An aggravating controversialist, or ahead of his time?

The debate over the legacy of Hans Eysenck continues, with contributions from John Hall and Anna Scarnà.

Andrew Colman, David Marks, and three other colleagues (Letters, The Psychologist, September 2019) cite a recent paper by Tony Pelosi (2019) regarding the involvement of Hans Eysenck in what they see as one of the ‘worst scandals in the history of science’. They go on to suggest that Eysenck ‘should have been investigated long ago’ for a scientifically shoddy book, for dabbling in pseudoscience, and for discrediting the causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. They propose that Eysenck’s research publications, particularly those arising from his collaboration with Ronald Grossarth-Maticek in the field of psychological predictors of cancer and coronary heart disease, should be reviewed by the British Psychological Society.

Their letter does not make any reference to Rod Buchanan’s (2010) detailed and forensic biography of Eysenck, which is however quoted by Pelosi. Buchanan’s biography is subtitled, significantly, 'The controversial career of Hans Eysenck'. Eysenck was unquestionably the most prolific psychological author of his period, but was controversial for a number of reasons, not only because of allegations of distortions of scientific evidence. He overstated his own contribution to the development of clinical psychology as a profession, minimising the contribution of others, such as May Davidson and Grace Rawlings (Hall, 2007). Closer to home, he did not give credit to the leading role of Monte Shapiro in developing clinical psychology training at the Maudsley (Morley, 2000). To give any credence to Phillipe Rushton’s opinion of Eysenck as the ‘single most important psychologist who ever lived’ is misleading: Rushton was one of Eysenck’s research students, and a controversial figure in his own right, according to Buchanan.  

Within the British psychological establishment of the time Eysenck was distrusted: the sub-heading to one of Buchanan’s chapters is: “It’s all about trust, stupid” (p.164). The British Psychological Society has already ‘investigated’ him in 1995, at the behest of Pelosi, by an ethics complaint about his use of subjects in a case-control trial associated with Grossarth-Maticek: the BPS Investigatory Committee deemed the complaint ‘inappropriate’ and considered the matter closed. 

Yes, there is a ‘replication crisis’ in psychology, and yes, sloppy methodology and distorted intepretation of data should be condemned. But is an audit of the work of a man who has been dead for 22 years the best way to do it? The letter to The Psychologist does not make clear that it is in support of a broader proposal by David Marks in his editorial in the Journal of Health Psychology, which immediately precedes the Pelosi article. Marks identifies the need for an independent UK body to promote good governance, management and conduct of academic, scientific and medical research, and suggests the establishment of a National Research Integrity Ombudsperson. Examination of the research articles in question shows that they were published in a number of journals, including Psychological Reports, Personality and Individual Differences, and Behaviour Research and Therapy, a journal founded by Eysenck. Marks quotes two of Eysenck’s books, republished in Kindle form by Springer and Routledge in 2012 and 2017. Is it not the responsibility of both journal and book publishers to review and retract dubious content in their publications? 

Buchanan’s book is an extremely carefully researched and crafted volume, searching behind both the published work and public face of a highly gifted yet complex individual with unparallelled productivity, and should be read by everyone concerned about this issue. Buchanan pays detailed attention to the different areas of Eysenck’s scientific work, devoting 22 pages to Eysenck’s links to Grossarth-Maticek, and concluded that Hans Eysenck is best seen as an aggravating controversialist, a sad but fair final comment.

I am not sure that an inspection by the Society alone of Eysenck’s work is the most effective way to address a very real problem. Besides, it rather smacks of carrying out a posthumous execution, like that carried out in 1681 on Oliver Cromwell’s exhumed body after the restoration of the monarchy!  

John Hall FBPsS CPsychol

Visiting Professor of Mental Health, Oxford Brookes University

References

Buchanan, R.D. (2010). Playing with Fire: The Controversial Career of Hans J. Eysenck. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, J.N. (2007). The emergence of clinical psychology in Britain from 1943 to 1958 part II: Practice and research traditions. History and Philosophy of Psychology, 9(2), 1-33.

Marks, D.F. (2019) The Hans Eysenck affair: Time to correct the scientific record. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4); pp. 409–420.

Morley, S. (2000). Monte Shapiro obituary. The Guardian, 2 May

Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421-439.

 

The letter by Colman, Marks, McVittie, and Smith in the September 2019 edition demanding an audit on the works of Hans Eysenck misses the point about what was of central importance in Eysenck’s work. It fails to appreciate the contrast between Eysenck's pioneering work on personality and psychopathology, and his venture into some admittedly dubious areas. Indeed, the letter is representative of the very type of smear campaign and witch-hunting which Eysenck was subjected to previously.

Eysenck was “the most cited living psychologist and the third most cited of all time” because he had interesting and innovative ideas. Why punish any psychologist for this? If scientific replicability were of importance, it would make more sense to analyse the works of a number of published psychologists within a given time band. Eysenck’s work should be taken in the context and faith of what it was: a brilliant new insight into personality traits, for which there is no evidence that it was dishonest.

This is how he should be judged: for a theory of personality which constituted a brilliant insight into individual differences, with ideas about dimensions of personality, connections to illness, and biological influences. Importantly, his theory fitted into already existing historical themes. Conceptually, it was sometimes flawed and exaggerated, but that is part of the continuing debate in individual differences, and he was always open to others' scrutiny. Who can forget his debates with Robert Block over the formation of the Big Five? (Will the letter authors also propose auditing those researchers?). His theory was based on decades of research on thousands of participants, tested rigorously for validity and reliability. However, Eysenck was also an open thinker and explored topics which, in retrospect, may seem dubious in validity. Preoccupation of these by others has distracted from his central work on personality, leading to a wrong generalisation about him. He was ahead of his time.

As the Society rightly replied, the Code of Ethics for the BPS emphasises that research should be designed, conducted and reviewed to ensure quality, integrity, and contribution to knowledge and understanding. Starting this style of analysis is against the Code, and invites witch-hunting of other names of thinkers who dared to have “preposterous” ideas. Can Eysenck be blamed for being a risk-taking scientist?

Lastly, and to bring my points back to the start; the authors have not explained why now, especially given that these criticisms of Eysenck were already dealt with decades ago, and how any absence of any audit would “cause harm to patients and members of the general public”. Any audit would be superfluous, not just to the needs of said public, but also to the very psychologists protected by the Society’s Code of Conduct. 

Dr Anna Scarnà

Academic Psychologist

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