Accounting errors

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed?. Edited by N J Mackintosh, Oxford University Press #163;19.99. - 0 19 852336 X.

This book deals with a high powered and eminent psychologist, the late Professor Sir Cyril Burt, the doyen of theories about intelligence. His scientific integrity was called into question some five years after his death aged 88 in 1971 when he was accused of falsifying research into children's inherited intelligence. He was publicly condemned by many of his peers.

This is the fourth major book on Burt and his work. The first, the official biography, was reluctantly "anti" and the next two were strongly "pro"-Burt. Fraud or Framed? endeavours to give a critical though balanced view. It is also the only one of the four which has contributions by several authors, including three by the accomplished editor Professor N J Mackintosh. The painstaking detective work is impressive. It goes back to early research data to unravel puzzles and discrepancies, but with only partial success. For example, even apparently simple matters such as publication dates of a significant appendix or sample sizes in successive investigations were examined but could not be established.

The four main charges of "fraud" each receive a chapter. 1 The history of factor analysis, a statistical technique for analysing test results which Burt was alleged to have puffed up to his own advantage. 2 Burt's data on kinship IQs suggesting that the closer the blood relationship, the more similar the IQ, and in particular his sample of 53 separately reared identical twins, where various numerical oddnesses had been detected. 3 Burt's writings on intelligence and social mobility, and 4 on the decline of "national intelligence"; both these last two depended on assuming that his IQ work was valid, and they are controversial politically.

As one of his students shortly before he retired, I remember with pleasure Burt's erudite, lively and beautifully clear lectures. I came to learn of his well-known "foibles", for example, to "improve" articles submitted to him as editor, sometimes with better and more logical English but also, it has to be said, with references more favourable to his own work. Despite all that has happened, I feel that his positive qualities outweighed his failings.

One also wonders how far it is possible to reconstruct (without the raw data) copious results of work begun some 70 years ago with no computers, photocopiers or databases. To calculate a factor analysis could easily take weeks. At times the tiny rooms in the psychology department at University College London, each contained investigators interminably whirring away on their hand calculators. To judge minutely Burt's early (and later) huge output by today's standards may perhaps be too ambitious.

Nonetheless, Fraud or Framed? is a distinguished book. Its verdicts on the four "charges" are inevitably inconclusive, though several favour Burt. Inconsistencies, errors, gaps, vaguenesses and muddles there undoubtedly were.

On the first charge Burt seems largely exonerated, and the book gives interesting information about the neglected contribution to factor analysis by a contemporary, Maxwell Garnett. On the second there are sufficient doubts - though no proof of deliberate falsification - for a cautious verdict of not proven. However, Burt's conclusions about twins and twinship IQs have been supported by other, more exact research, though recent investigations have somewhat reduced the part played by heredity, from about 70 per cent to about 50 per cent.

The last two topics have become particularly identified with accusations against Burt as "racist" because he linked the heritability of intelligence with its implications for society. But he was also much concerned with detecting the potential of children with little education, for example canal boat children, by means of his tests. This concern with equal opportunities was liberal for his time. As one of the contributors puts it, "Burt's tragedy was to offend against political correctness, and to be chosen as the major target for egalitarians who could not tolerate the variety of talents nature bestows on us".

Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? merits praise also for its robust dscussions of standards and and probity in science and scholarship. At present, when quantity rather than quality reigns, it is reassuring that scientists of stature are willing to invest so much time and thought in the quest for the truth.

Hannah Steinberg is Visiting Professor of Psychology, Middlesex University.

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