What Makes Daniel Willingham A Scientist?

“Our curriculum is based on years of analysis of the world’s most successful school systems, from east Asia to Massachusetts, and is backed by leading academics such as scientist Daniel Willingham” (Elizabeth Truss MP, Conservative Minister for education)

“Antidote to Twitter idiocy: The science behind Gove approach on curriculum: http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2013/02/the-science-in-goves-speech.html”
(Tory education news ‏@toryeducation)

“I have also been influenced by the scrupulously researched findings of scientists such as Daniel T. Willingham” (Michael Gove MP, conservative Secretary of State for Education)

Three different political texts, one name: Daniel Willingham.


Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia, where he is a professor in the Department of Psychology. His books include Cognition: The Thinking Animal (3 editions: 2001, 2004, 2007: Prentice Hall), Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009: Jossey-Bass) and When Can You Trust the Experts? (2012: Jossey-Bass) and has published numerous articles.

It is of course not new for the Tories (or any other politician) to name-drop – PISA Schleicher, for example, is one, Michael Barber another name – but the way in which ‘science’ and ‘scientist’ as well as named individuals such as Willingham are used to vindicate current education policy in England and Wales is worthy of further discussion.

This is because:

1. Simply saying something is scientific/science or someone a scientist does not make it so (otherwise all manner of crooks or superstition could be!). There is also a long history of failed attempts to solve the so-called problem of the demarcation of science. Have the Tories and Willingham solved this problem?

2. What makes something/someone a science/scientist is an area of interest to Willingham (e.g. “Freedom of inquiry” and intelligent design in the classroom) and is a subject on which he has published (e.g. When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education.)

That Willingham has written on this then allows us to put Willingham and Conservative understanding of science to the test. So in Willingham’s own words, what is it that makes him a scientist?

1. “Scientists today think of all theories as provisional, and open to emendation and improvement.”
(“Freedom of inquiry” and intelligent design in the classroom

2. “A vital aspect of a good scientific theory is that it be open to falsification.” i.e. scientists devise theories that can be falsified”
(“Freedom of inquiry” and intelligent design in the classroom

3. “They focus on detailed questions (not large-scale questions) that might be answerable by experiment, the meat-and-potatoes of science ”
(“Freedom of inquiry” and intelligent design in the classroom

4. “There’s an optimal solution to the problem, which is read and digest all of the relevant research” (Measured Approach or Magical Elixir? How to Tell Good Science from Bad, 2012, p.5)


1. Scientists do/can not think ALL theories are provisional. Evolutionary theory is fundamental to science. Is Willingham suggesting that scientists think this is provisional too?

Perhaps he is and so by provisional means only slight changes, rather than fundamental ones. The difficulty here is of course we move from defining science to defining slight and fundamental instead, and this would seem to be only a step sideways, not forward (e.g. when do simple changes stop and fundamental ones begin?).

2. Not all people known as scientists spend all their time devising theories to falsify (e.g. is Willingham currently devising and falsifying further theories on what science is or is he happy with with his theory as it is?).

Scientists also conduct experiments (see below). Experiments may be driven by theory but it may simply be driven by the unknown (e.g. “let’s see what happens if we do this to that”). The unknown might be driven by theory, but it might not.

3. Not all people known as scientists conduct experiments (e.g. alchemists, aromatherapists), while philosophers conduct thought-experiments. It is then likely successful experiments that Willingham is referring to, and this would seem to imply falsification (yet also its problems) above.

4. In the Internet era do scientists really read and digest all of the relevant research? Is that possible given the huge amount of academic papers published today?

And we have to ask what relevant means (again, the sideways problem of definition).

The story so far then has been that Willingham defines scientists in a particular way but his theory appears mistaken and needs emendation and improvement (He will obviously not mind this as all theories including his own are in his own words provisional).

He is perhaps alive to this situation, and could be said to offer a fifth, four-step method to distinguish good from bad science.

5. ‘Strip and flip it, trace it, analyse it and ask should I do it’ (Measured Approach or Magical Elixir? How to Tell Good Science from Bad, 2012).

However, as he himself recognises, this is only a ‘cheat’, ‘shortcut’, a ‘workaround’ and “doesn’t require a knowledgeable scientist” (p.6). In other words, we don’t need scientists with his ‘shortcut’ as we can do it ourselves.

What then makes Willingham a scientist? It isn’t because he thinks all theories are provisional, it isn’t because he devises theories to falsify, it isn’t because he conducts experiments, it isn’t because he reads all the relevant research and it isn’t because he strips, flips, traces, analyses and asks what he should do.

If as the discussion suggests, Willingham doesn’t quite know what science or scientists are, if the problem of science’s demarcation remains, it then follows that the Tories don’t know either.

The Tories however are the party in power and responsible for education policies that affect millions of pupils, teachers and other important education stakeholders. The Tories hold the public purse-strings and vindicate what they do by talking up favourite scientists and talking of science. Yet it seems they don’t know what they are talking about.

Not exactly confidence-inspiring, is it?


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