The Snake Oil Story—Preface to Clark Quinn’s Book on Debunking
This is my preface to Clark Quinn’s book on debunking the myths in the learning field, Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions. (available from Amazon here).
Clark Stanley worked as cowboy and later as a very successful entrepreneur, selling medicine in the United States that he made based on secrets he learned from an Arizona Hopi Indian medicine man. His elixir was made from rattlesnake oil, and was marketed in the 1890’s through public events in which Stanley killed live rattlesnakes and squeezed out their oil in front of admiring crowds. After his medicine gained a wide popularity, Stanley was able to set up production facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with the help of a pharmacist. Stanley made himself a rich man.
You may not know his name, but you’ve certainly heard of his time and place. It was the era of patent medicines—false and sometimes dangerous elixirs sold to men and women of all stripes. Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root. Oxien. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa. Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills. Enzyte. Bonnore’s Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid. Radithor. Liquozone. And of course, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.
These medicines were bought by the millions. Fortunes were made. Millions of people were bamboozled, made sick, killed or murdered depending on how you see it. It turns out that, upon being tested, Stanley’s elixir was found to be made mostly from mineral oil, a worthless potion sold by a charlatan. His story of the medicine man and the rattlesnake juice was a more potent concoction than his famous elixir, which when tested was found to have no snake oil anyway.
What causes men and women to miss the truth, to fail to see, to continue happily in harming themselves and those around them? This, unfortunately, is not a question just for the era of patent medicines. It is eternal. It goes back to the dawn of humanity and continues today as well. I have no answer except to assume that our credulity is part of our humanity—and should guide us to be on guard at all times.
What stopped the patent-medicine pandemic of poison, persuasion, and placebo? Did we the people rise up on our own and throw out the scoundrels, the money-grubbers, the snake-oil salesmen? Did we see that we were deceived, or too hopeful, or too blind? Did we as a community heed our senses and find a way to overcome the dangers hidden from us?
No! We did not!
It was not a mass movement back to rationality and truth that saved us. It was the work of a few intrepid agitators who made all the difference. Journalists began reporting on deaths, sicknesses, and addictions resulting from the use of patent medicines. In 1905, Collier’s Weekly published a cover story that exploded the industry. Written by Samuel Hopkins Adams a former crime reporter, with the title, “The Great American Fraud: The Patent Medicine Evil,” the long expose contained sections with headings like, “Medicine or Liquor?”, “The Men Who Back the Fake,” “Absolutely False Claims,” “Drugs that Deprave,” “Prescribing Without Authority,” and “Where the Money Goes.”
The article—or series of articles that today we would call investigative journalism—opened the floodgates and led directly to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, followed later by additional regulations and requirements that continue to this day, with some success, protecting our health and safety.
The ugly truth is that we need help in seeing what we don’t see. This is true too in the learning industry and has been true since at least the early 1900’s when thought leaders in our industry floated bogus claims that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, et cetera. Indeed, it was partly the bogus claims floating around the learning industry in the late 1990’s that made me optimistic that starting a research-based consulting practice would find an audience, that perhaps the learning field could be protected from snake oil charlatans.
Bogus claims are not merely inert flotsam to be navigated around. At a minimum, they take attention away from learning practices that are more fundamental and effective, pushing us to waste time and resources. More insidious is that they proactively cause harm, hurting learners and weakening our learning outcomes.
I wish I could report that starting Work-Learning Research twenty years ago has had the influence that Samuel Hopkins Adams had in his journalism. Alas, I am a faint voice in the howling wind of our industry. Fortunately, there are many muckraking research-to-practice practitioners today, including folks like Paul Kirschner, Patti Shank, Guy Wallace, Pedro De Bruyckere, Julie Dirksen, Donald Clark, Ruth Clark, Mirjam Neelen, Jane Bozarth, and more. There are also legions of academic researchers who do the science necessary to enable research-to-practice wisdom to be compiled and conveyed to trainers, instructional designers, elearning developers and learning executives.
I am especially optimistic now that Clark Quinn has compiled, for the first time, the myths, misconceptions, and confusions that imbue the workplace learning field with faulty decision making and ineffective learning practices. As Clark rightly advises, don’t read the book in one sitting. You will find it too much—too many misconceptions and malingering falsehoods, and too much heartache to think that our field could tolerate so much snake oil.
Here’s what we don’t realize. Today’s workplace-learning snake oil is costing us billions of dollars in wasted effort, misspent resources, ill-advised decisions, and distraction from the science-of-learning fundamentals that have proven to be effective! Every time a trainer reads an article on learning styles and adjusts his or her training to make it suitable for visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and olfactory learners; time is wasted, money is spent, and learning is hurt. Every time an instructional designer goes to a conference and hears that neuroscience should guide learning design, he or she takes this faulty meme back to colleagues and infects them with false hope and ineffective learning strategies. Every time a Chief Learning Officer hears that learning events should be shrunk to 4-minute microlearning videos, that storytelling is everything, that all learning is social, that virtual reality is the future of learning—every time our learning executives jump on a bandwagon and send us to training or conferences or hire experts in these multitudinous fascinations—we are diverted from the veritable essence of learning. We waste our own developmental budgets with snake-oil rostrums. We waste time organizing ourselves around wrong-headed initiatives. We ignore what really works, all the while costing our organizations billions of dollars in waste and ineffective learning practices.
Let us start anew today. We can begin with Clark’s book. It is a veritable treasure chest of wisdom. But let’s keep going. Let’s stay skeptical. Let’s look to the scientific research for knowledge. Let’s become more demanding and knowledgeable ourselves, knowing that we all have more to learn. Let’s look to the research translators who know the work that we do as instructional designers, trainers, and developers. Let’s do our own testing. Let’s improve our evaluation systems so that we get better feedback day by day. Let’s pilot, rework, improve, and continue to learn!
As the history of patent medicine shows, we must be forever vigilant against our own blindness and against those who will sell us the miraculous hope of snake-oil cure-alls.
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