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Summary Article: CYRIL LODOVIC BURT (1883–1971) from Routledge Encyclopaedia of Educational Thinkers

[I]t is essential to study every aspect of the child's development, physical as well as mental, emotional as well as intellectual … the child's environment … both at home and at school, in the past as well as in the present… . What breaks the camel's back is not the last straw, but the accumulation of straws; and the only sure remedy is to remove each one.

… it would seem that the frequency of the various causes [of subnormality] is approximately as follows … about two-thirds of the backward suffer from unfavourable environmental conditions, often grave enough to require a complete change to something better … three quarters suffer from unfavourable physical conditions – body weakness or ill-health … more than three quarters are handicapped by defective intellectual abilities: here the commonest … condition is … sheer lack of intelligence … about one-third have … temperamental difficulties … not much more than one-sixth … [suffer] unfavourable conditions within the school.1

Cyril Burt was the son of a doctor. The family lived for the first nine years of Burt's life in one of the poorest areas of London, and he attended a London Board School. Burt gained first-hand experience of the problems of living and being educated in a slum area. The family moved to Warwickshire, where Burt went to public school, then to Oxford. In Warwickshire, the Burts lived just three miles from the Galtons, who were patients of his father. Burt was strongly influenced by Galton's thoughts and works. At Oxford, as a student of McDougall, he worked on the standardization of psychological tests. Here he met Pearson, and was introduced to correlation. After spending some time in Wiirzburg, he was a lecturer in experimental psychology in Sherrington's department in Liverpool for five years (1907–12). He became the first professional psychologist in England when he worked for the London County Council. In 1926 he was appointed to a chair of what is now the Institute of Education (then the London Day Training College), and in 1932, he took over Spearman's founding chair at University College, London. Burt retired in 1951, but wrote at least another 200 articles and reviews, and continued to act as editor of the British Journal of Statistical Psychology. Sir Cyril Burt was the first foreigner to be awarded the Thorndike Award by the American Psychological Association.

Burt was an applied psychologist who spent about half of his working life on practical issues. He had considerable skill in handling both practical and political realities, and was able to push psychology to the forefront of decision-making in important fields – education, vocational guidance and criminology. Much of his writing was addressed to working professionals rather than academics. The quotation at the start of the chapter is from a book written primarily for teachers, and collates the major findings from extensive studies of individual children. A strong argument is made for multiple causality and multiple approaches to treatment. In a similar vein, Burt was the first person in Britain to collect data systematically via interviews and assessment in order to study delinquency. In The Young Delinquent (1925) he showed that delinquency was associated with a number of factors, notably abnormal family situations, but was not an inevitable consequence of these factors; it also occurred in the apparent absence of all associated causes. His conclusion that good conduct and misconduct are always products of mental life, not life situations, contrasted directly with rival genetic and psychoanalytic theories. Burt set out the principles for, and was instrumental in the establishment of Child Guidance Clinics in the UK in 1927; he also established a special school for the handicapped.

Burt is best known for his work on mental testing. Galton's pioneering work on individual differences had focused on relatively simple cognitive processes such as sensory discrimination and reaction times, and required individual testing. Burt (and others) showed that higher mental functions were better predictors of educational attainment. Burt made significant contributions to psychometrics – which sets out to determine the ‘mental characters of individuals’ experimentally. To do this, one needs an account of the structure of human abilities. The data are the scores from a large sample of students who have taken a number of cognitive tests (reasoning, sentence completion, maze tests, picture completion etc.); commonly, positive relationships are found between performances on different tests. Some tests are more strongly related than others, and patterns can be seen in the array of correlations – for example, performance on tests which assess some aspect of language usually show strong positive relationships. Psychometricians set out to describe these patterns in terms of a number of ‘factors’ or dimensions of ‘mental space’.

Burt made contributions to the techniques of factor analysis, and invented a practical method of analysis which has a remarkable family resemblance to Thurstone's centroid method, for which Thurstone became famous twenty years later. Burt formulated a ‘four-factor’ model of intelligence. The factors were general, group, test specific and error. Other accounts (such as Spearman's two-factor theory) he regarded as a simplification of this four-factor model. Burt had a modern view of the relationship between data and theory. He argued that many of the apparent differences between theorists could be explained in terms of the choice of matrix algebra used to analyse their data sets, different analytical methods giving rise to different factor structures. Burt argued that decisions about the underlying factorial structure of intellect should be a matter of theoretical aesthetics; unfortunately, it was often based on a belief (often implicit, and borne of ignorance) in one algebraic approach over another.

Burt developed tests which could be administered by teachers in ordinary classroom settings, based on reasoning, analogies, syllogisms and the like, many of which can be recognized as the basis of current intelligence tests. It was Burt who produced the first written group test of intelligence (rather than American army psychologists working in the First World War, as is often claimed). Tests and psychometrics were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. In work for London County Council, Burt set out to discover ways to maximize the benefits of schooling to children. One aspect was the identification of pupils unlikely to benefit from ordinary schooling, as Binet had done (see The Backward Child, 1937), and to estimate the number of such pupils in ordinary schools. He was also concerned with ways to identify highly able students for whom special educational provision might be made (see The Gifted Child, 1975).

Burt's concept of intelligence is that of an ‘innate, general cognitive efficiency’. This concept of an innate ability is apparent in his earliest works – a paper in Eugenics Review (1912) presents evidence on the superior test performance of children of people in higher professional groups, for example. His work on identical twins set out to determine the relative contribution of genetics and environmental factors in determining intellectual functioning. The idea is to look for similarities in the test scores of pairs of individuals ranged on dimensions of genetic similarity and environmental similarity. The genetic dimension is: unrelated children, siblings, identical twins. The environmental dimension is: reared apart, reared together, reared as twins. How strongly related are the scores on intelligence tests of different pairs of children? If the scores of unrelated children reared together (such as adopted children in the same household) are strongly related, and the scores of identical twins reared apart are weakly related, there is evidence for a strong environmental effect on intelligence. If the opposite is the case, it provides evidence of a strong genetic component. Intermediate pairs on the two dimensions allow one to check the validity of the results from the extreme cases. Burt reported a number of studies on identical twins reared apart which provided evidence of a strong genetic component in intelligence – he estimated that approximately 80 per cent of IQ was determined by genetic factors. Burt reported data on the largest sample of identical twins reared apart at the time, and claimed that his identical twins had all been separated by 6 months of age; he also claimed that there was no correlation between the socio-economic background of the fostering families. The circumstances under which identical twins are reared apart will be extraordinary. In studies by other researchers, a number of twins were reared one by a relative, and one by natural parent(s); twins were reunited for part of the time; attended the same school, and so the claims that they experienced a different environment are harder to sustain. The exemplary nature of Burt's data reported lead to widespread citation.

The evidence that intelligence test scores are a relatively stable attribute of each person is impressive, and widely replicated. One can sample an hour of behaviour (via a paper and pencil test) and can predict a person's likely success in the education system, and even about their likely life successes with modest accuracy (the further apart the test and the predicted behaviour, the weaker the predictive power; specific attempts to improve test scores or educational experiences also reduce predictive power). For a Victorian, raised in the intellectual maelstrom of Darwin's theory of evolution, and exposed at an early age to the person and ideas of Galton (a cousin of Darwin, a pioneer of ability testing, an advocate of the notion of both heritability of human aptitudes, and of eugenics), the ideas of ‘intelligence’ and of heritability of intelligence paved the way both for a science of human behaviour, and a technology of effective social policy. If individual differences have a strong genetic component, and superior performance is associated with higher social groups, the argument can be made that current social divisions are natural, and a result of evolutionary pressure over a long period. Education can be improved by tailoring educational provision to the needs of individual students – highly able students can be identified by intelligence testing, and can be offered appropriate educational experiences, no matter what their home background or past educational experiences. Students unable to benefit from conventional education can be identified and special provisions can be made for their needs. General social improvement can be attained in the short term by appropriate allocation of students to educational treatments, and in the longer term by accelerating Darwinian selection processes. The theme of scientific beliefs and politics will be explored later.

Burt was appointed senior investigator in charge of vocational guidance at the National Institute of Occupational Psychology. In the interwar years, a large team (around forty people) of psychologists was built up with expertise in staff selection, training, fatigue at work, working practices, ergonomics, personnel management and marketing. This team formed the nucleus for extensive work by psychologists as part of the British war effort in all these areas. The work on vocational guidance, initiated by Burt, led to the development of new tests, and demonstrated the superiority of psychological approaches over conventional approaches (such as interviews or teacher recommendations). Procedures were applied successfully by the armed services during the Second World War, and subsequently by major employers.

A series of government reports to which Burt contributed a good deal of evidence paved the way for the 1944 Butler Education Act which set out to provide an education for each child best suited to the aptitude of that individual. The Act made provision for an IQ test to be given at age 11, which was used as the basis for allocating pupils to one of three educational streams: grammar, technical or modern. The intellectual underpinnings combine four strands: the effectiveness of tests to allocate people to different tracks best suited to their abilities; the idea that IQ tests measured a stable characteristic of a child, and had a large genetic component; evidence that IQ tests are better predictors of educational attainment than any other available measure; and evidence on the unreliability of other forms of assessment (notably teacher reports and school tests).

Burt was keen to promote the study of psychology, and the use of a variety of evidence to inform educational practice. He worked closely with children, and wrote for practitioners and politicians as well as for academics (UK developments taking an evidence-based approach to education were modest in comparison with USA work, associated with Stanley Hall and Thorndike, however).

Burt was arguably the most influential educational psychologist of his generation in the UK, whose works on testing, delinquency and high- and low-attaining children were viewed as landmark studies. His work on the measurement of intelligence and on psychometrics was impressive, and had an impact in the UK, though rather little impact abroad (unless one claims that Thurstone used Burt's methods, without attribution). Amongst his influential students, H.J. Eysenck and R.B. Cattell both extended the work on factorial analyses. Burt was a major figure in establishing the centrality of the notion of educational ‘aptitude’, and in promoting the idea that intelligence has a major genetic component. His twin studies are very widely known – indeed, notorious.

Within five years of his death, Sir Cyril Burt had been accused of fraud, and pilloried in national newspapers. An official biography by a noted historian of British psychology, Leslie Hearnshaw, based on Burt's diaries and personal correspondence, as well as on his published work, confirmed and added to the accusations of fraud. The British Psychological Society accepted Hearnshaw's conclusions. Two later biographies (Joynson 1989; Fletcher 1991) cast doubt on many of Hearnshaw's conclusions. A collection of articles edited by Mackintosh (1995) casts further doubt on the status of many of the accusations, but concludes that Burt did, indeed, invent both data and co-workers. Sir Cyril Burt is remembered as a scientific cheat.

One might ask why the fraudulent behaviour was not noticed earlier. One reason is the thoroughness of Burt's early work; another is that much of the fraudulent data presented evidence consistent with evidence elsewhere. Large differences in the IQ of adults in different social classes are widely documented; those children that migrate up social classes have higher IQs, those that move down have lower IQs. IQ does predict educational attainment; a number of studies have shown that people who are close genetically are close intellectually. Other accounts can be offered about why IQ measures are predictive such as their relation with educational advancement, or their cultural loading; however, the raw data about the association between IQ and other factors is not in dispute, although the heritability data is. Burt's fraud shows something of the constructivist nature of knowledge; evidence shapes world views, and once a world view is established, data that fits is accepted less critically than data which does not.

Any scientist can falsify data for a short while; the power of science resides both in the work of individuals, and in the process of accepting knowledge into the community. The Burt affair provided a stark reminder of the need for effective validation procedures. Burt published extensively in the journal he edited; he was allowed to publish articles with serious methodological flaws in leading journals as late as 1966. Few editors publish their own work; halo effects have been well documented, and modern practice is to review papers anonymously.

The Burt affair also gives us insights into the sociology of science – the alignment of scientists into camps, the conflicting world views, and shifts in scientific paradigm over time. Science can be used (legitimately or illegitimately) as a justification for political action. If IQ is causally related to educational and social success and IQ has a large genetic component, then there is little point devoting much money to the education of low-IQ citizens – little will come of it. Society is the way it is for good Darwinian reasons, and will be improved by accelerating the processes (e.g. the practice of sterilizing ‘subnormals’ in several States in the USA at one time, according to Gould, 1981), rather than reversing them. However, if IQ is a proxy measure for other causal factors (such as social class, or membership of a particular language community), and it has no genetic basis, then spending money on education is likely to have positive effects for all children, and on society. The debate on heritability, therefore, can be recast as a debate about right-wing and left-wing politics, or even about evil and good. This agenda has been the focus of debate triggered by The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray 1994). The fact that the best evidence for the heritability of IQ was fraudulent provided ammunition relevant to science, politics and morality.

Sir Cyril Burt will be remembered for the failings of his old age, which overshadow the whole corpus of his work. His primary legacy is a reminder that the practice of science is not set in a political or social vacuum; evidence-based policy can be a sharp sword, which should be used with great care.

See also: Binet; Darwin; Piaget; Tyler; Vygotsky

Burt's major writings
  • The Distribution and Relation of Educational Abilities, King and Son London, 1917.
  • Mental and Scholastic Tests, second edition, Staples Press London, 1947.
  • The Young Delinquent, fourth edition, University of London Press London, 1944.
  • The Causes and Treatment of Backwardness, fourth edition, University of London Press London, 1964.
  • The Backward Child, fifth edition, University of London Press London, 1965.
  • The Gifted Child, Wiley London, 1975.
  • Further reading
  • Devlin, B.; Fienberg, S.; Resnick, D.; Roeder, K. (eds), Intelligence, Genes and Success: Scientists Respond to The Bell Curve, Springer-Verlag New York, 1997.
  • Fletcher, R., Science, Ideology and the Media: The Cyril Burt Scandal, Transaction Publishers New Brunswick NJ, 1991.
  • Gould, S., The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton New York, 1981.
  • Hearnshaw, L., Cyril Burt Psychologist, Hodder & Stoughton London, 1979.
  • Herrnstein, R.; Murray, C., The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Free Press New York, 1994.
  • Joynson, R., The Burt Affair, Routledge London, 1989.
  • Mackintosh, N. (ed.), Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed?, Oxford University Press Oxford, 1995.

    • Burt, Cyril L. , The Causes and Treatment of Backwardness, 1964.
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