The Illusion of Education – The Dr Fox Lectures

At page 630 of the July 1973 / Volume 48 edition of the Journal of Medical Education is a paper that has the potential to destroy the expertise foundation upon which any intellectually specialised subjective discipline – like say for example, internal audit, risk management and corporate governance – is based.

Today we sit in on a lecture by Dr Myron L Fox.The authors of the July 1973 article had a hypothesis – given a sufficiently impressive lecture environment, an experienced group of educators participating in a new learning situation can feel satisfied that they have learned despite irrelevant, conflicting, and meaningless content conveyed by the lecturer.

To test the hypothesis, the authors selected a professional actor who looked distinguished and sounded authoritative; provided him with a sufficiently ambiguous title, Dr. Myron L. Fox, an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior; dressed him up with a fictitious but impressive curriculum vitae, and presented him to a group of highly trained educators.Dr. Fox’s topic was to be “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.”  His source material was derived from a complex but sufficiently understandable scientific article geared to lay readers.One of the authors of the article, on two separate occasions, coached the lecturer to present his topic and conduct his question and answer period with an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements. All this was to be interspersed with humor and meaningless references to unrelated topics.

Eleven psychiatrists, psychologists, and social-worker educators who were gathered for a teacher training conference in continuing education comprised the learner group.

The purpose of the conference was to help this group be more effective educators of other health professionals by providing them various instructional goals, media, and experiences. Dr. Fox was introduced as “the real McCoy” to this unsuspecting group; and he presented his one-hour lecture in the manner described, followed by a half hour discussion period which was hardly more substantive.

At the end of his performance an authentic looking satisfaction questionnaire was distributed to which all 11 mental health educators were asked to respond anonymously. The introduction of the lecturer as well as his lecture and discussion were videotaped for use with other groups.

Significantly, more favorable than unfavorable responses to the questionnaire were obtained. The one item with most favorable responses was the first, “Did he dwell upon the obvious?” It was the feeling of half the group that he did. The remaining items received a majority of favorable responses. No respondent reported having read Dr. Fox’s publications.

Subjective responses included the following:Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening. Has warm manner. Good flow, seems enthusiastic. What about the two types of games, zero-sum and non-zero sum? Too intellectual a presentation. My orientation is more pragmatic.Intrigued the authors tried the experiment again.A second group consisted of 11 subjects who were psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric social workers, all identified as mental health educators. A videotape of the previously described lecture and discussion period as well as the preparatory introduction was shown to the group.After the presentation group members responded to it using the same questionnaire as did the first group. Favorable responses far outweighed unfavorable. All responded favorably to the first item, which means that they felt he did not “dwell upon the obvious.” There were also significantly more favorable than unfavorable responses to the other items and one respondent reported having read the lecturer’s publications. Some subjective statements were:

Did not carry it far enough. Lack of visual materials to relate it to psychiatry. Too much gesturing. Left out relevant examples. He misses the last few phrases which I believe would have tied together his ideas for me.

Still more subjects were sought to further test the hypothesis.

The third group was different in that it consisted of 33 educators and administrators enrolled in a graduate level university educational philosophy course.

Of the 33 subjects in this group, 21 held master’s degrees, eight had bachelor’s degrees, and four had other degrees which were not specified. Most of these educators were not specifically mental health professionals but had been identified as having counseling experience in their respective schools. The videotape of the lecture was again presented to this group, after which the educators responded to it by using the same questionnaire as the first two groups.

Again the number of favorable responses was significantly greater than the number of unfavorable responses. The majority of respondents from Group III also did not feel the lecturer dwelt upon the obvious, and they also responded favorably for the most part to the other items.

Subjective responses, when given, were again interesting. Some were:

Lively examples. His relaxed manner of presentation was a large factor in holding my interest. Extremely articulate. Interesting, wish he dwelled more on background. Good analysis of subject that has been personally studied before. Very dramatic presentation. He was certainly captivating. Somewhat disorganized. Frustratingly boring. Unorganized and ineffective. Articulate. Knowledgeable.

The notion that students, even if they are professional educators, can be effectively “seduced” into an illusion of having learned if the lecturer simulates a style of authority and wit is certainly not new.Previous studies had suggested that “it is the sign of a competent crap detector that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up.”The three groups of learners in this study, all of whom had grown up in the academic community and were experienced educators, obviously failed as “competent crap detectors” and were seduced by the style of Dr. Fox’s presentation. Considering the educational sophistication of the subjects, it is striking that none of them detected the lecture for what it was.In addition to testing the hypothesis, the authors sought to provide these professional educators with an example of being educationally seduced and to demonstrate that there is much more to teaching than making students happy, The authors concluded that a balanced combination of knowledge and personality are needed for effective teaching even if the student does not require the former to sustain the illusion that he has learned.If the group were more sophisticated about a more concrete aspect of the lecturer’s subject matter, in this case mathematics, would he have been as successful in seducing the respondents into an illusion of having learned?

Probably not.

Or at least the lecturer would have to be extremely skillful to be successful.

The study also raises the larger issue of what mix of style and substance in the lecture method is optimal for not just integrating information in a meaningful way but for providing learning motivation as well.

Although the study was not specifically addressed to this question, the fact that no respondents saw through the hoax of the lecture, that all respondents had significantly more favorable than unfavorable responses, and that one even believed he read Dr. Fox’s publications suggests that for these learners “style” was more influential than “content” in providing learner satisfaction.


And herein is where McLeod Governance calls out the warning signs to the disciplines – internal audit, risk management and corporate governance – that it holds so dear.

How many times have we as practitioners of our trade attended conferences / presented at conferences / read publications where we have been “educated” by so called experts in our field – a field for which there is no universally recognised criteria against which to measure the quality and experience of the practitioner?

What is the criteria by which we grant expert status in our areas of … how shall we say … expertise?

One could argue that this is a dilemma that confronts all disciplines and professions – to that McLeod Governance would respectfully disagree.

Other professions such as medicine, law, engineering and accounting have clear and unambiguous criteria against which entrants can be measured both by their peers and by the lay community before they can call themselves a doctor; a lawyer; an engineer or an accountant.

Risk management, corporate governance and to a lesser extent internal audit do not have such criteria.

Most definitely one can do risk management studies; can attend corporate governance training and can even sit the Certified Internal Auditor certification.

But – equally – one can practice risk management, corporate governance and internal audit without having ever having even known of such educational opportunities.

The challenge that “Dr Fox” set out in 1973 is one that risk management, corporate governance and internal audit have not yet fully responded to.

Until such time as it does we are practitioners in a field that is no more than an area of interest – definitely not yet a profession and definitely prone to the Dr Fox syndrome afflicting the expansion of our learning.

Description of the Dr Fox experiment taken from The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction; Donald Naftulin, John Ware Jr and Frank Donnelly; Journal of Medical Education; Volume 48; July 1973; page 630 – 635.

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