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.


logarhythm said...

guy, you stink of upper class conservative angst. Its a bit rich having someone like you pissing and moaning when neo-liberal ideology is sweeping the world and washing away all the gains progressives have made in the last 45 years.

Fabian Tassano said...

Ah, the old ‘right-wing hegemony’ fantasy. Never mind that state intervention has increased in the last twenty years in every Western nation. The fact that most people admit there are advantages to trade is supposed to proves that free market philosophy is “sweeping the world”. Anyway, neoliberalism is a stupid term IMO, it’s too fuzzy to be much use given that both Thatcher and Amartya Sen are ‘neoliberals’ (according to Wikipedia). BTW, I'm not "upper class", and how about revealing your own socioeconomic status before throwing around class warfare cliches.

logarhythm said...

You seriously doubt the WTO, IMF and world bank amount to rightwing hedgemony? Virtually every municipal law of every WTO member is now subordinate to the WTO DSM. This includes all previously negotiated bi and multilateral agreements on ANYTHING. That sir is a rightwing freemarket ideology consuming the world.

Fabian Tassano said...

I don’t know which countries you’re talking about - I’m talking about UK, US, Germany etc. I’m not aware of the WTO having a significant influence on our municipal laws. The WTO is supposed to ensure free trade between members, and is a voluntary community of countries. I’m not an expert on it, and for all I know it doesn’t do a great job and may well be biased in favour of larger countries. But all this has very little do with the issue of Western governments increasingly intervening in the lives of its own citizens (education, medicine, childcare etc.), or with ‘liberal’ (i.e. pro-state) bias in most Western cultural institutions. Neither of which could be called neo-liberal.

Faust said...

don't forget that the environment that heavily influences a child's cognitive functions is HEAVILY guided by economics not just upbringing. a poorly fed brain will suffer, and thus poverty runs in a cycle.

Fabian Tassano said...

Not sure I understand your point. I'm not denying that environment (whether parental care or nutrition) has an effect, though the big question is how much.

I was trying to convey two things here. 1) You cannot have a meaningful discussion about this issue unless you include heritability as one factor. To present data about the link between social class and IQ without doing so is simply propaganda.

(2) Even if there's a large environmental effect, we can't leap from that to "the government should interfere". This has become the kneejerk response to any problem or misfortune, which is why research such as this is so tendentious. There's an interesting spiked article on the issue of seeing the state as the curer of all ills, see http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2050/