June 10, 2010

Psychopathy controversy goes primetime

More than a million people worldwide will get a chance to learn about psychology's internal controversy over psychopathy tomorrow, when Science publishes an article on the censorship allegations that I blogged about May 30.

Perhaps not coincidentally, just as the June 11 issue of the world's leading scientific news outlet hits the presses, the American Psychological Association is suddenly publishing the disputed article that was siderailed for more than three years.

Forensic psychologists Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke submitted the contested article to Psychological Assessment in 2006. It was peer reviewed, accepted, and scheduled for publication in 2007, but was derailed after Robert Hare, inventor of the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL), threatened to sue for defamation.

As you will remember from my previous blog post, the controversy surfaced in an opinion piece last month in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health by two psychology-law leaders.

"[T]he threat of litigation constitutes a serious threat to academic freedom and potentially to scientific progress," wrote attorney John Petrila and psychologist Norman Poythress. "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 now says he is "upset colleagues are suggesting he squelched academic debate," Science writer John Tavris reports, as his "lawsuit threat was meant only to get the 'attention' of APA, Skeem, and Cooke and force changes to the article."

The Science report is a sidebar to a larger piece on reform efforts over plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the United Kingdom. That country's laws, in which the defendant bears the burden of proof, are under fire from around the world over their allegedly chilling effect on scientific research on controversial topics. Critics say they encourage "libel tourism," in which corporations sue there over alleged offenses that occurred elsewhere.

PCL-R reification hampering science

The contested article by Skeem and Cooke, "Is Criminal Behavior a Central Component of Psychopathy? Conceptual Directions for Resolving the Debate," posits that the field of forensic psychology has prematurely embraced Hare's Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) as the gold standard for psychopathy, due in large part to legal demands for a tool to predict violence. Yet the PCL-R's ability to predict violent recidivism owes in large part to its conflation of the supposed personality construct of psychopathy with past criminal behavior, they argue:
[T]he modern justice context has created a strong demand for identifying bad, dangerous people…. [The] link between the PCL and violence has supported a myth that emotionally detached psychopaths callously use violence to achieve control over and exploit others. As far as the PCL is concerned, this notion rests on virtually no empirical support…. [T]he process of understanding psychopathy must be separated from the enterprise of predicting violence.
Criminal behavior weighs heavily in the PCL's 20 items because the instrument emerged from research with prisoners. But using the PCL-R's consequent ability to predict violence to assert the theoretical validity of its underlying personality construct is a tautological, or circular, argument, claim Skeem and Cooke. Or, as John Ellard put it more directly back in 1998:
"Why has this man done these terrible things? Because he is a psychopath. And how do you know that he is a psychopath? Because he has done these terrible things."
Rebuttal and response

Alongside the critique, Psychological Assessment has published a rebuttal by Robert Hare and Craig Neumann, along with a surrebuttal by Cooke and Skeem. Hare and Neumann accuse the critics of erecting a straw-man argument and misrepresenting their work:
The very title of their article is a straw man based on the unfounded claim that Hare and his colleagues consider criminality to be central or fundamental to the psychopathy construct. Their claim is bolstered by arguments misconstruing our published work and that of others and by quotes of our work that have been taken out of context or reconstructed in such a way that it appears that we have said something that we did not say. Skeem and Cooke also made highly selective use of the literature, often omitting published studies that directly contradict or do not support the points they attempted to make, particularly with respect to the role of antisocial tendencies in clinical and empirical conceptions of psychopathy. These tactics are inconsistent with their tutorial on the philosophy of science, compromise their arguments, and divert attention from any legitimate issues raised in their article. We contend that Skeem and Cooke did the field a disservice by presenting an inaccurate account of the role of the PCL–R in theory and research on psychopathy, both applied and basic.
I encourage readers to analyze all three papers, along with the two reports in Science, and draw your own conclusions.

The current issue of Psychological Assessment contains another article pertaining to the controversial psychopathy construct. In their abstract of "Validity of Rorschach Inkblot scores for discriminating psychopaths from nonpsychopaths in forensic populations: A meta-analysis," authors James Wood, Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues assert:
Gacono and Meloy (2009) have concluded that the Rorschach Inkblot Test is a sensitive instrument with which to discriminate psychopaths from nonpsychopaths. We examined the association of psychopathy with 37 Rorschach variables in a meta-analytic review of 173 validity coefficients derived from 22 studies comprising 780 forensic participants…. The present findings contradict the view that the Rorschach is a clinically sensitive instrument for discriminating psychopaths from nonpsychopaths.

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