Bad Argument of the Week VI

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Politics and science do not really make for the best bedfellows. To put it bluntly, one of these disciplines relies on people admitting their mistakes, refining their ideas and changing their positions in light of evidence, and the other is politics.

Evidence based policy was a term that came to the fore when Labour powered to victory in 1997, with a philosophy of “what matters is what works” – which was all well and good, until it became apparent that (much like previous governments) what was supposed to ‘work’ was what was in their policies, and the scientist’s job was to prove that. Less evidence based policy, and more policy based evidence.

Recently, the “quiet man” of the Tories, Iain Duncan Smith, has made a bit of a howler scientifically, by claiming that children who “witness a lot of abuse”, or whose mothers have “different, multiple partners” will have brains that develop at a “quite different” rate from other children. Now, these are perhaps signs of unstable childhoods, and there has been observed a link between witnessing domestic abuse and future violence – but Duncan Smith’s claim that the brains of these children “develop at a different rate”, and the rather odd and ridiculous claim that their brains are in fact smaller, is at odds with the research he appears to have so woefully misunderstood.

Dr Perry, who runs the respected Child Trauma Academy in Texas, and whose research the quiet man spoke of, said Duncan Smith had “greatly misrepresented” and “distorted” his work. His research assessed the brain development of children who suffered extreme forms of neglect – such as those locked in a basement without human contact – and he said it was wrong to apply the findings to children who have undergone far less severe neglect, such as those from broken homes.

Iain Duncan Smith however went further, claiming that poverty was linked to crime:

In a private speech last week to his thinktank, the Centre for Social Justice, Duncan Smith said neuroscientists had identified “physical signs” of neglect that could indicate a child’s likelihood to commit crime in later life, including “the scale and size and capacity of their brains to be able to deal with challenges”.

Dr Perry, when he saw a transcript of Duncan Smith’s comments, concluded that they were an “oversimplification” that “greatly misrepresents the way we would explain the impact of neglect or trauma on the developing brain”. He added: “to oversimplify this way is, essentially, to distort”.

“I do believe that overstating and misunderstanding the neurobiology can lead to confusion, anger, distortion and potentially to bad policy,” he said, adding that the claims appeared to be “a terrible distraction from the important issues related to the need to create family friendly, and developmentally informed policy that is aware and informed about the importance of early childhood and brain development”.

So we award this week’s bad argument award to Iain Duncan Smith for misunderstanding that evidence based policy should mean you base policies on evidence, not interpret evidence in light of policy. His prize, should he wish to claim it, will be a copy of “Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain“, edited by Sergio Della Sala, which should put him right on a few things.

Unfortunately, it’s not just IDS who misunderstands and misrepresents science in politics. A lack of understanding of evidence and the scientific method seems endemic among our political representation. But are all MPs that bad? How do we know who is good on science, and who is among the woefully woeful?

One way would be to check out Science vote, the blog and twitter hashtag, and Skeptical voter who are aiming to make science an election issue (important with the looming threat of cuts) and discover which MPs are good on science and skeptical issues, and which are, well, bad.

We encourage you to do both before the time comes to hit the polling booths in May!