The psychological science I know and love…

Dr John Marshall writes, with a response from our editor Jon Sutton.

What is happening to the psychological science I know and love? For decades, the BPS and its outlets such as The Psychologist, focused on cutting-edge science and implications for psychological policy and practice. Now we are increasingly preoccupied with wider matters such as white male privilege; unconscious bias (presented as fact despite the lack of scientific evidence for the concept directly linked to behaviour); our apparent institutional racism as the cause of our lack of diversity (notwithstanding the dearth of serious efforts to increase intake of people from socially deprived backgrounds) or our need to be political (as long as its left-wing); preoccupation with labelling people, language use, anecdotal tales and experience around ‘power narratives’.

We appear to ruminate over the need for privileging young people, privileging women, privileging BAME groups and privileging tabula rasa beliefs of human development. If we have to teach psychologists they need to be kind to everyone and despise inequality or unfair treatment of any individual then this is a serious concern. There is nothing wrong per se with navel-gazing over these issues; it’s just that there is no scientific rigour brought to bear. But then silly me, science is being treated as a power narrative, or patronisingly seen as one ‘lens’ or ‘narrative’ of viewing the world. If that’s the understanding being peddled, then psychology is in big trouble.

So what topics are we not even mentioning as psychological science trundles on in the background? New ways of looking at paranoia, genetic factors influencing poverty and social class, evolutionary drivers to human cooperation and honesty, decoupling obesity from addiction models, oh and implicit bias studies showing this bias only translates into the real world if people have conscious attitudes that gender gaps don’t exist. As a magazine you have to be a broad church in terms of knowledge sources but surely future scientist practitioner psychologists should be inculcated into the promise and even primacy of scientifically generated knowledge to change our world for the better? The alternative won’t be credible to change policy decision-makers’ minds on so many pressing issues, relegating our wonderful profession to being perceived as an inconsequential pressure group built upon a multiplicity of experiences and anecdote.

Dr John J Marshall
Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist

Editor’s reply: We have received a number of comments on our recent coverage, including Dennis Relojo-Howell’s accusation that we push ‘left-wing type agendas’ and have an ‘obsession’ with ‘social justice’ – see where you can also find my full response. In brief, we have also received a large amount of positive feedback in relation to the March edition, and our recent coverage in general. Yes, our shift in recent years, towards topics which some might consider under the very broad banner of ‘social justice’, has been a deliberate one, reflecting a move in the Society itself and the more active sectors of its membership. We have a responsibility to do this. We are also taking a steer from the Society’s recent ‘member journey’ work, which surveyed thousands of members over what they want from the organisation Also, we are a magazine, not a journal. We unapologetically showcase Psychologists as people, with other interests, beliefs, motivations, narratives and more.

There’s a whole wider debate about what The Psychologist / the Society / Psychology / Science is and should be, and which voices get to define that. But we are listening, and talking. So as ever the main message is to engage with us: that’s what will shape The Psychologist’s future.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

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


With regards to both the above response from John Marshall and the comments from Dennis Relojo-Howell complaining about certain articles of ‘left wing’ bias appearing in The Psychologist, as well as the calls to the editor to ‘stick to the science,’ we need to be clear as to whose science we are talking about and, frankly, be more humble about the limitations and assumptions of the scientific method, especially when it comes to the messy lives of people and the inconvenient truth that everyone lives within a socio-cultural and socio-political context. (Any ‘science’ that attempts to strip people of the influences of their multiple contexts is ecologically invalid; the human sciences are de facto always imprecise and contested. Or as the statistician George Box apparently put it: ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’)

A scientific paper recently published last year in a top European journal ‘proved’ that ‘coloured women in South Africa had lower IQ’s’ – grist for the renewed rise of Race Science stating that white intelligence (and white intelligence tests that prove this) are supreme (Saini, 2019). If interested, see the response from the Psychological Society of South Africa here: Whose science, then, are we talking about? Is there a need – just perhaps – to decolonise some of our psychological sciences?

There is an interesting comment in the letter above: ‘…oh and implicit bias studies showing this bias only translates into the real world if people have conscious attitudes that gender gaps don’t exist.’ A bit of a misrepresentation of still emerging implicit bias studies, especially given science is a progressive and non-absolute human endeavour, i.e. it’s an enterprise aiming for verisimilitude at best. As Fiske (2018) contests – biases certainly fluctuate, but they are also robust and very impactful too – and can indeed be ‘corrected’, but only *if* people become aware of them, and crucially are motivated to do so.

And here’s the sad point on which I agree with John Marshall: If we have to teach psychologists, they need to be kind to everyone and despise inequality or unfair treatment of any individual, then this is a serious concern. This is indeed a live and real concern, particularly given recent issues within the training community in clinical psychology, and in the psychological profession beyond.

The big question is how do we motivate people to change, especially if they prefer not to understand other people’s experiences of the world – finding this ‘boring or tiresome’ and preferring instead to bin people’s sciences and stories, without even reading them? Now those are the signs of poor psychological ‘science’ in practice. It’s time to practice what we preach – to listen and actually hear each other across ideological divides and yes, finding that does change us, if we let it.

As for ‘social justice’, if psychology has no interest in this, it is irrelevant to the vast majority of this world, and, unfortunately, many here in this country.

Dr Nicholas Wood

Consultant Clinical Psychologist, London.

Fiske, S. (2018) Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture. Sage.

Saini, A. (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. Beacon Press.