Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: What Does Eugenics Mean To Us? Episode 3

This conversation was recorded on 31st March 2021. Host: Subhadra Das, Critical Eugenics Researcher, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre

Episode 3: The legacy of Cyril Burt

Guests: Jack Bicker, Senior Teaching Fellow in Philosophy & Education Studies at UCL’s Institute of Education  //  Peter Fonagy, Head of the Division of Psychology & Language Sciences at UCL  //  Lasana Harris, Associate Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at UCL

Subhadra Das: Welcome to What Does Eugenics Mean To Us?, a podcast from the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre. I'm your host, Subhadra Das, and for the last ten years I've been researching the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL, in the sciences and beyond. In this podcast I've brought together some brilliant researchers for some fascinating and insightful conversations across the disciplinary divides. Together, we are going to discuss, examine, critique and explode eugenic thinking. How are racism, ableism, sexism and class warfare embedded in our ways of thinking about and perceiving other people? What can we do to challenge and dismantle those ideas and structures? As a university and a community of researchers: what does eugenics mean to us?

Two of the fields where eugenic thinking had an enormous influence, and where some of its legacies continue to hold sway, are psychology and education studies. An influential figure in both of those fields was a former UCL Professor of Psychology, Sir Cyril Burt. Burt was the first person ever to receive a knighthood for research in the field of psychology and he pioneered the use of IQ tests and the 11+ exam, which established the tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns, and technical colleges in England and Wales in 1944. In the years following Burt’s death in 1971, he was shown to have made up much of the data in his research studies, as well as fabricating two women researchers with whom he had published peer reviewed papers.
Joining me to wade through and reflect on Burt’s influences and legacies are Jack Bicker. If you believe what you read on Twitter, Jack is just another millennial philosopher. By day though, he is Senior Teaching Fellow in Philosophy & Education Studies at UCL’s Institute of Education, where his work encompasses critical theory, aspects of political philosophy, philosophy of mind, psychoanalysis and developmental psychology.
Peter Fonagy, who is an award-winning psychologist and academic whose research centres on issues of early attachment relationships, social cognition, borderline personality disorder and violence. Among many other roles, he is Chief Executive of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in London and also Head of the Division of Psychology & Language Sciences at UCL.
Lastly is Lasana Harris, Associate Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at UCL. Lasana is one of the brains behind the Unstereotype Experiment, which explored how increasing empathy in marketing professionals could increase creative and inclusive thinking, and his research at UCL examines the many different aspects of how we, as humans, perceive things and each other.
The first question that I have for you is, in the context of Burt and his work, but also more broadly, what does eugenics have to do with psychology?
Jack Bicker: Cyril Burt was a classicist, psychologist, educationalist who is associated with measurements, in particular measurement of intelligence and the application of the measurement of intelligence, particularly within schools and the British education system. One of the things that I find really interesting about Cyril Burt is the work that he was doing, and by work I don’t mean the academic work, I mean what work was he doing in his life. When he was using spurious data to fabricate data, you must have an idea of how the world is that you, therefore, want to bring about by making up this data. I’m really interested in the world, or the ideologies, that he wanted to bring about in both doing his academic research, but also then in relying on data that was spurious.
We see the legacies of Burt’s work, both in the structure of the UK education system up until the late eighties, particularly when there was this division between grammar schools and State comprehensives that’s deciding a child’s academic future, often at the age of 11. But, at the same time, I think we also see a legacy of Burt’s work when we think about the marginalisation of, in particular, black children, Caribbean children, within British schools. If we think through the idea of Caribbean children somehow being educationally subnormal in the seventies and eighties, and then the higher exclusion rates that Caribbean children faced during the nineties and the 2000s, up to the present day - in fact, there was a Guardian report out just the other week that suggested that a Caribbean child is six times more likely to be excluded from schools than their white peers.
This suggests to me again that there is a legacy within the British education system of categorising pupils that I think has its roots in the work of Burt, and the way that he was looking at how it is that we might divide pupils based on what we might think of being innate characteristics, or innate qualities, rather than thinking about the structural, social, political, cultural differences that might mean that pupils present differently in the classroom to their teachers, but also might mean that they are read differently by teachers who are also doing this work and might also want to also exclude them.
Peter Fonagy: If I can just elaborate on that - and everything that Jack said is absolutely right, I totally agree with it - but when you look at Burt’s work, he was kind of obsessed. He was obsessed with three doctrines. The first was that there is such a thing as general intelligence; the second was that this was largely, if not wholly, innate, that this general intelligence was something people were born with; and, thirdly, that it was, for all practical purposes, normally distributed in the population.
Now these ideas throughout Burt’s writings that spans over 60 years is run through it. And the interesting thing for me about Burt is that there was a perfect agreement, in his mind, between data and theory. That these were the three ideas that governed it and he made the data fit these theories, and whether he had to imagine that data, or actually make up the data, or present it in a very biased way - I’m no Burt scholar but some of it that I’ve looked at is pretty horrendous, in terms of something just being misrepresented, unscientifically.
But against that, no-one peer reviewed his work, no-one challenged his work, and that’s really curious in his time. In 1971, he got the Thorndike Prize, of the American Psychological Association. So, in a discipline that actually is supposed to be scientific and questioning, there were these improbable associations, these perfect agreements between data and theory, that no-one was puzzled by. And that, to me, is the most interesting thing about the British scientific establishment, that there were a bunch of critical scientists who just let this flow past them.
Subhadra: Lasana, do you want to add to any of that?
Lasana Harris: Again, yeah, I agree with what both Peter and Jack have mentioned. Just a couple of things I think it’s worth highlighting. The first is that Burt’s legacy extends beyond the British educational system to the educational system across the Commonwealth. So, that division between grammar schools and comprehensive schools that students take a test at 11 to determine, I did that and it’s still an active part of how education is structured in the Caribbean, and I’m sure in many other Commonwealth countries as well. So, there hasn’t really been a revision, or a compensation, for the damage his erroneous research has had, and I think it’s worth recognising that first of all. This isn’t a problem of the past, it’s something that we’re currently dealing with.
The second point, and the point which always seemed interesting to me, is that Burt, and many of his contemporaries, are researchers who are in a category where the work that they’ve done is really narrowly defined within a very specific context, and that’s a problem that psychology still suffers with today. So, recently, we’ve been having a reckoning surrounding WEIRD science, WEIRD being an anacronym for Western, educated, industrialised, non-religious, democratic societies - that’s a mouthful. The majority of psychological work is done within this context, yet we make claims about human beings. Well, there are many other human beings on the planet who aren’t included in our psychological studies. So, for me, Burt and the whole intelligence test idea is a really nice illustration of that problem, which we’re still grappling with today, in that these things are developed with very specific people in mind, and then they are generalised to all of humanity in a way that is damaging.
So, taking away the falsification of data, taking away the theoretical arguments, there is a fundamental flaw in all of that work that still exists in much of psychology today, where we’re looking at a very narrow population of human beings on the planet, and we’re making claims about all of humanity that can end up being damaging to people in other parts of the world, who weren’t even considered when these measures and tests were developed. And as leading Western countries, we do set the tone for what people around the world are still doing, and I think that legacy is one that we need to address as well. So, for me, he’s sort of symbolic of a wider problem that we haven’t really completely dealt with as an academic discipline.
Subhadra: So, we’re already starting to get a picture that there is not an equality, or there is not a consistency, in the way that people are treated or perceived in education systems, both inside the UK and in the Commonwealth more widely. Can you give me some examples of what that looks like? The thing that I’m trying to address is this idea of meritocracy and the fact that we have an education system that is supposed to be equal and available to everyone, and treat everyone fairly according to their needs and abilities, but is that really the case?
Jack: The way I look at meritocracy, within at least what we might think of as being social mobility, is that often institutions, particularly educational institutions, offer an ultimatum to their students, and that is to conform to some ideal type or to incidentally exclude it. I can give an example from a contemporary writer in the US, Meira Levinson, who has a really rich body of work on code-switching. So, on the one hand, I think everybody very naturally code-switches in various aspects of their lives, but what she prescribes, in a book called No Citizen Left Behind, is that white, middle-class, American teachers should teach their socioeconomically disadvantaged African American pupils, in a particular area of Georgia that she’s working in, to code-switch. She says, if civic empowerment is our goal, then pupils must be able to speak like their white, middle-class peers and, at the same time, dress like them, understand their cultural reference, understand the way in which they might read body language, etc.
What I’m concerned about in this example is this ultimatum to conform. There is an idea of the ideal which is then held up for students as a route to success, and they have a choice at that moment to either, in some way, try to transition towards those dominant norms that have the most currency within the particular society that they’re living in and, therefore, get the promised success, although that’s not always the case. Or, instead, to reject the narrative that their own cultural reference, their own ways of speaking, their own language, their own ways of dress aren’t, in some way, less valuable and might be something they might want to authentically hold on to.
So, I think, particularly within the education system, as I know it within the UK, there is often this ultimatum to conform, which is an invitation to conform, as I say, towards some form of dominant norm. And also, then, almost a pathologisation of anything that cannot achieve that dominant norm. I’m just thinking about, in particular, Burt’s work to suggest that there are some groups that are innately more intelligent than others. I can imagine a scenario in which there is a legacy of these ways of thinking, in which a teacher who is looking at a child, who has rationally decided not to conform, would very easily understand that child’s resistance as them having some kind of innate quality that prevents them from being the ideal student, or the ideal future citizen and, therefore, feeling justified, in some way, in giving up on them. Or, as we saw in the seventies and eighties in the UK, designating that child as somehow being educationally subnormal, when, in fact, there is something else going on in the story.
For me, again this comes back to the idea of work, the work being done by both Burt’s research, but also its reception within the academy; in what ways is there a story about humans, and about the ideal human, or the superior form of human, that is being retold and reflected in the work of Burt, that he’s not just giving data, or interpreting, but he’s actually also making that story. And that story is something that they will then inherit so that, when we come to think about education, we have got this binary between the ideal type of student who can, who is quick footed enough to, in some way, transition towards dominant norms, or a student who can’t, who doesn’t have the resources to do that, and can’t do that, or maybe decides at some unconscious level that they don’t want to conform in that way. And the teacher viewing this isn’t always in a position to understand the structural mechanisms taking place here that might lead them to misinterpret what they’re seeing in front of them in a classroom.
Subhadra: Yes, entirely. Just to give a little bit of historical context there, so there were in the UK schools for the educationally subnormal, and a disproportionate number of black students, particularly students who were coming from the Caribbean, as a result of failing IQ tests, were deemed educationally subnormal.
One of the most poignant examples, the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson speaks about it, which is that one of the tests was to draw a house and if you drew a house without a chimney, which seems like a reasonable thing if you live in a very warm country, that would be enough to deem you educationally subnormal.
So, the blatant biases in the tests themselves, this is something that people have been criticising for a long time is the biases in IQ testing, for example, but it did have a real effect on people and what happened with their education and, as a result, what happened with the rest of their lives.
Jack: A teacher that I had, who had been born in Jamaica and come to the UK as a child, who did really well on those tests, they made her do them again, and then they made her do them again in a room on her own, because they couldn’t quite believe that a Jamaican child living in the UK would do so well.
Subhadra: The question that I have is what were the effects on Burt’s ideas in terms of the study of psychology more widely. I think we’ve spoken to that, but there was a lot of psychology going on in the real world, the kind of events that you were describing there, Jack. Even if people choose to conform, or if they choose to say, I’m going to do everything that I can to conform to the ideal of the dominant culture, speak in a particular accent, do all the homework, excel, that’s not necessarily a recipe for success, is it? People still are judged on things that are beyond their control, to do with their appearance and how they are perceived in terms of their class and their race.
Jack: Absolutely. So, in the code-switching example, I often think about if we switched the example around. So, I grew up in an area of London that has a really large Caribbean community and I often think if I took one of my colleagues at the Institute, who has no connection to that community at all, or to the kind of multicultural London English that is spoken in inner-city schools right now, if I said to one of my colleagues, we’re going into this school, it’s in an inner-city area, people there speak differently from you. I would like you, as a UCL professor, to change your accent, to dress in a slightly different way, but also I’m going to teach you some body language changes which mean that you’ll be accepted more there, because this is the language that is predominant in this space. Even if I found someone who was willing to give that a go, we know that the community, the kids that I would be asking them to talk to would immediately see that there was some kind of performative element going on and wouldn’t necessarily accept that as authentic.
And so, the promise to young people that, if they code-switch, they will be given access to a form of recognition from more dominant groups in society, I think is a false one. I think instead what's going on here is that educationalists are asking pupils to transition towards cultural references, forms of talk, dress, body language, etc., that they themselves recognise and are comfortable with. And again, this is not dissimilar from the work that Burt was doing. So, Burt has his research and he has his statistics that he makes up in order to create a story of the world as he wants to see it. And I have a question about teachers: in what way do we as teachers, if we’re not at our very best, make the error of doing work to make the world as we think it should be?
If we’re from a group, or we’re from a background, in which we’ve not really thought about structural injustices, racial injustices, or our own privileges, we might not - if we’re not at our very best, if we’re not at our most careful - be doing this similar work to make sure that the world that we’re making, in our everyday practice, is one that we recognise, that reassures us, rather than one that becomes destabilised by including the voices of those groups whose voices would normally be marginalised, who are literally being asked to be either silenced or to speak in terms that wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as authentic to them.
Lasana: I think the conversation Jack described perhaps is happening in education, but not as much in psychology. I think, if anything, what psychology has done is tried to address what intelligence is. So, when I started in psychology I actually started in psychometrics. And so, as an undergraduate, I did all of this research on these different standardised testing, and all of the problems with standardised testing, and I came across the examples you gave of the chimney. There was also another one with snow, a snow-covered setting, and you had to say what was wrong and there was no snow on the railings, and again I couldn’t spot it because growing up in the Caribbean, I didn’t know snow covered everything, and so there was no way I could figure that out. But in psychology I think the debate has been, what is intelligence? Is it this one thing, big 'G', General intelligence, or are there different types of intelligence? And do these different types of intelligence have implications for different kinds of abilities in different contexts?
To me, the intelligence literature has always been filled with that debate, where we’re looking at trying to identify general 'G', and trying to identify different forms of intelligence, and that’s what psychology has gone after, more or less. I’ve left that field behind, I’m not sure what the current debate is, whether they’ve settled on it, I doubt it is, but psychology hasn’t really addressed this issue of education in that way.
What psychologists have been doing more recently, particularly in the American context, is trying to find ways where teachers can overcome these inherent biases. Because again what Burt and his colleagues did was create a scenario where you had scientific justification for the biases that were already present in the culture. And so, now a teacher can point at a bit of scientific research and say that’s justified, these kids do have a different intelligence, a different understanding of the world than is necessary for success.
Subhadra: When you're saying these kids, we’re distinguishing along racial lines, traditionally?
Lasana: Of course, yes. And so recent research that I’m aware of has really looked at teachers, for instance, and asked the question, what is your goal as a teacher? Is your goal as a teacher to connect with your students? And if your goal as a teacher is to connect with your students, then race shouldn’t matter. Because, as Jack said, displays of behaviour that are normal in one cultural or racial context are viewed as disrespectful, or disruptive, within this very narrowly defined educational space, such that students who aren’t trying to be disruptive, they’re just being themselves and being identified as problematic.
And so, I think we are still seeing these legacies of what Jack described. The ideal student, the ideal intellectual even, in this very narrowly defined context, that isn’t taking account for the differences that are naturally out there. So, after I did the psychometric work, the first bit of research I ever did as a psychologist, as an undergraduate, was we looked at elementary school kids in the US, so five and six years old; we looked at how they learnt in groups. The kids sat around the table, four of them, they were given a task, like to build something from Lego, and what they noticed was that the Caucasian children would sit there very orderly and complete the task, and the African American children would get up, they would be climbing all over the table, they would be climbing on top of each other, and there was just more movement in their behaviour, and that predicted success in completing the task.
Now, from a teacher’s perspective, if you’re faced with a classroom of kids climbing all over each other, that’s disruptive behaviour in the standardised point of view, where there is an ideal student who sits very quietly and takes notes as the teacher lectures. But for children in a different racial or cultural context, their natural behaviours at five or six, these kids are just doing what is intuitive, and their natural behaviours are already being deemed as disruptive. And that’s really the legacy of Burt. It’s to formalise these ideas with scientific evidence of what is appropriate, what is predictive of intelligence, what is predictive of good student behaviour, and we’re still trying to overcome these.
Subhadra: It seems like an overwhelming task. I wonder if we can reflect on the discipline a little bit and think about how the discipline of psychology might react in the absence of Burt, and envisage what it might look like. Peter, you have talked previously about the replicability crisis, which was the trap that people fell into, as far as Burt was concerned.
Peter: I think Burt was representative of a tradition and the tradition is flawed, is corrupt, and corrosive; and it’s a tradition that UCL actually had a major part in, which is this kind of tradition of inferential statistics that somehow you could, by finding an analogue of likelihood, a probability of something happening by chance, you could assert that the finding was of significance, of intellectual significance, of cultural significance, of value.
And I think where Burt, who was deeply committed to this tradition, that has Galton, Pearson, that profoundly influenced Burt in it, has actually created an illusion of discovery science, that you could actually discover something because it was beyond a certain level of probability. Now this, psychologically, is an enormously attractive proposition, which Burt was a very remarkable example of, finding what you actually, in any case, believe to be evidenced by what you observe, if you are willing to bend the chance, if you are willing to load the dice just slightly. Now, Burt did something, not just loaded the dice...
Subhadra: He made his own dice, he had like a whole board game, he drew up his own deck of cards, he invented the players around the table.
Peter: Exactly. But actually, where that tradition is corrosive is much, much more widespread and brings doubt, as Lasana has said, and Jack implied, to the whole discipline of psychology in many, many ways, that we are all too willing to believe something that there is evidence for, but actually we do not state that what we find evidence for is what we believe, and that there is an enormous circularity about this, which then leads to the replicability crisis. And I think that intellectual dishonesty is very difficult to eradicate from the discipline, and is part of what I think sustains, to some degree, the way the discipline still holds onto the biases in relation to race, the biases in relation to class, the biases in relation to culture, and the valuation of certain cultures against others, and it really needs to look at itself in a far more critical way than it has done so far.
Now, I just have one statistic to bring to this, which is that there are, as far I know, 12 black professors of psychology in the United Kingdom. Maybe this is a figure that is out-of-date, but it is not wrong by order of magnitude. Now that, to me, speaks to a corrupt discipline, not just a corrupt individual and that, to me, is absolutely intolerable. It is, as I said, a corrosive effect and psychology will not achieve its aims unless it actually sheds itself of this tradition and that requires, I think, a wholesale examination of the entire curriculum of psychology.
I think Lasana mentioned the WEIRD nature of psychology - Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic - which actually covers about 12% of the population, but what about the other 88% or 86% or whatever? If it’s 4,000 times more likely that you will be in a psychology experiment if you are an undergraduate in a Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic country, than if you are anybody at all in any other non-WEIRD country, it’s a corrupt set of findings that really need to be scrutinised, examined and discarded, or at least replicated. So, to me, the replicability crisis is not just about the illusion of discovery through the 5% rule. The replicability crisis is about all the findings of psychology that we accept as fact, but actually is based on a population that is not representative of the globe.
Subhadra: I think that leads on to the last question that I have for all of you which is, if change is going to come, is there value in teaching about the history of the discipline, in acknowledging those frames and trying to deconstruct them? The question is, what is the value of teaching the history of psychology to psychologists in terms of trying to address these racist biases, ableist biases, sexist biases? Is there value in knowing where you came from?
Lasana: Absolutely. I think there is no stronger way to say that. The reason anyone should care about history is to not repeat the same mistakes. So, as a point of departure, teaching about the history of the field lets future researchers know about the missteps that we’ve made, and that is really important.
Second of all, there are a lot of values or beliefs we have, as a discipline, that are reinforced by some of this history, and students need to be able to re-examine that, because a lot of it is still just held as doctrine within the field. Like Peter mentioned, this sort of arbitrary .05 P value, these are things that have historical roots and we should all understand them if we are a part of this disciplinary history.
The third reason is because we want to charge a path forward. Like you said, the revolution has begun here, and you can’t really know where you are going unless you know where you’ve been, and so you have to be aware of the work that has come before that has built the field, in order to take it forward. There has been a recent discussion online, and on social media, around an article that was written about one of Burt’s contemporaries, Galton, looking at his role in the establishment of genetics as a discipline. They raised the question, should we just get rid of genetics, given the horrible history it’s had? And you can raise that of psychology as well. I think the answer is absolutely not. There are valuable things to be gained from studying the human mind and human behaviour, but it is also required that you understand where this stuff has been, in order to take it forward.
So, I’m a big believer in understanding the history. That’s some of what we’ve been trying to do here with our undergraduates in psychology, making them aware of the history, of the inherent biases within the discipline, talking about the replication crisis, talking about people like Burt and Galton and Pearson, letting them know the state of the science in terms of the study of racism and bias, so that they have enough of a grounding where, as they move forward, they can be aware of that history and use it to motivate the future work that they do. So, absolutely.
Subhadra: And that might have real effects on real peoples’ lives, right, Jack?
Jack: Absolutely. I work with a lot of undergraduates in education who do a broad series of subjects including psychology, but other subjects too. The work I’m trying to do with them is similar to what Lasana said. I’m not just interested in the history, although I think the history is incredibly important, I’m also interested in the minds that were evolved. So, what is it to be a researcher putting together research methodologies, what is it to be positioned in a certain way that means that you want to see the world as you know it reflected in your research methodologies, and in the outcomes that you get in your research?

So, there is work also to do, not just to develop empathy but, in a sense, a kind of illiteracy within the history, illiteracy of the fallibility of research methodologies, but also an ability to be reflexive. Who am I? Where am I positioned? What categories, concepts and language am I sowing through my thought, through what I’m writing, for the experiments that I’m putting together? And in what ways maybe do those concepts, categories and language limit the outcomes that I can get from my research? Because if students have that kind of awareness of both themselves as potential practitioners in classrooms but also as educationalists, they’re in a more autonomous position, I think, when moving forward, to be constantly critical of the fallible language, concepts and categories that are useful to us, that need to be updated if they’re going to reflect both the world as it is now, but also the world as we might imagine it to be.
Subhadra: Peter Fonagy, Jack Bicker, Lasana Harris, thank you very much for joining me.

You can also listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson in conversation with Paul Gilory on the SPRC podcast.