Jonathan Mendel

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May 02, 2010

The Conservative Party, research and non-conventional families

Research is playing a prominent role in the upcoming UK election - will all the major parties using or abusing it in order to justify their policy proposals. One interesting case study of what can go wrong can be found in some statements by the prominent Conservative Iain Duncan Smith.

Duncan Smith drew on the Neuroscientist Bruce Perry's work in order to argue that neuroscientific research suggests

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.

For Duncan Smith

"We now know that we can pretty much figure out where an 18-year-old will be at the time that they are two and a half or three years old. Signs are there. There are of course physical signs, including the scale and size and capacity of their brains to be able to deal with challenges. But it is also in their behaviour."

He added the inability of a child to have "imbibed the concept of empathy" from their parent could have profound impacts on their later life.

These claims are extremely politically problematic in themselves: for example, the type of neurological determinism on display here seems implausible when one looks at how people with highly atypical brains can nonetheless function perfectly well as part of society. Even where there is unambiguous brain damage, there is a strong argument for looking to support those with this damage and to remove disabling barriers - so that they are able to contribute to society - rather than assuming that we can know a child's future from age 3.

However, Duncan Smith's position is made harder to maintain because Perry has challenged his interpretation of his research: Perry states that

Smith's comments 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".

Duncan Smith's claims, therefore, were not only politically problematic but were also dismissed by the researcher on whose work he claimed to base them. One would have hoped that Duncan Smith would have withdrawn. However, Duncan Smith actually
denied he had misrepresented Dr Perry's work, whom he acknowledged as the source of his claims about brain development.

He said the focus of his policy work was on early intervention in the crucial early years of childhood, and his references to brain size related to "absolute extreme neglect and abuse".

"I haven't misrepresented his findings. I don't talk about every single child," he said. "The brain size is an example of what happens at the extreme end of that neglect and abuse, which is something I know that he has written about."

This case study illustrates a number of the unfortunate ways in which research can be used. Duncan Smith made politically problematic and overly deterministic claims - which he backed up with a misrepresentation of neuroscientific research.

There was no need for Duncan Smith to draw on and misrepresent neuroscience in order to argue against abusing and neglecting children - there is widespread agreement in Britain that this is bad and damaging (and one could also, for example, look at psychological research on abuse and neglect - even if nothing were to show up on brain scans). However, Duncan Smith used a misrepresentation of neuroscientific research in order to make particular political and moral claims. It is unfortunate that a senior politician in a major political party feels the need to speak out against mothers (not fathers?!) who have more than one partner: there is no good reason to think that non-conventional family structures are in any way inherently harmful, and if someone becomes a single parent while their baby is young then it seems rather harsh to expect them to have only one partner over the next 18 years. However, if one were to want to argue that this is immoral then this should be done on moral grounds instead of trying to lean on the authority attributed to neuroscience.

It was good to see that both Perry and the Guardian challenged Duncan Smith's claims. Hopefully, during and after this election campaign it will become increasingly hard for politicians to misuse and misrepresent research.

Posted by jon_mendel at May 2, 2010 11:43 PM

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