June 17, 2010

Psychopathy brouhaha: It's a wrap (I hope!)

Today's Scientific American has more on the censorship controversy I've featured here in recent weeks. As regular readers know, the flap centers around allegations that psychopathy researcher Robert Hare tried to silence critics by threatening to sue. The controversial article was finally published this month in the American Psychological Association publication Psychological Assessment, but the fallout continues.

The column by J.R. Minkel, oddly titled "Fear Review," features a rundown, including commentary by prominent scholar Stephen Hart:
People familiar with the matter say the scale's author, Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, deserves only partial blame for the delay, to be shared with the American Psychological Association (APA), the journal's publisher. But they say Hare's use of legal threats has at best subverted the peer review process that is the crux of modern scientific progress, and could at worst encourage junior researchers in the field of forensic psychology to pursue other lines of research.

"I find this action to be completely inconsistent with the man I had [great] respect and affection for," says Stephen Hart of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, a collaborator and former student of Hare's. "People I speak with automatically think, 'Well, what's in that article that makes him so upset? What's he so afraid of?'
After reading all of the publicly available materials on the controversy, as well as numerous email posts on professional listservs, here's how I boil things down to the essence:
  • The Skeem and Cooke article is an important scientific analysis of the theoretical construct of psychopathy, which is increasingly being used as a weapon in court with grave consequences for those it is deployed against.
  • Not surprisingly, Robert Hare disagrees with Skeem and Cooke. Specifically, he does not agree with their claim that his Psychopathy Checklist or the underlying psychopathy construct centralizes criminality.
  • Hare claims that Skeem and Cooke distorted his work. In a written response, he gives three examples of alleged distortions. Presumably, since he was preparing his response for publication, he picked the best examples he could find to illustrate his complaint. Yet, these are nowhere near as egregious as I had imagined they would be, given his threat to sue.
  • Hare accuses two well respected psychology-law leaders, Norm Poythress and John Petrila, of being biased and misinformed. But nothing in his response supports this. Poythress and Petrila, in their article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health that set this whole ball in motion, were careful not to take sides in the underlying scientific debate over psychopathy. Rather, they focused on the threat to academic freedom and science posed by threats to sue: "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."
  • Hare has claimed elsewhere that his "lawsuit threat was meant only to get the 'attention' of APA, Skeem, and Cooke and force changes to the article." In his essay, he expresses bafflement at the ensuing, lengthy delay in the article's publication. To claim that his threat to sue did not contribute to the lengthy delay is either disingenuous or na├»ve. Especially in the wake of other controversies, such as the Rind debacle in which the U.S. Congress blasted the APA's publication and peer review process, the Association is undoubtedly very gun-shy and reactive over lawsuit threats.
The bottom line:

After analyzing all sides of the issue, I find that the Skeem and Cooke article is an important and timely contribution to the field, and that threats to sue over such publications set a dangerous precedent. As Poythress and Petrila point out in their commentary, potential negative effects of defamation threats against scientific researchers include -- among other things -- that:
  1. researchers avoid critical research out of fear of lawsuits,
  2. academics avoid volunteering as peer reviewers, and
  3. journal editors self-censor on controversial topics
Censorship -- or even the appearance of censorship -- is especially dangerous when it involves critique of a construct that may be used in a partisan manner in the forensic arena.

Hare is entitled to express his opinion, but nothing in his public response changes these bottom lines. Rather, as Jennifer Skeem notes in today's Scientific American piece, all of this peripheral controversy distracts from the scientific critique of psychopathy, including her critique that was silenced for three years before finally seeing the light of day.

I sure hope this is my last blog post for a while on this topic!

I regret that I had to reject your comment about the pecuniary angle from publication.
While I found it quite interesting, I had no easy way to substantiate its accuracy.

I encourage comments, but it's nice to know who is talking;
please consider signing your name (or at least a pseudonym).


Anonymous said...

That's okay. I like your blog, think you're doing a great job, and wanted to see if you would post an anonymous comment like that. I'm impressed. I will start reading your blog regularly. When I can post with my name I will.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Or, you can always post with a pseudonym. I do publish posts from "Anonymous," but it just feels so ... well ... anonymous.

pulnimar said...

I haven't read Poythress and Petrila's paper or response in the IJFMH, but thoroughly skimmed Hare's "Big Chill" reply and think he made some very relevant points.

I do think his three examples are relevant, as the way words were put into his mouth in those examples really do seem to set up a strawman skewerable based on the title of the P and P paper. And that without those distortions, the paper would have to at least been retitled, if not re-thesised (can't say about that last, as I have yet to read the paper).

On the matter of the litigation (and not Hare's claims) and Poythress and Petrila, I found the following paragraphs of his "Big Chill" article very relevant: 2nd paragraph p. 10, 1st paragraph page 11, and the last 2 p. 13.

pulnimar said...

Damnit. I meant Skeem and Cooke's article may have needed to be re-titled.

I've been reading their article now, and like it so far (and can see where it has been altered to be more informative and precise based on Hare's allegations).