Writing about the link between genes and educational attainment can be dangerous, as the psychologist Arthur Jensen discovered. After publishing a paper in the Harvard Education Review in 1969 entitled ‘How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?’ he was compared to Hitler and, for a time, had to be accompanied to work by bodyguards. Last year, the political scientist Charles Murray, who addressed this subject in The Bell Curve, was attacked by a group of student protestors at Middlebury College and a female colleague who tried to protect him ended up in hospital.
Jensen and Murray both strayed on to the live rail of black-white IQ differences, but even those who steer well clear of that can get into difficulty. At the beginning of the year, I was accused of being a ‘Nazi’ after an article I’d written for an Australian magazine in 2015 about the deepening link between IQ and socio-economic status was dug up. My sin was to include a solution to this problem that I labelled ‘progressive eugenics’. It was a million miles away from what is commonly understood by ‘eugenics’, but few people bothered to read the piece. The fact that I’d used the E word was enough to damn me. ‘With his views on eugenics, why does Toby Young still have a job in education?’ thundered Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. A few weeks later I didn’t.
So kudos to the science journalist Philip Ball for daring to venture into this territory. He’s written a long piece in the New Statesman entitled ‘The IQ trap: how the new genetics could transform education’ that, among other things, talks about the rapid progress that has been made in the last 12 months in identifying the genetic markers linked with intelligence via genome-wide association studies (GWAS). These studies, often involving hundreds of thousands of people, aim to identify loci throughout the genome associated with an observed trait, such as the number of years spent in full-time education. This is an exciting development since, until recently, behavioural scientists had to rely on family studies, twin studies and adoption studies to demonstrate that differences in general cognitive ability are linked to genetic differences. Soon they will be able to point to actual genetic variants (tens of thousands of them) that explain more than 10 per cent of the variance in IQ – expected to rise to 30 per cent as the datasets get larger. These findings make it nigh on impossible for anyone to claim that intelligence differences are all to do with nurture and nothing to do with nature. Blank slate fundamentalists are beginning to look more and more like flat-earthers. (To read more, click here.)
According to new research published in Advances in Physiology Education, men tend to significantly overestimate their own intelligence whereas women only marginally overestimate theirs. The architect of this study, Katelyn Cooper, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, believes this helps explain why fewer women embark on PhDs in the life sciences and why there are fewer tenured female professors in STEM fields. She also thinks it partly explains why women are less likely to rise to the top of their chosen professions.
I’m not so sure about that, but first a mea culpa. I used to think I was smarter than my wife. However, after being married to Caroline for more than 16 years I’m finding it harder and harder to cling on to this illusion. For instance, she’s much better than me at Scrabble. I initially told myself she was just lucking out, drawing better tiles than me, but that excuse had a limited shelf-life. I then thought it was because she’d had more practice than me. She had played it with her parents growing up, after all, and knew lots of fiendish little words like Qi. But over time, as I got more practice, that excuse began to fade too. I now refuse to play with her, saying I find Scrabble ‘boring’. That also applies to Boggle and Bananagram and — surprise, surprise — any games that are a test of raw intelligence. (To read more, click here.)
Something very odd occurred at a funeral I attended last week — somebody died. I don’t mean the person who was being buried. They had died a few days earlier, obviously. I mean one of the mourners passed away during the service. That was shocking in its own right, but what made it surreal is that the other mourners carried on as if nothing had happened.
The funeral took place in the deceased’s garden, where her family had arranged for her to be buried, and at the conclusion of the service someone announced that wine and food would be served. The 100 or so people in attendance formed a queue at the kitchen door and started chatting among themselves. Meanwhile, the poor woman who had died was flat out on the grass behind them. (To read more, click here.)
A paper published last week in an academic journal called npj Science of Learning attracted an unusual amount of press attention. It looked at the GCSE results of 4,814 students at three different types of school — comprehensives, private schools and grammars — and found that once you factor in IQ, prior attainment, parental socio-economic status and a range of genetic markers, the type of school has virtually no effect on academic attainment. Less than 1 per cent of the variance in these children’s GCSE results was due to school type.
I should declare an interest, since I was one of several co-authors, along with the distinguished behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin — who first announced his findings about the heritability of GCSE results in The Spectator in 2013 — although I had a very minor role. The researcher who deserves the lion’s share of the credit is Emily Smith-Woolley. (To read more, click here.)
I’m currently in Israel on a press trip organised by Bicom — the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. Bicom does a good job of getting experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to give talks to journalists and I’ve attended a few in their London offices. But this is the first time I’ve been on one of their legendary excursions to the Holy Land, which they organise about six times a year. In essence, you’re given a whistle-stop tour of the country while being briefed at every turn by senior ministers and officials on both sides of the divide. It’s seventh heaven for foreign policy nerds, but I also have another reason for being here, which is to weigh up the pros and cons of emigrating to Israel.
Believe it or not, my entire family is eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return because Caroline’s father is Jewish. And the idea of moving here is genuinely appealing because I’ve been fanatically pro-Israel since falling in love with the place aged 17. I had just failed all my O-levels and was mooning about feeling like an outcast when my father decided to send me to a kibbutz. It turned out to be the perfect antidote to my adolescent funk. (To read more, click here.)
My nine-year-old son Charlie and I are doing a 10-mile walk from QPR’s football stadium to Fulham’s football stadium on Saturday 17th March to raise money for the QPR Tiger Cubs, a team of adults, young people and children with Downs Syndrome. Please make a donation if you can. Link is here. Thanks in advance.
Last Saturday was shaping up to be one of the best days of my life. Freddie, my ten-year-old son, had been chosen by Queens Park Rangers, our football team, as one of five ‘Local Heroes’ to be honoured at half-time — part of the club’s excellent ‘QPR in the Community’ programme. This was on account of his charity work, believe it or not.
After seeing the club’s Game4Grenfell, a pro-celebrity football game organised to raise money for those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, Freddie was inspired to organise a football-and-netball tournament for under-11s at Club des Sports in Acton. With the help of his mother, he managed to raise £3,250 for the same cause. (To read more, click here.)
Amy Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, is a difficult read for anyone who is concerned about the current state of British politics. Chua is an American law professor and her previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was about the effectiveness of the Asian approach to bringing up children. In that book, she praised her own parents for giving her a sense of pride in her Chinese heritage, claiming that one of the reasons Asian-Americans are more successful than other ethnic groups is because they feel that to fail would bring shame on their community. In Political Tribes, she takes a different tack, arguing that the ascendancy of identity politics on the right and the left of American politics is threatening to destroy the Republic.
Before discussing the rise of tribalism in the US, she devotes a chapter to Hugo Chavez’s electoral success in Venezuela and attributes it, in part, to the fact that he wasn’t a member of the country’s light-skinned social and political elite. For years, educated Venezuelans maintained that racism didn’t exist in their country because everyone is a mestizo — mixed blood. However, that ignores the fact that Venezuelans of African and indigenous heritage are, for the most part, poorer and less successful than Venezuelans of European heritage, a form of hierarchy known as sociedad de castas. (To read more, click here.)
For parents of primary school children, the first Thursday in March has got to be the worst day of the year. Even an attendance Nazi like me, who won’t countenance any excuse for keeping a child home from school, would accept that on this occasion a ‘tummy ache’ is a perfectly legitimate reason. Why do I say this? Because the first Thursday of March is World Book Day.
Now, for those of you without children, or whose children went to school before this annual ritual was invented by Unesco in 1995, I should explain that the reason it’s such a colossal bore is because parents are expected to mark the occasion by sending their offspring to school dressed as their favourite fictional character. That might sound harmless enough, but for status-conscious middle-class parents such as Caroline and me it’s a complete nightmare.
The problem begins when your child insists on going to school in a superhero costume, rather than a character from Winnie-the-Pooh or The Wind in the Willows. As the father of three boys, I have had this argument so many times I can recite it in my sleep. Yes, Charlie, I know Superman is cool, but it’s World Book Day, not World Comic Day. No, Freddie, graphic novels don’t count so I’m afraid you can’t go as Batman from The Dark Knight Returns even though it’s technically a ‘book’. Sorry, Ludo, if you wear a Black Panther costume you’ll be accused of ‘cultural appropriation’. (To read more, click here.)