Ben Casnocha on placebos and education

Ben sequences it well:

In his new book, which I review here, Tyler Cowen writes:

Placebo effects can be very powerful and many
supposedly effective medicines do not in fact outperform the placebo.
The sorry truth is that no one has compared modern education to a
placebo. What if we just gave people lots of face-to-face contact and told them they were being educated?

He reluctantly provides the terrifying conclusion: Maybe that's what current methods of education already consist of.


I've been saying similar for years and was looked at like I was crazy. Maybe I'm crazy, but that's beside the point. Now that others are saying it, I'm worried. I don't think people generally snap to the rational conclusion. They overreact.

At the extreme, Ivy league is like taking the healthiest patients and then giving them the snazziest placebo and then sending them back out to give health advice. It's hard to convince me that they have special secrets, or even special techniques. More likely, they just attract slightly better people.

What you realize in graduate school is it takes 5 of these luminaries (who've been at it for collectively 100 years more than you) to come up with questions to stump you. You gain respect for their hard work, but lose the fear of their superiority.

I think the active ingredient is the potential you already bring with you in your own mind triggered by the act of receiving the treatment. In that sense, this is the perfect analogy to education.

The comments over at Ben's site seem to have regressed quickly into technical versus liberal arts education. I'm one who thinks everyone would benefit greatly from a liberal arts degree (heavy on psych and economics), an engineering degree, and a medical degree. However, I'm one of the few people I talk to who sees education as a cost. Most others view it as a benefit in itself. So, we'll be stuck with this system for a long time.

Well, I think that's the trick. That's why they test treatments against a placebo, because we can't separate the two effects. We don't know what's not placebo, only what is placebo.

I think the last 4 years of grad school is the pure placebo. No classes, self-education, if you can't get it done yourself at that point you aren't going to. Noone is qualified to teach you anything more.

In psychology, a placebo for Freudian psychoanalysis is going into an office and having a conversation about your life outside of a strict framework.

So the placebo for higher education would depend on what you thought the purpose of education was. Traditionally, education is supposed to result in your being qualified to do things you otherwise would not be, and more effective at doing certain other things. So a placebo for that would be to go and learn useless stuff.

One way that "learning useless stuff" might look approaches a certain type of liberal arts education, the intent of which is really to make you a well rounded person (etc.).

Whatever... I'll have to read the book.

What we badly need are alternative certification systems so we can actually experiment with different approaches to educational 'treatment'. As it stands, it doesn't matter if education is no more effective than a placebo -- since the only way to become certifiable 'cured' of your ignorance is to take the standard course of educational treatment.

Good points babar - placebo is an odd term to use in this context but you get the general idea.
First consider that "formal education" should really be about learning how to think - developing an effective method for creating meaning from experience. This happens informally but often less effeciently just by living life so the "placebo effect" of formal education makes some sense. A placebo may have no active ingredient but often produces the desired results. So taking the placebo may just trick your mental state to be more open to the idea of self healing (or learning?) - more of a motivational device.

With some exceptions, this is true. There are a few items in a K-12 education that are truly important and you should learn, and a few specific educational scenarios in higher education where it is vital, but other than that, it's just there to make people feel good, but is basically useless.

The problem is that unlike placebo medication, placebo education has some negative effects. If you are convinced that you earned a valuable highschool/college/masters diploma, you may feel as if many employment opportunities are beneath you, and be unwilling to accept them -- even though the very fact that your education was rather placebo-esque probably makes you unqualified for more prestigious positions.

Eric: In mathematics, at least, the professorate explicitly mold the PhD program partly as a test of capability. I mean this in the active and current tense.

Surely the stuff that Alan Sokal parodied with his famous hoax is the placebo. We can compare folks who have received this essentially content-free education to, say, engineering graduates.

And you know what? In the end, those students are not so badly off. They've "learned how to learn". Like medieval theologians in arcane disputations about angels dancing on the head of a pin, or debating club participants arguing a facetious topic just for fun, they've gone through a sort of mental gymnastics that gets the neurons working. If you run a marathon, you get the same exercise whether you actually go from point A to point B or you run around in circles on a track and end up exactly where you started.

Considering I've only been a victim of crime while in school, the FDA would deem it neither safe nor effective.

'The sorry truth is that no one has compared modern education to a placebo.'

Never heard of the unschooling movement? You need to get around more. But at the extreme I think this can fail (especially if combined with an abecedarian culture that activeley despises learning). I am pretty driven to teach myself stuff but even so I learned my multiplication tables in grade school like just about everyone else.

"If you want your headache to go away, it doesn't matter if you take real Advil or just something that looks and tastes like Advil"

The nature of this claim alone is enough to put me off anything else said. As a biomedical researcher with a silly number of post-graduate hours and who works closely with a number of universities, this entire conversation has the whiff of intellectual arrogance. (And of being too cute with semantics.)

For some people, I think education is an anti-placebo in the sense that they graduate with a degree and think they are educated, and therefore stop really thinking and learning. I've known a number of people like this. They get their liberal arts degree, get a job, and spend the rest of their lives watching TV and playing sports and socializing and in general doing very little actual learning. But they've sure got strong opinions about the world, and think they are far more educated than they really are.

And the truth of the matter is that if all you know is what you learned in the curriculum of a 4-year degree, you are ignorant.

When I think about the most educated people I know, a number of them either didn't go to college, or didn't graduate from college. Those people knew they had to learn on their own, and learning became a lifelong activity. My grandmother was very smart, but her economic circumstance prevented her from going to college. So instead, she spent the rest of her life reading, taking classes when she could, and in general improving her knowledge of the world.

As for K-12 education. It's mostly babysitting and socialization. My daughter could read and write fluently by the time she went into grade one. She's been far ahead of the curriculum at all times. When she brings her studies home, I spend about as much time correcting the godawful material the school gives her and writing letters to her teacher to correct the teacher's incorrect material than I do on helping my daughter understand the concepts she's learning in school.

Stats for achievement in school show that one of the biggest predictive factors for child achievement is the level of engagement of the parents. To me, that's evidence that the schools themselves aren't doing the job. Obviously, good parents are always going to be better than bad ones, but if the schools really were educating the children, the level of parent involvement shouldn't be quite as important as it appears to be.

The placebo effect is almost never measured in studies. It is not the difference between placebo and actual treatment. The placebo effect is the difference between a placebo and doing nothing at all (or "usual care").

The response rate in the placebo arm of a trial tells you _nothing_ about the placebo effect. It tells you about the combination of the "placebo effect" and the natural course of the disease.

Few diseases have an unremitting, progressive course. Extrapolating from this, you can see one reason why clinical trials tend to show bigger treatment effects than actual clinical practice. Namely, the people most likely to enroll in a clinical trial are those with the worst symptoms when the study begins, ie, the individuals who are about to "regress to the mean" anyway.

In summary, the placebo effect is overrated.

Andrew, where I am from a PhD is treated more like a low-wage entry job into the acedemic world, in the sense that they are consider employees, receive money called salary instead of stipend, etc.

When I first realized that Americans treat it more as education, I was actually surprised. American graduate school, especially the latter years, looks pretty much the same as PhD programs over here. The big difference is that a 'stipend' can be a tad lower than a 'salary' without feeling like an insult to the people involved.

In short, I think that using graduate school as a proxy for education in general is highly misleading.

They've "learned how to learn".

What does this mean? Everyone who gets to college already knows how to learn - if you had a kid who showed no signs of learning, eg they had no idea of English, no idea of who you are, no idea of where anything was in their home, etc, then you wouldn't send them to a school, you'd be schlepping them round doctors trying to get a cure. Kids who don't already know how to learn can't benefit from schooling.

So, "learned how to learn" read simply isn't worth spending any money on, except perhaps some research time for a cure for those rare individuals who don't, since nearly everyone already does it even before they get to school.

If it means that you have a broader vocabulary and thus are able to make sense of more material, then why not say "schools teach students a broader vocabulary"?

There's been debate in sociology and in educational economics for years about whether college graduates actually learn in college, whether they do better on average on tests of knowledge and on later earnings due to selection effects (e.g., kids who are smarter, more motivated, more pliable, with better family connections, from wealthier backgrounds, etc are more likely to go to college), or whether they do better because of signaling effects (e.g., of social class background, of latent human capital). Does the language of placebos really add anything to this debate?

At any rate, what we really need to answer these question is random assignment of kids to different types of colleges (and to "no college"). In the absence of random assignment, I don't see that these questions will ever be resolved definitively ... and I don't see random assignment happening any time soon.

Colleges with highly selective admissions policies don't have to teach a lot -- it's practically optional -- because they admit only students who are motivated to learn for themselves. A group of such students will educate themselves to a remarkable degree.

To find real teaching today, go to the community colleges and those state universities that admit large numbers of underprepared students.

In those places, faculty HAVE to teach, because, without teaching, most students there don't learn.

If this observation is correct, it is a disservice to give special admission in an elite school to students who lack the drive and learning skills to teach themselves. They may wander through without figuring out that such places consider all education to be self-education facilitated by a rich cultural setting and professors that inspire more than they teach.

Exception: Some disciplines have such specific requirements for retention (e.g., engineering) that even elite schools teach and assess these subjects actively.

When college faculty discuss teaching, you can detect a disjunction between those who teach at colleges with selective admission policies and those who teach at places that have open admission, or close to it. These two groups understand "teaching" in profoundly contrasting ways, due to the difference in the students they get.

Comments for this post are closed