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Cyril Lodowic Burt

(1883—1971) psychometric psychologist and eugenicist


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(1883–1971) British psychologist

The son of a London physician, Burt was educated at Oxford University where he studied classics and philosophy. He was introduced to psychology by Oxford's single psychologist, William McDougall. After a period of study in Germany, Burt was appointed to a lectureship in experimental psychology at Liverpool University in 1908. He returned to London in 1912 and remained there for the rest of his career, first as educational psychologist to the London County Council, and from 1932 until his retirement in 1950 as professor of psychology at University College, London.

Much of Burt's life was devoted to the study of intelligence. The statistician Charles Spearman had claimed in 1905 to be able to measure ‘g’, the factor of general intelligence, objectively. In this he was followed by Burt, who further insisted that intelligence was innate as well as general. The surest way to establish this would be, Burt realized, to measure the intelligence quotients of identical twins separated at birth. If intelligence really was inherited, then the IQ of separated twins should show a high degree of correlation, even though they would have been raised in different homes, and educated in different ways. Consequently, he began to collect data from 1912 onwards. By 1966 Burt had collected a sample of 53 identical separated pairs and the correlation of their IQs was the high figure of 0.771.

Soon after, the journalist Oliver Gillie and the psychologist L. J. Kamin began to raise questions about Burt's work. Not only could research collaborators not be found, but their very existence could not be established. Again, the correlation figure of 0.771 appeared to remain constant over the years, despite changes in sample size, a most unlikely statistical outcome. Further, it turned out that much of Burt's work was based not on measurement, but on estimates of home background and intelligence that he made at a distance. For these and other reasons, Burt's work in this field has been largely discounted.

Subjects: Probability and Statistics.


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