Taxonomies of Denial: Ways We Subtly Reject Evidence-Based Practice (Pt. 1: Epistemological Denials)

On a recent post I wrote about my time at UNC-Chapel Hill and its role in shaping my beliefs about the importance of using evidence in our decision making as library practitioners, Candice Benjes-Small commented, wondering what the actual objections I’d faced regarding evidence-based practice actually were.

This is a really good question, and one I’ve sort of explicitly avoided in the interest of being professional. It’s rare, of course, to see objections to evidence-based decision making in print and, as such, detailed descriptions of these objections could require me to relay more personal anecdotes, in effect calling out other members of the profession. I think it’s tacky to do that to people who don’t willingly put their names out there.

Nevertheless, I thought about what Candice said for a long time, because I think that denials of evidence based practice, since they would seem so strange on the surface (What on earth can you explicitly say to someone rejecting the idea that we should make informed decisions?!), often work really subtly, in ways that we might not actually be aware of in our day-to-day practice. It is, therefore, important to be aware of them: both in terms of what to look out for in other people and also – I think perhaps most importantly –  in ourselves. For this is ultimately the point: while EBT is not controversial intellectually, it can become controversial interpersonally and also internally: EBP requires us to go beyond ourselves. It requires us to be selfless. It requires us to go where the evidence leads, not necessarily where I want. This, of course, can be hard, and, consequently, the varieties of bad faith we use to resist it seem to know no end.

At any rate. What I’ve decided to do is give you a brief taxonomy of denial: ways I’ve experienced evidence denial (i.e., people behaving as if though something is “wrong” with EBP). It goes without saying that these are anecdotal, so I suggest them as food for thought rather than overwhelming evidence for anything).

The first couple deniers are epistemological in nature: they’re misunderstanding something about the nature of evidence in our practices of knowledge and belief construction, and the role librarians play in that.

For example:

The Conclusion Denier: The conclusion denier denies a conclusion that, based on the evidence, they are rationally committed to accepting.

This has happened to me a lot. It used to happen all the time with students when I taught philosophy. Consider the following simple, stock day one of PHIL 101 argument:

(P1) All men are mortal
(P2) Socrates is a man

(C) Socrates is mortal.

We know that this argument is valid (it has the right kind of logical structure (i.e., if the premises were true, the conclusion would follow with logical necessity).

We also know that this argument is sound (the premises are indeed true).

So, okay, you CAN’T deny (C) unless you reject one of the premises.

The problem is that in more complex cases – especially where our cherished beliefs are at stake – we deny valid conclusions without rejecting premises all the time.

One example that always sticks out in my mind (from when I was teaching at Radford University actually) is once when I was talking about Hume’s argument against a rational foundation for the existence in miracles (From his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). The steps of the argument and conclusion were clearly written out on the board. We discussed each premise in detail. I got the students to agree to all the premises. They thought they were true. They agreed, further, that the argument was valid. But they denied the conclusion. Why? Because they didn’t want it to be true. It contradicted a cherished belief: the foundational myths of Christianity.

This happened all the time: denying (C) (so to speak), even though we don’t have arguments against (P1) OR (P2), and, in fact, there is every reason to believe in (P1) AND (P2) (and, therefore, (P3).

I see this all the time in librarianship. One common example comes up with learning styles, both when I’ve taught and just in more casual communications, or on the blog. “Here. Here is a metaanalysis of a gagillion studies purporting to show that teaching with person’s learning preferences in mind increases their learning – but, in fact none of these studies actually demonstrate this. Therefore, there is no scientific basis for thinking that a pedagogical approach that teaches with such styles in mind is one you should be adopting. [In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that learners, in terms of cognition, are more alike than different!].

Response: “I didn’t agree with the article.”

There hasn’t been one case where someone has maintained this where the person said something like:”I didn’t agree with the methodology of the study; here’s why …” or “See, here’s 20 articles that prove this to be true, actually.” They maintain some variant of “That doesn’t seem right,” presumably because (a) they’ve always been taught that differentiating instruction for different learners is important and (b) the best way to differentiate instruction is to teach to different learner’s preferences.

Unfortunately, “My ego is tied up in believing in learning styles”, or whatever the case may be, is not actually evidence that teaching with a learner’s so-called “learning styles” in mind actually is an effective way of teaching anybody anything.

The Global Skeptic: The Global Skeptic wants to know what your evidence is for believing in evidence. The Global Skeptic is a tough sort because due to the specious nature of their argument is seems clever and compelling. “Oh yeah, Mr. Evidence? Well what’s your evidence that evidence is a good way to form beliefs?!”

As my friend Alex Carroll puts it, the Global Skeptic is committed to outright nihilism: their position literally undermines the totality of Western thinking as we know it. Let me explain.

One objection that Alex and I got at LOEX to our framework for EBP was: “Well, what’s your evidence for evidence-based practice.”

This seems clever, right? And the thing is, it does seem clever, until you realize that it literally undermines the entire history of human thought and everything the university stands for.

The basic assumption we make as librarians -and as academics and doctors and lawyers and mechanics and basketball coaches and philosophy professors and biologists and so forth – is that we ought to construct our beliefs and guide our behaviors in accordance with the best available evidence within a particular domain. You don’t want a doctor who says, “Look, I know it seems weird if I rip out your heart to cure your ear infection, but trust me chum, it’s for the best.” You want the heart surgeon who has read the latest medical evidence for how to perform heart transplants (or whatever). You want the mechanic who is up to date on the best practices for redoing your transmission. You want the therapist well-versed in doing stuff that will actually cure your depression the fastest instead of the one who wants to spend 22 years with you talking on your back into space, more miserable than ever. You want the engineer who understands the physics of building bridges from this century, not from Aristotle’s Physics, because that’s the bridge you’d want to drive over. You want to know what WORKS, and an empiricist epistemology where we construct our beliefs and guide our behaviors according to the best available evidence on what works is the way to get there (the legal philosopher Brian Leiter has a really nice paper on the underlying empirical rationale for this kind of empiricism): The basic assumption of EBP is a kind of empiricism, one that is completely justified on its own terms, and operates according to the most basic laws of common sense we all adhere to day in and day out.

So what Alex meant, I think, when he said that the Global Skeptic is a nihilist is that if you take this stance, you’re literally committed to believing in nothing: there’s no rational basis for anything, you can just believe whatever you want, build the bridge however you want. That’s not only not an educated stance, it’s crazy.

Luckily, since your entire basis for being a librarian implies that you DON”T believe this (you provide people with sources because they want to know the evidence for whether they should believe something), it would be utterly strange for you to believe this. You DON’T actually believe this, really. You DO think there’s a rational basis for our beliefs: You think that one should believe stuff based on the evidence. So, you, the Global Skeptic, probably should stop making specious claims against EBP.

These are the two main “epistemological” objections I”ve encountered opn the ground against EBP (although there are surely more). I’ll be back, tomorrow, with part two, where I’ll outline some less theoretical taxonomies of denial.


1 Comment

Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

One response to “Taxonomies of Denial: Ways We Subtly Reject Evidence-Based Practice (Pt. 1: Epistemological Denials)

  1. On the other hand, there’s such a thing as too much dependence on evidence: (disclaimer: I know that this study is intended as a satire)

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