Does no one in public life have a grasp of science ???

15 Oct


The UK press this week has seen a lot of reporting of the views of a Dominic Cummings, a ‘special advisor’ to Michael Gove the Education Secretary. Amongst Cummings views was that 70% of a child’s intelligence is inherited, and thus teaching was not the big influence people think it is. If, for the moment, you ignore the smell of eugenics hanging around this statement it just demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the basic science.

I’m no genetics expert, but the first thing that occurred to me when I read this story was the concept of a ‘environmental multiplier’. This is an idea I first came across in Jim Flynn’s work, and simply says that environmental factors can have a multiplying effect of relatively small genetic advantages. Imagine an eight year old male child who is 20% taller than other children his age in his class. This is undoubtedly a genetic advantage. Now put that child in a suburb of either London or Chicago, and ask yourself which is more likely to result in a world-class basketball player. Clearly the child in Chicago is more likely to grow up to be a world-class basketball player, but no because of his genetic advantage alone but because of the multiplying influence of his environment. THe Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker precisely summed up this idea when he said than money and recipes run in families, but that doesn’t mean they are genetic !

Now, this alone isn’t that interesting a story, in that we have a ‘special advisor’ to government who either doesn’t understand, or is deliberately misinterpreting science for political ends. But, a follow-up to this story today is particularly illuminating.


In Polly Toynbee’s column in todays Guardian she does the right thing about Dominic Cummings ‘70%’ idea, and asks a geneticist if it makes any sense. However, the story runs under the headline ‘…wealth is considerably more heritable than genes’. I understand the Polly Toynbee will not have had any input into the headline of her column, but it is unbelievably depressing that a Guardian sub-editor could write such a clearly ridiculous headline, and that headline could work its way right through the system and get published. Just for a moment try to imaging how anything could be more heritable than genes !!!

All of this adds to my conviction that it is vital that the general public are educated about the basics of science. On a more cheerful note I’m also quite proud of the fact that by the end of my rational thinking course my students will clearly know more about science than the average Guardian sub-editor.

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