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Dyslexia a ‘myth’? The Dorries Effect

January 15, 2009

This is a guest post by Unity, who usually blogs at Ministry of Truth and Liberal Conspiracy. It was originally posted yesterday at Liberal Conspiracy. It is part of the Is Dyslexia A DisAbility? debate at Same Difference.  Thanks to Unity.

It seems to one of the unwritten laws of British political life that if you’re unfortunate enough to be one of those nondescript backbenchers who’s name provokes only the question ‘who?’, if mentioned anywhere out the narrow confines of their own constituency, then the only reliable method you have of getting your name into the national press is by making a complete and utter arse of yourself:


A Labour MP has claimed dyslexia is a myth invented by education chiefs to cover up poor teaching methods.


Backbencher Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley, describes the condition as a “cruel fiction” that should be consigned to the “dustbin of history”.


He suggests children should instead be taught to read and write by using a system called synthetic phonics.


For the sake of clarity let’s call this phenomenon ‘The Dorries Effect’, which can defined as the outward manifestation of Dorries’ Law of Parliamentary Media Coverage:


The degree of media attention afforded to a backbench MP is proportional to their capacity for making public demonstrations of their own, deeply ingrained, ignorance.


So, how do we know when the Dorries Effect is in play?


Well, one of the clearest indicators to look for is an abject and manifestly absurd inability to provide accurate factual information, one prompted by the wholly mistaken belief that no one will ever bother checking your comments for accuracy, for example…


“If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.


“There can be no rational reason why this ‘brain disorder’ is of epidemic proportions in Britain but does not appear in South Korea or Nicaragua.”


According to figures compiled by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, the adult literacy rate in South Korea is, indeed, given as 99%, but the corresponding figure for Nicaragua is only 80.1%. However, the plot thickens considerably when you look at UNESCO’s figure for adult literacy in the UK, which is also 99%…


But, hang on second, hasn’t it also been estimated that as many as 16% of the adult population of the UK may be functionally illiterate? Well, yes it has, and that tells you something very important about global literacy statistics, even those compiled by the United Nations.


There is no global standard method of assessing adult literacy rates. In the UK and across much of the developed world (Europe, North America, Japan, Australasia, etc.) such statistics can be, and typically are, obtained by means of testing a demographically representative, randomly selected sample of the UK’s adult population. Across much of the rest of the world, and particularly in the developing world, adult literacy statistics are predominately compiled using the simple, but deeply flawed, expedient of incorporating the following question on national census forms and in household surveys:




A question which UNESCO, in one of most glorious flurries of unmitigated pseudo-intellectual bullshit I’ve seen in many a long year, refers to as ‘the dichotomous variable’.


You’re all (mostly) intelligent folks, so I’m sure that I don’t need to explain all the methodological flaws inherent in that particular approach to assessing literacy, but from a statistical standpoint, the fact that this is the only method used in many countries places an important limitation on the scope of UNESCO’s data. In order to provide a fair assessment of global adult literacy rates, including a country by country breakdown, UNESCO has no option but to forget all about the kind of multi-dimensional assessment methodologies used in the developed world and the detailed information such assessments provide – looking not only at basic literacy but also functional literacy and a range of other relevant skills – and work to a standard common to all countries included in its statistical evaluations, which means working to the lowest common denominator.


In short, the question ‘CAN YOU READ AND WRITE?’; which, at best, could be considered to prove only that the individual completing the census form or survey can read and understand a single sentence consisting (n English) of five single syllable words and write one of two words, ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ – and that’s assuming the questionnaire doesn’t make use of a couple of tick boxes or ask the respondent to circle their answer. In reality we cannot even be sure of that because there’s no absolute method of verifying whether the survey respondent read the question themselves or got someone else to read it to them.


Buried underneath Stringer’s stellar display of wilful ignorance – he has a BSc in chemistry and has, therefore, no valid excuse for being so obviously ill-informed – there is a legitimate and important issue that does genuinely need to be debates.


In its defence, the charity Dyslexia Action, responded to Stringer’s comments by asserting not only that the condition is ‘very real’ but that it affects around 6 million people in the UK, 1 in 10 of the total population, a figure that is legitimately contestable and that does need to be opened up to scrutiny.


Dyslexia, is one of a number of related conditions, including dyspraxia, disgraphia, discalculia, for which there is a solid body of research evidence supporting their existence – PubMed list over 6,000 research papers and journal articles on dyslexia alone, with almost 600 more currently in review – of which our current knowledge and understanding is still very limited, despite the quantity of evidence we have to work with..


Together with autism/autistic spectrum disorder and ADD/ADHD, it belongs to a class of behavioural conditions which, the research evidence suggests, are, at least in part, neurological in origin and may well also have a genetic component. They are also conditions which, statistically, appear to be becoming increasing prevalent in the developed world – but even with all that research to work with there is still a hell of lot we don’t know or understand about these conditions.


We don’t know precisely what causes them or even whether we are looking at singular conditions with a defined cause or a series of very similar, and possibly related conditions, which have very different pathologies.


We don’t understand the underlying neurological or genetic mechanisms behind these conditions or even whether and to what extent genetics plays a part in their development.


We also don’t know for sure whether the apparent increase in the prevalence of these conditions over the last forty years evident in public health statistics is a real increase, i.e. more and more people are developing these conditions, or whether the observed increase is simply a function of improvements in diagnostic techniques and practices. And, as I noted earlier this week in commenting on a media splurge relating to a piece of newly published research into autism, which turned out to be considerably less interesting that may have been suggested by the coverage it received, we also cannot say for certain whether or not we may be overshooting the mark in diagnosing these conditions and, to some unspecified extent, unnecessarily medicalising certain traits and characteristics that are, in reality, well with the normal spectrum of human behaviour and intellectual performance. Factor in the wide-spread practice of disease-mongering, as pioneered by ‘Big Pharma’ and rapidly adopted by purveyors of unproven and unscientific woo (nutritionists, homoeopaths and an assortment of other ‘complementary and alternative therapists’) the world over, and what we have on our hands is a massive and extremely complex series of social, ethical, scientific, economic and political issues and a very important series of unanswered questions that need to be debated openly and honestly with due regard to the actual evidence we have to work with.


Sadly, what we too often get, in lieu of such debate, are the crass, pig-ignorant, solipsistic and semi-splentic outpourings of low-rent, attention-seeking, backbenchers, third-rate hacks – and yes that does mean you, Melanie Phillips, Amanda Platell and (feel free to add your your own selection of idiots to the list) and, of course, the daily part-work edition of the International Journal of Health Scares and Moral Panics, aka The Daily Mail.


Stringer’s casual disregard for trivial matters, like evidence and factual accuracy, is not the only obvious manifestation of the Dorries Effect evident in this particular story, as he also manages to deploy the careworn tactic of incorporating unfounded and wholly unsupported allegations of rent-seeking in his screed.


“It is time that the dyslexia industry was killed off and we recognised that there are well known methods for teaching everybody to read and write.”


In reality, we’d all be much better served by ‘killing off’ (figuratively speaking) our present crop of media-whoring backbenchers and electing many more people to public office of a kind who demonstrate due regard for the value and importance of applying rigorous intellectual standards to their work.


And so, Graham Stringer, Member of Parliament for the constituency of Manchester Blackley, may I extend my congratulations to you because, thus far, you are the Wanker of the Week!

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