Letters

speaking out on Coalition cuts; new phrenology; and Kanazawa strikes again

Staying Quiet
‘Experts of all kinds sound off in private about the impact of the coalition’s cuts – but timidly zip their lips in public’ ran a Guardian headline accompanying Polly Toynbee’s article on 1 October last year.

As the public sector cuts deepen and we see de facto privatisation of the NHS and higher education sectors, the effects will be wide-ranging and profound. Yet we wait in vain for a thorough discussion of these issues in The Psychologist, or reports of Society representatives raising concerns about these developments. Once again the Society seems out of step with public feeling: March, for example saw nearly half a million people marching in opposition to these cuts.

There are many things the Society could be doing. It could report the effects of the cuts that are directly affecting NHS services. It could join the BMA, the RCN and campaign against the creeping marketisation of the NHS. It could contrast the launch of the Big Society initiative with the cuts in support for charities as a result of local authority cuts. It could examine the social and psychological impact of increased tuition fees – likely to reduce social mobility even further. It could open up debate of the continuation of neo-liberal policy frameworks that have already failed in the financial sector. It could challenge the Coalition’s single narrative that public debt has been caused by profligate public spending.

All these issues are of immediate interest to psychologists. Psychological processes are involved in government attempts to make the cuts appear reasonable, acceptable and inevitable. The cuts will deeply affect the lives, careers and working practices of many psychologists. And most of all, they will have a profoundly damaging impact upon many who use their services.

To those who would say that the Society’s charitable status prevents it from engaging in political debate, we note that the Charity Commissioners actively promote public debate by charities on issues where they have expertise so long as they do not support a particular political party line.

Perhaps the Society is afraid of putting its head above the parapet – we are aware of no public comment by the Society following the reported sacking by Andrew Lansley of David Richards – adviser to the IAPT initiative which was much promoted by Society representatives. He had had the temerity to ask searching questions about the funding of IAPT (tinyurl.com/6zunkzl).

The Society and, indeed its members, needs to put pressure on the government to change its course before irreversible damage is done to the public sector and to society. If it does not do so, it will be failing its members in spectacular fashion. As another Toynbee headline put it, ‘Those who know disaster looms mustn’t stay quiet’ (tinyurl.com/3yhvl2m).
Dave Harper
University of East London
(and 98 other signatories)


Response from Dr Carole Allan, Chair of the Professional Practice Board and Professor Judi Ellis, Chair of the Research Board:
The Society’s Boards have adopted a number of strategies, by undertaking work as a single professional body, but also by engaging with a range of other bodies to make joint submissions and proposals with the aim of providing a stronger voice in these challenging economic times. For example:

The Professional Practice Board (PPB) has published two policy statements, Psychological Health and Well-being and Psychological Well-being and the Economic Crisis, which recommend that continued investment in evidence-based high-quality psychological services should remain a priority for the government.
The Standing Committee for Psychologists in Health and Social Care (SCPHSC) has been actively monitoring cuts in services and posts and is planning a conference entitled ‘Psychology in the NHS’ to showcase psychology as a core science relevant to the NHS for policy makers and commissioners.

The Society is collaborating with a range of leading organisations (including the Royal College of General Practitioners; the Royal College of Psychiatrists; the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services; the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network; Mind; Rethink Mental Illness; National Involvement Partnership; National Survivor and User Network; Royal College of Nursing; Healthcare Finance Management Association; Interprofessional Collaborative on Mental Health; National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health) in the Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health with the aim of improving effective commissioning for mental health, learning disabilities, and well-being.

The Division of Clinical Psychology organised a successful event on 6 June 2011 to consider the Health and Social Care Bill. The Division is surveying its members for details on the extent of the cuts.

PPB’s Workforce Planning Advisers Steering Committee is meeting with Peter Sharp, Chief Executive of the Centre for Workforce Intelligence, to consider workforce matters, such as the CfWI review of the psychological workforce.
The Society has responded to all of the key consultations that will have impact on teaching, research and practice in psychology – in particular the Health and Social Care White Paper, the DH’s consultation ‘Modernisation of Health and Care: Listening Exercise’ and associated consultations such as ‘Liberating the NHS: Workforce Planning’, as well as those relating to the Research Excellence Framework, and so on. We have consistently argued for continued investment in evidence-based psychological interventions.

Through our membership of the Joint Committee (of the BPS, Experimental Psychology Society and Association of Heads of Psychology Departments) for Psychology in Higher Education, we have held recent discussions with the ESRC regarding postgraduate research training and funding issues and in particular the need to directly address the concerns regarding shortfalls in the training of future academic/research staff in psychology. There is a forthcoming meeting (following the publication of the ESRC International Benchmarking Exercise on Psychology) with ESRC, BBSRC, MRC and EPSRC regarding the funding of research in psychology and to directly address the concerns mentioned above regarding future academics. The Joint Committee also successfully lobbied HEFCE regarding the classification of psychology as a science in the 2014 REF (ensuring science level funding) and the recent 50 per cent increase in QR funding.

These are just a few examples of how the Society is not only working to support members – but also working across other cognate organisations, to support the discipline.

In defence of IAPT
I welcome Leslie Valon’s (Letters, June 2011) and others’ contribution to the debate about the role of IAPT and NICE guidelines. As I see it, IAPT and NICE guidelines recommend evidence-based interventions such as CBT and IPT with or without concomitant use of other interventions. In my practice, teaching and research I do not see these as impositions – no one imposes anything on me without my consent. It strikes me that they meet the needs of many people, but not all and in some cases even not many, something they have in common with most interventions.

I see all around me, and certainly in the pages of The Psychologist, people agreeing with and challenging, the dominant discourses of psychology. I feel refreshed by these debates on the whole. I believe it important to improve people’s access to evidence-based psychological therapies. Helping people back to paid, productive, meaningful work is an important outcome for many people seeking to recover from incapacitating distress, and I am more than happy to facilitate this because a lack of employment is a major source of psychological distress for many people.

One of the things that attracted me to psychology was learning how I could help people develop and sustain resilience, self-efficacy and confidence to survive in a cruel, neglectful and inhumane world, whilst campaigning for a better world that might minimise such privations. Leslie Valon’s use of the word dictatorship to refer to IAPT and CBT was, in my view, unfortunately fatuous and a slur on the integrity of people using these approaches, especially when one considers the grave wrongs that people have suffered under real dictatorships.  
Patrick Callaghan
Institute of Mental Health
Queens Medical Centre
University of Nottingham


Not even a bit of fun?
Referring to the research on politics and brain structure reported in the June issue (‘The Academy meets academia’, News), Colin Blakemore said on Radio 4 last December that what had started off as a bit of fun has ended up being a piece of serious science. Having read the paper I am not sure it even qualifies as a bit of fun.
It is just this sort of atheoretical correlational study, seemingly driven by what the technology can do rather than by what it is reasonable to study, that has led to the science to be openly scorned by those more thoughtful on the matter, notably those of a philosophical bent. Bill Uttal, for example, has justifiably referred to this sort of science as ‘the new phrenology’ in the title of his 2001 book.

It is self-evident that political beliefs are very complex cognitive states that consist of numerous elements, that have numerous determining factors and that can change significantly over time in terms of direction and refinement. I am therefore unable to see how boiling something so complex as this down to a single point on a four-point scale, and then demonstrating some very weak correlation between this and two brain structures whose functions are themselves only loosely understood, can be said to advance the science – either of political belief or of brain function.

The authors do at least have the grace to acknowledge the obvious fact that the structures involved are unlikely to relate directly to political belief and that some other underlying processes must contribute. But, apart from offering the most banal and convoluted of conjectures of the ‘the amygdala processes fear and conservatives might be more fearful’ sort, they leave us in the dark. I would be interested to know who they think is going to do the necessary analysis for them if they don’t do it.

A final, and more serious, matter is that the authors apparently take a dualist view on the relationship between the mind and brain. They write, for example, that a study is needed ‘to determine whether the changes in brain structure…lead to changes in political behaviour or whether political attitudes and behaviour instead result in changes of brain structure’. This dualist view is apparently shared by Professor John Jost of New York University.

If A causes or influences B, then A and B are logically separate entities. This tacit (and perhaps unintended) dualism seems to be widespread in cognitive neuroscience, most notably amongst those who have used it to argue against the self-evident truth that we have free will. It seems more likely to me that the mind and brain are aspects of the same mechanism but expressed at different levels of description – a bit like software and hardware in computing. I have demonstrated the utility of this view in a number of forums.

I don’t think we need a celebrity to act as an ambassador for us – we just need good science.
John Campion
Liphook, Hants


Don’t forget counselling psychology…
I was pleased to read about the launch of the @BPSOfficial Twitter feed in the May edition of The Psychologist. However, I was rather disappointed to note that the Division of Counselling Psychology Twitter feed (@dcopuk) was not on your list of ‘flourishing’ feeds within the Society. Over the past year we have seen a dramatic increase in our number of followers. We have found Twitter a very useful medium with which to communicate with our divisional members and the wider tweeting world.

We welcome the launch of @BPSOfficial and applaud the other Twitter feeds mentioned in the article – they provide us with regular nuggets of information, research, news and insight. We have created public lists of BPS feeds and counselling psychologists (chartered and in training) who tweet. We would like to take this opportunity to invite other Society members to follow us, and these lists if they are interested.

As a Division we plan to use Twitter from our annual DCoP Conference in July after seeing how effectively it was used at the recent Psychology for All event and the BPS Annual Conference in Glasgow. I would encourage all Divisions and Special Interest Groups to explore the exciting possibilities social media networking can offer in this age of rapidly advancing technological progress.

We would be very grateful if @dcopuk could be included in any future lists.
Barbara Douglas
Chair, Division of Counselling Psychology


… Or transpersonal psychology

We, that is, I and the members of the Transpersonal Psychology Section committee in particular, were very pleased to see a special issue of the BPS being devoted to psychology, religion and spirituality. However, on reading the introductory article by Joanna Collicutt we were most disappointed and dismayed to see reference made to the Consciousness and Experiential Section but no mention of our Transpersonal Psychology Section, which was founded at the same time. Our Section addresses many topics relevant to the subject of the special issue, including:
 - the influences of transpersonal experiences and beliefs upon the behaviour, performance and psychological well-being of individuals and groups;
 - the relationship between personality, motivation and such emotions as love, empathy and compassion – particularly in the context of personal growth and the development of transpersonal aspirations, beliefs and experiences;
 - the psychology of religion; and
 - Eastern psycho-spiritual traditions.

I mentioned our disappointment at this oversight at the recent meeting of the ‘Steering Group on Sections’ at the Glasgow conference in May, as we were discussing how the BPS can help to support the Sections. There was considerable consternation among the meeting members at the omission of our Section, but I hope this letter will draw attention to the oversight and to our Section and its function.
Ingrid Slack
Chair, Transpersonal Psychology Section


Teaching teachers about psychology
Jessica Smith (letters, June 2011) in addressing why psychology is a female-dominated subject also draws attention to the apparent low regard in which it is often held by teachers in other disciplines, as well as by parents and prospective students. As Jessica says, as psychology teachers we probably have a job to do in promoting the subject ourselves to blow away some of the misconceptions.

Psychology is now the fourth most popular A-level, and everyone from students to principals ought to have a better understanding of what it is about. The fact that it is now an ‘official’ science A-level doesn’t seem at all widely known. On the other hand, we have to appreciate that a biologist or a physicist would sometimes struggle to recognise psychology as a science. The A-level exam boards acknowledge this in their specifications with topics that examine whether, and to what extent, psychology is in fact a science. However, whether or not a subject is a science is not of course the criterion for whether it is worthy of serious study. Rather, the problem seems to be that many teachers still feel the need to pigeonhole subjects as science, arts or humanities and a lot of the time psychology seems to defy such categorisation so they feel uneasy about it. This aspect is reflected in the A-level specifications, which provide a rounded view of the diversity of perspectives that make up the subject, from the biological to the humanistic.

Given the huge public interest in, and media coverage of psychology (often now repackaged as ‘brain science’), it is indeed surprising that so many of our teaching colleagues in other subjects don’t seem to ‘get it’. I suspect some sour grapes at the rise and rise of what they had believed was some kind of extension subject to develop character rather than an academic discipline. With this in mind, I would like to offer some ideas for how psychology teachers could promote understanding of their subject:
- Draw attention to the role of psychological research in developing theories of education, in understanding how and why people learn and remember, how individual differences affect educational attainment and what behaviours make for good teaching.
- Point out how research in occupational psychology also sheds light on teachers’ own practice, on how they work in teams, what good leadership consists of and what motivates them and affects their own well-being.
- Explain how psychology is evidence-based and teaches young minds to think critically and reflectively about the human world, whether it be something in the news or their own personal lives.
- Describe how A-level and GCSE students learn about the findings of research on a wide range of topics relevant to adolescents, such as relationships, prejudice, parenting, antisocial behaviour, obedience, sleep disorders, addiction, celebrity worship, stress and depression.
- For the science hard core, explain how psychology students learn about a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods, experimental designs, sampling, probability, statistical analysis and report writing.

Perhaps it would be worth trying these out next time staff room banter makes light of your subject, to let them know that it is not to be trivialised or relegated to the position of a filler and it is certainly not going away.

Finally, all is not lost: apart from the occasional snide remarks, I have also had teachers confide in me that they think psychology is fascinating and they wish they could study it themselves. Maybe we can enlist them too!
John Cooter
Cambridge


Kanazawa strikes again
It is extremely unfortunate to have to criticise a fellow academic and psychologist in public, but Kanazawa’s latest outpourings in Psychology Today which proclaim black women to be less attractive than ‘other races’ do nothing but bring the discipline into disrepute. His work has in the past attracted criticism for slipshod reasoning and sloppy methodology. A particularly salient example of this appeared in the British Journal of Health Psychology in 2006 – earning widespread condemnation as ‘substandard’.

One could be forgiven for taking the view that Kanazawa’s entire ‘intellectual’ project is to somehow demonstrate that black people are inferior in any way possible. He has for example argued that IQ determines population health and that the low IQ of Africans is the major reason underpinning the poor health and poor development in African nations. To support this thesis he had to disregard the obvious influences of economic development and social inequality on IQ, as well as the well-known cultural biases present in IQ tests. This ‘work’ on attractiveness, added to his dubious academic portfolio, strongly suggests that Kanazawa’s agenda is driven by base motives.

Academic freedom is about the freedom to challenge received wisdom and pursue unpopular opinions. Any work that does so, however, should be built on strong theoretical, logical, methodological, philosophical and, of course, ethical foundations. Simply pursuing prejudices should have no place in the scholarly community. We have been here before in the 20th century, and so we well know where the kind of views espoused by Kanazawa lead. I believe his current efforts move him beyond the circle within which any scholar should be afforded the protection of their colleagues.

In the same week the film director Lars Von Trier was thrown out of the Cannes Film Festival for ill-judged remarks about Hitler and Nazism. Frankly, Kanazawa’s slurs against black women are if anything worse. I have no idea whether he is a member of the BPS, but I would see this display of evident racism as incompatible with the values and standards which this Society upholds and promotes.
Ron Roberts
Kingston University


Kanazawa’s lazy science not only discredits himself as an academic, it also brings the entire discipline of psychology into disrepute. By peddling his racism to the public behind the guise of scientific psychology, Kanazawa in fact makes it more difficult for the rest of the discipline to be taken seriously. Not only does he help perpetuate a myth that psychology is unscientific, he also makes the task for those of us wishing to disseminate our (peer-reviewed) research to the public that much more difficult. There remains, then, an important need for psychologists to both challenge and rectify Kanazawa’s racism.
Viren Swami
University of Westminster


Forum web chat
Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, has come in for some rare criticism. The sore point was his recent Wall Street Journal column (tinyurl.com/3wv8m6g) about a study published in PNAS (tinyurl.com/44eshhq). The saga raises questions about who’s qualified to popularise neuroscience and the risks of extrapolating from specific results to sweeping claims.

In the study, Swiss students working alone showed the established wisdom of crowd effect – their aggregated performance was generally superior than individual guesses. But the effect was undermined when each student was allowed to revise their own judgement in light of feedback about estimates made by others. Collectively, the group’s answers then became less diverse and accurate, and yet the students grew in confidence.

Why the fuss? The paper was complicated by the fact that the initial wisdom of crowd effect was only demonstrated by using ‘geometric means’, in which standard means are logarithmised. Understandably, given his newspaper audience, Lehrer skirted this issue, and illustrated the paper’s wisdom of crowd effect with a striking example based on a median guess.

To Peter Freed, a medic and brain imager, Lehrer had revealed his naivety. On his blog Neuroself, Freed published a detailed critique of Lehrer’s column, charging Lehrer with cherry picking results and for quoting medians rather than geometric means (tinyurl.com/3assg7z). Freed titled the post ‘Lehrer is not a neuroscientist’, a play on the title of Lehrer’s first book, and suggested the author was not qualified to act as a public expert – indeed, that no single person was, because neuroscience has grown so complicated.

Ironically, others took Freed to task for failing to understand the validity of median data in wisdom of crowd research. Chad Orzel (tinyurl.com/6z29zcd) described Freed’s contribution as ‘an argument about the dangers of not reading research carefully enough by someone who apparently hasn't read the relevant paper very carefully’.

Lehrer mounted his own defence on Freed’s blog (tinyurl.com/69docc2). He’d chosen that median example for expedience, so he could focus on the main story: how interconnectedness causes a worrying convergence of opinion. In fact, his column went so far as to suggest this was an example of the internet enabling ‘new kinds of collective stupidity’.

It was for this extrapolation that Lehrer was criticised elsewhere. Biologist PZ Myers on his Pharyngula blog (tinyurl.com/6x58ae3) said, ‘I think it is a silly argument; it's essentially saying that making the exchange of ideas more free leads to greater ignorance about the diversity of opinions out there.’ Others agreed, including anthropologist John Hawks (tinyurl.com/42xjvly).

Lehrer responded to the affair with good grace and poetic reflection. Recalling that he’d first become aware of the Swiss study via a Paul Kedrosky tweet (tinyurl.com/3txjb4c), Lehrer admitted on his Frontal Cortex blog that ‘the very genesis of the column complicated its larger thesis, which is that our hyperconnected world shrinks our thinking’. He said this was a reminder that we should be suspicious of large points. ‘Like everything else,’ he said, ‘the Internet remains a flurry of contradictions. It makes us stupider and smarter. It gives rise to insane conspiracy theories but also sends us chasing after interesting new PNAS papers, which we would have never found by ourselves. To paraphrase a man much wiser than me, the web contains multitudes.’
Christian Jarrett is staff journalist on The Psychologist.
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