Despite recent evidence that scores on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) vary widely in adversarial legal contexts depending on which party retained the evaluator, the test has become increasingly popular in forensic work. In Texas, indeed, Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) evaluators are required by statute to measure psychopathy; almost all use this test. It is not surprising that prosecutors find the PCL-R particularly attractive: Evidence of high psychopathy has a powerfully prejudicial impact on jurors deciding whether a capital case defendant or a convicted sex offender is at high risk for bad conduct in the future.
But a current effort by the instrument's author, Robert Hare, to suppress publication of a critical article in a leading scientific journal may paradoxically reduce the credibility of the construct of psychopathy in forensic contexts.
That's the opinion of two psychology-law leaders, psychologist Norman Poythress and attorney John Petrila of the University of South Florida (two authors of a leading forensic psychology text, Psychological Evaluations for the Courts), in a critical analysis of Dr. Hare's threat to sue the journal Psychological Assessment. The contested article, "Is Criminal Behavior a Central Component of Psychopathy? Conceptual Directions for Resolving the Debate," is authored by prominent scholars Jennifer Skeem of UC Irvine and David Cooke of Glasgow University. The study remains unpublished.
"[T]he threat of litigation constitutes a serious threat to academic freedom and potentially to scientific progress," write Poythress and Petrila in the current issue of the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. "Academic freedom rests on the premise that advances in science can only occur if scholars are permitted to pursue free competition among ideas. This assumes that scholars have the liberty to do their work free from limitations imposed by political or religious pressure or by economic reprisals."
According to Poythress and Petrila, after the critical article passed the peer-review process and was accepted for publication, Dr. Hare's lawyer sent a letter to the authors and the journal stating that Dr. Hare and his company would "have no choice but to seek financial damages from your publication and from the authors of the article, as well as a public retraction of the article" if it was published. The letter claimed that Skeem and Cooke's paper was "fraught with misrepresentations and other problems and a completely inaccurate summary of what amounts to [Hare's] life's work" and "deliberately fabricated or altered quotes of Dr. Hare, and substantially altered the sense of what Dr. Hare said in his previous publications."
In general, defamation claims must prove that a defendant made a false and defamatory statement that harmed the plaintiff's reputation. Truth is an absolute defense. Critical opinions are also protected from defamation actions, as are "fair comments" on matters of public interest.
In this case, the contents of Skeem and Cooke's contested article have not been made public. However, it is hard to see how critical analysis of a construct that is enjoying such unprecedented popularity and real-world impact would NOT be of public interest.
Poythress and Petrila express concern that defamation claims against opposing researchers, while traditionally rare, may be becoming more common, leading to a potentially chilling effect on both individual researchers and the broader scientific community. Like so-called SLAPPS -- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation -- used by corporations and other special interest groups to impede public participation, even meritless defamation lawsuits extract heavy penalties in terms of lost time and money and emotional distress.
Judges have been critical of pretextual deployment of defamation lawsuits, Poythress and Petrila report; a judge in one case warned that "plaintiffs cannot, simply by filing suit and crying 'character assassination!,' silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs' interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation."
Potential negative effects of defamation threats against scientific researchers include:
- Researchers avoid conducting critical research out of fear of lawsuits.
- Academics decline to serve as volunteer peer reviewers for academic journals due to loss of anonymity in defamation suits.
- Journal editors self-censor on controversial topics.
Because publication of the article by Professors Skeem and Cooke has effectively been long delayed, if not ultimately suppressed, one clear impact of this threat to sue is that researchers who may have been willing to investigate alternative models of psychopathy that might have been derived from the Skeem and Cooke article are not able to do so, simply because the article is unavailable. Because science progresses, in part, both by confirming viable models and disconfirming nonviable ones, the suppression of information relevant to constructing candidate models for empirical evaluation can be viewed as impeding the progress of science….In court, meanwhile, the effects of Dr. Hare's threat may prove paradoxical. Attorneys whose clients could be prejudiced by introduction of the Psychopathy Checklist may be able to discredit the instrument by pointing to the suppression of critical literature about the underlying construct of psychopathy.
[I]t seems clear from our review that such threats strike at the heart of the peer review process, may have a chilling effect on the values at the core of academic freedom, and may potentially impede the scientific testing of various theories, models and products. In our view it is far better to debate such matters in peer review journals rather than cut off debate through threats of litigation.
POSTSCRIPT: Just hours after I posted this, alert readers advised me that: (1) Dr. Skeem discusses the as-yet-unpublished article in her 2009 book, Psychological Science in the Courtroom: Consensus and Controversy, co-authored by Kevin Douglas and Scott O. Lilienfeld (page 179 in the Google book view is HERE), and (2) according to Dr. Hare's website, he has a response in press (which, ironically, cites the Skeem and Cooke article as being published last year).
The full article is: "PCL-R Psychopathy: Threats to Sue, Peer Review, and Potential Implications for Science and Law. A Commentary," by Norman Poythress and John P. Petrila, in the current issue of the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. The abstract if available HERE; the full article requires a subscription.
Dr. Hare's response is: "The role of antisociality in the psychopathy construct: Comment on Skeem & Cooke (2009)." Hare, R. D., & Neumann, C. S. (in press). Psychological Assessment.
Of related interest:
- "The Dark Side of Peer Review," by Stephen D. Hart, also in the current issue of the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health (abstract HERE)
- "Does interrater (dis)agreement on Psychopathy Checklist scores in Sexually Violent Predator trials suggest partisan allegiance in forensic evaluations?" by Murrie, D.C., Boccaccini, M.T., Johnson, J.T., & Janke, C. (2008). Law & Human Behavior, 32, 352-362 (abstract HERE)