Friday, May 24, 2024

Martin Hanson: The Education Debate*

Few areas of human concern are more riven with contention than education. Yet despite this there is one thing upon which everyone agrees — children must be given as much opportunity as possible to achieve their full intellectual potential. This is not only important to parents — directly or indirectly, educational under-achievement affects everyone, having a pernicious effect on all indices of social well being, such as unemployment, crime, and domestic violence. Even those who are wealthy enough to feel insulated against these social effects must surely concede that at the very least, unused ability has an adverse effect on the balance of payments.

Unfortunately, here the consensus ends. Through a mixture of ignorance and malign intent, a number of educationists choose to misrepresent the issue. A recent* article in the Sunday Star Times ('Are whites smarter?'), is a prime example, and though it doubtless generates some heat, it will assuredly shed precious little light. 

The article quotes two academics at length — Dr. Judith Simon, Lecturer in Education at Auckland University, and Associate Professor John Codd, acting head of Massey University's policy studies and education department. 

Both appear to employ rhetorical tricks to bolster their views. One such ploy is to misrepresent the alternative opinion. Dr. Simon, for example, says that she seeks to "challenge the notion of 'intelligence' or 'ability' as being biologically determined ....." No geneticist or educational psychologist would say that genes determine ability, for this would imply that genes alone are responsible. Rather, it is accepted that each person's ability is the result of interactions between both genes and environment. The issue is how much of the observed variation in ability is due to genetic differences. 

To be fair, Dr. Simon does imply that genes play a part, but then she goes on to discredit her argument by demonstrating her lack of understanding of one of the fundamental principles of genetics. She states that "there is a wide range of social, cultural and other environmental factors that influence and shape the development of whatever it is that is inherited" (my emphasis). Except in a completely random way by the induction of mutations, environmental factors have no influence whatever on the genes, and, as an expert, Dr. Simon should know this.

Another trick of political persuasion is to use so much rhetorical embellishment that it is impossible to pick out an unequivocal statement that can be challenged.  Professor Codd says that tests of scholastic ability are “cultural artefacts, which assume a pseudo-scientific status within educational practice.” Of course they are cultural artefacts. So what? His university finals papers were also cultural artefacts, as is his driving licence. 

Professor Codd goes on to say that "Predictive judgments in education, if they are to show respect for children as persons, will arise out of the tacit knowledge that comes from knowing them as persons" (original emphasis). Professor Codd appears not to appreciate that a teacher's respect for a child as a person ought to be, and usually is, quite independent of his or her assessment of the child's academic ability. 

Another example of linguistic legerdemain is Dr. Simon's placing of ‘ability’ and ‘intelligence’ in quotation marks. If she doubts the validity of such terms, she should have the courage to say so. We expect such obfuscation from politicians and legal advocates, but academics are supposed to be able to say what they mean, clearly and without equivocation. 

If we must discuss intelligence, then let us at least do so in an intellectually respectable way, with a clear identification of exactly what the issues are, for only then can we hope to begin to find some answers. 

The most basic question of course, is whether some children are brighter than others. Some people find even this one too much to swallow, saying that intelligence is not even definable, let alone measurable. Ergo, the question of relative intelligence is meaningless. 

There is no doubt that IQ tests are imperfect, most especially because they are not independent of knowledge, which as we all know, is heavily dependent on culture and family background. However, this is not the point. Simply because you can't measure something exactly, it doesn't mean that you can't make valid statements about it. Professor Codd would presumably be quite happy to agree that chimpanzees are brighter than dogs — yet there is no scale for comparing intelligence in different species. 

The reality of differences in mental ability is something all teachers experience as part of their daily work. Some children quickly grasp difficult ideas, whilst others struggle with simpler ones. The absence of a reliable scale of measurement is regarded as no impediment when comparing different species, yet it is held to be unacceptable when comparing members of our own species. The reasons have more to do with politics than with science. 

The second question is rather more contentious. If people do differ in intelligence, are such differences to some extent inborn? In other words, are genetic differences partly responsible? Except to a creationist, the argument that genes play at least some part in human inequality is as powerful as it is simple, and runs as follows. 

Point one: The intellectual superiority of humans over chimpanzees has a genetic basis. 

Point two: Humans and chimpanzees have evolved from a common ancestor by a process of natural selection. 

Point three: Since the raw material for natural selection is genetic variation, individuals must differ with respect to genes influencing intelligence.

If Professor Codd disagrees with this chain of reasoning, then he is implying that human brainpower has evolved by some mechanism other than natural selection. Perhaps he can offer some evidence for the existence of such a mechanism?

The third question is whether some populations ('races') have a higher mean intelligence than others. It is here that the intellectual level of the debate reaches its nadir. Statements by politicians and some educationists, not to mention sensational headlines such as Are whites smarter? make one despair that the issue will ever be recognised for what it actually is — a biological one. 

Hitler was one of many who preached that some populations have an innate intellectual superiority over others. The propagation of such ideas without a shred of supporting evidence is part of a squalid and repulsive political agenda. Yet the politically correct view — that there cannot be any such differences, is equally unsupported by evidence. Moreover, the 'argument' put forward by its proponents is that because such views are morally repulsive, they are therefore incorrect. 

The fact is, the issue of whether there are intellectual differences between populations is not a moral question but a scientific one, requiring scientific evidence for its resolution. In the absence of reliable, culture-free tests, it is not possible to come down in support of either side. The scientifically correct view is therefore that we simply do not know.

However, just for the sake of argument, let's suppose that it were to be proved that Asians were, on average, slightly smarter than whites, and that whites were on average, slightly brighter than Maori. So what? On average, women are slightly smaller than men, yet so great is the overlap that although most men are taller than some women, most women are taller than some men. 

The implications for education and the way we treat one another would be quite simply, nil. To say that more money should be spent on the education of Asians would be foolish to say the least, since many whites do better at school than many Asians. It would be even more stupid to curb spending on Maori education since — and this is something on which there is general agreement amongst teachers — many Maori children lack an educationally supportive home, so help with early education would be potentially of enormous benefit.

Reading between the lines, it seems that both Dr. Simon and Professor Codd feel an intense antipathy to the idea of innate differences in ability, yet neither feels able to make an unequivocal statement that such differences do not exist, for to do so would be to invite ridicule. Instead they dwell on the social inequity of it all. 

Unfortunately for education, genes take little notice of such ideals as fairness and democracy, and still insist on behaving according to the rules discovered by Mendel last century. Whether a person inherits a particular gene is a matter of chance, and has nothing whatever to do with equity. Like it or not, education will make little progress as long as we ignore biological realities. 

Martin Hanson is a retired King's College science teacher and author of school textbooks, who now lives in Nelson. 

*This article was written in the early 2000s in response to the Sunday Star Times article.


Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

As around 99% (a conservative estimate) of people do not understand stats, misconceptions abound.
One is the view that group averages can be applied to individuals. I see a Japanese person and a Dutch person, the average IQ for Japanese people is higher than for Dutch people, therefore that Japanese person must be smarter than that Dutch person. Wrong.
Averages mean very little in the absence of distributional data. For instance, girls on average are academically smarter than boys, and yet most genii are male. To the uninitiated this is a contradiction, but to those of us inducted into the mysterious ways of the stats gods, it ties in with the observation that the 'standard deviation' for boys is greater. In graphical terms, it means that the 'hump' for boys lies slightly to the left of that for girls, but the graph is flatter and so there are more boys than girls in the highest decile.
Stats are descriptors and do not explain anything in themselves. Once differences between groups have been established, we need to start looking for causal mechanisms. These invoke both 'nature' and 'nurture', sometimes working in tandem - epigenetic modification involves the switching on and off of genes by environmental stimuli. This is where things become complicated. What gets us nowhere at all is biffing simplistic descriptive stats around as those in themselves make no case unless they are so extreme that they are superfluou to commonsense observation.

Robert Arthur said...

A collegaue breeds sheep dogs. He knows some are more intelligent than others and chances are their offspring will be also. For the sake of their careers he encourages breeding by the more able, whereas we humans do the opposite. The educuation sytemm will remain highly limiting whilst it attempts to treat all at the level of the least able.