stories from the wilder side of science

4. Dr Fox sputs nonsense

(extended chapter from The Mad Science Book by Reto U. Schneider)

The lecture that Myron L. Fox delivered to the assembled experts had an impressive enough title: 'Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education'. Those responsible for running the University of Southern California School of Medicine's psychiatry department's continuing education programme had taken themselves off to Lake Tahoe in northern California for their annual conference and a continuing education program. There, Fox - who was billed as an 'authority on the application of mathematics to human behaviour' - presented the first paper. His polished performance so impressed the audience of psychiatrists, family doctors and general internists that nobody noticed that the man standing at the lectern wasn't really Myron L. Fox from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine but Michael Fox a movie actor who though having considerable experience in playing doctors in TV shows didn't know the first thing about game theory. (According to the Internet Movie Data Base Michael Fox was the reason Michael J. Fox from back to the future fame inserted the 'J' into his name, as the Screen Actors Guild only allows one person of each name to be registered).

Fox was trained to give this talk only the day before. He was given an article from „Scientific American“ on game theory and worked up a lecture from it that was intentionally full of imprecise waffle, invented words and contradictory assertions.

The people behind this spoof were John E. Ware, assistant professor of medical education and health care planning at Southern Illinois school of Medicine, Donald H. Naftulin associate professor and director of the division of continuing education in psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and Frank A. Donnelly, an instructor in psychology at the University of Southern California.

„At the time a thing called ,experiential learning‘ was en vogue“, John Ware remembers, „it meant giving the people the experience of what you want them to learn rather than just telling them about it.“ One evening Ware saw an actor on TV giving a virtuous demonstration of double talk. As the subject of the upcoming faculty retreat was experiential learning, Ware had the idea of letting him give a lecture full of double talk and thus initiating a discussion on how to improve the educational program. As the particular actor was not available the researchers turned to Alex Seigel from the University of Southern California film program whom they knew from previous work. „We were training actors to act as patients in teaching psychotherapy to psychiatric residents and doing interaction analysis on psychotherapists‘ interactions from different theoretical schools of psychotherapy“, John Naftulin says.

One of the actors Alex Seigel proposed was Michael Fox. He was the perfect fit and by chance he had to go north to do a Shakespeare play in the same week anyway. „He just looked and sounded ,psychoanalytic‘ and authoritative“, Naftulin says. They didn‘t even change his last name. „It was a great name, Dr Fox“, John Ware says.

Michael Fox didn‘t think, he would make it through the lecture without being exposed. He had two reasons for being nervous: on one hand he had to give a lecture that was stripped from any real content on the other hand he was sure that most of the people in the audience had seen him before on TV. Fox had been a supporting actor in many Sitcoms, TV series and feature movies. He had played Dr Benson the vet of Inspector Columbo, Captain Ritter in „Hogans Heroes“ and Inspector Basch in „Batman“.

And really, when Michael Fox was sitting in the restaurant in morning before the lecture a women approached him thinking about where she knew him from. „She said, ,you look very familiar, when did you do your residency in New York?‘“ Ware remembers, „we thought, that was it.“ But then she left.

Still Fox was convinced he'd be rumbled during the lecture. But the audience hung on his every word and, when the 20-minutes-long talk was over, bombarded him with questions, which he displayed such virtuosity in not answering that nobody noticed.

On the feedback form that was handed round, all ten people who attended the lecture said that it had given them food for thought, while nine of them also reckoned that Fox had presented the material in a clear manner, put it across in an interesting way and incorporated plenty of good illustrative examples into his talk.

After Naftulin had explained Foxes role the audience was on alert. John Ware remembers that the next moring a physician from Oregon was showing slides of how he sets up his practice. „Someone got up and said ,it‘s a fake, you are just showing us a bunch of your old home slides‘. It was embarrassing because this was real.“
John Ware showed two other groups of people the video of the lecture - with much the same result. One person even thought he remembered having read some papers already by Myron L. Fox. In these instances as well, the audience wasn't made up of students but of experienced physicians, who had been dazzled by the actor's slick presentation.
The researchers conducted further more controlled experiments on larger audiences. The phenomenon in which the style of a lecture can blind the listeners to its poor content soon became known as the 'Dr Fox effect'.
These results raised doubts about the usefulness of teaching evaluation. When students were asked to fill out questionnaires assessing a class, these might actually be indicating little more than how much they liked the lecture along with 'their illusions of having learned'. As the authors wrote in their paper on the experiment, 'there is much more to teaching than making students happy'.
Nevertheless, there was one surprise that qualified this conclusion: when Fox's true identity was revealed to the audience, some of them asked where they could read up more about the subject. In other words, although the lecture had been unmasked as gibberish and a fraud, the panache with which it was delivered had nevertheless clearly stimulated interest in the topic. This led Ware, Naftulin and Donnelly to suggest an innovative method of increasing students' motivation: instead of giving lectures themselves, professors could train actors to deliver lectures for them.
A journalist later wrote in the Los Angeles Times: 'There are implications in this study, though, that even its instigators have not perceived. If an actor makes a better teacher, why not a better congressman, or even a better President?' Ten years after the hoax, Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House.

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