09 October 2006

Politics masquerading as science

A tendentious article in today's Times about a tendentious piece of 'research' by someone at the University of Pennsylvania. The topic: using the relationship between socioeconomic status and IQ to 'prove' that society should do something to stop unfair advantages.

"Poverty seems to run, like an oppressive thread, through the generations" writes journalist Anjana Ahuja. And proof that oppression is to blame, rather than inherited ability, comes in the form of some data which purports to show that

the most robust neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status (SES) were language, memory and cognitive control (such as planning tricky tasks). In other words, low SES children consistently performed worse than middle SES children on tests involving memory, language and task-planning.
Now, depending on your political bias, this data can be interpreted in one of two ways. If you believe in innate ability, it's evidence that facilities for language, memory and cognitive control are inherited. If you don't, or you're looking for a reason to legitimise increases in state intervention and taxation, it's evidence that children benefit unfairly from having high-status parents. Not surprisingly, the academic study in question follows the second model.
Consider that those in good financial health enjoy better physical health — and longer lives — than those lower down the social pecking order. It is not far-fetched to believe that any physiological processes underpinning this disparity may also give rise to differences in the brain. In which case, poverty harms children in a very concrete way — by altering their brains. Professor Farah concludes that “neuroscience may recast the disadvantages of childhood poverty as a bioethical issue rather than merely one of economic opportunity”.
Say, for the sake of argument, that the development of children’s cognitive skills does depend on the environment their parents provide. So middle class parents will tend to provide their children with influences that encourage thought, judgement, good decisions. So what? And why does it make it worse if you can show that the brain develops differently (not surprising, given the connection between mind and brain)? It’s tendentious to talk about an “oppressive thread”. The implication, presumably, is that it’s “unfair”, and that therefore (a dodgy logical move) we should do something about it.
If poverty wrecks the brain, then it is plausible that, generally, poor people make “worse” decisions than rich people. And if they do, do they bear the same level of responsibility for their actions? Is it fair, say, for the NHS to blame cancer-ridden smokers and obese burger-munchers — both disproportionately represented among the impoverished — for their condition?
Ultimately, all attribution of “responsibility” is philosophically questionable, given the scientific model of determinism. Questioning it selectively reflects the political preferences of the questioner. To conclude that neuroscience recasts the disadvantages of childhood poverty “as a bioethical issue” is to step beyond hard data into ideology.