Monday, April 11, 2011

Woodhead and Hastings: working class kids are innately less able

Peter Saunders is a social scientist who, if I have understood him correctly, maintains that lower class children are less intelligent, on average, than middle/upper middle class kids, that there's likely to be a genetic basis for this, and that this may well be what accounts for the fact that the children of the middle classes tend to go on to occupy the more prestigious and better paid professions and positions generation after generation. Pace Clegg, we may already have something like a meritocracy operating in this country.

I kind of admire Saunders' bravery. He says what he thinks, rather than pussyfooting about like many rightwingers do on this topic. His post is here.

Saunders was expounded approvingly by Max Hastings in his recent opinion piece in the FT, in which Hastings says much of what Saunders claims is "common sense", in contrast to Nick Clegg's recent comments on the need to improve social mobility.

Chris Woodhead has also expressed the view that middle class children are innately brighter than their working class peers. They have "better genes".

I'd like to see much more research into this topic. I am highly skeptical about Saunders', Woodhead's and Hastings' views, but of course they might be right. It's an empirical question - not one on which I am well-placed to comment. It's certainly a good thing that people like Hastings and Woodhead are saying what I'd guess most of those politically right of centre really think, though rarely have the courage to say. This "common sense" view that Hastings supposes many middle class people share, if don't often vocalize for fear of the opprobrium that will rain down on them, needs dragging into the light. Let's find out if it's true...

Read Saunders' paper and it turns out his argument is merely the perfectly obvious one, which I myself pointed out a while back, that social mobility stats do not establish that we don't have a meritocracy, particularly when, on IQ and other tests, the working classes score lower. The upper middle classes can, and will, just suppose that this shows they have, as Woodhead puts it, "better genes".

My earlier 2008 post complaining that the Woodhead/Hastings type view is widespread, but rarely actually expressed is here.

17 comments:

John said...

Stephen,

I think the key statement Saunders makes is 'In research I have carried out in Britain, I found IQ is three times more important than parental background in predicting the occupational class that people end up in.'

That statement by itself, if true, doesn't say anything about the heredity of intelligence, but it does say something about social mobility in the UK: that brains are more important than the social class you are born into.

Which is good news, if you have brains.

Whether intelligence is hereditary is a separate empirical question, which whilst plausible needs to be addressed separately.

Steven Carr said...

It is well established that poorer areas of the country have a lower life expectancy than better off areas.

Is this due to better genes?

It is also well established that the poorer you are, the worse your diet is, and that both diet and health of the pregnant mother have an effect on the developing baby.

Heredity effects are not well understood.

For example, some things such as tallness could be 100% inherited, yet hugely influenced by environment.

Take a sample of 2 groups, each of which has 2 people in it.

Group A has height of 1.60 and 1.80 m.

Group B has height of 1.85 and 1.90 m.

Suppose tallness is 100% inheritable, so that the tallest people have the tallest children.

Does this mean people in Group A will always be shorter than people in Group B?

The two people in Group A has children who grow to heights of 1.96 and 1.98 m.

The taller parent in Group A had the taller child.


The two people in Group B has children who grow to heights of 1.85 and 1.90 m.

The taller parent in Group B had the taller child.

Variation in tallness is 100% inherited, yet the people in Group A are now taller than the people in Group B.

wombat said...

Why are you _highly_ skeptical about Saunders views? Of course a little skepticism about research findings is almost always warranted but this one does not seem so. If it is seized on by Max Hastings this is unfortunate but does not render it invalid or implausible by itself. The Woodhead "better genes" phrasing may or may not be right but it would seem to be less relevant . If we take it that IQ is in some way correlated to choice of profession and availability of options in that regard, it does not matter whether that IQ arises from nature or nurture. Middle class children are more likely to have both "middle class genes" and middle class upbringing aren't they. A separate and perhaps more important question is "Is there anything in the way in which society works, which leads to either unjustified discrimination or entrenched privilege above and beyond these factors"?

Unless we know what differences arise naturally, any public policy will be acting in ignorance.

Of course that will still not address the debate about whether we should do anything about it or whether the difference can be justified in some other way (divine right of kings etc).

Just a thought, but would an analysis of say Cuba, where presumably the same "class" distinction does not apply, show a similar familial link to profession?

Tom Haward said...

Chicken or the egg springs to mind. I worked with so many young people who were highly intelligent, but unable to move beyond their social constraints. How can you when you are 14 and regularly care for your four year old sister because your mum and step-dad are usually passed out drunk?

But, I do wonder if there is some validity in the theory of genetics influencing 'success'.

Anonymous said...

Similarly, I think inciting discussion is healthy. But such thinking can lead to very difficult consequences...

1. How many previous generations account for a person's 'innate' intelligence? Consider the following: I have a great-great-great..(etc.) grandfather who was a middle-class intellectual in Moscow. But in some crazy revolutions, the proletariat turn over the class system, such that the family exiled and consequently were driven into poverty in England. Ever since, they have been confined to the lower working class positions, working in factories etc. This is until the present day when I manage to demonstrate an intellectual ability which means I have the potential to elevate above the cycle.
Is this because of my genetically sound background from over 200 years ago? Surely we should consider the working class (hence not intelligent) roots of my immediately preceding generations above that? Alternatively it could just be because I have worked hard and secured my own opportunities..

2. Acknowledging that intelligence is innate and thus class contained perhaps leads to a justification of doing nothing to encourage social mobility. Woodhead admits that there are 'rare' occasions when working class kids can do well, and when middle class kids can't emulate their parents. But it could potentially advocate a gross elitism and in turn marginilisation. Because through such thinking, the cutting of EMA is logically justified; it would follow that 'sorting out the deficit has a more resonant influence over the middle classes, and therefore taking away money from the lower classes is okay because they can never academically succeed anyway - they are already genetically deficient' as it were.

3. The way our economy works isn't entirely based on the assumption that intelligence leads to 'higher' professions, which Woodhead implicitly tries to establish. I'm sure that the IQ's of teachers on the whole are much higher than high-flying businessmen, who instead possess a different set of skills; certainly not academic based. Therefore even if we accept what seems to be a massively flawed argument; what does it matter? (I know I'm ignoring the huge figures of working class unemployment, but it's also important to remember the opposite end of the spectrum.)

4. Even when accepting that intelligence is genetic, it doesn't necessarily transfer into an academic success. The system should facilitate working class kids to work as hard as possible to gain academic success. Many of my classmates have been able maintain a perfect academic record through sheer tireless persistence, and consequently are much more successful than those who may be more naturally intelligent but don't put the work in. The reason so many middle class kids are enabled the opportunity to academically succeed is because mummy and daddy buy all their books for them, they don't have to get a part-time job because they're given pocket money and so can consequently spend much more time on schoolwork, and are ultimately reared in an environment which tends to value intelligence more. This shouldn't be ignored.

Anyway love the blog Stephen! First time I've ever commented wahooo

Tom Rees said...

IQ has been improving for many decades now. It has nothing to do with genetics, and everything to do with environment. This observation is so well founded that you should treat anyone making claims that the underprivileged (whether poor, black, or the wrong ethnicity) have lower IQ for genetic reasons not merely with suspicion but with contempt.

Hugo said...

Well of course they are!

IQ is hereditable. I can't remember how hereditable. I can remember that of the hereditability, about 50% is genetically hereditable. Look it up. This is established by very large studies of identical twins separated at birth. The other 50% hereditability is environmental, because people tend to inherit environments as well as genes.

So of course IQ correlates with wealth. As one of your commenters says, "Why 'highly' skeptical?". We need research into exactly how much genetic IQ causes wealth versus how much wealth provides the environment for helping the non-genetic component of IQ. That's skepticism. IQ should be a major area of research in universities across the UK. Why isn't it? People like you. With your "high" skepticism, you're part of the problem, not the solution. You're discouraging debate.

Hugo said...

"I'm sure that the IQ's of teachers on the whole are much higher than high-flying businessmen"

Ha ha, I'm not so sure teachers have particularly high IQs...

"who instead possess a different set of skills; certainly not academic based"

Indeed they do, but IQ is neither business skills nor academic, though it correlates positively with both.

Hugo said...

"Tom Rees said...
IQ has been improving for many decades now. It has nothing to do with genetics, and everything to do with environment. This observation is so well founded"

That's bollocks. The Flynn Effect notwithstanding, it is well established that IQ depends about 50% on genes and 50% on environment. We know this from studies of identical twins separated at birth. Look it up.

Stephen Law said...

Hugo - is the reason there are few black faces in these professions also primarily explained by the fact that black people are innately less able? Or is there a different explanation for that fact?

Tom Rees said...

IQ is partly heritable. Social status is strongly heritable. One of the reasons that social status is so strongly heritable is that it affects your IQ. This is a feedback loop which, when coupled with other factors that act to freeze social status, inhibits social mobility.

Hugo said...

Tom, your reply says nothing to refute my point. We can actually measure how much of the hereditability is due to environment and how much is due to genetics by controlled studies.

You seem to be claiming that the fact that IQ has been improving so quickly in recent decades proves that the improvement is entirely environmental. But (1) that says nothing about the baseline. And (2) given that improvements in IQ during our evolution from apes were genetic, I don't see why one should assume that none of the improvements now are due to evolution. Evolution can be very fast.




"Hugo - is the reason there are few black faces in these professions also primarily explained by the fact that black people are innately less able? Or is there a different explanation for that fact?"

Stephen, there could be several explanations which each contribute a bit to the overall effect. Research could quantify their weightings. In America, average black IQ (self-defining as black) is about 85 -- one standard deviation below the white average of 100. I assume by "innate" you mean "genetic", so we need to work out how much of this is due to genetics (hint: it's not zero) and how much is due to environment.

Stop trying to pin me down as a racist and instead, please make a public declaration calling for research into how much class/wealth/status is to do with genetics.

Steven Carr said...

Does pre-natal development, including the effects of poor diet, have any effect on the IQ of a baby?

Anonymous said...

"Hugo - is the reason there are few black faces in these professions also primarily explained by the fact that black people are innately less able? Or is there a different explanation for that fact?"

Nobody's saying (as you seem to think) "There are fewer working-class kids going into the professions, therefore working-class kids are inherently less able." Rather, the argument is "Intelligence is to a large degree hereditary. We would hence expect the offspring of intelligent people to be, on average, more intelligent than the offspring of less intelligent people. More intelligent people are also likely to get better-paid jobs traditionally seen as 'middle-class'. Therefore, we would expect middle-class kids to be, on average, more intelligent."

Stephen Law said...

Anonymous - that was not what I thought the of Saunders et al argument was.

Saunders is speculating that the working classes having innately less ability might be a or the primary reason why there are comparatively few working class kids making it into those professions. The idea, taken up by Hastings, is that we may already have something like meritocracy, with the most able making it to the top, in which case Clegg et al are making a fuss about nothing.

You might not agree with this, of course.

Stephen Law said...

Hugo

I am quite sure you are not a racist. I was merely checking for consistency in your position.

When asked: why are there so few black faces in the top professions? you answer, (and I quote) "there could be several explanations which each contribute a bit to the overall effect."

Right, in fact racism could well be one of those explanations, couldn't it? It's by no means obviously primarily a result of lack of innate ability.

So presumably you acknowledge that a similar sort of (class) bigotry might be holding back working class people? It's by no means obvious that what holds working class people back is primarily lack of innate ability.

If so, good! Then we are agreed!

BTW you say "please make a public declaration calling for research into how much class/wealth/status is to do with genetics."

In the post I say: "I'd like to see much more research into this topic."

Is that not public enough? Do you want me to write a latter to The Telegraph?

Hugo said...

"So presumably you acknowledge that a similar sort of (class) bigotry might be holding back working class people? It's by no means obvious that what holds working class people back is primarily lack of innate ability.

If so, good! Then we are agreed!"

Yes. But it needs to be quantified.



"BTW you say "please make a public declaration calling for research into how much class/wealth/status is to do with genetics."

In the post I say: "I'd like to see much more research into this topic."

Is that not public enough? Do you want me to write a latter to The Telegraph?"

Apologies; that is quite public enough.