BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 30 October 2013
Presented by Michael Buerk
The outgoing special adviser to Education Secretary Michael
Gove, Dominic Cummings, wrote an essay aimed, he said, at '15 to 25-year-olds
and those interested in more ambitious education […] for them'. The essay outlines
Cummings' vision for an 'Odyssean' style of education, synthesising maths and science
with humanities and arts. The 237-page 'leaked' essay sparked widespread media
attention, anger and misreporting. (As the 15 to 25-year-olds say: TL;DR.)
Michael Buerk, host of Radio 4's Moral Maze, pointed out it
wasn't the 'sometimes excoriating analysis of what's wrong with the education
system' that caused a kerfuffle; rather, Cummings dared to mention research
showing that genetics affects general cognitive ability — what we call intelligence
(see BioNews 727).
This was always gearing up to be a fun episode. I'm not a
regular listener (perhaps because I'm not a regular user of morality) but I'm
certainly going to tune in more often if they're all this spicy. With all the
shouting, the factionalism, the conflict of ideology with fact, and even a spot
of slander, it's like Eastenders set in the Vienna Circle.
The Maze wound through many twisty subjects that I can't
hope to cover here: educational streaming of children; elitism; eugenics; how
scientific knowledge informs policy; transhumanism and eroding our biological
limitations; and much more. You should give it a listen.
The format goes a little like this. Buerk chairs a panel formed
this week of ex-MP-turned-pundit Michael Portillo, Chief Executive of the RSA Matthew
Taylor, priest-journalist Giles Fraser and Daily Mail columnist Melanie
Phillips. The panelists question a series of 'witnesses': Dr Kathryn Asbury,
who co-wrote the book 'G is for Genes'; Steve Davy, a teacher at the Wroxham 'listening'
school in Hertfordshire, UK; Dr Anders Sandberg, from the 'Future of Humanity
Institute' at Oxford University; and Dr David King, founder and director of
the Human Genetics Alert campaign group.
(I'll admit I was looking forward to writing an extended snark
about Melanie Phillips. Alas, she was mostly harmless despite her apparent
position of choosing not to believe in 'heritability of intelligence' research.
The climate change denier isn't exactly renowned for her rigour, though. As the 15
to 25-year-olds say: Whatevs.)
Dr King of Human Genetics Alert stole the
show with his nasty, slanderous attacks on Professor Robert Plomin and the
field of behavioural genetics. King said Plomin has 'dirty hands' and works in
a field of 'very unpleasant people'. He even not-too-subtly suggested that
Plomin hasn't 'dissociated' himself from the field's historically 'right wing' and
Putting aside King's apparent personal beef, there is a more
problematic philosophical point. King tacitly forwards the argument that it's
fine to apply genetics research to physical issues such as health but not
social issues such as intelligence. The application of knowledge doesn't work
like that, and nor should it. The panel nicely disposed of his arguments.
Underlying the genetics of intelligence debate is our strong
attachment to the idea of 'potential' and freedom to fulfil it. Just look at
the runaway success of 'Outliers', Malcolm Gladwell's book about — to simplify
— how we all hold the potential for genius given some luck and 10,000 hours of
deliberate practice. This blank slate approach to achievement is seductive, but is it based in fact?
Ten thousand hours is a simple number, a simple heuristic. IQ,
on the other hand, is a slippery concept. IQ emerges from a statistical method
(known as factor analysis) that looks for patterns in how measures such as test
results vary together. The same method decides your Big Five Personality Traits
or your Myers-Brigg Type. Measuring intelligence is not at all like measuring time.
Similarly, the folk understanding of heritability is pretty wonky.
Heritability measures how much variation in a population is due to genetic
variation — in this case, how much of the variability in IQ test scores or exam
results can be explained by the amount of genetic variation among test takers.
Heritability does not tell us how much of a person's test scores are down to
Dr Asbury's book includes recommendations for what they call
'genetically sensitive' schooling. I fail to understand how one can move from population-level
estimates of heritability to policies that benefit individual children. But I
haven't read the book and Asbury didn't explain this so well on the show.
Regardless, Asbury came across as sincere and egalitarian in her opinions about
personalised learning. Unfortunately, voices like hers might get lost under all
Michael Portillo summed up the debate as being about 'the
confrontation of science with political prejudice'. As the 15 to 25-year-olds say: