Thursday, November 11, 2021

Burt - 11 plus and falsified research

Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt (1883 - 1971) was Professor of Psychology at UCL and involved in several Government initiatives around the education and social care of young people. He became President of the British Psychological Society in 1946. He knew Francis Galton, who had studied intelligence and was familiar with Galton’s ideas that intelligence along with most other physical and psychological characteristics were biological and inherited. Indeed, he quoted Galton as the progenitor of his ideas and went on to be the consultant that recommended the 11 plus examination in British schools.

Falsified research

On retirement Burt published papers on intelligence based, he claimed, on data from identical twins that found them similar even when reared in different environments. In addition, to falsely claiming to have invented a statistical technique called ‘factor analysis’, stealing it from Charles Spearman, Burt was subsequently discredited for publishing largely in a journal that he himself edited, falsifying, not only the data upon which he based his work, but also co-workers on the research. To be precise, Burt's correlation coefficients on IQs in his twin studies were the same to three decimal places, across articles, despite the fact that new data had been added twice to the sample of twins. Leslie Hearnshaw, Burt’s friend and official biographer, claimed that most of Burt's data after World War II were fraudulent or unreliable.

11 plus

Burt was responsible for the introduction of the standardised 11+ exam in the UK, enshrined in the 1944 Butler Education Act, an examination that still exists in parts of the UK. Pupils sat the test age 10 or 11 to separate those who should proceed to schools and on to Universities. The others, the majority, were sent to technical or secondary modern schools. The 11+ is still used in UK schools to stream children at age 11. 


Stephen Jay Gould’s 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man is only one of many that have criticised IQ research as narrow, subject to reification (turns abstract concepts into concrete realities) and linear ranking, when cognition is, in fact, a complex phenomenon. IQ research has also been criticised for repeatedly confusing correlation with cause, not only in heritability, where it is difficult to untangle nature from nurture, but also when comparing scores in tests with future achievement. The focus on IQ, a search for a single, unitary measure of the mind, is now seen by many as narrow and misleading. Most modern theories of mind have moved on to more sophisticated views of the mind as with different but interrelated cognitive abilities. Gould and others think that this form of essentialism is behind the whole ‘intelligence’ debate.

This is just one of many standardised tests that have become common in education but many believe that tests of this type serve little useful purpose and are unnecessary, even socially divisive. Many argue that standard tests have led to a culture of constant summative testing, which has become a destructive force in education, demotivating and acting as an end-point and filter, rather than a useful mark of success. Narrow academic assessment has become almost an obsession in some countries, fuelled by international pressure from PISA.


Burt’s work and belief in innate intelligence had a profound and lasting effect on British education, from 1944 to the present day, as there are still Grammar schools that use the test to select pupils. 


Gould, S.J. and Gold, S.J., 1996. The mismeasure of man. WW Norton & company.

Burt, C., 1966. The genetic determination of differences in intelligence: A study of monozygotic twins reared together and apart. British Journal of Psychology, 57(1‐2), pp.137-153. Burt, C. (1952). Cyril Burt. In E. G. Boring, H. Werner, H. S. Langfeld, & R. M. Yerkes (Eds.), A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 4, pp. 53–73). Clark University Press.

Burt, C., 1909. Experimental tests of general intelligence. British Journal of Psychology, 3(1), p.94. 

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