Letters

Access to literature; controversial psychology; psychologists and national security; and more

A distinct lack of imagination

In the past several decades, evolutionary psychologists have earned a degree of cachet for their pronouncements on human nature. Mitigating the explanatory power of evolutionary psychology, however, has been the tendency for some evolutionary psychologists to favour provocative and controversial assertions over theoretical and empirical fortitude. No other evolutionary psychologist so clearly exemplifies this contradiction as Dr Satoshi Kanazawa. Kanazawa’s perspective begins with a seemingly innocuous declaration: that complex social and public issues can be illuminated through the use of an ‘evolutionary psychological imagination’. Such explanations are superior to all other competing explanations because ‘really, what could we possibly know about human behaviour without evolutionary psychology?’ (Kanazawa, 2007). Where things get more divisive is in Kanazawa’s application of his evolutionary psychological imagination to various phenomena.

Kanazawa is no stranger to the provocative: his more dubious assertions (judging by the degree of both popular and scholarly criticism) include the idea that Asians lack creativity, that workplace sexual harassment is part of the ‘normal repertoire’ of human mating strategies, and that national IQ is the most important determinant of health (for which Kanazawa was accused of reviving the politics of eugenics). More recently, Kanazawa (2007) has argued that suicide bombings by Muslim men are a function of their sexual proclivities (they are ‘tricked by the Koran’ into believing that 72 virgins await them if they die as a martyr, and they have limited access to pornography, which might otherwise relieve their sexual tension).

Of course, Kanazawa is entitled to his views and, as an academic, he reserves the right to try and have those views published. But the controversy that surrounds Kanazawa and other evolutionary psychologists also raises important questions about the role of journal editors in enabling such views. Certainly, a desire to scrutinise popular assumptions and challenge intellectual taboos should be welcomed, but editors also bear an important responsibility for both theoretical and empirical exactitude. At the very least, it is the role of editors to ensure that spurious research is not used to substantiate personal political and cultural racism.

Indeed, in Kanazawa’s (2007) article on suicide bombing, the editors appear to have performed a poor job at rooting out such instances of personal racism: Kanazawa frequently asserts that ‘we’ (presumably those of us in the cultural West) are in ‘World War III’ with all of Islam – an entirely unsophisticated political analysis that appears to stem from Kanazawa’s neo-conservatism. Moreover, much of Kanazawa’s (2007) writing suffers from unnecessarily flippant and subjective pronouncements: if I haven’t got a date on a Saturday night, then ‘there’s something wrong’ with me; boyfriends are ‘insufferably rude’ to waiters because of their evolved psychologies; the ‘personal troubles’ of women include having to put up with immature husbands and boyfriends; suicide bombing, like everything in life, is about sex.

Kanazawa’s work also raises important questions about the response of the psychological community to work that might be considered scientifically or politically dubious. Kanazawa’s work, like much of evolutionary psychological thinking, has been subject to immense criticism. But as if often the case, rejoinders and commentary can take several months to appear, by which time the offending article has already left its mark on society and popular attention has shifted elsewhere. Also inherent here is an assumption that the public have all the resources they need to arrive at informed opinions, which of course they do not. In such a scenario, the psychological community has an important role to play in combating promiscuous science, both within and without academia.

Kanazawa’s wish is to present a world in which everything can be reduced to evolved psychologies. But in presenting such a perspective, Kanazawa relies on naive generalisations, simplifications, and misconceptions that make it that much more difficult for more rounded versions of evolutionary psychology to be taken seriously. Indeed, absent in Kanazawa’s world is any appreciation of the historical, cultural, sociopolitical and individual reasons for the myriad of human behaviours. For the psychological community, then, there is an urgent need to challenge the seemingly limited imagination of Satoshi Kanazawa.

- Viren Swami
Department of Psychology
University of Westminster

Reference
Kanazawa, S. (2007). The evolutionary psychological imagination: Why you can’t get a date on a Saturday night and why most suicide bombers are Muslim. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 1, 7–17.

 

Not only England

The October issue of The Psychologist ran a very interesting set of articles on the teaching of A-level psychology in schools and its possible relation to psychology in universities. Unfortunately it was nowhere stated that the situation applied only to England. The BPS is supposedly British and should represent the whole UK. Could we now have some further articles on the situation in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and preferably Eire too? Is psychology taught in schools in these countries, and if so how does it relate to university entrance? Do university lecturers want incoming students to have a school qualification in psychology, or would they prefer them to have a background in biology, physics or maths?

- Helen Ross
University of Stirling

 

Layard’s folly

Lord Layard is obviously a capable and well-meaning individual but does any psychologist, regardless of discipline, really believe that an average of 10 sessions of CBT is sufficient input as a strategy for returning those with a mental health condition on long-term incapacity benefit back into work?

Lord Layard puts forward well-argued and perfectly valid points for CBT as a health solution to alleviate anxiety and depression in the sizable population who unfortunately suffer from a mental health condition. However, he then skips to CBT as a solution to long-term intransigent unemployment without any supporting evidence or logical rationale for the therapy itself. Counselling (CBT or any other form) can be excellent as an early intervention, particularly for job retention but what it is not is ‘evidence-based practice’ for long-term intransigent unemployment.

Individuals fail to progress from incapacity benefit to employment for a whole host of practical reasons that cannot be moderated by counselling including: poor literacy skills, a low general skill base, contentedness with current position in life, low stamina levels, lack of opportunity, employer prejudice, a second disability, cultural attitude, being less well off working than on incapacity benefit, and inability to identify job sources to mention a few. Furthermore, a number of psychosocial issues not necessarily related to the mental health condition including: low confidence, poor social skills, socialised low expectations, or fear of failing may also need addressed.

The long-term unemployed require holistic intervention with active support on a number of fronts and which is sustained long after employment has commenced. The actual mental health condition comes fairly low in the list of priorities; there are plenty of examples of individuals with chronic mental health problems holding down employment. CBT is not the solution to reducing the numbers on incapacity benefit, but holistic and supportive intervention that identifies and addresses all the needs of the individual can be, and if the patient buys into it, this may well include CBT.

- James Japp
Dunblane

 

Psychologists and national security

Karen Carr from the Defence Academy of the UK (Letters, October 2007) perhaps not surprisingly contends that ‘psychology should be used in a controlled way to help with our very difficult security and defence problems’. But as the events we outline show, the control will not be by democratic institutions, nor by professional bodies, but by the institutions of state security themselves. Involvement in them implies the kind of Faustian pact in which the leadership of the APA has now been exposed. In that case it was the professional body itself that was corrupted, but the same pressures and processes will operate elsewhere.

That is why psychologists should not be present in the military and in secret prisons – presence in these organisations legitimates their existence and they stand no chance of ameliorating their regimes. Of course, we do not know if psychologists are working in the secret services (we have to assume they are), but their practice there is not subject to the kind of democratic scrutiny that Karen calls for. Thus it lacks safeguards, the accountability being to unfettered State interests and not to the public interest that, however muted, is still present in, for example, the prison service and other criminal justice settings.

Because our democracy is so conditional and flawed it cannot serve as the safeguard that substitutes for a self-imposed ethical practice, including refusal to engage in the undemocratic structures of institutional oppression that are the more secretive parts of the State’s apparatus.

- Mark Burton
- Carolyn Kagan
Manchester Metropolitan University

 

Access to HE and the ‘generation game’

I would like to thank Peter Banister for mentioning Access courses in the October issue of The Psychologist. I feel my position as an Access lecturer in a higher education setting places me in a position that enables me to see ‘both sides of the fence’ to some extent.

For several years now the University of Bolton has run an Access to Psychology course (in fact, Peter Banister was our external moderator at one stage). It is very comprehensive, covering the ‘basics’ such as study skills, essay writing, critical thinking and all the major branches of mainstream psychology. It ensures the student has the skills and knowledge to go on to further study at Bolton and other universities such as Bangor, Leeds Metropolitan, Salford, etc.

In contrast, I used to teach on a first-year degree module (at Bolton) that is now called IT and study skills for psychologists. I found that some (but not all) of the students that had just come through the ‘A-level mill’ were lacking in some of the very basics I have just mentioned. I was struck by the fact that they had not even heard of referencing and their actual essay-writing skills, such as critical evaluation and the ability to write in a clear, flowing style in order to produce a well-structured essay, were lacking. Moreover, some students were genuinely perturbed when they realised that they would have to do the research and decide what the actual content of the essay would be. All this make me wonder if these students have been taught to ‘pass the tests’ at the expense of skills that are vital to success at degree level.

As Peter said, many mature students (i.e. people of 19 years of age onwards) are, viaAccess courses, now entering universities. They are motivated, determined and want to do well – I should know, I was one! Perhaps the BPS should consider validating Access courses in order to ensure‘a common initial experience’. This in turn would help promote a qualification which does contribute to the ‘nurturing of the next generation’.

- Albert E. Phipps
School of Health and Social Sciences
University of Bolton

Richard Latto, Chair of the Psychology Education Board, replies:You raise some interesting points, and I’m sure that many of us in higher education would agree with much of what you say.

On the question of accreditation of Access courses, the Society’s view to date is that accreditation has to be for something, otherwise it can simply be ignored. Accreditation of undergraduate degree programmes provides access for students to postgraduate training.

So students want it, and universities take it seriously. Following this approach, accreditation of Access courses in psychology would only have real impact if non-accredited Access courses were not accepted by universities for entry into undergraduate degrees. Up until now, the Society has not been in the business of simply kitemarking courses as being of ‘good quality’. However, moving toa broader concept of accreditation is a valuable suggestion and one we should certainly consider at PEB.

 

Buried theses

Although I can only speak from my own experience with the University of London, I had hoped that things might have improved over 43 years…

In 1962 I received a PhD in physics and in 2005 one in psychology. The two theses are interred in the vaults of Senate House, and to view them you need to give notice, provide photographic identity and pay £5. Admittedly the second one, entitled ‘Childhood temporary separation: Long-term effects of wartime evacuation in World War 2’, is also available from Birkbeck College; however, notice is required and you need to be a member of the library to see any of their collection. Birkbeck library also say that those published before 2000 are stored ‘remotely’ and are not available for retrieval. As for searching electronically for relevant titles and abstracts, things are no better. The ASLIB Index to Theses in Great Britain and Ireland can only be accessed through a security system requiringa dedicated user name and password. Furthermore their lists do not, unfortunately, feature in search programs such as PsycINFO where only North American theses are included.

If my experience is fairly typical, then I think that in this day and age of ‘information retrieval technology’ the situation in the UK is hardly efficient or user-friendly. By contrast, in Scandinavia book copies of research theses are made available by the relevant universities or research institutes in soft-backed B5 format for ready distributionto any interested party.

Certainly the research described in theses gives riseto research papers, but they are not the same thing. This is particularly the case today when publishers and editors insist on short, highly focused papers. Psychology is not an exact science and theses do allow for a more discursive approach with the space to comment on, and contrast, both theory and results. This resource should not be buried from view.

- J. Stuart Rusby
- Grayshott, Surrey

 

More undone experiments

I am a graduate member, head of an independent dyslexia special school and the mother of a schizophrenic young man. I have, therefore, more than just academic interest in articles in The Psychologist touching on mental illness, and dyslexia and the teaching of reading.

I was prompted to write when I saw Richard Bentall’s article in the November issue under the title ‘The most important psychology experiment never done’. It is shocking that only six studies have been done on medicated versus non-medicated first episode schizophrenics, according to the article, and more shocking still that ‘unmedicated patients did at least as well and possibly better than medicated patients in the long term’.

It disturbs me that my son’s brain is subjected to dopamine-inhibiting drugs to control his illness, given the side-effects of these drugs, aptly described as ‘chemical coshes’, modern or not. I am all too aware that the medication may be damaging the brain and that the damage will be permanent and life-changing. And yet, there is no interest or willingness to help my son manage his illness without medication. This is unsurprising, of course, since the definitive research has not been done and psychiatrists, patients and parents alike are averse to the risk of further episodes.

Turning to dyslexia, and in the wake of the Rose Report, I believe an additional ‘most important psychology experiment never done’would encompass large-scale comparative studies into commercial phonics programmes. Schools are currently free to choose their phonics programmes assisted only by the self-evaluation of the publishers (see www.standards.dfes.gov.uk). I will certainly be willing to have the method used in my school, Phono-Graphix, evaluated in this way.

Unlike many programmes, it teaches the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme awareness as it teaches the code itself. I believe it is superior, and I know I can teach children to read quickly, but I cannot know there is no better method without controlled comparative data.

Much media time is currently being given to the teaching of reading. Ruth Miskin’s phonics programme features in Channel 4’s Why Children Can’t Read. It is not enough for a programme to be simply ‘synthetic phonics’. If we are not able to identify those phonics programmes that teach skills and address the nature of some learners (dyslexics), we will still fail some children. We will then conclude that phonics doesn’t work, and the pendulum will swing again, simply because the vital research is not done.

We have a scientific method that has served us well. Both the concerns under discussion are susceptible to the scientific method. I cannot help concluding that entrenched lobbies in both the fields, prevent the progress and enlightenment that is important to all those involved, not least society as a whole.

- Pamela Lore
Moon Hall School for Dyslexic Children
Near Dorking
Surrey

 

Access to journals

I have long believed that the model of the scientific practitioner promoted by the Division of Clinical Psychology was a very sound one: Let theory suggest hypothesis and experience test it. I have tried to follow such a model in the domain of management assessment and development and have on occasions formalised the process and published results.

However, the longer a practitioner is separated from the university context the harder it is to keep up with published research, particularly if you are self-employed without an organisation and a library budget to support you. The problem is becoming even more acute as universities are migrating from hard copy journals to electronic versions as the latter are usually only accessible to current students and staff.

I have resolved the issue for the time being due to the good offices of the Psychology Department at the University of Warwick who have appointed me an Associate Fellow. However, I ask whether it would be a good use of our subscriptions if the Society were able to negotiate access to electronic journals as a continuing facility for all individual members. I can think of few initiatives that would be more beneficial in raising the standard of applied psychology practice.

- Hugh McCredie
Balsall Common
Coventry

Graham Davey, Chair of the Publications and Communications Board, replies: The Society already has a useful arrangement with Senate House Library, University of London, where our own library collection is held. On presentation at Senate House, Society members can join as a reader free – a saving of up to £150 a year. They can then gain remote access to a range of University of London online resources (see www.bps.org.uk/hopc for more details).

 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber