Editor’s Comment – The science and the social

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ECJ Issue 4.1

Social work has always had an uncomfortable relationship with biology. It stems from an ideological difference: social work believes that our understanding of the world is constructed by our relationships, surroundings and environment; biology that our characteristics are innate.

Last month, Boris Johnson waded into the argument saying that economic inequality was inevitable because some people had a higher IQ than others: “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.” Boris has form in making such comments. He was the editor of The Spectator when one of its contributors wrote an article claiming that black people had smaller brains that white people and that Asian people had the most developed brains of all.

Why is this of particular interest to Every Child Journal? The photo we print on our cover has been used countless times to demonstrate the impact of neglect on the brain. As the authors Professors Sue White and Dave Wastell point out in their article, Handle With Care, this photo appeals not because it is scientific but because the image captures the imagination. Indeed, the history of ‘brain science’ from phrenology onwards has been dominated by a desire to represent the brain visually. People want pictures because they simplify understanding. The science behind it may be dodgy, and the politics worse but the appeal is instant.

The picture of the normal and neglected brains was used – as the authors of our article point out – as the cover of Graham Allen’s influential early intervention report in which the ‘infant brain’ is mentioned 59 times. The problem is, say Sue White and Dave Wastell, that the pictures carry a big policy punch but the science is not policy ready. This is particularly interesting because over the last decade the notion of happiness has risen to the forefront of policy making. The central notion of focusing on happiness makes a lot of sense: over the years, as a nation we have become incomparably wealthier, yet there is little evidence that this has made people happier. This conclusion reminds us that wealth is a relative concept: you can only be rich if others are poor.

The traditional problem of happiness as a philosophy is that some consider it to be too subjective a measure to be of value. However, academics such as Richard Layard have argued that we can objectively confirm what people describe as happiness by monitoring reactions in the brain. The appeal to ‘real science’ is the clincher despite the fact that happiness and suffering does not need this kind of empirical objectification - as readers who work with distressed and troubled families will confirm.

So one can understand both the spurious appeal of scientific representation as well as resistance to it. Biology and in particular genetics have such a disturbing history that even discussing them is felt to be a betrayal by some “progressives”. Yet this ideological divide is unhelpful and prevents us from acting on simple and well-evidenced research which tells us, for example, that the youngest children in a school year are more likely to struggle at school. In this edition, we carry an article about the educational impact of being a summer born child which shows that at seven, August-born pupils are 26 percentage points less likely to achieve the government’s expected level than September-born pupils. Even more alarmingly, by the end of Key Stage One, August-born pupils are 90 per cent more likely to have been identified with SEN than September-born pupils, and that’s unlikely to have anything to do with IQ or brain size.

These findings are particularly relevant if we look at research carried out by the LSE Centre for Economic Performance (see this issue's reports). The research, The Importance of Rank Position, argues that boys in particular lose confidence if they slip down the performance ranking in primary schools and suggests that some children would achieve more if they went to a ‘worse’ school in which they were ranked higher. Why boys? Well, according to new research by scientists from the University of Pensylvania, male and female brains are wired differently. The implications for education could be profound, but the science needs to be handled with caution and balanced with an understanding of how we operate as social as well as biological beings.

If there’s one clear message that comes out of this edition of Every Child Journal, it is that helping disadvantaged children is truly a cross disciplinary affair. This is not easy: scientific solutions tend to individual curative approaches. Social interventions tend towards structural responses. Nevertheless, simplistic references to brain-size based on pictorial propaganda won’t help. Unlike London’s mayor and those in thrall to dramatic images of the brain, we must use science wisely and critically, or risk losing sight of the children we work with and the contexts that limit them. Neuroscience may offer radical new insights into how we learn but we must remain as critical of the natural sciences as we are of social sciences. Getting the balance between the science and the social, the individual needs and the structural injustices will help us all.

Tim Linehan

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