Low quality journalism from Prospect on the sensitive subject of genes and IQ

Prospect has published a big piece on genes that also goes into the controversy surrounding my essay last year (non-paywall version HERE). The author is someone called Philip Ball.

It is not as misleading as much media coverage was. After all, Polly Toynbee wrote ‘wealth is more heritable than genes’ and the Guardian put it in the headline even though it is pure gobbledegook (the word ‘heritable’ has a technical meaning that renders Polly’s argument meaningless). Even a genuine expert, Professor Steve Jones, made the unfortunate mistake of believing what he read in the media and had to retract comments.

However, the Prospect piece is substantially misleading. It is unprofessional journalism, riddled with errors, on a subject that senior people at Prospect ought to take seriously, given the proven potential for such articles to cause trouble on such a sensitive subject.

As an actual expert on this field (@StuartJRitchie) tweeted after reading it, it’s ‘one of those articles proving that a small amount of genetics knowledge is dangerous’.

A few examples regarding me…

The author writes:

‘A real problem with Cummings’ comments was not that they attribute some of our characteristics to our genes but that they gave the impression of genetics as a fait accompli – if you don’t have the right genes, nothing much will help. This goes against the now accepted consensus that genes exert their effects in interaction with their environment. While IQ is often quoted as being about 50% inheritable, the association with genetics much weaker in children from poor backgrounds: good genes won’t help you much if the circumstances are against it.’

In fact, I explicitly argued against the ‘impression’ he asserts I gave and discuss the lower heritability numbers for poorer children. The implication that I oppose the view that ‘genes exert their effects in interaction with their environment’ is simply ludicrous.

He writes, ‘But if he [Cummings] were to look a little more deeply into what it has already discovered (and sometimes un-discovered again), he might wonder what it offers education policy.’ He then discusses the issue of ‘false positives’ – which I discussed.

He then writes, ‘So it’s not clear, pace Cummings, what this kind of study adds to the conventional view that some kids are more academically able than others. It’s not clear why it should alter the goal of helping all children achieve what they can, to the best of their ability.’

I not only did not make the argument he implies I did – i.e. we should ‘alter the goal of helping all children…’ – I actually explicitly argued that this would be the WRONG conclusion!

He also makes errors in the bits that do not discuss me but I’ll leave experts to answer those.

It is hard to decide whether the author is being dishonest or incompetent. I strongly suspect that like many other journalists, Ball did not read my essay but only other media coverage of it.

Either way, Prospect should do a much better job on such sensitive subjects if it wants to brand itself as ‘the leading magazine of ideas’.

If Ball or anybody else at Prospect wants to understand the errors regarding my essay in detail, then look at THIS LINK between pages 49-51, 72-74, 194-203.

Prospect should insist that the author removes the factually wrong assertions that Ball makes regarding my essay as they will otherwise ripple on through other pieces, as previously wrong pieces have rippled into Ball’s.

For any hacks reading this, please note – the world’s foremost expert on the subject of IQ/genes is Professor Robert Plomin and he has stated on the record that in my essay I summarised the state of our scientific knowledge in this field accurately. This knowledge is uncomfortable for many but that is all the more reason for publications such as Prospect to tread carefully – my advice to them would be ‘do not publish journalism on this subject without having it checked by a genuine expert’.

If you want to understand the cutting edge of thinking on this subject, then do not read my essay but read this recent paper by Steve Hsu, a physics professor who is also working with BGI on large scale scans of the genome to discover the genes which account for a significant fraction of the total population variation in g/IQ: ‘On the genetic architecture of intelligence and other quantitative traits‘. Hsu is continuing the long tradition of mathematicians and physicists invading other spheres and bringing advanced mathematical tools that take time to percolate (cf. his recent paper ‘Applying compressed sensing to genome-wide association studies‘ which applies very advanced maths used in physics to genetic studies).

Or call Plomin, he’s at King’s. Do not trust Prospect on such issues unless there is evidence of a more scientific attitude from them.


UPDATE. Ball has replied to this blog HERE. His blog makes clear that he actually decided to go through my essay after reading this blog, not before writing his piece. He wriggles around a semi-admission of a cockup with ‘The point here is not that Cummings doesn’t want all children to achieve what they can – I genuinely believe he does want that’  – why did you imply the opposite then? – instead of simply apologising for his wrong claim.

He also makes a reference to ‘Gove’s expenses’ – something that has zero to do with the subject in any way. It is generally fruitless to comment on people’s motives so I won’t speculate on why he chucks this in.

Overall, he doesn’t quite admit he boobed in claiming I made various arguments when I actually said the opposite. He ignores his errors or obfuscates and introduces new errors.

For example, he quotes a paper ‘by a professor of education’ (NB. Ball, this does not make it sound more authoritative) saying, ‘Social class remains the strongest predictor of educational achievement in the UK.’

Ball says this view is ‘fairly well established’. There is no doubt that this represents the conventional wisdom of MPs, civil servants, journalists, and academics in fields such as sociology and education.

It is not, however, true.

‘General cognitive ability (g) predicts key social outcomes such as educational and occupational levels far better than any other trait.’ This is from the gold standard textbook, Behavioral Genetics by Robert Plomin (p. 186). This is not exactly surprising in itself, but it is an important point given much elite debate is based on assuming the opposite.

Ball – to see the point, ask yourself this… Look at a standard family, husband / wife / two kids. One child goes on to be a professor of physics, his brother goes on to dig ditches. They have the same social class. Why the difference? Social class is useless in explaining this because the kids share social class. This does not mean that ‘class is irrelevant’ but that its predictive power is limited, and g/IQ has stronger predictive power. (NB. everything about heritability involves population statistics, not individuals – to put the point crudely, if you smash an individual over the head with a bat, the effect of genes on performance will fall to zero, hence the unsurprising but important finding that heritability estimates are lower for very deprived children.) There is a vast literature on all this and my essay has a lot of references / links. E.g. this recent Plomin paper HERE.

One of the problems in discussions of this subject is that journalists are programmed to quote sociologists and ‘professors of education’ who often have no understanding of genetics and, often, none of the mathematical training required to understand the technical concepts.

So some further free advice to Ball and his editors at Prospect – do not rely on sociologists and ‘professors of education’ when it comes to issues like ‘social mobility’ – in my experience they are almost never even aware of the established findings in genetics. As Plomin says, ‘There is a wide gap between what laypeople (including scientists in other fields) believe and what experts believe’ (p.187).

Ball then quotes from my essay: ‘Raising school performance of poorer children is an inherently worthwhile thing to try to do but it would not necessarily lower parent-offspring correlations (nor change heritability estimates). When people look at the gaps between rich and poor children that already exist at a young age (3-5), they almost universally assume that these differences are because of environmental reasons (‘privileges of wealth’) and ignore genetics.’

And Ball comments: ‘So what is Cummings implying here, if not that the differences in school performance between rich and poor children might be, at least in large part, genetic? That the poor are, in other words, a genetic underclass as far as academic achievement is concerned – that they are poor presumably because they are not very bright?…  Cummings does not say that we should give up on the poor simply because they are genetically disadvantaged in the IQ stakes – but comments like the one above surely give a message that neither better education nor less social disadvantage will make an awful lot of difference to academic outcomes.’

Ah, so after claiming that I said X when I actually said ‘not X’, Ball clutches at the the old ‘you believe in a genetic underclass’ gag! He still has not read what I wrote about the ability of schools to improve radically and he misses the point about what the first part of my quote means. I was making the point that Plomin made to the Commons Education Committee (though I do not think they understood what he meant) – if you improve the education system such that poorer children get better schooling (as we should do), you are reducing environmental reasons for the variation in performance, and therefore if you imagine a perfect school system (other things being equal) heritability would rise because if you remove environmental factors then the remaining genetic factors would grow in importance. This is a counterintuitive conclusion and the first time Plomin explained it to me I had to ask a few dumb questions to see whether I understood the point properly. I can see why Ball would miss the point and I should have expressed it better by simply quoting Plomin.

On the issue of the search for the genes accountable for the population variation in g/IQ, Ball seems unaware of various aspects of current scholarship, e.g. the search for genes associated with height. If he reads the Hsu paper linked above, he will see what I mean.

This tedious exchange is even more of a waste of time than usual because the real science has become so clear. As Plomin says, the GWAS are the ‘beginning of the end’ of the long argument about ‘nature v nurture’ because ‘it is much more difficult to dispute results based on DNA data than it is to quibble about twin and adoptee studies’ (emphasis added). In 2011, a GWAS confirmed the rough numbers from the twin/adoption studies for IQ (‘Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic’, Nature, October 2011). This will eventually sink in but this field is an interesting example of how the more educated people are the more likely they are to believe false ideas than uneducated people are.

Contra the claims of Ball and others, I have never argued that there is some link between understanding genes/IQ and ‘writing off’ people as a ‘genetic underclass’. If these people actually read what I wrote instead of relying on other hacks’ wrong stories, they would see I made the opposite argument:

‘Far from being a reason to be pessimistic, or to think that ‘schools and education don’t matter, nature will out’, the scientific exploration of intelligence and learning is not only a good in itself but will help us design education policy more wisely (it may motivate people to spend more on the education of the less fortunate). One can both listen to basic science on genetics and regard as a priority the improvement of state schools; accepting we are evolved creatures does not mean ‘giving up on the less fortunate’ (the fear of some on the Left) or ‘giving up on personal responsibility’ (the fear of some on the Right).’ (From my essay, p. 74.)

Next time, Ball, do your research BEFORE you write your column – and leave out dumb comments about ‘Gove’s expenses’ that are more suitable for a dopey spin doctor than a ‘science writer’. And Prospect – raise your game if you’re going to brand yourself ‘the leading magazine of ideas’!

UPDATE (17/11). Interestingly, the prominent Socialist Workers Party supporter Michael Rosen has written a comment below Ball’s blog. It is bilge – totally irreconcilable with established findings in behavioural genetics. As Stuart Richie, an actual expert on genetics, wrote, Rosen’s comment ‘is one of the most poorly-informed things I’ve ever read on IQ.’

Ball replied to Rosen,  ‘I agree completely with your comments on traditionally limited views of what intelligence is, and how to nurture it. So thanks for that.’

So Ball takes seriously comments by Rosen that are spectacularly ill-informed. How seriously should we take Ball as ‘a science writer’ on this subject?

Hsu also points out in comments the issue about finding ‘causal variants’ for polygenetic traits such as IQ or height – something it seems clear Ball did not research before writing his misconceived piece.

As S Richie wrote to Ball, ‘It’s a shame that you didn’t properly research this area before stating a tentative, unclear, and possibly nation-dependent finding from a single, small study as absolute fact. Perhaps this sort of sloppiness is one reason people familiar with the science get ‘touchy’ when they read your articles.’

In a further blog, HERE, Ball goes down another rabbit hole. He does not even try to answer the points I make above re his obvious errors. S Richie explains underneath the blog how Ball has introduced even more errors.

Prospect has no credibility in this area if it stands by such sloppy work, and Ball should reflect on the ethics of making claims about what people think that are 180 degrees off what they actually say – but it doesn’t look like he will. Time to re-read Feynman’s famous speech on ‘Cargo Cult Science’, Ball…

12 thoughts on “Low quality journalism from Prospect on the sensitive subject of genes and IQ

  1. A family in which one brother is a professor and the other a labourer? You think that is a standard family? You might just have exploded your own argument. How many middle class families have children in low status low income jobs such as carers or labouring?


    • I’m using an extreme example to make a point. Lots of middle class families have thick kids who can’t get jobs as good as their parents’, though IQ and wealth are correlated – I can’t remember the figure but it’s in RP’s textbook. My point about the predictive power of IQ is one of the most clearly established findings in behavioural genetics.
      Best wishes


  2. The ‘someone called Phili Ball’ you refer to and repeatedly try to downplay and insult is one of the finest science writers of his generation. Perhaps you may not like hearing opinions that differ from your own, but he is very far away from the sort of sloppy journalist you accuse him of being. He has years of experience working as an editor at Nature, for a start. Your scientific credentials, frankly, are non-existent. So well done for taking an interest in these things, but seriously, you’re out of your depth.

    I fully agree. A small amount of genetics knowledge really can be dangerous.


    • I’m not trying to insult anyone, I’m just pointing out that he makes various claims and implications regarding my views which are the opposite of what I actually wrote. I don’t think it is an ‘insult’ to point this out. I don’t mind in the slightest hearing opinions different from my own – in fact I usually enjoy it as I don’t know very much about anything. My scientific credentials are indeed ‘non-existent’ as you say but that is not the point.

      1. He is clearly wrong in his claims re my views as you can easily establish simply by reading my essay.

      2. He obviously did not do his research properly, OR he decided to give his piece a spin. I don’t know which. Lobbing in references to Gove’s expenses is not the sort of thing ‘the finest science writers of his generation’ should be doing!

      3. I was not making my own argument – I was very deliberately NOT making my own argument, because, as you point out, I have no academic credentials that would justify having my own opinion on the issue. In my essay, I was simply trying to summarise the state of knowledge among the foremost experts in the field. The number one guy has said I did that accurately, so my point is not ‘I am right’ but a) ‘I summarised the state of our knowledge accurately’, b) I did not make the various claims that Ball says I did.

      4. You and Ball may not like the fact that g/IQ is a better predictor than social class – it is a troubling fact for many people, which is why there is so much reluctance to listen to the science on the subject and so much psychological desire to listen to ‘professors of education’ et al who do not understand the science. The predictive power of g/IQ is NOT a reason to give up hope in education, as I have repeatedly said.

      Best wishes



  3. All true, Dominic. And well argued. The reason you need to defend yourself is obvious – the view that academic performance is significantly inheritable is unfashionable.
    But, and I wonder if your reluctance to embrace the logical conclusion of your argument is because one hardly dare say it, what are the other factors and, particularly, how much influence does the education system have?
    All the evidence is that the education system has little influence. Sure Start, early nursery education, we know have no effect. Close analysis of secondary school added value figures show that the academy programme has had very limited effect, apart from in attracting better cohorts to the early academies.
    Nor has the governmental strategy of screaming at teachers to improve had any obvious effect.
    Instead centrally directed curriculum planning produced a curriculum which is too fast for some and far too shallow and slow for others. Those with practical skills are required to follow a grammar school curriculum and so we import our plumbers from Poland. The academically able must follow a course that has been made inappropriate for them because it has been dumbed down to be ‘accessible’ for all.


  4. Pingback: Genetics and education policy | EVOLVING ECONOMICS

  5. Dom,
    I won’t pretend to follow all the detail, but I sympathise with your frustration. The same happens in most fields. Those things on which I am expert are written up remarkably badly in the press, routinely at all levels of journalism, and our political masters are clueless. There is something about being in the political/journalistic bubble full time and not being exposed to the “real world” much that leads to this. And the general lack of respect for people with substance. And to be frank the handing out of professorships and other badges of rank on the wrong basis, much like your analysis of who gets promoted in the civil service.
    As for imagining a world where we learn these things and use it to design a better education system I don’t get it. The best design can only come from individual parents making many more of their own decisions, and having buying power. Empowering the wisdom of individuals close to individual decisions will be more dramatic a force for the good than any amount of new scientific understanding and follow on centrally designed approach.
    My five year old is being taught phonics despite the fact he can already read complex texts designed for ten year olds. He is being taught by a 21 year old teacher who has led a very sheltered life. He is in a school of almost entirely female staff who have no clue about the subjects that turn him on, and in which he is already a master’s degree standard researcher, trains and so on, and I mean this seriously. Indeed I would say apart from the social interaction aspects he gets nothing out of school at all. Is this really the best we can do?
    As for nurture in this country living in a sink postcode and being allocated a sink school is a big problem no matter how clever you are intrinsically, or how good your family nurture is, and being thick but getting a good school people can and do get on very well as many examples show. I guess the intrinsically clever kids suffering the sink schools in the past would have ended up pit deputies, or similar, and found an alternate path, sadly those routes are now rare.
    Indeed the way we force people who need the housing subsidy associated with social housing to stay put when all of the local employers shut, and not move as most would otherwise, self generates sink estates as the most able escape and those unable to escape huddle together. And in such circumstances in many ways sink schools emerging is kinda inevitable. Those estates built originally to support mine workforces, shipyard workforces, steel works, and so on, are really sad now, those estates were decent hard working communities in living memory, sure the local schools were rubbish, but the local mines and shipyards etc took on the responsibility for really educating them. And they were a happy contributing community. The state itself has manipulated things so that those same areas are now no hope areas, with terrible schools, no jobs within travelling distance, and so on, and none of the IDS nonsense would fix that even if he had a clue how to deliver any of it.
    I like your honesty, I wonder how to get our system to face up to some home truths though, I don’t see it happening any time soon.


    • Thanks for link but unfortunately this author makes various errors and misunderstands what I was saying.

      Plomin is the main expert on all this and he said when this controversy blew up that I summarised the state of the science accurately in my essay, which is all I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to give my own ‘views’ on the subject – it is a technical field requiring specialist understanding that I do not remotely have.

      I won’t go into the ins and outs of why this blog is wrong though, life’s too short to comment on all the blogs that are confused on heritability/IQ.



  6. It seems that Phillip Ball has done some more studying on genes and IQ, as he now appears to have accepted that you and Professor Plomin are essentially correct.

    In his note published on March 16, 2016 in Prospect, “There is no intelligence gene… singular: IQ is genetically inherited. It’s best for children—and parents—that we admit it”, Ball agrees with Stuart Ritchie that Oliver James book espousing genes/IQ denialism is total rubbish.

    Ball- “Psychologist Oliver James’s claim, in his new book Not In Your Genes, that personality traits such as intelligence are not genetically inherited has been widely and rightly denounced by scientists. It is flatly contradicted by an abundance of hard data, which shows for example that IQ may have as much as 80% of an inherited component. To suggest otherwise amounts to scientific denialism.”



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