Is growth mindset pseudoscience?
Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.
What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience? The basis of all reputable science is prediction and falsification: a claim has to be made which we can then attempt to disprove. If we can’t disprove it, the claim holds and we accept the theory as science. If the claim doesn’t hold, we’ve learned something, we move one, we make progress. That’s science.
Pseudoscience doesn’t work like that. It makes claims, sure, but they’re so slippery you can’t disprove any of them. We all know about phrenology, astrology, homeopathy and learning styles, but sometimes junk science is harder to spot. Consider for instance Electric Universe Theory: the basic idea is that Newton and Einstein were both wrong and the formation and existence of various features of the universe can be better explained by electromagnetism than by gravity. So what? Science writer and professional debunker of mumbo jumbo, Michael Shermer, says the following in Scientific American:
My friends at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for example, tell me they use both Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s relativity theory in computing highly accurate spacecraft trajectories to the planets. If Newton and Einstein are wrong, I inquired of EU proponent Wallace Thornhill, can you generate spacecraft flight paths that are more accurate than those based on gravitational theory? No, he replied. GPS satellites in orbit around Earth are also dependent on relativity theory, so I asked the conference host David Talbott if EU theory offers anything like the practical applications that theoretical physics has given us. No. Then what does EU theory add? A deeper understanding of nature, I was told. Oh.
You see? Nothing testable? No claims you could disprove: no falsifiable predictions.
What has this got to do with Carol Dweck’s wildly popular theory of growth mindsets? Haven’t we all agreed that this is based on hard, testable science? There’s certainly nothing wrong with her studies, all of which have been scrutinised by far more qualified and sceptical minds than mine. But there are reasons for doubt. As Scott Alexander puts it, “Good research shows that inborn ability (including but not limited to IQ) matters a lot, and that the popular prejudice that people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough is both wrong and harmful.”
Obviously that’s nowhere near enough to dismiss growth mindsets as a theory but it should give us pause for thought.
Mindsets theory makes several falsifiable predictions:
- Having a growth mindset leads to better academic achievement
- Having a fixed mindset leads to poorer academic achievement
- Giving students a growth mindset intervention (which focuses on explaining the neuroscience involved) improves students’ academic performance.
Dweck’s studies, and those of her colleagues, provide impressive data. You’ll have to forgive me but this is just a quick, off-the-cuff post and I can’t be bothered to dig up any statistics for us to pour over here. Suffice it to say that if you want to find evidence to prove any of those claims, there’s a lot of it out there.
But, and it’s a big but, when schools try a growth mindset intervention without support from Dweck or her colleagues, sometimes it doesn’t work. Maybe you’ve tried telling kids about growth mindsets and how this can turn them into academic superheroes? Has it worked? If it has, I’m glad for you, if it hasn’t, the problem might be that either you or your students have a ‘false growth mindset’.
I heard Dweck talk about the false growth mindset back in June and thought at the time that it explained away some of the difficulties I have with her theories. Basically, if you don’t get the benefits of a growth mindset it’s because you haven’t really got a growth mindset. You’re doing it wrong. In fact, you’re probably just pretending to have a growth mindset because having a fixed mindset means you’re a bad person. Could this, perhaps, explain the trouble the EEF had in replicating the benefits of in their Changing Mindsets report?
The problem with a theory that explains away all the objections is that it becomes unfalsifiable. There are no conditions in which the claim could not be true. For instance, when fossil evidence disproved the widely believed ‘fact’ that the world was created in 4004 BC, Philip Henry Gosse came up with the wonderful argument that God created the fossils to make the world look older than it actually is in order to fox us and make Himself appear even more fabulous and omnipotent. Isn’t this a similar trick to the one Dweck is trying to pull off?
If you adjust the definitions of your theory in order to fit the facts then is the theory science or pseudoscience? If no amount of data or evidence can prove Dweck’s claims false because she can just say, Well, that’s a false growth mindset, not a real one, then what’s the difference between her and Gosse?
To be fair, Dweck isn’t the problem; it’s some of the claims made by the hordes of wildly enthusiastic adherents in schools that really make me cringe. This little beauty a contender for the most pestilential, toxic thing I’ve ever seen in a school:
Not having a growth mindset is actually, like, evil.
But let’s be clear: I’m not saying growth mindset is wrong or useless. Clearly it isn’t. But, it does contradict a lot of research in other fields and it also flies in the face of many people’s lived experience: there really are people with fixed mindsets who are actually very successful and not helpless at all. (Ah, but are there really? Maybe they’ve all got false fixed mindsets?) In answer to the question posed by the title, growth mindset might well be great science and I’m just too stupid to understand all the rigour and stuff, but if it is, it wants to be careful about moving those definitional goalposts and try to sound a little less miraculous.
If it does all turn out to be a house of cards, we’ll can all look forward to spending the next few decades trying to justify and contort ourselves in exactly the same way we do about learning styles, whole word language learning, NLP and whatever the hell other noddy ideas bounce along. If it doesn’t, I’ll still be able to maintain my wise facade and say that it was worth asking awkward questions. Win win.