Sir Cyril Burt


(1883-1971)

Compiled by Lori Lahna (May 1997)

Burt Biography
Theory
Time Line
Bibliography


Cyril Burt was a very well known British psychologist and a leader in the development of methods of data analysis. His contributions also included studies in intelligence testing, juvenile delinquency, and the use of statistics in analyzing data from psychological experiments. His studies with factor analysis were a major contribution to the field of mathematical psychology.
Burt was born on March 3, 1883, in Stratford-on-Avon. He later graduated from Oxford with a degree in philosophy. Then he studied for a couple of years in Germany, but soon returned to Oxford, where he was the John Locke scholar in mental philosophy. Burt taught at Liverpool University and also at Cambridge, until he later joined the faculty at University College in London. In 1913, Burt was appointed to the London County Council where he was in charge of psychological research and applied psychology for the London school system. Here he developed new tests, a special school for the handicapped, and founded child guidance clinics. In 1931, he became a professor of psychology, a position he held until 1950. He was soon appointed the head of the department of psychology at University College. In 1942, he became president of the British Psychological Society, and the first British psychologist to be knighted in 1946.
At age sixty-eight, Burt retired from the position of head of the psychology department. He spent his time writing many articles and books. He published over 200 articles and reviews after his retirement. Many of his later articles were written under various pseudonyms. Twenty years later, at the age of eighty-eight, he died in London.


Theory

One of Burt's most famous studies was that with identical twins. In the early 1950's, Burt published results from identical twin studies. He first started with 21 pairs of twins, then going to 42 pairs of twins reared apart. Correlation coefficients for the IQ's varied between identical twins reared apart and non-identical twins reared together. His results showed the IQ's of identical twins reared apart much closer than the IQ's of non-identical twins. He concluded that genetic factors were more important than environmental factors in determining intelligence.
Later in 1956, Burt reported on the IQ's of 53 pairs of identical twins that were reared apart. In his study with separately raised twins, Burt found a high correlation of .771 between their general intelligence. This correlation proved to match to the third decimal place to the earlier twin study.

Cyril Burt, A Fraud?

Five years after Cyril Burt's death, he was accused of publishing a fraudulent series of separated twin studies. Scientists were convinced that Burt's data was false and that he invented crucial facts to support his theory that intelligence is inherited. Burt was found guilty of fraud, by the British Psychological Society.

Leslie Hearnshaw published a biography of Burt, Cyril Burt, Psychologist, in which he says some factors that may have had influence in Burt's fraudulent data, were mental illness, the number of assistants helping him, and childhood influences. But there is lack of evidence showing that any of these played a part in his fraudulent data. Many of Hearnshaw's conclusions were based on incomplete records, ambiguous writings, and the memories of his colleagues. Burt was accused of fabricating his results of his twin studies and his assistants.

When this was published by Hearnshaw, a highly respected historian of psychology, Burt was truly believed to be a fraud. Hearnshaw was given access to Burt's diaries and his careful research was strong evidence of the accusations against Burt. It seemed as though the case of Cyril Burt was finally closed with the conclusions by Hearnshaw. But psychologist Robert B. Joynson and sociologist Ronald Fletcher did not agree. Both of them came to the same conclusion, that the charges against Burt were not proven to be true. Joynson reviewed Burt's data, and found that some of Burt's samples were suspicious. He believes that the correlation of .771 reported for his two studies, may simply be "a genuine coincidence".

When Fletcher and Joynson reviewed the diaries of Burt they found no concrete evidence that Burt's data was fake. The defense presented by Fletcher and Joynson have two main points: 1) They show the previously unsuspected flimsiness, misrepresentation and even in some cases factual nonexistence, of the supposedly damning evidence; and 2) They closely examine the points that had aroused suspicion and provide alternative innocent explanations that seem at least plausible as the "guilty" explanations promoted by Burt's accusers (Jensen,1991). Although Burt has been accused of being a fraud, he had many contributions to the field of educational psychology. And recent studies with identical twins have substantiated Burt's theory that individual differences in intelligence are strongly conditioned by genetic factors.
Time Line of Burt's Life

1883 Born in Stratford-on-Avon
1902 Arrived atOxford University
1908 John Locke scholar in mental philosophy at Oxford. Assistant Lecturer in Physiology and Lecturer in Experimental Psychology at the University of Liverpool
1910 Started revisions of the Binet and Simon Test fro use in England.
1913 Appointed to the London County Council
1924 Joined the faculty of University College, London
1925 Published The Young Delinquent
1931 Became the professor of psychology at University College
1932 Accepted the Chair of Psychology at the University College of london
1935 Published The Subnormal Mind
1937 Published The Backward Child
1941 Published Factors of the Mind
1942 President of the British Psychological Society
1946 Knighted Sir Cyril Burt (The first psychologist to receive this honor)
1950 Published results from identical twins reared apart
1971 Received American Psychological Association's Thorndike Award
1971 Died on October 10 in London
1976 After his death, proclaimed a fraud

Bibliography

Fancher, R. E. (1991) The Burt Case: Another Foray. Science, Vol. 253
Hothersall, D. (1995) History of Psychology. McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Jensen, A. R. (1991) IQ and science: the mysterious Burt affair. Public Interest Fall , 93-106.
Zenderland, L. (1990) Burt Again. Science, Vol. 248.


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