Weird Experiments and Mad Science

by Stephanie Chasteen on January 2, 2012

I found out recently about a very entertaining blog (and accompanying book, see below), Weird Experiments.  He doesn’t post very often, but what he posts is fascinating and well-researched.  The book — THE MAD SCIENCE BOOK: EXPERIMENTS FROM THE WILDER SIDE OF SCIENCE — is an entertaining look at a laundry list of interesting experiments throughout history.  The blog gives you a nice sneak-preview of many of those experiments.  And the current post raises questions about the usefulness of teaching evaluations.

The latest post is about the Dr. Fox Lecture, a very unusual psychology experiment in which the subjects were unwitting medical professionals.  Let them see how it feels to be the fall guy in someone else’s experiment for once!

Dr. Fox presented a lecture, “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.”  This was back in the 1960’s, I believe.  But Dr. Fox was an actor — actually quite a popular actor — and had no idea what he was talking about.  From Weird Experiments:

Fox was trained to give this talk only the day before. He was given an article from „Scientific American“ on game theory and worked up a lecture from it that was intentionally full of imprecise waffle, invented words and contradictory assertions.

It was a big gamble.  Would the physicians buy it?  Again from Weird Experiments:

Michael Fox didn‘t think, he would make it through the lecture without being exposed. He had two reasons for being nervous: on one hand he had to give a lecture that was stripped from any real content on the other hand he was sure that most of the people in the audience had seen him before on TV. Fox had been a supporting actor in many Sitcoms, TV series and feature movies. He had played Dr Benson the vet of Inspector Columbo, Captain Ritter in „Hogans Heroes“ and Inspector Basch in “Batman“.

But nobody caught on that it was a fraud.  They asked many questions, which he deftly avoided (like a good politician), and nobody raised any objections.  In part, “Doctor” Fox was accomplished actor, so he could pull off the feat with such style that the audience was blinded to the fraud. Below is the actual footage from the event — it’s worth a watch!

As pointed out on the blog, this raises questions about how useful a teaching evaluation might be.

These results raised doubts about the usefulness of teaching evaluation. When students were asked to fill out questionnaires assessing a class, these might actually be indicating little more than how much they liked the lecture along with ‘their illusions of having learned’. As the authors wrote in their paper on the experiment, ‘there is much more to teaching than making students happy’.

Considering some of the recent uncoverings of scientific fraud (e.g., Hwang, Schon, or Van Parijs), the “Dr. Fox Effect” also makes it clear how easily we can trust someone if the right trappings are there.   Context and a familiar and confident presentation — such as a professional talk, or a colleague’s data — sets our expectations, and if it looks right, we tend to accept it.

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