Tuesday, April 24, 2018

More on the politics of genes and education

There was never any prospect that my article in New Statesman on genes, intelligence and education would wrap up everything so nicely that there was nothing left to be said. For one thing, aspects of the science are still controversial – I would have liked among other things, to delve more deeply into the difficulties (impossibility, actually) of cleanly separating genetic from environmental influences on intelligence.

I was, I admit, somewhat hard on Toby Young, while wanting to absolve him from some of the kneejerk accusations that have come his way. He is not some swivel-eyed hard-right eugenicist, and indeed if I have given the impression that he is a crude social Darwinist, as Toby thinks I have, then I have given a wrong impression: his position is more nuanced than that. Toby has been rather gracious in his response in The Spectator.

OK, not entirely – but so it goes. I recognize the temptation to construct artificial narratives, and I fear Toby has done so in his discussion of my article in Prospect. I take his remark on my “bravery” in tackling this subject after writing that piece as a backhanded compliment that implies I was brave to return to a subject after I’d screwed up earlier. In fact, my Prospect piece was not primarily about genes and intelligence anyway. Yes, Stuart Ritchie had some criticisms about that particular aspect of it, but these centred on technical arguments about other studies in the field – in other words, on issues that the specialists themselves are arguing about. Other geneticists, including some who work on intelligence, saw and approved my article. To say that I had to “publish some ‘clarifications’” after “a lot of criticism” is misleading to a rather naughty degree. The reader is meant to infer that these are euphemistic ‘clarifications’, i.e. corrections made in response to errors pointed out. Actually I “published” nothing of the sort – what Toby is referring to are merely some comments I posted on my blog in response to the discussion.

As for the link to the criticisms made by Dominic Cummings: well, I recommend you read them. Not because they add anything of substance to the discussion, but because they are a reminder of what this man, who once wielded considerable behind-the-scenes political power and who has had an inordinate influence on the current predicament of the country, is really like. I still find it chilling.

What’s most striking about Toby’s piece, however, is how political it is. I don’t consider that a criticism, but rather, a vindication of one of the central points of my article in New Statesman: that while the science is fairly (if not entirely) clear, what one concludes from it is highly dependent on political leaning.

This includes a tendency to attribute ideas and views to your political opposites simply because of their persuasion. I must acknowledge the possibility that I did so with Toby. He returns the favour here:
“I suspect the popularity of the ‘personalised learning’ recommendation among the experts in this field – as well as Philip Ball – is partly because they don’t want to antagonise their left-wing colleagues.”

Actually I am sceptical about ‘personalized learning’ based on genetic intelligence measures, and said so in the article, since I see no evidence that they could be effective (although I’m open to the possibility that that might change). The aim of my article, Toby decided, was to reassure my fellow liberals that yes, genes do influence intelligence, but really it’ll be OK.

I find this bizarre – but not as bizarre as the view Toby attributes to Charles Murray, who seems to think that the “left” is either going to have a breakdown over genetic influences on traits or, worse, will decide to embrace genetic social engineering, using CRISPR no less, to eradicate innate differences in some sort of Brave New World scenario. If Murray really thinks that, his grasp of the science is as poor as some experts have said it is. And if in his alternative universe he finds a hard-left government trying to do such things anyway, he’ll find me alongside him opposing it.

You see, what we leftists are told we believe is that everyone is a blank slate, equal in all respects, until society kicks in with its prejudices and inequalities. And we denounce anything to the contrary as crypto-fascism. Steven Pinker, who has pushed the ‘blank slate’ as a myth of the left, weighed in on my article by commenting that even left-leaning magazines like New Statesman are now having to face up to the truth, as though my intention were to confess to past leftie sins of omission.

Now, I fully acknowledge that there have been hysterical reactions to ‘sociobiology’ and to suggestions that human traits may be partly genetically hardwired. And these have often come from the left – indeed, sometimes from the Marxian post-modern intellectuals who Pinker regards as the root of so many modern evils. But such denial is plain silly, and I’m not sure that many left-leaning moderates would disagree, or would be somehow too frightened to say so.

The caricatures Toby creates are grotesque. “It’s now just flat out wrong to think that varying levels of ability and success are solely determined by economic and historical forces”, he says. We agree – but does anyone seriously want to argue otherwise?

“That means it’s a dangerous fantasy”, he continues, “to think that, once you’ve eradicated socio-economic inequality, human nature will flatten out accordingly – that you can return to ‘year zero’, as the Khmer Rouge put it. On the contrary, biological differences between human beings will stubbornly refuse to wither away, which means that an egalitarian society can only be maintained by a brutally coercive state that is constantly intervening to ‘correct’ the inequities of nature.”

But most of us who would like to see an “egalitarian society” don’t mean by that a society in which absolute equality is imposed by the jackboot. We just want to see, for example, fewer people struggle against the inequalities they are born into, while others rise to power and influence on the back of their privileged background. We want to see less tolerance of, and even encouragement of, naked greed that exploits the powerless. We want to see more equality of opportunity. I think we accept that there can never be equality of outcome, at least without unjustified coercion. But we would also like to see reward more closely tied to contribution to society, not simply to what you can get away with. And in fact, while we will differ in degree and probably in methodology, I suspect that in these aspirations we liberal lefties are not so different from Toby Young.

In fact, evidently we do agree on this much:
“The findings of evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists, cognitive neuroscientists, biosocial criminologists, and so on, [don’t] inevitably lead to Alan Ryan’s ‘apocalyptic conservatism’. On the contrary, I think they’re compatible with a wide range of political arrangements, including – at a pinch – Scandinavian social democracy.”

Which is why it’s baffling to me why Toby thinks we “progressive liberals” should be so disconcerted by the findings of genetics. Disconcerted by the discovery that traits, like height, are partly innate? Disconcerted that a society that tries to impose complete equality of ability on everyone will be a Stalinist dystopia? The implication here seems to be that science has disproved our leftwing delusions, and we’d better face up to that. But all it has ‘disproved’ is some wild, extreme fantasies and some straw men.

Such comments only reinforce my view that all this politicization of the debate gets in the way of actually moving it on. In my experience, the reason many educators and educationalists are not terribly enchanted with studies of the genetic basis of intelligence is not because they think it is some foul plot but because they don’t see it as terribly relevant. It doesn’t help them do their job any better. Now, if that leads them to actually deny the role of genes in intelligence, then they’re barking up the wrong tree. But I think many see it merely as a distraction from the business of trying to improve education. After all, so far genetics has offered next to no suggestions about how to do that – as I said in my article, pretty much all the sensible recommendations that Robert Plomin and Kathryn Asbury make in their book could have been made without the benefit of genetic studies.

Now, one way to read the implications of those studies is that there actually isn’t much that educationalists can do. Take the recent paper by Plomin and colleagues claiming that schools make virtually no additional contribution to outcomes beyond the innate cognitive abilities of their student intake. This is a very interesting finding, but there needs to be careful discussion about what it means. So we shouldn’t worry at all about Ofsted reports of “failing” schools? I doubt if anyone would conclude that, but then how is a school influencing outcomes? When a new head arrives and turns a school around, what has happened? Has the new head somehow just managed to alter the IQ distribution of the intake? I don’t know the answers to these things.

The authors of that paper are not so unwise as to conclude that (presumably beyond some minimal level of competence) “teaching makes no difference to outcomes”. But you can imagine others drawing that conclusion, and then should understand if some teachers and educators express frustration with this sort of thing. For one thing, the differences teaching and teachers make are not always going to be registered in exam results. As things stood, I was always going to get A’s in my chemistry A levels – but it was the enthusiasm and advocacy of Dr McCarthy and Mr Heasman that inspired me to study the subject at university. I was probably always going to get an A in my English O level, but it was Ms Priske who encouraged me to read Mervyn Peake.

All too often, however, the position of right-leaning commentators on the matter can read like laissez-faire: tinker all you like but it’s not going to make much difference, because you well-meaning liberals are just going to have to accept that some pupils are smarter than others. (So why are Conservative education ministers so keen to keep buggering about with the curriculum?) And if you do manage to level the playing field, you’ll see that even more clearly. And then where will you be, eh, with all your Maoist visions?

I don’t think they really do think like this; at least I don’t think Toby does. I certainly hope not. But that’s why both sides have to stop any posturing about the facts, and get on with figuring out what to make of them. We already know not all kids will do equally well in exams, come what may. But how do we find those who could do better, given the right circumstances? How do we find ways of engaging those pupils with ability but not inclination? How do we find ways of helping those of lower academic ability feel fulfilled rather than discarded in the bottom set? How do we decide, for God’s sake, what is important in an education anyway? These are the kinds of hard questions that teachers and educators have to face every day, and it would be good to see if the knowledge we’re gaining about inherent cognitive abilities could be useful to them, rather than turning it into a political football.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The thousand-year song

In February I had the pleasure of meeting Jem Finer, the founder of the Longplayer project, to discuss the “music of the future” at this event in London. It seemed a perfect subject for my latest column for Sapere magazine on music cognition, where it will appear in Italian. Here it is in English.

Most people will have experienced music that seemed to go on forever, and usually that’s not a good thing. But Longplayer, a composition by British musician Jem Finer, a founder member of the band The Pogues, really does. It’s a piece conceived on a geological timescale, lasting for a thousand years. So far, only 18 of them have been performed – but the performance is ongoing even as you read this. It began at the turn of the new millennium and will end on 31 December 2999. Longplayer can be heard online and at various listening posts around the world, the most evocative being a Victorian lighthouse in London’s docklands.

Longplayer is scored for a set of Tibetan singing bowls, each of which sounds in a repeating pattern determined by a mathematical algorithm that will not repeat any combination exactly until one thousand years have passed. The parts interweave in complex, constantly shifting ways, not unlike compositions such as Steve Reich’s Piano Phase in which repeating patterns move in and out of step. Right now Longplayer sounds rather serene and meditative, but Finer says that there are going to be pretty chaotic, discordant passages ahead, lasting for decades at a time – albeit not in his or my lifetime.

The visual score of Longplayer. (Image: Jem Finer/Longplayer Foundation)

An installation of Tibetan prayer bowls used for Longplayer at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London Docks. (Photo: James Whitaker)

One way to regard Longplayer is as a kind of conceptual artwork, taking with a pinch of salt the idea that it will be playing in a century’s time, let alone a millennium. Finer, though, has careful plans for how to sustain the piece into the indefinite future in the face of technological and social change. There’s no doubt that performance is a strong feature of the project: live events playing part of the piece have been rather beautiful, the instruments arrayed in concentric circles that reflect both the score itself and the sense of planetary orbits unfurling in slow, dignified synchrony.

But if this all seems ritualistic, so is a great deal of music. I do think Longplayer is a serious musical adventure, not least in how it both emphasizes and challenges the central cognitive process involved in listening: our perception of pattern and regularity. Those are the building blocks of this piece, and yet they take place mostly beyond the scope of an individual’s perception, forcing us – as perhaps the pointillistic dissonance of Pierre Boulez’s total serialism does – to find new ways of listening.

More than this, though, Longplayer connects to the persistence of music through the “deep time” of humanity, offering a message of determination and hope. Tectonic plates may shift, the climate may change, we might even reinvent ourselves – but we will do our best to ensure that this expression of ourselves will endure.

A live performance of part of Longplayer at the Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, in 2010. (Photo: Stephen Hill)