Craft and playwork (“Science tells you that your opinion is worthless”)

Worth reading despite the presence of the sweetly-grinning fey keyboard-bothering popster, Mr. Cox.

here’s my edited highlights of the piece, designed to give you my choice of the most relevant points, while not quoting too much of the article and infringing the NS’ copyright:

—–my precis starts——-

”BC: That’s the point of exploration: you don’t know what you’re going to find.

“What do you make of neutrinos apparently being measured moving faster than the speed of light – which would overturn Einstein?
”BC: Science should be really honest – the experimenters don’t believe the result, I don’t think, because it does require a big revision of our understanding of physics. But they check it, they can’t find anything wrong, so the correct thing to do is publish.
JF: The false alarms get weeded out.
BC: You can think of areas where that’s problematic: medical research, for example, where the behaviour of people depends on the research – I’m thinking of disasters like the MMR scare. But in general science should be really naive; there shouldn’t be PR spin or politics.

“What motivates climate sceptics and the rest?
”BC: Carl Sagan pointed out that “Science challenges”. And the natural human response from people who are educated, who have a title or position, is to assume their opinion is worth something. And science tells you that your opinion is worthless when confronted with the evidence. That’s a difficult thing to learn.
“JF: As a theoretical physicist, most of my time is spent doing calculations that are wrong. It’s a humbling exercise, a massive dose of humility.

”How can we teach that process?
BC: Quantum mechanics is interesting, because it’s a theory that is absolutely shocking in its implications and yet not technically difficult. I think it should be taught in schools for that reason. Measurements of the world suggested something very odd – that particles can be in multiple places at once – so we developed a theory and it works. It’s that process of saying: “Your preconceptions about reality are not right, because the evidence says so.”

“One of the book’s messages is not to trust your intuition. So how do you distinguish between a bonkers idea – and a bonkers idea that’s right?
BC: Experiment! Make predictions.

”Are we all doomed?
BC: On the human timescale, the adoption of the scientific method – making rational decisions based on evidence – that’s the important thing. Look at public policy, health policy, economics: there’s a reluctance to be humble.

—–my precis ends——-

I’m referring to the bit in my title: how do you feel when I say that  most of what we think we know about children and play is, well, let’s just say ‘unscientific’?

I’ll unpack this a bit, then link it to my assertion that playwork is a craft, a bit (because I’m lazy).

Science is based on disproof. That’s why it’s Einstein’s or Darwin’s  theory, not because we don’t accept them,  but because they might be wrong. Lots of people in white coats are plotting to do them down by disproving them with the full approval of their biggest fans in the ‘scientific community’, as we have to call it.

I suppose at some point they might make the leap and become laws, like Newton’s, but notice this: Newton’s laws HAVE been supplanted by Einstein’s, but that doesn’t mean that Newton’s laws don’t apply 99% if the time. (They called them laws back then; science is less confident these days.) You don’t need to worry about time dilation until your Ford Focus is capable of near-light speed, but if you are sending a probe to Mars, Einstein can really ruin your day.

The lovely Dr Jack Cohen is fond of these phrases:

‘false to fact’


‘that turns out not to be the case’

Just two of the ways that scientists try to politely say – ‘you are wrong, what you said is not true’.

Now, (as I’m fond of saying):

Are we putting enough energy into disproving the cherished theories of playwork?

Can were even call them theories? Theories have to be disprovable.

And… does playwork even need ‘theory’ (as we call it) ?

Personally, I’ve tried to be careful not to claim theory status for my ideas.

Those ideas including, but by no means restricted to (let’s attempt a comprehensive description) ‘on the application of the edge of chaos concept to various aspects of the play of children’.

I have become increasingly concerned about the application, by others, of my thinking to the range of playworker responses; an application which can easily slide into prescription.

If all art aspires to the condition of music, then all science aspires to the condition of mathematics; and if all all science aspires to the form of mathematics, then Bach’s fugues are the highest form of mathematics. Bethe’s formulas for stellar formation, when encoded, give us ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star’ when played on a Fourier synth (ask me).

If playwork is aspiring to be scientific, it needs to abandon it’s flirtings with post-modern theory.

And equally if science has no place in playwork practice, then attempting to delouse playwork of it’s pseudo-science fleas by asserting a post-modern perspective on science is a pretty roundabout way to go about it.


which I want to get round to writing about sometime,



A craft is not a profession, nor is it merely an occupation, or a mere hobby. A craft CAN be a hobby or an occupation, and can exist within an occupation.

Last year we had double glazing (I know – finally!) to the remaining single (undouble?) windows in our lovely but 130 year old end-terraced house. The main guy that did the work was a craftsman. His attention to detail, his pleasure in the job well done was almost immediately apparent. I say almost, I had to get over the mess (minimal as it happened) , the noise and the disruption first. I finally gave in, did a bit of daytime telly, caught up on last weekends dead tree news and basically became their butler for the day, applying my theory that the best quality tea and coffee, and good biscuits are the best way to get good work out of yer stout British yeoman. That and honest appreciation. That last part was easy, as I say, this guy was class, he was skill, to use two archaiac working-class men’s expressions of appreciation.)

His story is interesting, though typical: now working for a double glazing firm, he was once a proper craftsman – carpenter or joiner, I forget which, sorry. Might have been cabinet maker – I think he trained as that, then went on .the building’. You can’t  really say he was ‘proud’ of his skills, because that word, along with ‘passionate’ has been hugely debased by the meejah to the extent that we are encouraged to be ‘proud’ if we bake a cake on Masterbake or get a yodelling audition on X-factor. I blame Heather Smalls – we were brought up to believe that pride was a sin.

So here we have this guy, and all he’s doing is bashing out our old windyframes and slotting in the new ones – made in some factory, cut to size on a computerised controlled CNC cutting machine, designed by some bloke on a CAD system sat in front of a big monitor, assembled by some lads in overalls- that he picked up from the depot this morning; nothing to it just slot ’em in. Think of all the money that little window-making companies used to waste employing craftsmen to make window frames by hand; think of all the employment created for painters repainting the bloody things every 5 years, now that money goes instead into the pockets of the IT guys and the factory owners, and the craftsman have to scrape a living basically installing Lego.


But if you’ve ever watched proper old fashioned physical work being done, you’ll know that there is a suprising amount of craft knowledge in use, no matter how routine and menial the task is. A good example is watching those 2 bonkers cleaning women on the telly, I forget their names: loads of intelligence, skill, knowledge and know-how being casually imparted to the nation’s slovens. (Is ‘sloven’ a real word? I was trying to avoid slattern or slut because of their sexist and sexual overtones. The gene for keeping a filthy house is not sex-linked. hope you didn’t think I meant Slovenians.)

Yes, Craft.

You might also notice that the technocrats of double-glazing have exported the risk (Ulrich Beck) of problems with fitting to the installer. The lowest paid worker is now shouldering the risk. We could suggest that while the task of making double-glazing has simplified, the task of installing it has complexified. The sleight of hand of the market. I wave my hand and the profit has left the warehouse and flown via the regional factory to the owners.


And the only playworkers I respect, and there are many, are those who stubbornly practice their craft, despite the best efforts of their managerialist bosses, the technocratic frameworks of monitoring, the viccissitudes of funding, the indifference of local authorities, the increasing stupidity of parents (I blame society) the vast ‘professional’ timidity and arse-covering of other agencies and the actions of the kids themselves.

Recalcitrants* all, stubbornly doing the best that they can.


So let me finish by saying this:




*Note to fans of my ‘Edge of Recalcitrance’  – the above is my best shot at why I call playworkers recalcitrant.

Further reading:

Richard Sennett : ‘The Craftsman’, ‘Together’, ‘Bowling Alone.

Matthew Crawford: ‘The case for working with your hands’.

6 thoughts on “Craft and playwork (“Science tells you that your opinion is worthless”)

  1. I’m suspicious of post-modern perspectives on play – but then I’m suspicious of post-modernism. Laying claim to a position from which to declare there is no such thing as truth – pah! I’m also suspicious of much of what is claimed for play from science. So much cherry-picking going on. If we (by which I mean play advocates) want to ‘use’ science, let’s do it right and follow the rules. You and I agreed on this point some years ago, if memory serves. And I agree that playwork is a craft – and properly understood, a fiendishly difficult one.

  2. I just told Meynell at Eastbourne that I thought for a long time that Ip-Dip was edited by a man named Ed – silly, but true.

    I quite like the idea now of an editing alter-ego…

    • Hello ‘Ed’ could you please call yourself something else, so that people aren’t confused between Ed who was here first (Nuttall) and you – Mr Meynell Walter. Can I suggest: Edipdip?

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