Does it matter? The scientific and political impact of Burt's work
N. J. MACKINTOSH
UNTIL THE SAGA of Burt's possible fraud began to unfold, the most celebrated, and least equivocal, case of British scientific fraud in the twentieth century was the Piltdown Man hoax. The fragments of skull, jawbone, and teeth discovered by Charles Dawson at Piltdown in Sussex between 1908 and 1915 appeared to provide evidence of the missing link between ape and human required by the theory of evolution. The hoax was extraordinarily successful, for it was not until 1953 that Piltdown Man was formally declared to be a fake, the jawbone that of a modern ape, the skull and teeth human (the latter filed down). But the chief measure of the forgery's success was that it led so many British (and other) anthropologists down the wrong path for some 30-40 years. If early hominids had really developed a modern size brain while still retaining many ape-like features (the reverse of the truth as we now understand it), then, for example, the australopithecine fossils discovered in South Africa by Raymond Dart and Robert Broom in the 1920s and 1930s could have had nothing to do with the story of human evolution.
Is there any parallel here with the case of Cyril Burt? Did the (possibly false) data he published affect the course of science? Even if we give Burt the benefit of every possible doubt, it is no longer possible to accept at their face value the data presented in his later papers (e.g. Burt 1961, 1966, 1969). Giving him that benefit would mean accepting that he or his assistants did actually collect some information about the IQ scores of 53 pairs of separated MZ twins, of some 1000-2000 fathers and their sons, and of successive generations of London schoolchildren between 1914 and 1965. But his accounts of these data are so woefully inadequate and riddled with error, and some of the data must be based on such grossly inadequate methods, that no reliance can be placed on the numbers he presents. They are, indeed, as Kamin said they were, not worthy of our current scientific attention. But they were, of course, widely accepted, and figured prominently in numerous books and reviews. Arthur Jensen, in words he must