February 16, 2014

Dutch forensic psychology blog interviews this blogger

Forensic psychology bloggers are few and far between, so I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Harald Merckelbach, a psychology professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who co-hosts -- you guessed it -- a "Forensische Psychologie Blog." Maastricht University, in case you are not familiar with it, is an internationally oriented school that -- together with Portsmouth in the UK and Gotheborg in Sweden hosts a three-year Ph.D. program in legal psychology funded by the European Union that is open to excellent candidates from the USA and Canada (check it out HERE).

Dr. Merckelbach interviewed me for his blog. In case you aren't fluent in Dutch, I thought I would post the English version of the interview, "Van Journalist Naar Forensisch Psycholoog: Interview met Karen Franklin":

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Dr. Merckelbach: Can you give some background statistics on your forensic psychology blog? 

Dr. Franklin: Thanks for the opportunity to give you some background on the blog. When I started the blog seven years ago, it was just out of curiosity, dipping my toe into online media. I never imagined it would grow to its current size and scope. Now, almost a thousand posts later, the blog and my mirror blog at Psychology Today (“Witness”) have gotten about 700,000 hits, and the subscriber base just keeps growing. But more than the quantity of subscribers and readers, I have been gratified by the quality. Subscribers cross professional disciplines and include forensic practitioners, attorneys, professors, researchers, criminologists, journalists, students and public policy advocates. The majority are from English-speaking countries including the United States, Canada, England and Australia. But subscribers also hail from dozens of other countries, from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Scotland and Lithuania. Not to mention the Netherlands, of course.

Dr. Merckelbach:  You were trained as journalist and legal reporter before you entered the forensic psychology scene. In your post “What’s it take to become a forensic psychologist?” you say that forensic psychologists should have excellent writing skills. Did your career as a journalist help you in that regard? Do you think that forensic psychology programs should include courses on journalism? 

Dr. Franklin: My education and training in journalism has definitely been a big asset. (And it is undoubtedly what spurred me to start the blog, as once writing gets in your blood, it’s hard to stop.) Journalism school teaches writing as a craft, and working in the field -- as a daily newspaper reporter – forces a certain efficiency in writing. In my graduate school teaching, I have definitely noticed that many students do not realize how critical writing precision is to success as a forensic psychologist. Only a small portion of forensic cases result in expert witness testimony. But almost all involve a written report. So our reputations rest largely on our written product. I don’t think psychology programs need to include courses on journalism, but I would certainly favor a lot more focused attention to students’ report-writing skills. I try to teach my students to edit their work carefully, and to take the time to produce multiple drafts, rather than thinking that they are finished after they have typed out a first draft. Writing is hard work, and requires concentrated practice.

That post on forensic psychology as a career is my most popular blog post, by the way. Posted back in 2007, it still gets multiple hits every day, attesting to the popularity of this field.

Psychology Professor Harald Merckelbach
Dr. Merckelbach:  It is impressive to see on your site this listing of highly diverse topics that you wrote about: 35 on psychological testing, 81 on expert witnesses, 60 on wrongful convictions, 27 on malingering and so on. What is the topic that keeps you awake most? 

Dr. Franklin: That’s a great question. When I first started blogging, I didn’t have a specific focus. I didn’t know whether to cover the field broadly or focus in on a few topics more narrowly. I wasn’t sure whether to do straight reporting or critical commentary. One beauty of blogging, it turns out, is that you can do both, like being a news reporter who also writes a weekly opinion column. But it took me awhile to find my voice.

Looking around the blogosphere, I was especially influenced by Vaughan Bell, who hosts a superb neuroscience blog called Mind Hacks, and Scott Henson, a fellow ex-journalist who writes about Texas justice at Grits for Breakfast. Both of them are skillful at blending facts and analysis. They are also far more prolific than I will ever be.

Gradually, I did find my own voice. I realized that there are plenty of academic journals supplying research findings. And there are plenty of news stories on any given topic, easily accessible through a quick Internet search. And running a blog all by myself, in my spare time, I could never hope to cover everything. So the best way I could be of service to the professional community was to provide a critical perspective on major issues and developments in the field, things that captured my attention and that I felt passionate about.

I can’t say that any topic keeps me awake at night. But an overarching concern of my blog is the ways that bureaucracies of social control deploy forensic psychology to provide a scientific veneer for injustice. So, for example, here in the United States we see the prejudicial label of “psychopathy” being used as a scientific rationale for sending juveniles to adult prisons for life. And what is most alarming is when forensic psychologists within the institutions of containment rationalize such practices as serving the greater good. This theme of moral disengagement, which grew out of my blog writings, became the topic of my keynote speech to the national association of forensic psychologists in Australia a few years ago. It’s a dangerously slippery slope. We end up with the American Psychological Association deciding not to punish psychologist John Leso for participating in the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, a blatant human rights violation.

Dr. Merckelbach: Apropos malingering: some years ago, you wrote an article on 22-year-old Mr. Chavez who was sentenced to 25 years of prison because he had walked around with a weapon that he occasionally fired, while exhibiting bizarre behavior. The state hospital experts testified that he was a malingerer, but you – as a defense retained expert – discovered that they had based their opinions on erroneous scoring and interpretation of a malingering test (the SIRS). A disturbing story. Do you think that this type of problem occurs on a wide scale? 

Dr. Franklin: Yes, I do believe this is more widespread than is generally recognized. Whenever you have concentrations of people with no social power and no voice, such as in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, you are going to have abuses. That is what Piper Kerman illustrated so well in her bestselling memoir, Orange is the New Black, about her year in a women’s prison. In the Chavez case, it was a novice intern working under lax supervision. Professionals in government hospitals and prisons tend to get institutionalized, and some of them stop seeing their subjects as worthy human beings. This gets back to the issue of our moral and ethical obligation not to collude in injustice. I’m reminded of the case I just read about in which a man spent most of the past 40 years locked up in a psychiatric hospital for the theft of a $20 necklace. The poor guy, Franklin Frye, was 70 years old before someone finally noticed. I mean, how does that happen? Why wasn’t anyone paying attention?

Dr. Merckelbach: I like your blogs about biases, for example the one about authorship bias, i.e. the phenomenon that test designers report more hallelujah statistics about their risk assessment tools than independent researchers. Makes one think of researchers who are involved in the Prozac business. It leaves one with a somewhat gloomy impression of our discipline. Do you, at moments, say to yourself: "What a field, let’s get back to journalism?"

Dr. Franklin: I got out of journalism when I saw the writing on the wall, just as corporate monopolization began to get a stranglehold on the industry. The newspaper that I worked for was bought by a chain that was only interested in profits. And that has now happened throughout the newspaper industry. Rupert Murdoch’s empire now stretches around the globe, and Amazon’s billionaire owner just bought the Washington Post. That latter purchase was especially iconic for me, because I entered journalism school during the heyday of muckraking journalism, when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were being heralded as role models for exposing the Watergate scandal and bringing down a corrupt administration. So, no, I haven’t regretted leaving journalism. After all, I can always blog!

Dr. Merckelbach:  What about writing a book in which you bring together all these fine blogs?

Dr. Franklin:  I’ve thought about it. I just have to find the time.

Thanks again for asking me to do this interview, and also for your own fine blog. I’ve been amazed at the dearth of forensic psychology blogs, so I was excited to discover yours. I hope others will join in. Blogging can be time consuming, but it’s also rewarding.

Dr. Merckelbach:  Thank you very much for this interview, Dr Franklin!

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