Dump the Neurotrash and Leave Parents Alone, Say Academics

15/09/2011 23:06 | Updated 15 November 2011

If 'the science says' that children's brains are hardwired by the age of three, should we automatically believe this claim? Not according to speakers at an academic conference at the University of Kent this week. Rather, we should see policymakers' obsession with neuroscience as a rather pathetic and pernicious excuse for intervening in toddlers' lives, and telling parents what to do.

Dr Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, told the Monitoring Parents conference that social policy in Britain is increasingly informed by claims made in the language of 'brain science'. Such policy documents rest on the claim that 'research shows' that young children's brains are moulded by the way they are parented in the early years, so that such attributes as anti-social behaviour and low levels of literacy are already 'hard-wired' into children by the time they start school.

In this way, the authorities are mandated by 'the evidence' to intervene more aggressively into family life in the early years; and this is justified by the claim that early intervention will make future social problems disappear, thus saving the Treasury millions of pounds in the long run.

There are a number of problems with this policy approach: the first of which is that the 'brain science' upon which claims about early intervention are made is not science at all, but, according to Lee, 'prejudice masquerading as research'. This prejudice was soundly debunked by the American philosopher John T. Bruer back in 1999, in his influential book The Myth of the First Three Years.

At the conference Bruer was joined by the neuroscientist Stuart Derbyshire and the philosopher-polymath Raymond Tallis, in exposing the gulf between what neuroscience can tell us about the workings of the human brain (a bit) and what it can tell us about child development and the human condition (not very much at all). The key points, it turns out, are elementary.

First - Observing the popularity of images that show the shrivelled brain of an 'extremely neglected' child to make the neuroscientific case for early intervention, Bruer explained that by the age of three, the brain is about 85% of its mature weight or volume - but that does not mean that it has reached 85% of its function. Scary neuro-images of small brains confuse brain size with brain development: the two are very different things.

Second - Many of the claims about early intervention are based on studies of Romanian orphans raised in conditions of extreme neglect and emotional deprivation, and animal studies of kittens partially blinded at birth. These studies tell us nothing about the development of toddlers in general: as Derbyshire put it, 'It is incorrect and dishonest to argue that if severe neglect causes a problem, less severe neglect causes a lesser problem'.

Third - What Raymond Tallis termed 'neuromania' is based on an absurdly reductionist view of the human condition, which elides conscious, complex human behaviour (falling in love) with animal instinct (mating). The marshalling of junk science to treat human beings as a form of livestock reveals the dehumanising presumptions, and consequences, of our obsession with the brain.

So the evidence behind 'early intervention' is, for the most part, 'neurotrash'. But even if it were sound science, it would still be problematic to rely on brain scans as a guide to how we should conduct social life. A central problem with the phrases 'research tells us' or 'evidence suggests', which now form the basis of most social policy, is that policymakers no longer have to justify why they think a policy should be introduced - they are, supposedly, just doing what the science tells them to do.

Similarly the public - as well as academics outside of the particular discipline of neuroscience - are excluded from debate about the rights and wrongs of a particular policy, on the grounds that they do not have the technical expertise to comment.

Even if 'the evidence' were sound, as an approach to policymaking that takes as its mission 'the science tells us' is inherently exclusionary and undemocratic. In the case of neurotrash, the evidence upon which policy is based is entirely flawed - and this reveals a highly troubling situation.

Despite academics like John Bruer doing their best to engage with the scientific claims, the dogmatism of policymaking is such that it does not seem to care whether societies are organised around dealing with real problems, or whether it is enough to base social policy on the unsubstantiated prejudices of the authorities.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the policy documents currently appearing in the UK move effortlessly between claims that 'the evidence suggests' (when in fact it doesn't) to shrill, dystopian anecdotes about children coming to school without knowing their own names, or defecating on classroom floors. In this way, the promiscuous use of flawed evidence leads to a casual disregard for the truth.

That's really not clever.