Babies, brains and bull***t?

Babies, brains and bull***t?

Battles of Ideas 2013

Battle for our minds

Barbican Centre – Pit Theatre


Saturday 19 October 2013

Influential politicians such as Iain Duncan Smith and Graham Allen have forcefully pushed for the reorganisation of UK family policy around an agenda of neuroscience-based early intervention. It is claimed that there now exists a scientific evidence-base telling us what parents and carers must do to maximise children’s cognitive and emotional development. Babies’ brains have held significant interest for policy-makers for some years. In the USA, the Clinton administration incorporated neuroscience into family and education policy back in the 1990s. But critics are extremely concerned about what the trend for looking at child rearing in narrowly scientific terms means for families, children and society.

Can neuroscience shed any light on child rearing and family life? Why does it seem to have such an appeal for politicians and policy makers? And does a neurological approach neglect the importance of cultural and environmental factors to intimate relationships such as those between parent and child?

Professor Val Gillies
director, Families & Social Capital Research Group, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, London South Bank University; co-editor, Family Troubles? Exploring changes and challenges in the family lives of children and young people
Nancy McDermott
writer; advisor to Park Slope Parents, NYC’s most notorious parents’ organization
Dr Sally Satel
resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; psychiatrist; author, Brainwashed: the seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience
Dr Jan Macvarish
research fellow, Centre for Health Services Studies; founding associate, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury
Dr Jan Macvarish research fellow, Centre for Health Services Studies; founding associate, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert English teacher; PhD researcher, education, University of Cambridge

Tiemo Talk of the Town review

This was a bit of a sterile one-sided discussion on the issue of neuroscience and it’s relevance or not to child development. Half the panel and the audience that spoke all seemed to feel it was a load of Bull***t to put it in the title’s vernacular.


It would have helped if the panel had more robust advocates of neuroscience. Producer and host of the debate Dr Jan Macvarish, research fellow, Centre for Health Services Studies and founding associate, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent,  explained that she had tried very hard to find speakers but found that Neuroscientists just did not want to speak publicly in support of the benefits of neuroscience in regard to child development. They felt it was in its infancy and didn’t wish to stand by the science. That too me was quite telling and in fact surely means it’s a bit of a non-debatable issue, if those who could most passionately and robustly defend the link decline to do so?

Nonetheless there was some interesting discussion on good versus bad parenting and what other factors impact most positively on a child’s development. One gentleman in the audience said he felt that the child’s peer group had the biggest impact and would be the most significant determinant of a child’s success. Studies find this to be constant the world over.

A Community Paeditrician spoke and pointed out that at a recent conference it was universally accepted that early intervention was vital for those children who need it.


Aside from two Americans on the panel, Nancy McDermott writer; advisor to Park Slope Parents, NYC’s most notorious parents’ organization and Dr Sally Satel resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; the consensus was that neuroscience’s importance to child development was bull***t.Dr Satel argued that it was important to recognise the distinction between scientific findings and actions. She defended the science and argued that it would prove it’s usefulness, but that what neuroscience can teach us about the brain does not necessarily mean there is a direct link between a person’s actions.In other words, as human beings we are still in control of our actions, regardless of what our brain’s DNA may be like. We are not prisoners to our genetic make up.

Professor Val Gillies, director, Families & Social Capital Research Group,  was firmly of the opinion that there was no role for neuroscience in social policy development.

The general consensus in the debate and lack of strong defence of neuroscience from the panel and audience made for somewhat of a sterile debate. Last year’s debate on this subject was a lot more interesting, enlightening and educational. Though arguably that was as it sought more to explore whether there was a link and to educate people about neuroscience.

This debate would have benefited from that sort of approach as I daresay there are benefits to society that can and will arise from neuroscience. We just needed a scientist to articulate that argument.

© Tiemo Talk of the Town

Further reading from Battle of Ideas 2013.

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