Psychology is experiencing one of its worst periods since it separated itself from philosophy as distinct discipline nearly 140 years ago. Today, its ethical reputation has been seriously damaged by a scandal involving guidelines permitting psychologists to participate in torture.
The American Psychological Association (APA) is the country’s largest organization of psychologists, which I joined as an affiliate in the early 1970s, becoming a full member in 1992. I had always thought of APA as a rather stodgy group of eggheads that occasionally made headlines with pronouncements on obvious things like the negative effects of discrimination or the need for universal preschool education.
In truth, the organization is frequently involved in controversial topics, such as whether unborn fetuses can feel pain and the parenting effectiveness of same sex parents.
A large scale survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates commissioned by APA in 2008 found that only 30 percent of the general public agreed that “psychology attempts to understand the way people behave through scientific research.” Keith Stanovich from the University of Toronto once called psychology the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the sciences referring the comedian’s running joke: “I don't get no respect.”
Misleading the public
There are things, however, that are worse than not being perceived as scientific. This spring, it was discovered that for over a decade, APA leadership apparently violated its own code of ethics in regard to the participation of psychologists in abusive governmental interrogations. The very committee established to protect human rights was the major apparatus for the cover-up.
It wasn’t until last year when New York Times reporter James Risen disclosed the widely held suspicions as the APA board commissioned an investigation by a former federal prosecutor. Released in July, the report confirmed that association officials acquiesced to Defense Department and CIA demands and paved the way for psychologists to participate in torture, while simultaneously issuing “misleading public statements” through a “disingenuous media strategy.”
As a result, the association’s ethics director was fired, the public relations officer “resigned,” and the CEO and his deputy “retired.” This situation was especially unique, given APA’s left leaning history of social advocacy.
In the literature
While still reeling from this scandal, psychology’s credibility took a second salvo in August when an article entitled "Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science," was published in the journal Science. The Virginia-based Center for Open Science, recruited 270 researchers who attempted to replicate the results of 100 core knowledge psychological experiments. Disappointingly only 39 were successfully reproduced. The results question how much “psychological knowledge” can be trusted, with over a 60 percent failure rate?