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The Burt scandal

Is human intelligence innate? As charges of scientific fraud against pioneer educational psychologist Cyril Burt are withdrawn, his beliefs about people's inborn abilities are being rehabilitated. But, says John Gibson, Burt and his co-thinkers are still guilty of gross distortion

In February 1992 the British Psychological Society withdrew the charges it had made against Cyril Burt in 1980: 'Twelve years ago the society assumed that Burt was guilty of fraud. We no longer hold that view.' The society took this decision after the publication of new material defending Burt.

At around the same time, John Major, in a letter to Fred Jarvis, former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, condemned the comprehensive education system in words that could have been taken from Burt's writings in the late 1960s: 'I want to ensure that we actively recognise pupils' differing ability and aptitudes and create the means for this diversity to flourish. This is the way to genuine equality of opportunity.' As the saying goes, could these two events be in any way related?

Cyril Burt's educational theories emphasised the innate character of human intelligence and ability. On that basis he defended the grammar school system, and also argued that wider divisions in society were a reflection of innate differences in intelligence. Burt's ideas were out of fashion long before he was accused of producing his results through fraudulent experiments. Yet now he is being rehabilitated.

Burt's return to respectability has little to do with educational matters, or with the discovery of any substantial new evidence in his defence. Instead, Burt has been brought back into fashion as part of the wider attempt to reconstruct a more openly conservative, elitist perspective on the structure of society. Major and the rest are telling us that, in egalitarian Britain, the reasons why some are at the top and others at the bottom has to do with their natural abilities, not with the workings of a class system. They are calling on the late Sir Cyril to speak on their behalf.

Eugenics pioneer

What did Burt do and say? During his 60-year career he helped to pioneer crowd psychology and eugenics, before becoming professor of psychology at University College London in 1932. He was knighted in 1946 and elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1950. During his long retirement he continued to publish a prodigious amount and entered the debate on education in the 1960s through his contribution to the Black Papers.

Burt argued that the predominant influence on intelligence was genetic, as he wrote in 1933:

'The psychologist understands inborn, all-round intellectual ability. It is inherited, or at least innate, not due to teaching or training; it is intellectual, not emotional or moral, and remains uninfluenced by industry or zeal; it is not limited to any particular kind of work, but enters into all we do or say or think.' (Quoted in B Simon, Education and the Social Order 1940-90, p157).

In an article in 1943, 'Ability and income', Burt broadened this out to an explanation of inequality in society which, he said, seemed 'to be largely, though not entirely, an indirect effect of the wide inequality in innate intelligence'.

Burt's views carried weight for two reasons. They chimed with the prejudices of the educational and psychological establishment. And they were backed up by an unrivalled collection of experimental data, especially regarding the similar achievement of twins who had been separated and brought up in different circumstances.

All equal now

After 1945, however, things began to change. Under the postwar liberal consensus, the authorities and educationalists tended to play down the importance of innate difference and to emphasise instead the educational potential of all children. The key factors in determining educational and social achievement now came to be seen as the environment in which a child lived, rather than natural abilities. Even Edward Boyle, Tory education minister in the early 1960s, rejected the notion that intelligence was some fixed thing given at birth. 'All children', he wrote, 'should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence, and of developing their talents and abilities to the full' (Education and the Social Order, p275, emphasis added).

By this time Burt was fighting a rearguard battle to defend his case. In the Black Papers he joined with similarly minded educationalists to argue for grammar schools, on the basis that some children were cut out for different roles in life than others. In particular, they emphasised the idea that the grammar system allowed the innately bright child from a working class background to get on in life. This argument was used to back up the notion that British society was a meritocracy.

HJ Eysenck, for example, argued that it was the new comprehensive system and the values of liberalism which were causing social injustice: 'The bright dustmen and miners, and their children, are the victims of social injustice; the dull doctors and lawyers, and their children, are the beneficiaries...greater, not less, use of IQ tests would seem to be the answer to this problem.' (Black Paper, No2, p38)

Rehabilitating Burt

Burt and his co-thinkers didn't manage to change the intellectual climate, but, at his death in 1971, he was still a respected figure. However, in 1976 an exposé in the Sunday Times accused him of falsifying and inventing his data. This accusation was confirmed by Burt's official biographer Leslie Hearnshaw in 1979, and he was condemned by the British Psychological Society in 1980.

There were always those who were unwilling to accept the verdict, and now they claim to have been vindicated. The decision to lift the official condemnation followed the publication of two books which have sought to refute the accusation of fraud: The Burt Affair by Robert Joynson (1989), and Science, Ideology, and the Media: The Cyril Burt Scandal by Ronald Fletcher (1991). Fletcher hopes that a personal rehabilitation for Burt will bring a rehabilitation of his ideas: 'If the charges of fraud are shown to be false, if the allegations of his detractors are shown to be sheer calumnies resting on no foundation, then the case for the rehabilitation of Burt and his work will be incontestable.' (p17)

Despite the mass of information and anecdote accumulated by Joynson and Fletcher, they have established nothing. Indeed they have skirted around the main issues raised by Burt's biographer, Hearnshaw. He argued that Burt set off on his fraudulent activity in the postwar period in response to attacks on his views by those who emphasised the importance of environment. The key charges were that Burt fabricated data on twins, as shown by the fact that he got identical correlation coefficients when the sample size changed (statistically very unlikely); that he rigged data on the intelligence of parents and offspring to fit a genetic model; and that he invented two assistants who were supposed to have done much of the fraudulent field work for him after the war.

To cut a long story short, all Fletcher and Joynson have managed to do is to show that at least one of the assistants did exist. They do not question the fact that Burt published material, that he had written, in the assistants' names. They do not even establish whether or not the assistants did any research after, rather than before, the Second World War. All the other matters are open to interpretation, and likely to remain so. As Fletcher says in his 'Case for the defence': 'It will be found here, unfortunate though this is from the point of view of every side of the argument, that some aspects of the matter lie unavoidably, given the present state of the evidence, in the realm of the unprovable.' (p11)

Man and method

Fletcher's best line of defence is that if Burt was a fraudster, he was either totally incompetent (unlikely), or else so arrogant that he thought nobody would examine his methods, which he made no attempt to hide (more likely). Whichever way you look at it, it is hardly a brilliant vindication of Burt. In the words of the science journal, Nature, Fletcher's and Joynson's work 'seems unlikely to shed new light on the debate over the roots of intelligence' (5 March 1992). Which, lest we forget, was what they claimed to have achieved through rehabilitating Burt.

Most of the renewed debate around Burt has missed the point about what Stephen Jay Gould has called 'the real error of Cyril Burt'. Critics of Burt have in general been over-preoccupied with the issue of fraud at the expense of taking up his procedure and assumptions. The consequence has been that while Burt was discredited, his approach has been insufficiently challenged. The issue of fraud is in fact a minor matter compared with method.

Burt and those like him argue that intelligence is innate and therefore fixed; you've either got it or you haven't. Yet the issue that should concern us is not how much intelligence people are born with, but the failure of modern society to realise anything like the potential of the majority of people, whether or not there is any innate component to differing human abilities.

In fact, a body of scientific evidence suggests that there is no such thing as innate intelligence, but that intelligence itself is shaped by the society in which the brain develops. What is being increasingly studied today is the way in which the brain is physically only partially formed at birth, and the consequences this has for child development. In particular, it seems to indicate that even in its physical formation, the brain is subject to a wide range of social ('environmental') influences.

Forget biology

A more significant point is that all genetic models of human capacity represent a static and crude view of human beings. The fact that our biology is the same as primitive man strongly suggests that, in studying uniquely human characteristics like intelligence, we need to move away from biology towards a developmental and social perspective. This was the view of the great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky:

'Properly organised learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning. Thus, learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organised, specifically human psychological functions.' (LS Vygotsky, Mind in Society, p90).

In other words, what people like Burt call innate intelligence should in fact be seen as a very plastic social phenomenon.

And even if you were to accept that there are innate differences between people, there is no basis to the assumption that the divisions in society reflect this. Modern society is not a meritocracy. It is based upon the rule of the propertied capitalist minority. Only a rank apologist for the system could try to claim that it is 'natural' for some to be poor and some rich.

This brings us back to the debate today, and the real reason why Burt is being rehabilitated.

As Living Marxism has noted before, contemporary conservative thinkers who talk about the problem of the 'underclass' are trying to re-establish the idea that poverty is not caused by society but by the innate deficiencies of the poor themselves. The debate about educational achievement is now following a similar trajectory, towards 'naturalising' differences among children.

Sign of the times

The Burt revival is a consequence of this rightward drift of opinion, rather than a vindication of his ideas about psychology. The change of attitude towards Burt has nothing to do with the status of his research; as we have seen, there is no convincing new evidence in his defence. Instead, the change reflects the shattering of the postwar liberal consensus, and the conservative shift in the broader intellectual climate over the past few years.

It is important to see the Burt issue in a wider context than a debate about education. When John Major wrote to Fred Jarvis about the failure of the comprehensive system, he was seeking to make a wider point. Like Eysenck before him, Major wants to promote the view that Britain is, or is becoming, a meritocracy based on differing abilities; the poor are poor because of their own shortcomings, and anybody can get on if they have it in them (cue Tory election broadcast of Major's Daimler cruising the Brixton backstreets from whence he came).

The failure of the comprehensive education system can then be put down, not to a lack of investment in schools and teachers, but to the false assumption that all pupils are equal. In the seventies, Eysenck was on the fringe arguing that, since society was becoming more egalitarian, social divisions were coming more and more to reflect innate differences in ability. This argument is now in the Tory mainstream.

Brixton boy

The right has only been able to get away with broadcasting such elitist rubbish because of the moral collapse of its old liberal opponents in the educational establishment. This retreat is evidenced by the Psychological Society's climbdown on Burt, and more explicitly by the endorsement of Burt-style ideas by Guardian columnists. They have allowed Burt's defenders to claim victory without firing a single effective shot.

The boy from Brixton who failed his eleven plus done well in becoming the political frontman for the British establishment. But that doesn't prove Burt right, nor does it make Britain a meritocracy. After the brilliant governmental record of recent times, are we seriously supposed to believe that the country is run by people who reach the top on their natural merits?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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