Bell curves, cornflakes and the Bible – Boris’s latest lecture

Janet Downs's picture
“Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”

Boris Johnson, November 2013

I’m surprised the Eton-educated Mayor of London has such little understanding of the normal distribution curve.  Or perhaps he did know but wanted to manipulate figures to show there were more people with low IQ than above.  And those with low IQ, Boris made clear, are those who are “already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth”.

But just in case he didn’t understand, I’ll spell it out.  The IQ bell-curve always has 100 as the average.  There will be exactly the same proportion below as above.  But Boris chose to compare the proportion whose IQ was 15 below 100 with those whose IQ is 30 above.  Unsurprisingly, the latter group is smaller than the former.

But, according to Boris, this 2% should inherit the earth.

Thatcher made it easy, Boris said, for the thrusting to seize control.  He praised bankers but seemed to forget financiers nearly caused a global collapse.  He mentioned the “crash” but didn’t say who was responsible.  He praised hedge fund managers who sponsor academies but is obviously unaware that the sponsor of struggling Basildon Academies, Stanton Lane Educational Trust, backed by hedge fund manager Martin Finegold, has collected no money and has, therefore, paid out nothing during its four years existence*.  The Academies’ head resigned last year citing undue interference by the sponsor

The Bible (Luke 10:25-37) backed up Thatcher, Boris said:  the Good Samaritan “wouldn’t have been much use to the chap who fell among thieves…if he had not been rich enough to help.”

But Boris, and Thatcher, missed the point of the parable.  The Samaritan was an outcast not a rich priest or temple worker. True, he gave silver coins to the innkeeper to care for the victim, but the other help – the bandages and the washing of wounds – could have been done by someone poor who was willing to tear their clothes and share the water they carried.

In his tribute to the “animal spirits” unleashed by Thatcher, he appealed for greater philanthropy.  But it wasn’t altruism he was invoking.  It was the “snob value and prestige” attached to public charitable giving.   Perhaps Boris forgot this Bible passage:

“Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” (Matthew 6)

Not to be outdone by the evangelist Luke, Boris read the Parable of the Cornflake Box. It’s unclear what Johnson meant by shaking the cereal pack harder.  It implies the rougher you treat the cornflakes (“our species”) the easier it is for a few tough ones to end up on top of the rest.

But it’s always the crushed cornflakes that end up at the bottom.

ADENDUM 1 December 2013  The Parable of the Cornflake Packet

And behold, a certain person stood up and tested the Mayor saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

And the Mayor answered and said, " Make as much dosh as you can and give some of what you make to the poor for the 16% will always be with us.  And they lack real talent and spiritual worth.  They are as crushed as the cornflakes that fall to the bottom of the packet.  For, verily I say unto you, the box will be truly shaken so the toughest will rise to the top and settle upon the rest.  And when thou givest, make sure you make a great noise so that you will benefit thereof.  For those who give so publicly will be rewarded with a gong."

And the certain person left, satisfied, because he was not of the 16%.

*Charities Commission
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