Cyril Burt’s disputed IQ ‘research’ – Radio 4 tonight

Janet Downs's picture

Knighted psychologist accused of fraud

The hugely-influential work of educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt dominated the nature v nurture debate in the 1950s to the early 70s.  His claimed experiments into similarities between identical twins showed heredity, not upbringing, played the greater part in determining intelligence.  

But Burt's research has since been discredited.   Investigations into Burt’s research after his death concluded that much of it was made-up and his two fellow researchers appear not to have existed.

Burt's findings were used to ‘provide scientific (and moral) support for the policy of academic selection in British schools,’ says the Times Saturday Review*. 

Britannica  says debate continues over Burt’s behaviour but ‘all sides agreed that his later research was at least highly flawed, and many accepted that he fabricated some data.’  Nevertheless, his ‘earlier work’ had been sound and ‘justified his reputation as the foremost pioneer of educational psychology in Britain.’

The trashing of Burt’s pioneering reputation will be the subject of ‘Rob Newman’s Total Eclipse of Descartes’, to be broadcast on Radio 4, 12 September, 18.30

*8 September 2018, behind paywall

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 13/09/2018 - 10:44

Burt's dodgy research is often trotted out to discredit the basic concept of general intellegence (g). But Burt's work was about the inheritance of intelligence, not the validity of the concept. If you want to explore some discredited work on intelligence then you could turn to, 'The mismeasure of man' by the late Steven Jay Gould.

Much of the criticism of Gould involves his resort to rhetoric rather than reason. Richard Dawkins makes the same criticism in his decades long feud with Gould over the mechanisms of evolution.

Returning to intelligence, the historic debate has been largely sidelined by the ever growing evidence for its plasticity presented by Shayer, Adey, Flynn, Kahneman, Eagleman and others.

agov's picture
Fri, 14/09/2018 - 08:37

By no means the first time knowledge/understanding has been advanced by a bit of chicanery or fraud. But the radio programme was apparently only a BBC 'comedy' show so presumably totally not funny, listened to by not many, and pleasing mostly only the deranged Left though paid for by the taxation of most.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/09/2018 - 14:00

agov - the Times Saturday Review gave the impression it was a serious discussion although I should have been warned because it went out in the so-called comedy slot at 6.30 (News Quiz excepted).

I listened, was disappointed and embarrassed that I'd recommended it.  The funniest bit to arise from the programme was your comment about the 'deranged Left'.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 16/09/2018 - 12:08

Janet, thanks for drawing attention to the Newman broadcast. I personally am glad I listened in. It was both illuminating and highly entertaining. Clearly, Newman had a field-day and the audience responded with genuine laughter. Actually, Agov, imho it was funny but clearly not to everyone's liking. I happen to connect with intelligent humour. I have no problem with programme makers allocating licence payers contributions to comedy as sophisticated and entertaining as this. I'd much prefer to listen to it on a continuous loop than sit through even 5 min of 'Strictly' or any one of dozens of other, imho, crap programmes. Indirectly, I contribute to their making but don't watch them out of choice. Each to his/her own as it's all about personal taste in the end. However, on to a more serious consideration of the programme content.

Burt got the roasting such manipulation of facts for personal gain deserves, even if it is posthumously awarded. The subject of genetic variation is nonetheless worthy of study, no more so than in the present climate of barmy political manipulation of 'facts' in education policy making and reform.

Towards the end, Newman acknowledges that, in spite of his assertion that intelligence cannot be reduced to a single figure, he did the intelligent thing by acknowledging that like every other human trait and capability, intelligence has a genetic component. Burt got a lot wrong. For one, the idea that a single digit encapsulates something as complex as intelligence is frankly far from helpful. Giving it a value, however, enables those of us who are open-minded enough to discuss it, the opportunity to use IQ as a convenient short-hand in doing so.

I have an ever dwindling respect for the political classes of left, right or centre. I have lived long enough not to believe or expect that the majority of politicians make enough of a positive contribution to the lives of ordinary people to justify their existence. Having said that, however, maybe I am more troubled by the faddishness of political policy-making. In an age where the value and impact of evidence seems to be regarded by most as worthy of our attention, it's a real pity we seem unable to have an unbiased conversation about the relationship, because one exists, between intelligence, teaching and learning and how students could only benefit if we had such a grown-up conversation.

The suggestion that IQ must relate to any meaningful conversation about standards and educability is NOT an unreasonable one. Such a conversation, however, needs to be guided by a few basic principles.

First, as this research by MIchael Shayer indicates, " highly significant cognitive development in school students can be contagious through student and staff social interaction, but only where mixed ability teaching takes place." The evidence from this research confirms the view held by many and supported by a growing body of evidence that " ‘fluid’, or ‘plastic’ intelligence is a measurable ability that can grow year by year," thus negating the idea of 'fixed at birth' capacity.

The second requirement in any discussion about intelligence is to be honest about a cherished view that can no longer be justified. The long-held view that relying on the measurement of intelligence as a tool for dividing pupils into winners and losers at age 11, or any other age for that matter, to justify perpetuating elitist programmes like grammar schools, is based solely on Burt's and others' refusal to accept the evidence against this approach. Plainly, as this research by Stephen Gorard establishes, "the idea that selective grammar schools or academies are more likely to improve pupil progress overall than community comprehensives", is demolished.

Thanks for sharing the link, Janet. Let's get on with the real discussion!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/09/2018 - 09:29

John - at the risk of going completely off subject - I'm a huge fan of Strictly.  I could justify this by stating the link between dancing, music and maths but I'd be misleading you. 

I love Strictly because my feet get tangled on the dance floor (I did ballet for five years but I was always the waddling duckling among the swans so I admire the dancers' technique).  I also admire the way the non-professional dancers work so hard to learn the steps.  It's gruelling physically.  But my real reason is I find it entertaining, funny (eg Ann Widdecombe being pulled along the floor like a Hoover; all efforts by Ed Balls, the judges' comments) and sometimes genuinely moving (there was a wonderful waltz in the last series but one which had me close to tears).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 17/09/2018 - 10:48

Well Janet,  its a good job we are all different. I absolutely detest everything about it. It is similar to my revulsion for prunes. As far as I am concerned it is a load of preening, prancing pornography.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/09/2018 - 11:00

Like Marmite, then?  I love Marmite and always put prunes on my porridge.

agov's picture
Mon, 17/09/2018 - 18:54

"As far as I am concerned it is a load of...pornography"

You obviously have not looked at the right websites.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 17/09/2018 - 11:13

Janet, you would not believe the revolting things they eat up here: gravy on fish & chips ugh!!!

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