Cambridge Analytica, Daniel Kahneman, the anti-Flynn effect and education
Every Facebook user should be aware of the business model of ‘free’ social media type services. It is to collect personal data and then sell it for the purpose of individually targeted adverts. If you interrogate Google, within hours you will get an advert on your Facebook page linked to your Google query. It is no use getting upset about this as it is in the Ts & Cs and has long been accepted
However, the Cambridge Analytica scandal crosses a new threshold in terms of the use of personal data ‘farmed’ from the likes of Facebook. You can view the Channel Four News expose here
The collection of sophisticated personal information to sell on to unscrupulous political campaign teams so that they then target emotionally tuned fake news and propaganda onto susceptible individuals to gain their votes would be a serious corruption of the democratic process – if it is allowed to operate it could become a fatal flaw.
The ultimate defence surely lies in having a well-educated population that is immune to such attacks. This is illuminated by the work of Daniel Kahneman and his identification of System 1 fast, gut thinking, and System 2 slow, cerebral thinking. This article links Kahneman’s powerful ideas with the failings of our marketised education system.
And this article explains why such attacks on the democratic process would be far less effective in countries whose education systems emphasise cognitive development rather than the passing of crude exams for market accountability purposes.
The Flynn effect is the well established pattern of national IQ scores rising over time in countries with effective education systems. The anti-Flynn effect is the name given to the more recent evidence that in the last two decades it has gone into reverse in a number of countries including the UK, with profound implications including that our national IQ could be in serious decline and/or that our national educational system and the ‘Facebook culture’ are now increasingly inhibiting the cognitive growth of our school students and the adults that emerge from our education system.
This recent article by James Flynn himself and Michael Shayer, both internationally respected academics, explains the issues.
In the last few decades of the 20th century, raw IQ test scores were increasing at about 15 points per decade. According to the Flynn and Shayer paper, they are now declining, possibly at an even faster rate, the turning point being 1995.
In the paper, Michael Shayer reports that the decline in the incidence of Piagetian Formal Operational thinking in the UK population is dramatically higher than the decline recorded by IQ tests. The following are quotes from the paper. Piagetian Formal Operational Thinking corresponds to Kahneman’s System 2 Thinking.
After our analysis, we will suggest two tentative hypotheses. First, trends on conventional tests show those at most risk of IQ decline are high school students aged 14 to 18. However, Piagetian results in Britain imply losses at earlier ages. Second, Piagetian tests signal something extra: conflicting trends between top scorers (those at the highest or formal level of cognitive development) and those in the early stages of the next level (concrete generalization). Large losses at the formal level may be accompanied by gains at the concrete level. We will argue that conventional IQ tests can show this phenomenon but are less likely to do so.
The Piagetian results are particularly ominous. Looming over all is their message that the pool of those who reach the top level of cognitive performance is being decimated: fewer and fewer people attain the formal level at which they can think in terms of abstractions and develop their capacity for deductive logic and systematic planning. They also reveal that something is actually targeting that level with special effect, rather than simply reducing its numbers in accord with losses over the curve as a whole. We have given our reason as to why the Piagetian tests are sensitive to this phenomenon in a way that conventional tests are not. Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity. They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset? During the 20th century, society escalated its skill demands and IQ rose. During the 21st century, if society reduces its skill demands, IQ will fall. Nonetheless, no one would welcome decay in the body politic.
Since the Brexit referendum there has been considerable media coverage of socially deprived northern towns with a high proportion of ‘leave’ voters. These towns have been characterised by the government as having poor schools that have created an ‘attainment gap’. This ‘gap’ is in reality a mean cognitive ability deficit caused not by individual schools but by the marketised education system.
TV News programmes have regularly sent reporters onto the streets to do vox pop interviews with the locals. It is hard not to be shocked by the poor quality (regardless of the side taken) of popular responses, where thoughtful rationality is in dire short supply, and trite phrases unrelated to evidence, predominate.
It is also a fact that that it was overwhelmingly the less well educated sectors of the US population that voted for Trump. This fits with the likelihood that individually targeted social media propaganda is more likely to be successful with Kahneman System 1 (Piaget Concrete Operational), rather than System 2 (Piaget Formal Operational) thinkers.
Which is a powerful democratic argument for reforming the UK education system to prioritise cognitive development over SATs and GCSE testing designed primarily to drive the marketised school performance accountability regime brought about by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which preceded the 1995 date of the emergence of the anti-Flynn Effect by just seven years.
There are two threads that are becoming increasingly dominant in EEF research into effective learning approaches.
The first is ‘metacognition’. This arises from Piagetian developmental, concept-based models of learning in which students are encouraged to explore their personal mental models of problems and phenomena and so refine and upgrade them. Einstein’s ‘thought experiments’ come to mind, although everybody at every age can develop their cognition through this process.
The second thread draws on the work of Vygotsky in emphasising the importance of the social context of learning and the power of ‘group work’ that requires the expressing, discussing, evaluating and challenging of the individual metcognitively created conceptual frameworks of the group members.
A recent article by Debra Kidd describes effective approaches to achieving this.
The following websites also promote and explain the sort of cognitively developmental education needed to increase the cognitive sophistication of the population and so defend democracy.
Comments on my articles are welcomed.