Sturgeon’s Law

This blog post is a warning (both for myself and you the reader).

In the last month I have been call a PE Guru (something I despise), seen some of my ideas presented at a PE teachmeet, watched a trainee teacher use my resources in a lesson and spoken to PE Teachers from other schools who have used my blog posts in justifying their own teaching decisions. The warning isn’t about using my ideas or resources as I freely give them. The warning is using them without any criticality.

Theodore Sturgeon was a legendary science fiction writer. He was fed up of critics highlighting the poor quality of popular literature, particularly science fiction writing. He responded to those critics by stating that most products in most fields are of low quality, including serious writing. “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” This in turn has become Sturgeon’s Law. Tom Nichols in the Death of Expertise writes “Where the Internet is concerned, Sturgeon’s Law of 90 percent might be lowballing. The sheer size and volume of the Internet, and the ability to separate meaningful knowledge from random noise, means that good information will always be swamped by lousy data and weird detours.”

Daniel Dennett, an American Philospher and Cognitive Scientist, advocates Sturgeon’s Law as one of his seven tools for critical thinking in Intuition Pumps and other tools for thinking. “90% of everything is crap. That is true, whether you are talking about physics, chemistry, evolutionary psychology, sociology, medicine—you name it—rock music, country western. 90% of everything is crap.” What does this mean for PE Teachers who are looking to deepen and improve their practice? Should we never trust anything we read especially in blog posts, or do we need to be more skeptical of what we read? The former is not a realistic position, but the latter certainly is. The internet appeals to us because we lack time and because we want instantaneous answers, however to be professional we need to pause to reflect and give ourselves time to absorb the information and digest. However if we are going to spend time reflecting and digesting Dennett reminds us not to spend our time on rubbish.

If we first do not digest the words of others then all we end up is regurgitating. We take others ideas and apply them wholesale to our context. If everything was so simple as a copy and paste approach. Without taking into account the complexities of our own curriculum, pupils, teachers and culture we might end up doing a disservice to our subject. A PE form of mimetic isomorphism, an organisation theory which refers to the tendency to imitate another organisations structure because of the belief that the structure of the latter organisation is beneficial. This often occurs when an organisation is unclear about their purpose. When we aren’t clear about our goals or how to achieve those goals we tend to bullshit.

In Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit he asks whether it is more common today then in the past. If it has increased then social media must play a part. I see lots of PE Teachers coming online and using blogs as primary source of knowledge and ideas. Frankfurt warns us that “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person has obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.” One thing I know I have learned in writing this blog for almost three years is how very little about the subject I teach I really know. I think people would be disappointed if they saw me actually teach. My ideas always look much better on my blog than in real life and those ones that do work for me are usually 5 to 10 years in the making. My blog is becoming increasingly popular, unfortunately popularity counts for a lot in life when in reality criticality would be more useful.

If you come to this blog post searching for enlightenment in PE then be sure you approach with a skeptical mindset. There may be a some wisdom and decent information hiding out in my posts, but there is no escaping Sturgeon’s Law, so apply it. 90% of my writing is crap, possibly 90% of this blog post is crap. If you are a PE Teacher coming using my blog (or others) for your ideas and professional development make sure you are, as John Stoszkowski encourages, being more like Bullshit Man.


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