What does evidence look like?

Lewis Mitchell with a letter from our November issue.

Despite its inflammatory appearance [cover pictured above], I approached the September issue of The Psychologist with an open mind.

Like others, I believe The Psychologist has been dabbling in left-wing dogma for some time. Of course, this is arguably a reflection of the general readership – perhaps such inclinations are what members wish to read each month. Regardless, the September issue saw this previously simmering partiality come to a boil, at the expense of scientific rigour.

What I find most disconcerting is not the left-leaning stance in general, but rather the blind admission of guilt in statements such as ‘we are institutionally racist’ that result from it, based on evidence that is tenuous at best. For tenuous it is, since there was not even an attempt at building a comprehensive, research-based account of the issue – surely that is a bare necessity?

In the editor’s introduction we are rhetorically asked what ‘standing against racism’ means to The Psychologist. One of the suggestions is to provide a space for ‘constructive, evidence-based, psychological conversation’. Yet nothing about the September issue seems to align with this. In fact, it palpably contradicts it. Racism is abhorrent and is not an accusation that should be thrown around loosely; to do so is anything but constructive. Moreover, to do so without a sound evidence-base violates the scientific method and the principles the BPS claims to uphold. It is inconceivable that, in the era of ’open science’, such strong claims in any other domain would be accepted without first establishing a sound body of evidence – why is racism an exception? We cannot expect to adequately tackle such an issue, if it is indeed an issue, without first being able to study and understand it.

This begs the question, what does a sound body of evidence look like? Perhaps that is something we can have a ‘psychological conversation’ about. Some exploratory, multivariate analyses would make a good start (such work may already exist; if it does, I would question why it was not cited). Some members have pointed to data in other areas, perhaps this could be used as a model for our own field. What we can establish now is what a sound body of evidence does not look like: ‘If it feels like we’re institutionally racist, then we probably are’. To replace ‘institutionally racist’ with any given phenomenon reveals how flawed such a statement is.

It is important to note that I write this not from a place of disagreement. During my time as a member I have read many pieces in The Psychologist that I vehemently disagree with, and long may it continue. What differs in this instance is that I cannot conclusively disagree, nor for that matter agree, with the notion that the BPS is institutionally racist. In absence of evidence, conclusions are being drawn based on nothing more than surmise, jumping the proverbial gun.

I have read many of the responses to the publication and I hope this will not be perceived as belittling the experiences of some members. However, it is important to note that the BPS is not only the representative body for psychologists in the UK, but also of psychology. When an overt deviation from best practice occurs, as it has in this instance, it is our duty to highlight and to scrutinise. For the BPS, neglecting the scientific method is to neglect its role at the frontier of psychology in the UK.

Lewis Mitchell
Graduate Member

Editor’s reply: I received a number of emails along these lines in response to our September issue. I have sought to engage with them all, strongly disagreeing with the idea that the approach was ‘inflammatory’, and questioning when a discussion around racism became ‘left-wing dogma’.

All contributors to that edition were clear that this was just one more step in ‘mainstreaming the agenda’ around diversity and inclusion, and we have always been very open about our desire to see constructive, evidence-based, psychological conversation on these topics. Of course we want scientific rigour. But at the same time, we are not seeking a debate over whether or not racism exists in our society. The evidence for that is all around us, as Jermaine Ravalier outlines in the next letter. And we will never invalidate personal experience by demanding ‘where’s your scientific evidence?’ We are a magazine, where psychologists share their opinions and life stories.

There are undeniably many inequalities and barriers within our profession. We will be hearing more about them in future editions. But, for now, the reaction to our September issue has only further convinced me that we were right to once again seek to spark a new conversation around such areas.

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Thanks for that. But I have also written to Jon to encourage him to open up the whole issue ... but warning him that, to do so, will get The Psychologist into serious trouble.

John Raven

I have only recently discovered the debates link at The Psychologist. Now, prompted by Lewis Mitchell having recorded his unease about the September issue, I am writing to record my feelings about the July/August issue. I was very unhappy about the framing of this and sent a long letter to Jon Sutton for consideration for publication. Jon advised me that “It didn’t make the cut for the September issue”. I was not quite sure how to interpret this so I revised the letter to appeal to a wider audience and posted it on my eyeonsociety website and Research Gate. For those who might be interested, the current version is available at: http://eyeonsociety.co.uk/resources/bps-july-2020.pdf

I came across couple of posts suggesting caution in embracing the concept of institutional racism.