Saturday, May 2, 2009

Poverty and Brain Development, or, I Worry: If Poor People are Stupid, Why Bother?

I've been meaning to say something about all the research coming out on the effect of poverty on brain development. The basic argument, backed up by empirical data, is that poverty actually degrades brain capacity in a range of ways.

Which, of course, opens up questions about what "counts" as "degraded." (It reminds me, for example, of all the arguments that African Americans couldn't possibly take care of themselves after the Civil War because they'd been slaves.)

I think this is an incredibly important issue, and is likely to affect how poor children are received in schools for a long time. And so the studies that make these broad statements about brain damage are incredibly dangerous. The impact of this research on teachers could easily be as damaging as the supposed (only mental?) degradation of poor people.

My point is not that we should censor scientific knowledge, somehow. But the more dangerous the statement, the more careful we need to be about making it, and about how we make it. (For example, Larry Summers was rightly criticized, especially as the president of Harvard, when he made what he later called a "provocative hypothesis" about the possibility that women have innate limitations in the areas of science and math.)

Michelle Chen notes (from a comment on one of the posts listed below):
Reactionary forces relish this kind of science for two reasons: sometimes it encourages the “naturalization” of certain social inequalities. And in the realm of politics, scientific theories applied to social injustices can be glibly flipped to imply group inferiority and , at the same time, to feign respect for individuality. Patterns of underachievement become individual failure on a massive scale, and structural arguments are reduced to reverse discrimination and self-pity.
As a field, especially as social foundations folks, we need to keep a close eye on this stuff.

Key links:
Poverty and the Brain: Becoming Critical. This is a follow up to:
Poverty Poisons the Brain
. These posts have links to most of the key papers and discussions.

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