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Dyslexia and Science

This rant was inspired by my good friend Tom Jackman (not this one). He referred to me the story of a Labour MP, Graham Stringer, who claims that dyslexia is a fictitious disorder.

Stringer claims that "If dyslexia really existed then... Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%". According to the figures I could find fastest from my armchair, South Korea and the UK both have literacy rates of 99%. Clearly this means that almost everyone without serious disabilities is literate in both countries. Nicaragua is claimed to have a literacy rate of 80.1%. It is not even within the realm of dyscalculia to claim that this is nearly 100%.

He appears to be claiming that other countries, which may or may not manage dyslexia in the same way as the UK, can manage to get the same literacy rate as the UK if they are rich, technologically advanced states, and do somewhat less well if they are poor and have been invaded or violently subverted by the USA every other week since 1912. This is not a surprise to me.

Contrary to Stringer's opinion in the article, I have heard nobody claim that dyslexia prevents literacy: educators and students merely recognise it as a challenge. And, from the accounts I've heard, no system of education alone can completely solve the problem.

To some extent, my biggest concern is not with anything directly involving dyslexia or teaching. Stringer's points, as reported, are obviously stupid. The real problem is the attitude he has to the subject.

The questions of what dyslexia is, what difficulties it causes, how it can be helped, and even whether it exists, are all part of the domain of science. If one forms a theory, one should design a fair and controlled experiment to test it, do the experiment, analyse the results, write it all up in a scholarly fashion, and publish them. Then other people can inspect the design of the experiment and test it for flaws, repeat the experiment, re-analyse the results, and indicate confirmation or difference.

Stringer has not done this. Perhaps believing that being a Member of Parliament gives him authority on any matter whatsoever, he has provided as evidence only a single anecdote about education in West Dunbartonshire. The popular reporting of science in the UK is parlous, and, given Stringer's importance, people might be misled into thinking that this is actually a sensible contribution to the field.

The division of labour into research and policy-making is important, and there are signs that politicians do not pay close enough attention to their scientific advisors when forming policy. Scientists studies the meaning and effect of dyslexia; politicians decide to ignore it and do something else. Scientists demonstrate the security flaws in a national ID card database; politicians ignore their briefings and claim it will be foolproof. Scientists study the extent of anthropogenic global warming and calculate the necessary reductions in carbon emissions; politicians decide to build a third Heathrow runway and sit around hoping that someone will miraculously invent a plane that doesn't need any fuel in time for Terminal 37 opening for business.

I think scientists are not doing enough to ensure that the conclusions they draw are understood by the people who make policy. The government aren't going to sort themselves out: the public need to be better informed, so they can demand what's necessary.