Thinking about Matthew Syed and the ‘Talent Myth’: maybe we should stop looking for the truth, and decide what it’s most helpful to believe

May 16, 2011 at 10:50 am 1 comment

by Alec Patton

Last Wednesday, Radio 4’s Today programme included a not especially edifying debate between Matthew Syed (author of Bounce), and Peter Saunders, author of Social Mobility Myths, chaired by John Humphreys.

Matthew Syed made the case (not as cogently as he has in print) that we tend to exaggerate the importance of innate talent over hard work, to the detriment of young people who conclude that they most not be good at (to choose a common example) maths because they find it difficult. In fact, this hurts all of us, because we end up with a less widely-skilled society.

Peter Saunders argued that, on the contrary, innate talent is the biggest determinant of success, and cited the National Child Development Study (an extraordinary longitudinal study of 17,000 people born during the same week in 1958) as indicating that young peoples’ performance on an IQ test at an early age was the single most important factor in their performance later in life.

This seemed to be enough for Humphreys (‘Well,the study shows it!’ he declared at one point, making me wish – not for the first time – that journalists were better trained in querying data), but Syed countered that several meta-studies contradict this finding, and added that the circumstance’s of one’s upbringing is known to have an impact on performance on IQ tests…

Let’s pause here for a moment. As I indicated, this was not an edifying discussion, especially since Humphreys could not suppress his disdain fo the idea that talent may be less important than he thought it was.

However, there is a wider issue here: ‘evidence’ will not point to a way out of this conundrum, because there are no measures of ‘raw talent’ that escape the influence of upbringing, and (within the bounds of ethics) I don’t know that there ever could be (Malcolm Gladwell unpacks the problem with IQ here. If you really want a shocker, read his piece on how America’s early standardised teasts were intended to keep Jews out of elite universities).

If I’m right that it’s not possible to come up with a test of ‘raw talent’, then we have been given a choice akin to that presented at the end of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – lacking evidence either way, we can choose what to believe, and the only sensible criterion for what we choose to believe is what sort of world we want to live in. Thus, we must ask what are the consequences of believing (as we mostly have up to now) that some children are born festooned with genetic gifts, and some are not? And what are the consequences of believing that passion and hard work will ultimately trump raw talent?

It’s safe to say that the most reasonable course will lie somewhere in the middle. But let us be clear that this is not a search for ultimate truth, but for an effective heuristic.

Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. KING ARTHUR USA  |  May 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Natural, average, normal, what does it all mean. Tony Pickard tennis coach to Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg said
    “Champions are born but they have to be coached”, Edberg was taught to volley and became the best volleyer of his time. The person can learn maths and a sport to a high level but receptive qualities have to be there by the pupil that is sometimes forced upon the pupil with threats or reward.In the professional life it is mostly money. Talent can be stunted by negative environment, poor teaching ( my way or the high way) and lack of motivation to succeed. We all have a talent to create and be successful but it is having that talent to be identified and grow. Good teachers and coaches are important and are forgotten about. Tony Pickard is one of many


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