June 12, 2010

New York Times covers psychopathy debacle

I had no idea when I broke the news of this censorship controversy that it would generate so much mainstream attention. First Science ran with it, and today it's made the New York Times; I am told other major U.S. and international news outlets have made inquiries. I hope this affair will serve as a dramatic lesson to others who might think about making legal threats when someone criticizes their work. The move certainly backfired against psychopathy guru Robert Hare.

Certain theories have weightier real-world implications than others. When a capital case defendant is labeled a "psychopath" in court, it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Similarly, the pejorative label has serious consequences for someone facing lifelong civil detention as a sexual predator. Thus, critical analysis of the reliability and validity of the underlying theory is essential. Researchers whose work lends itself to partisan forensic application should expect scrutiny.

Here's what Benedict Carey, health beat reporter at the New York Times, had to say:
Academic disputes usually flare out in the safety of obscure journals, raising no more than a few tempers, if not voices. But a paper published this week by the American Psychological Association has managed to raise questions of censorship, academic fraud, fair play and criminal sentencing -- and all them well before the report ever became public.

The paper is a critique of a rating scale that is widely used in criminal courts to determine whether a person is a psychopath and likely to commit acts of violence. It was accepted for publication in a psychological journal in 2007, but the inventor of the rating scale saw a draft and threatened a lawsuit if it was published, setting in motion a stultifying series of reviews, revisions and legal correspondence.

"This has been a really, really troubling process from the beginning," said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University and a collaborator with one of the paper's authors. "It has people wondering, 'Do I have to worry every time I publish a paper that criticizes someone that I’ll get slapped with a lawsuit?' " The delay in publication, he said, "sets a very dangerous precedent" and censors scientific discourse….

Dr. Hare's clinical scale, called the Psychopathy Checklist, Revised, is one of the few, if not the only, psychological measures in forensic science with any scientific backing…. Dr. Skeem and Dr. Cooke warned in their paper that the checklist was increasingly being mistaken for a complete definition of psychopathy -- a broader personality construct that includes deceitfulness, impulsivity and recklessness, though not always aggression or illegal acts. The authors contended that Dr. Hare's checklist warps that concept by making criminal behavior a more central component than it really is…. {NOTE: The New York Times later issued a correction of the above portion that is in red; clearly, it's wrong to call the PCL "one of the few, if not the only," forensic psychology measures with any scientific backing!}

"When we first wrote the paper," [Jennifer Skeem] said, "we saw it simply as a call to the field to recognize we were going down a path where we were equating an abstract concept with a checklist, and it was preventing us from looking at the concept more closely."
Carey's full article is HERE. I will be sure to keep readers posted on any further developments.


This evening, readers alerted me that Robert Hare has posted a lengthy response giving his side of the controversy. His essay, "On Fairness in Academic Debate: A Commentary on Poythress and Petrila (2010) and Related Matters," claims that Poythress and Petrila's critical opinion piece in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health (see my May 30 blog post) was biased and one-sided. He presents a timeline of the events surrounding the lengthy delay in publishing the underlying psychopathy article by Skeem and Cooke in Psychological Assessment, and gives specific examples of their allegedly egregious misrepresentations of his work. He comments:
… Poythress and Petrila and Hart failed to give an impartial and complete account of the situation. Their actions resulted in publication and circulation of a seriously biased account of events, and a commentary in the June 11 issue of Science, which noted that there are several sides to every issue…. I have no arguments with their thoughtful and commendable views about the nature of scientific debate and peer review, and about the potential fallout from threats of litigation…. I would welcome a formal investigation of the entire matter by an appropriately impartial body. I also would be willing to engage in open debate with the parties involved…. Contrary to the characterizations of others, I made extensive efforts to use the academic system in this case, but [the Skeem and Cooke] article went beyond the boundary of fair academic debate and criticism. The nature of the issue and the authors' refusal to correct their egregious statements gave me no reasonable alternative….

Would I do it again, given similar circumstances? Perhaps not, for like a whistle-blower the focus soon turns to the person who made the complaint and not on the issues and events that led to the complaint. Further, many in the scientific community believe that there are no grounds for litigation concerning academic works, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve learned from this experience that not all academics and scientists play by the accepted rules of science, and that legal redress for those claiming injustice is frowned upon by many as rocking the academic/scientific boat, however leaky it may be; a professional Catch-22 that serves to deny academics the legal rights enjoyed by the rest of the population.
His full statement is HERE. Again, I encourage readers interested in this subject to read Skeem and Cooke's Psychological Assessment article, rebuttal, and surrebuttal and form your own opinions.

1 comment:

Neuroskeptic said...

Well done for breaking this important story... which has disturbing echoes of Nemesysco.