Start discussing dyslexia with people who have not really studied the subject very much and the chances are that before long you will come across someone who tells you that dyslexia doesn’t exist.

One of the reasons for the resurgence of this view is the work of Peter Hitchens, a notable journalist and winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing.  Originally very much a political left winger, he now writes for the Daily Mail.

His essay on dyslexia in that paper is perhaps typical of his most recent writings and has been seized upon by those who argue that there is no such thing as dyslexia.

As such I think it can be worth considering it in a little detail – not particularly because I have an argument with the esteemed writer, but rather because his approach is one that many who argue against the existence of dyslexia and other special needs, utilise.  And it is an approach that I feel is fundamentally flawed.

He begins…

I doubt there has ever been a society so easily fooled by pseudo-science and quackery as ours is. Millions of healthy people take happy pills that do them obvious harm, and are increasingly correlated with inexplicable suicide and worse.

Legions of healthy children are drugged into numbness because they fidget during boring lessons, and countless people are persuaded that they or their children suffer from  a supposed disease called ‘dyslexia’, even though there is no evidence at all that it exists.

The first thing to note is that there is no connection between the first paragraph and the second.  Nor indeed have I ever seen evidence of “legions” of healthy children in our schools being drugged because they fidget.

But perhaps these are details we should not take too seriously.  They are maybe just scene setters.  And now the scene is set, for the article in the Mail continues,

Now comes The Dyslexia Debate, published yesterday, a rigorous study of this alleged ailment by two distinguished academics – Professor Julian  Elliott of Durham University, and Professor Elena Grigorenko of Yale University.

Their book makes several points. There is no clear definition of what ‘dyslexia’ is. There is no objective diagnosis of it. Nobody can agree on how many people suffer from it. The widespread belief that it is linked with high intelligence does not stand up to analysis.

Although these points are indeed made in the book, they do not show that dyslexia, as a genetic issue, does not exist.  Indeed there is much evidence to show that for about 4% of the population, unexpected difficulties in learning to read, given the learners' intelligence, has a genetic base.  And that is what we call dyslexia.  An difficulty in learning to read which is unexpected, given the individual’s intelligence and lack of other obvious causal factors.

Articles denouncing the existence of dyslexia are often to be found, and are often like this – they take the complexity of the issue as a basis for suggesting that the whole concept is an invented tale.  Whereas in fact it is simply a sign that along with so much in genetics, it is complex and difficult to understand.

The key thing here is that no evidence is presented to support Mr Hitchens' view, and his quick summary of the book does it no justice at all.

But also, one may argue that probably the most important thing to know about Peter Hitchens' take on this, and the many other subjects on which he writes, comes from the Wikipedia article about him which says,

Peter Hitchens is an outspoken opponent of British Summer Time and describes the practice as "fanatical and dictatorial" and says the system amounts to "lying about the time."  

It is perhaps fair to say that Mr Hitchens likes causes that have no evidential base, as well as enjoying knocking the hard work of others who seek to find evidence.

But in the end, on the issue of dyslexia, we perhaps might consider one other point.  There clearly are people who find learning the rules of spelling far more difficult than we might expect, given their intellectual level.  And if we find a way of helping to overcome such problems, surely that is all to the good.

On the other hand, what the benefit is in Mr Hitchens' article, is harder to ascertain.