle in the way of empowering all young people with academic language is the dogma (propounded by William Labov and others) that to speak of a linguistic deficit is to denigrate the language of the lower classes. This meant that Bernstein’s early insight was not followed up by analysing pupils’ actual language and comparing it with the target language of school (academic language). When I did this and drew up a programme of teaching which made up the deficit, it was ignored, even though it had a dramatic effect on pupils’ exam results.

Hopefully, what Lehrer calls “the wilful ignorance of science” will eventually be dissipated, and the experience of teachers – that they are using a language different from that available to many of their pupils – will lead to the acceptance of the very simple solution to the problem. The explicit teaching of the language of ideas, it has been shown, can make up the linguistic deficit.

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