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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 73, Summer 1997

In The Footsteps Of Sir Cyril Burt And Bruno Bettleheim Original Article

Is nothing sacred? It turns out that the two most famous, influential, and powerful child psychologists of the twentieth century were complete frauds.
Sir Cyril Burt was born in 1883 and became the most prestigious, powerful,and influential psychologist since the American genius William James. He held the chair of psychology at London’s University College, was knighted by King George VI, and received the Thorndike award from the American Psychological Association. Most of Burt’s career was based upon his statistical studies of the intelligence of identical twins, showing that poverty was due to inferior intelligence of the working class. In the 1940s Burt was involved in setting up the British school system which segregated students on the basis of an IQ test they took at age eleven. Burt was a dazzling public speaker with enormous charm.

In 1960 he gave one of his spellbinding performances at a symposium in London. After the speech, the eminent geneticist L.S. Penrose reportedly remarked, “I don’t believe a word the old rogue says, but, by God, I admire the way he says it.” When Burt died in 1971 at the age of 88, Arthur Jensen of Stanford University paid this heartfelt tribute: “Everything about the man-his fine, sturdy appearance; his aura of vitality; his urbane manner; his unflagging enthusiasm for research, analysis and criticism;…and, of course, especially his notably sharp intellect and vast erudition -all together leave a total impression of immense quality, a born nobleman.”

In Betrayers of the Truth Broad and Wade point out that science is in one sense a celebrity system in which the scientific elite control the allocation of rewards. The elite receive undue prominence, and their work is usually immune to scrutiny. A year after Burt’s death, Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin began to scrutinize his statistics and found major flaws. For one thing, in three different studies of different numbers of identical twins, Burt reported the same statistical correlation of IQ scores to the third decimal point, which is incredible. There were similar flaws in Burt’s reports dating back as far as 1909. Arthur Jensen insisted that if Burt had been trying to fake his data he would have done a better job of it.

In 1976 London’s Sunday Times reported the shocking fact that Burt’s two field investigators and co-authors of his studies, Margaret Howard and J. Conway, were nonexistent. These two phantom experts had often signed reviews praising Burt and attacking his enemies in the British Journal of Statistical Psychology during the 15 years when Burt was its editor. Burt’s housekeeper admitted to the Sunday Times that she knew he used pseudonyms. It seems clear that Burt had solemnly reported nonexistent tests and studies, and had signed fictitious names to articles he published.There is no way for researchers to discover which parts of his life work might be valid, because he often referred to unpublished reports that can’t be found, and he carelessly stuffed whatever papers he kept into six chests instead of filing them. These papers were all burned after his death. According to Science magazine, this forgery may rank with that of the Piltdown man.

At first the Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein found the suggestion of fraud outrageous: “I think it’s a crime to cast doubt over a man’s career. Burt was a towering figure of 20th century psychology.” But as he worked on Burt’s biography, he came to realize that Burt had lied. Not all of Burt’s professional colleagues had been so completely fooled. Philip Vernon of the University of Calgary stated in Time, “There were certainly grave doubts, although nobody dared to put them into print because Burt was so powerful.” Professors Anne and Alan Clarke told Newsweek “People had grave doubts long ago, but Burt was a fearsome figure. He was an autocrat of the old school, wrapped in a most charming style.”

In 1976, the very year when the Sunday Times exposed the fraudulence of Sir Cyril Burt, Bruno Bettelheim (an immigrant from Austria who boasted of a heroic past as a resistance fighter) published his bestselling book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,produced with one of the lucrative grants he obtained. Bettelheim made himself famous as the foremost authority on childhood autism, and operator of the private Orthogenic School for severely disturbed children in Chicago. Bettelheim stressed the authenticity of exact story details that developed “through the centuries (if not the millennia) during which, in their retelling, fairytales became ever more refined.” In light of the fact that he focused upon tales from the Brothers Grimm, which were faked and “refined”at one fell swoop in the 1800s, the authenticity of the allegedly meaningful details evaporates. Now the authenticity of Bettelheim has evaporated also.

After his death in 1990 a professor of anthropology at the University of Berkeley sadly announced that The Uses of Enchantment was copied from a 1963 book titled A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales. Bettelheim was a plagiarist and, worse yet, no psychiatrist. He was an imposter. After his death, it came out that he was a child-abuser. He claimed, “As an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children, my main task was to restore meaning to their lives.” To the contrary, he misdiagnosed normal children as mentally disturbed in order to claim later that he had cured them. Bettelheim vindictively blamed autism on bad mothering (a cruellie). All that desperate parents got for trusting this slick predator with their children and their money was false guilt and true grief; yet he remained a venerated celebrity in his lifetime. As autism expert Bernard Rimlandhas observed grimly, “He will not be missed.”