President's Column

Ray Miller on psychology and the public; and statutory regulation
There are, apparently, three Saints Valentine recognised by the Catholic Church. It is not entirely clear which lent his name to the romantic festival of February.

President's Column  

There are, apparently, three Saints Valentine recognised by the Catholic Church. It is not entirely clear which lent his name to the romantic festival of February. All three were martyrs to whom a variety of legends attach that might be relevant. Even more confusing is the contention that February 14th was originally the Roman festival of Lupercalia; celebrating Love in the more excessive ways for which they are infamous. Alternatively, in the Middle Ages it was thought that birds chose their mate in mid-February while, for the less romantic, Valentine’s Day may conjure images of Chicago in 1929 – the gangster era with Al Capone and Bugs Moran.

That information was garnered in a matter of minutes simply by entering ‘valentine’ into an internet search engine. Fascinating though it is, there is no way of knowing whether the websites actually provided accurate data. The internet is a marvellous tool, but one that must be used with caution.

Enter ‘psychology’ as the search term and the results are overwhelming – over 116 million hits. Even restricting the search to scholarly references produced more than 1.6 million hits in the English language. The psychological information varies from the academic to the idiosyncratic. A range of sites provide opportunities to participate in psychology experiments, to undertake psychometric assessment, to access teaching resources and to receive advice and therapy. Much of the information is excellent and educational, but a lot is at best unscientific and at worst dangerous.

In the last few weeks concerns have been expressed regarding sites promoting an anorexic or bulimic lifestyle to young women (see p.68). There are other concerns around bad advice and erroneous or misleading information on a range of psychological and mental health issues. Public information varies from the erudite New York Times (www.nytimes.com/pages/health/psychology) to less edifying sites promoting ‘psychological science’ that would receive short shrift in any undergraduate course.

The Society has an important role in helping the public to access accurate and reliable information about the discipline and practice of psychology.

There is a confusion in the public mind between empirical science and intuitive or mystical pseudoscience. This was identified, among other issues, by a Psychological Society of Ireland report in 2005 on the public understanding of psychology (search for PAGOTPUP at www.psihq.ie). With regard to the importance of the internet they concluded: ‘A thorough and comprehensive information store, easily navigable and referenced to a Frequently Asked Questions section, would appear to be a basic minimum requirement for a modern professional body.’ Our own website has recently been redesigned, and it is getting easier to access information for both members and the public, but we still have some way to go before we meet that criterion.

One use of the internet in recent months has been to keep you closely involved with progress on statutory regulation. We mounted an unprecedented campaign to ensure that government, the public and members were aware of our concern that hasty legislation, based on the proposals in the Foster review, would undermine rather than improve public protection.

Representing the Society’s strong and clear views, I, along with the Vice President, the President Elect and our Chief Executive, met with Health Minister Andy Burnham MP on 18 December. Our report of the meeting is available at www.bps.org.uk/statreg, and on p.103 – I am pleased to say it was a constructive one. The Minister was aware of the concerns we wished to raise and the fact that we had achieved a broad level of support at both Westminster and Holyrood in pressing for a more detailed and transparent analysis of the optimum route to regulation. He acknowledged also that there were aspects of our proposals for a Psychological Professions Council that merited further examination.

Most importantly, the Minister indicated that the government would not immediately press to regulate psychology through a statutory order. Instead they wish to take the opportunity for further consideration of the Donaldson and Foster reports. The most likely response will be a White Paper ‘early in 2007’, and this will give time for work to be done over the summer with a view to inclusion in the Queen’s Speech in the autumn.

The importance and urgency of our concerns clearly achieved the high profile for which we had aimed. The actions of members in helping to ensure that key decision makers were fully informed and aware has been a major factor in that outcome. I would like to thank you all for your efforts and support. We will need to continue to monitor progress closely and ensure that future legislation meets the objective of better regulation and better public protection. We will, as always, keep you informed.

I hope you enjoy Valentine’s Day!

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