The Cyril Burt Affair
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Until his death in 1971, the British educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt was viewed as one of the most significant and influential educational psychologists of his time. Within a year of his death, however, the legitimacy of his research was being questioned. The questions began to turn into accusations, and by 1976 he was officially accused of fabricating data to prove that intelligence was inherited. The publication of Burt's official biography by Leslie Hearnshaw in 1979 seemed to seal Burt's fate by concluding that the charges of fraud were merited. However, the recent work of two independent researchers, Robert Joynson and Ronald Fletcher, has reopened the issue and raised doubts about the accusations of fraud.
Cyril Lodowic Burt, born on March 3, 1883, was a leading figure in psychology during an exciting time when psychology was breaking away from philosophy and becoming a field of its own. Burt's research on factor analysis and the genetics of intelligence was groundbreaking, and helped to pave a new path for psychology. It is his work in these areas that led to the great controversy surrounding his name. Many researchers, including Galton, Pearson, Spearman and L. Thurstone were investigating the use of factor analysis in determining the components of human intelligence. Burt joined the discussion and adapted the new developments in statistical techniques to the study of genetic analysis of intelligence. Burt's most famous work on the genetics of intelligence involved the study of twins. In a series of papers published between 1943 and 1966 Burt concluded that heredity plays a much more prominent role in the development of intellectual ability than does the environment. Due to Burt's acclaimed reputation, his findings impacted both the international academic community and the local educational system within England.
At the time of his death in October of 1971, Cyril Burt was viewed as a esteemed and influential member of his profession. Within months of his death however, the Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin recognized and reported a number of flaws in Burt's research--particularly his research involving monozygotic twins who were reared apart. Although Kamin suspected the data were fraudulent, he did not immediately make a public condemnation of Burt's research; he simply concluded that the data were not worthy of scientific consideration. In 1974, Kamin published The Science and Politics of IQ, which denounced the hereditarian position and contained much criticism of Burt's work with monozygotic twins. Shortly before Kamin published his book, another American psychologist, Arthur Jensen, published a paper which also found fault with Burt's data. Ironically, Jensen was in favor of the hereditarian position. It is interesting that two researchers with radically different professional agendas independently arrived at many of the same conclusions.
The first formal, public accusation of fraud against Cyril Burt came in 1976 from Dr. Oliver Gillie, the medical correspondent to the London Sunday Times. Gillie became suspicious of Burt's work after he read Kamin's The Science and Politics of IQ, and began to investigate. He set out to find two of Burt's research assistants: Miss Margaret Howard and Miss Jane Conway. Despite a thorough search, he was unable to locate either, and was forced to conclude that they were fictitious names. This fact, in conjunction with other findings, led Gillie to conclude that Burt had falsified his data. The article which appeared on the front page of the October 24, 1976 edition of the Times began with these lines
The primary source of concern voiced by both Kamin and Jensen was the suspicious consistency of the correlation coefficients for the intelligence test scores of the monozygotic twins in Burt's studies. In each study Burt reported sum totals for the twins he had studied so far. His original results were published in 1943. In 1955 he added 6 pairs of twins and reported results for a total of 21 sets of twins. Likewise in 1966 he reported the results for a total of 53 pairs. In each study Burt reported correlation coefficients indicating the similarity of intelligence scores for monozygotic twins who were reared apart. A high coefficient would indicate that the twins had similar intelligence scores. Since the twins were reared apart, a high correlation coefficient would also make a strong case for his hereditarian argument. In his studies Burt reported the following coefficients: 1943: r = .770; 1955: r = .771; 1966: r= .771. These correlation coefficients suggested a strong relationship between genetics and intelligence. One would expect to see greater variability among the coefficients when more sets of twins were added.
Other critics later pointed out that it was unlikely that Burt had been able to find so many sets of monozygotic twins reared apart. His 1966 study involving 53 sets of twins was the largest twin study of the time. In 1955, Burt himself commented that it was unusual to find even 21 sets of subjects. Yet only eleven years later he had more than doubled his number of subjects, claiming that society held misconceptions about the frequency with which twins were reared in separate environments. Tucker (1997) examined the numbers of research subjects used in all of the twin studies conducted between 1922 and 1990 and found that no other study came close to having 53 sets of twins that would have satisfied Burt's conditions. The combination of all the twins in all the studies (who fit Burt's criteria) would barely sum to be 53!
It did not take long after the official accusation was made by Gillie in the London Sunday Times for supporters of Burt to come forward. Among the first was H.J. Eysenck, who attacked Gillie's arguments and contended that the evidence provided thus far warranted a charge no stronger than carelessness. Several other supporters came forward, the most effective of whom was a former student of Burt's by the name of J. Cohen. Cohen addressed Gillie's claim that the two research assistants, Miss Howard and Miss Conway, did not exist. Cohen claimed that he remembered Miss Conway.
In the middle of this controversy, Leslie Hearnshaw began writing Burt's official biography. Hearnshaw had great respect for Burt--He had even delivered an address at his memorial service. Hearnshaw was outraged at the accusations, and implored the academic community to delay judgment until he had finished the biography. Hearnshaw did not doubt about Burt's integrity, and intended to clear his name with the book. As Hearnshaw examined Burt's private records, distressing evidence became to accumulate and he was forced to report that the accusations were most likely true.
The conclusions reached by Hearnshaw had a great impact on the academic community, but this was not the end of the debate. In the years since Hearnshaw published Burt's biography, other researchers have investigated the issue and have come out in support of Burt. Two such men are Robert Joynson and Ronald Fletcher. These researchers argue that Burt did not invent any of his twin data. They explain the large increase in the number of subjects by asserting that some of Burt's data had been lost during World War II. After Burt found it, it had taken him a long time to sort it out. They also believe that the research assistants were indeed real people, although it is doubtful that they actually used their real names. Joynson and Fletcher claim that Burt used pseudonyms when publishing, and contend that such behavior, while eccentric, does not constitute a moral or ethical violation.
Since the controversy around Cyril Burt's name is of great importance to the integrity of psychology and other research fields, it has drawn significant attention from the academic community as a whole. Many prominent individuals in psychology and related fields have examined the evidence on both sides, and the conclusions are mixed. Recently, senior fellows of the British Psychological Society campaigned to have Burt's case reheard so that a new verdict can be rendered. The Society agreed to reopen the case, causing some strong reactions on both sides of the debate. For now, Burt's reputation remains sullied, and his story reminds the field of psychology and academia in general of the importance of intellectual honesty.
Gillie, O. (1976, October 24).. Crucial data was faked by eminent psychologist. London: Sunday Times.
Hearnshaw, L. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Joynson, R. B. (1989). The Burt affair. New York: Routledge.
Kamin, L.J. (1974). The science and politics of IQ. Potomac, MD: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Mackintosh, N. J. (1995). Cyril Burt: Fraud or framed? New York: Oxford University Press.
Tucker, W. H. (1997). Re-reconsidering Burt: Beyond a reasonable doubt.
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 33(2) 145-162.
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Last Modified: 20 December 2016