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Radio Review: The Moral Maze - Genetics and Education

4 November 2013
Appeared in BioNews 729

The Moral Maze: Genetics and Education

BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 30 October 2013

Presented by Michael Buerk

'The Moral Maze: Genetics and Education', BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 30 October 2013

Dare to mention gene in the same breath as intelligence and somebody is bound to accuse you of 'eugenics' and where can you go from there, you monster?

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 'racist' people.

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 their genes.

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 the shouting.

Michael Portillo summed up the debate as being about 'the confrontation of science with political prejudice'. As the 15 to 25-year-olds say: Totes.

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Dominic Cummings and Robert Plomin are claiming a great deal about the effect of genetics on intelligence, some of which is sound, some of which is not and some of which is very speculative...
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