Will Confusion Be Our Epitaph

In his post Confusion about Facts dated 15 February 2015, Mark Weeks writes, “Despite some confusion about facts that I happen to know something about, i.e,

‘first played in Afghanistan back in 600 AD’ • ‘Dr. Robert Ferguson (a cardiologist at the Northeast Georgia Diagnostics Clinic)’; • ‘Grandmaster Chess Research Project […] collaborative effort between Israel’s University of Haifa and Grandmaster Boris Delfand’, (sic)…”

Mark provides a link to an article, Does Playing Chess Make You Smarter? on the Examined Existance website (http://examinedexistence.com/does-playing-chess-make-you-smarter/), where one finds this:

Chess sharpens critical thinking skills.

“In his 1995 study titled Chess in Education: Research Summary, Dr. Robert Ferguson (a cardiologist at the Northeast Georgia Diagnostics Clinic) had established that chess is instrumental in the enhancement of a child’s critical thinking and good judgment skills. Ferguson’s subjects, who were seventh to ninth graders, yielded a 17% improvement in the results.”

A picture of Dr. Ferguson’s is prominently displayed on the home page of the NGDC. (http://www.ngdc.com/) His study, which took place from 1979-1983, is featured in any discussion relating to chess “improving” the intelligence of children. The problem is that it has been discredited.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time. A newspaper prints an attention grabbing headline about something negative about a person on the front page, then places a retraction on a page in the rear of the next day’s paper which hardly anyone reads. Time passes and the only thing left in the memory is the headline. The mistake is rarely acknowledged, unless it is as egregious as was the mistake made by former chess GM Kenneth Rogoff. See: “The Rogoff-Reinhart data scandal reminds us economists aren’t gods,” by Heidi Moore (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/18/rogoff-reinhart-deficit-research-false); “Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs,” By Ruth Alexander, BBC News (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22223190); “The Reinhart and Rogoff Controversy: A Summing Up,” (http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/the-reinhart-and-rogoff-controversy-a-summing-up); “Ken Rogoff, Author Of Discredited Austerity Research, Angrily Blasts Keynesians,” by
Mark Gongloff…This one begins, “Kenneth Rogoff is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more.” Unfortunately for the former GM, he has had to continue to take it…(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/ken-rogoff-keynesians_n_3325865.html?); “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled,” by Paul Krugman (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/06/how-case-austerity-has-crumbled/); “Republicans’ Favorite National-Debt Researchers Are Now Even More Discredited,” By Danny Vinik (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116664/imf-study-futher-discredits-reinhart-rogoff-debt-study-austerity). There is much more and it can be found using any search engine by typing in, “Ken Rogoff discredited,” but this will suffice for now because I do not wish to make the former chess GM any madder than he already seems to be…

In the paper Educational benefits of chess instruction: A critical review, Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli write:

3.2.4.1 Teaching the fourth “R” (Reasoning) through chess; (Ferguson,
undated-b)7
(7 This study is referred to as “Developing critical and creative thinking through chess” in Ferguson
(undated-a).

“This project, which took place from 1979 to 1983, aimed at providing
stimulating experiences fostering the development of critical and creative thinking.
Participants were gifted students (with an IQ equal to or higher than 130) in grades 7
through 9, in the Bradford (PA) area school district. They chose among a variety of
special activities such as chess, dungeons and dragons, Olympics of mind, problem
solving with computers, creative writing, and independent study. Each group met
once a week for 32 weeks.
Participants were tested with alternate forms of the Watson-Glaser Critical
Thinking Appraisal test (CTA) and of the Torrance test of creative thinking, both at
the beginning and at the end of the year. Results for the CTA showed that the chess
group significantly outperformed the non-chess groups (p < .001), the computer group
(p < .003), and the non-participants (p < .025). With the Torrance test of creative
thinking, the chess group showed statistically significant improvement in “fluency,”
“flexibility” and “originality” when they were compared to the population norms and
the non-chess groups. There was also a significant difference in “fluency” and “originality” (but not in “flexibility”) for the chess group compared to the computer
group.
Ferguson used a pretest and posttest design and used more than one control
group, each carrying out activities other than chess. However, this study has an
important weakness that rules out any interpretation of the results in terms of the
contribution of chess training to critical thinking and creativity: students switched
activities either quarterly or semi-annually, and chess players participated in other
activities as well. Therefore, we do not know whether the improvement is due to chess
treatment or to the other treatments. Another limitation of this study is that it
investigated a gifted population; hence, the claims cannot be generalized to the entire
population of school students. Finally, the sample was rather small (15 students in
the school chess club)."

As a baseball Sabermetrician I know all about a small sample size; it is worthless. In the fifth game of the 1969 MLB season Don Bosch, from San Francisco, playing for the expansion Montreal Expos in their very first season, went 4 for 5, leaving his batting average for the young season a robust .571! Don had played for the Asheville Tourists in the AA Southern League in 1964 & 65, then with Columbus and Jacksonville in the AAA International League from 1966-68, and he was called one of the very best center fielders to have ever worn a glove. His problem was his hitting ability did not measure up to his defensive ability. Don had 121 plate appearances in 1969 and hit .179, which happened to be his highest batting average of any MLB season. He ended his career way below the Mendoza line at a robust without the "ro" of .164 in 346 PA's.

It pains me to have to write this about my fellow Georgian, who has, no doubt, done great things in his long life, but honesty compels me to acknowledge citing his study does a disservice to chess. To quote a discredited study, such as this, is dishonest. People do this all the time. For example, the Bushwhackers quoted bogus documents that "… seem to depict an attempt made by Saddam Hussein in Iraq to purchase yellowcake uranium powder from Niger during the Iraq disarmament crisis." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niger_uranium_forgeries#Wilson_and_Plame) The Bushwhackers did this while knowing what they were saying was a lie because, "Retired ambassador Joseph C. Wilson wrote a critical op-ed in The New York Times in which he explained the nature of the documents and the government's prior knowledge of their unreliability for use in a case for war. Shortly after Wilson's op-ed, in a column by Robert Novak, in pondering why a State Dept employee was dispatched rather than a trained CIA agent, the identity of Wilson's wife, CIA analyst Valerie Plame, was revealed. The Senate Intelligence Committee report and other sources confirm that Plame "offered his name up" to her superiors." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niger_uranium_forgeries#Wilson_and_Plame)
They tried to discredit Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson by outing his wife, which is a violation of Federal law, and still, no one has been prosecuted. This was despicable! Any man who would do such a thing is NOT MUCH OF A MAN!

If the chess community is going to tell parents the game of chess will increase the intelligence of their child, the least we can do is to be honest about the facts.

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