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Snake oil and raspberry ketones – what education doesn’t teach us

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few years ago I had an argument with a bright but lazy sixth form student.  She said to me that a woman had had cockroach larvae growing inside her mouth and had to have it surgically removed.  The cause she said, was licking an envelope on to which cockroach eggs had mysteriously become attached and one transferred to her tongue when she cut it on the paper.  The larvae, she said grew inside the woman’s tongue and nearly killed her. I argued with her that this was impossible since cockroaches don’t have a larval but a nymph stage which look like small cockroaches which can walk and, besides that, the eggs of some are almost as big as sunflower seeds.  Also, those species which don’t lay eggs lay an ootheca which is like a pouch containing many nymphs and is even bigger. Dismissing all of my knowledge with a wave of her hand, she said simply: “It is true, I read it on the internet”.

“Snake oil” is a term coined to describe any quack medicine which has no active ingredients because products allegedly containing snake oil, contained none.  The origin of the term was in the 19th century USA where travelling medicine men went from town to town hawking their medicines to an ignorant and an uneducated population. The “medicines” which were expensive and prayed upon a population without medical care, were often little more than oils or alcohol.  It happened here in the UK too, “Bile Beans” which claimed to be a tonic and laxative with slimming properties, was marketed from the 1890s.  Even though the drug was labelled as fraudulent in the early 20th century, it continued to be sold in the 1980s alongside such brands as “Dewitt’s pills”. We may laugh, but the success of fad diets and treatments such as green coffee extract, red palm oil and raspberry ketones show that the problem has not gone away, but if anything has got worse.

We are in the middle of an internet information revolution, most of which is based on unverified sources.  Whilst there are some protections against financial fraud and defamation, pretty much anything else goes.  Combine a story with a photo-shopped image of a woman with and without belly fat and literally, you are onto a winner.  People in pain or unhappy with themselves are desperate whether they lived in a frontier town in 19th century USA or 21st century Milton Keynes.  The common enemy is ignorance.

What has this got to do with education? Well, it all goes back to the curriculum taught in schools and probably in adult education too.  Some things can easily be agreed on. It is absolutely essential that people are taught a high degree of literacy (preferably in more than one language), numeracy and enough science to be able to understand their biology, technology and care for the planet, but for the rest I would suggest we need to radically think what and how we teach if we are going to make learners fit for the 21st century and beyond.

History is one of the “essential” subjects in the English Baccalaureate or Ebacc. But is it essential to a 21st century life?  Do I really need to know which prime ministers were in office during the reign of Queen Victoria or the far end about Hoover’s reconstruction policy in the USA?  Information is so readily available nowadays that once a person has a basic grasp of a subject, they should be able to research the rest for themselves and perhaps research different things from their peers so that together they can debate and learn, rather than all knowing the same thing in a prescribed national curriculum. But how can we distinguish something of real worth from snake oil or posts about mouth-living cockroaches?

The answer is simple, teach it! In this different model of education, the role of the teacher would have to radically change from being a fount of knowledge and how to pass exams to being a facilitator of learning – skills for living, skills of discernment and a model already exists.  Greek philosophers such as Socrates developed methods of enquiry based on questioning, debate and a process called dialectic.  The dialectic is a debate involving contrasts of opposites, eliminating material which is not found to be compatible or changing an idea to accommodate new found information.  This is how young children learn a cat and a dog both have four legs and a tail, but gradually, by mentally testing their “model” of a dog or a cat, they can distinguish between the two.

Philosophy for children – often abbreviated to P4C teaches such skills and helps people develop reasoning skills, an ability to debate and improved cognitive skills.  If the sixth form student who made bold assertions about cockroaches had studied P4C instead of believing what she read, she would have looked for evidence to refute the idea and modify her ideas. As Karl Popper, the Austrian-British philosopher stated,

one does not test the statement “All swans are white by searching for white ones but by looking for one that is black”.


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