Cyril Burt

Burt, Cyril (1883-1971), a British psychologist, made important contributions in the areas of statistical analysis, intelligence testing, and juvenile delinquency. For a period of about 20 years, from 1930 to 1950, he was a prominent and influential psychologist. Following Burt's death, there were accusations that he had falsified data, and as a result, much of his later work has been discredited.

A leader in the field of educational psychology, Burt was the first British psychologist to receive an appointment with an educational authority. He established guidance centers to help disadvantaged children. He designed and standardized mental tests to measure intelligence. In the 1930's, he made major contributions in the area of factor analysis, a statistical method designed to identify basic dimensions or factors that underlie the relationships among a large group of variable measurements. A prolific writer, he published a dozen books and over 300 papers. His last book dealt with studies he had conducted on the effect of different typographic features in children's books.

Burt spent much of his career trying to understand the link between heredity and intelligence. He believed that hereditary factors accounted for 85 percent of intelligence and developed a study of twins reared apart to prove it. The papers Burt published on the topic were rarely questioned while he was alive, but shortly after his death, colleagues reviewing his work became suspicious of the study's data. In 1976, a medical journalist formally accused Burt of falsifying data, and a few years later, a biographer reached the same conclusion. In response, the British Psychological Society pronounced Burt a scientific fraud. But this failed to end the matter, as over the years, other experts came to Burt's defense, countering the allegations leveled against him and partially restoring his reputation. With neither side able to make a definitive case, Burt's work continues to be controversial and the subject of numerous books and journal articles.

Burt was the oldest child born to Cyril Cecil Barrow Burt and Martha Evans. Burt's father was a physician with a general practice in Snitterfield, Warwickshire. As a child, Burt became acquainted with one of his father's patients, Francis Galton, a British scientist. This association would have a profound influence on Burt, as Galton was studying the role that heredity played in intelligence, a topic that interested Burt as well. Galton was a pioneer in trying to understand intelligence, which he thought could be measured by testing people's vision, hearing, and physical strength.

Burt was educated at King's School, Warwick, and Christ's Hospital in London. He then entered Jesus College, Oxford University, to study classics and philosophy. At Oxford, he attended lectures given by William McDougall, a reader in mental philosophy. As the school's only psychologist, it was McDougall who sparked Burt's interest in psychology. In 1903, Burt founded a guidance clinic for children, the first of its kind in England. Three years later, he received his D.Sc. degree. In 1907, through the influence of McDougall, Burt was asked to help on several projects undertaken by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. One of the projects was a survey to measure the size and proportions of the human body. The other was an assessment of psychological tests that the association wanted to standardize. While working on these projects, Burt met Charles Spearman, a reader in experimental psychology at University College, London.

Like Galton, Spearman was trying to understand human intelligence. Spearman, a statistician, was the first person to propose that intelligence could be measured statistically. A few years earlier, he had announced that he had found a way to objectively measure the factor of general intelligence, what he called g. He said that intelligence had two underlying abilities, a general ability common to all tasks requiring intelligence and a specific ability that varied from task to task. Spearman was especially interested in the general ability, because it suggested to him that intelligence among people could be determined on the basis of a single factor.

In 1907, Burt became John Locke scholar in mental philosophy at Oxford. The following year he studied under Oswald Klpe at the University of Wrzburg in Germany. This experience convinced Burt that German psychologists used more advanced techniques in their psychological studies than their English counterparts. When Burt returned to England, he continued his investigations into how heredity and environment influence human intelligence. From 1908 to 1913, he held the position of lecturer in psychology at the University of Liverpool while working part-time at the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory.

In 1913, he became a part-time psychologist in the education department at the London County Council (LCC), the first such appointment in the United Kingdom. He remained with the LCC until 1932. During his years at the LCC, Burt also held similar part-time positions at a number of institutions, including the London Day Training College (later the Institute of Education), the Ministry of Munitions, National Institute of Industrial Psychology, the Industrial Health Research Board, and the London School of Hygiene. In 1931, he became a professor at University College, London, and the following year, he succeeded Spearman as the chair of psychology. After Burt's retirement in 1950, he published 200 articles and research papers.

In his position at the LCC, Burt worked with elementary school children in London, devising tests to identify special-needs students, such as those who were developmentally slower and those who were gifted. In addition, he established a school for handicapped children. His research on children's mental abilities provided material for a number of books, including Mental and Scholastic Tests (1921), Handbook of Tests for Use in Schools (1923), The Young Delinquent (1925), The Measurement of Mental Capacities (1927), and The Backward Child (1937). He was responsible for the English school system's adopting the Eleven-Plus examination, a test that children take at age 11 to determine their future educational path. This testing procedure has since been abolished in the United Kingdom.

In 1966, Burt published the results of a longterm study he had done on identical twins that had been raised apart. Burt studied the twins to learn the role that heredity plays in intelligence. The study started out in the 1940's with 15 pairs of twins and eventually expanded to 53 pairs. He reported that the individuals in each set of twins showed a high correlation of intelligence, meaning that they had similar intelligence levels. From this, Burt theorized that heredity was a more important factor than environment.

After Burt died, reviewers became convinced he had falsified data to support his theory. They noted correlation numbers in the study that were statistically unlikely. They also were unable to locate two of Burt's research assistants named in the study, leading to the conclusion that the assistants were fictitious. Other areas of Burt's work soon fell under attack, and with the mounting charges, the British Psychological Society (BPS) claimed Burt had committed scientific fraud.

Supporters came forward and provided plausible explanations for the accusations. They pointed out that if Burt had wanted to deceive, he would have changed the correlation numbers to make them less suspicious. They also provided the statement of a former student who remembered meeting one of the research assistants. The BPS retracted its earlier fraud indictment, but because the society had failed to conduct a formal review of the charges, the situation could not be resolved. Complicating matters was the fact that Burt had lost data during World War II (1939-1945) and most of his work papers were burned after his death. Academics agree that whether he committed fraud or not, he was guilty of sloppy work and failure to list sources. Some people think that deteriorating health might have caused Burt to make inadvertent errors. After weighing all the evidence, a scholar who edited a book about Burt concluded that “the cumulative weight of the evidence makes it difficult to maintain Burt's innocence.”

Burt was editor of the British Journal of Statistical Psychology. In 1942, he served as the president of the British Psychological Society. In 1946, he became the first psychologist to be knighted. He was awarded the Thorndike Prize of the American Psychological Association.