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The British False Memory Society – a personal story

A quarter of a century ago information about myself and my supposed false memory was given to the British False Memory Society (BFMS) without my consent. This information has been used to construct all sorts of theories about myself and my memory. It is very bizarre as it was all third-party information. There was nothing objectively true or false about it, no court cases, and no police involvement. It was simply disputed within family conversations. I do not understand how it is ethical for psychologists to affirm that my disputed memories are false without having further evidence.

This is the reality of the experience of someone whose life has been directly affected by the controversy surrounding the accuracy of memory – away from the laboratory, away from academic debate – this is what happens to real people in real life. The quote comes from a post sent to us following our coverage of the Memory and Law debacle. The full post is here and contains important and well-researched information about the British False Memory Society, members of its Scientific Advisory Board and the tactics used by the BFMS.

One of the areas that is of particular concern to us is the reference to the Centre for Memory and Law at City University. In the absence of formal, up-to-date, evidenced-based balanced guidance for practitioners and the courts, where will lawyers go? The Centre’s title says it all, and yet it is headed by someone whose links with the BFMS are well-known. Of further concern are the data-protection issues alluded to with reference to the BFMS Archive being passed to the City University. Have the appropriate measures been taken to ensure that highly sensitive information about individuals has been suitably anonymised? How will those requesting access to these data be vetted and checked? Karl Sabbagh, who was convicted of grooming of a teenage girl in 2019, remained an adviser to the BFMS until 2021 who only acted when contacted by a journalist [see here] – how can we trust them?

We continue to urge the BPS to rescind their decision to abandon the work of the Law and Memory Group; to ensure that any future group is properly representative of all the views and controversies; and that any new group is set up to included the voices of those who have experienced the machinations of organisations such as the BFMS at first hand.

Posted by BPSWatch Admin

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How Did We Get Into This Mess?

David Pilgrim posts….

The recent description of the BPS as a ‘stultifying bureaucracy’, characterised by ‘administrative incompetence and deliberate procrastination’, seems to be completely fair comment. The evidence to confirm the conclusion, using a range of case studies, was sent in our dossier to the Charity Commission, which I summarised in the earlier posting The Mess We Are In. 

Do all charities descend into these cultural norms: are they all on the same tramlines of determination? Possibly the tendency is there in for all, but clearly some of them function better than others. Moreover, when the whistle is blown on problems such as those in the dossier, they do not all react in the same way. As in all open human systems, there is variability of outcome and so precise predictions are offered at our peril. So, we might ask, what is peculiar about the BPS? Its concrete singularity as a dysfunctional charity bears examination. 

A personal look back

My own starting point is a memory from long ago when I had just qualified as a clinical psychologist. I was at a conference and was chatting in the bar with Don Bannister about the BPS (a body I had recently joined but knew little about). For those who do not know the name, he was a leader in personal construct psychology, who never shied away from criticising his own discipline. Don was a smart and impish intellectual. 

This was in the late 1970s, and I vaguely saw the Society as probably a stuffy but benign organisation, whereas Don had already seen it for what it was. He was of the view that on paper the BPS was indeed a democratic membership organisation. However, in actual practice, this was not the case. The reason, he argued, was that only a self-selecting group of psychologists could be bothered with its bureaucratic intricacies (for their own personality or careerist reasons). They then got their feet under the table and would not budge for years on end. 

Today that picture still remains obvious and is why I describe the organisation not just as a ‘bureaucracy’ but also an ‘oligarchy’. I would re-frame the combination as this: it is an oligarchy that uses bureaucratic means to protect the status quo and ward off critical scrutiny. In Orwellian fashion it uses the rhetoric of democracy and transparency to do the very opposite of its claims. Our dossier offers extensive evidence for that conclusion. 

Another rhetorical point to note is that ‘recycled’ bureaucratic authority is not declared publicly in a state of shame about personally monopolising a democratic structure. Instead, these oligarchs see themselves clearly as serving the organisation and its membership; a point they make proudly on their CVs and personal websites.  (The bankrolling of some of them came to an end just a few years ago, but the status implications remain the same for those working for expenses only.) Of course, some people genuinely move in and on quickly, in a spirit of true democracy but many do not.

As confirmatory evidence that Don Bannister had got it about right, another but more recent memory comes to mind. In 2015, with John Hall and Graham Turpin I edited a book (sponsored by both the Division of Clinical Psychology and the History & Philosophy Section), Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives. It was launched at the DCP Conference and was discussed enthusiastically. 

Many of the contributors to the book, who were on the brink of launching the break away group the Association of Clinical Psychologists (ACP), came to the launch. However, out of disdain for the legitimacy of the DCP and the BPS they refused to pay the conference fee.  These aging rebels were of the understandable view that they had written their contributions pro bono so why pay? They pitched up anyway and, in a proud act of delinquency, they set up a table and offered their very own prepared laminated badges for those going into the room. The game was up; these were psychologists who themselves had played by the rules of the bureaucratic oligarchy for many years and could not take it anymore.

Cultural history

Here are some ideas about history to account for the above state of affairs. First, from the outset, the emerging autonomy of psychology in Britain tussled with the established disciplines in the academy of philosophy and medicine. Both, in their own way, tried to constrain its development or colonise its agenda. This created a scenario of assertiveness (and some might say arrogance) for the fledgling discipline of psychology in the early 20th century. The knowledge base of the discipline may have been contested but the self-confidence of all concerned, whatever their competing views, soon became evident. 

Second, until the second half of the 20th century academic psychologists in the Society dominated its leadership, placing those going off to professionalise their wares in applied settings in a secondary position. This led to a paradox of the latter legitimising psychology in public life externally but the Society itself being more dominated by academic leaders internally. A complaint then of applied psychologists was that they had less power than academics and their concerns were not taken as seriously. The BPS was established as a learned society primarily, with its unifying characteristic of being an academic discipline. Its professional applications, which eventually were expressed in its Divisional structure seen today, were self-confident but they also, of necessity, played second fiddle politically to the legacy of organisational history.  

The formation of the ACP was one eventual culmination of the contradictions of this legacy. I assume similar imagined futures for applied psychologists in the other Divisions are now abroad.  The tension was manifested by a trend over time for applied psychologists to put themselves forwards more for the role of President, though this did not quieten disaffection in Divisional ranks. Moreover, Presidents, whatever their background in the discipline, have tended to ensure cultural reproduction, rather than challenge fundamental organisational roles and norms. When challenge has occurred, it has been met with systemic resistance and personal animosity to the attempted new broom. The genuinely challenging President is a marked man or woman in the BPS.

A recent example of the continuing dominance of academic psychologists being in tension with the views of applied psychologists was the Memory and Law debacle. Collusion between academics on the Research Board ensured that experimentalists favouring the claims of the False Memory Society had taken precedence over the evidence from applied psychology of widespread child sexual abuse in Society. The rapid closure of the group meant that the latter cautions were not to be fully reviewed, with the public protection implications left free floating. As a relevant aside here, I attended the tense exploratory meeting to relaunch this now aborted group in 2018. I applied to be on the substantive group, in order to ensure a proper discussion of the scale and mental health consequences of child sexual abuse. My application to join the substantive group was rejected, despite the fact that I had just finished the book Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? I was given no explanation by a senior manager, who was not a psychologist. She has now left and. I have been unable to ascertain who advised her to reject me and on what grounds. 

Third, the separation of the applied from academic wings culminated in the Society abandoning a unified investigatory and disciplinary system to ensure public protection. This then left the Society with no clear role, embarrassingly leaving the matter of ethical impropriety to regulatory bodies like the HCPC on the one hand or employers on the other. Justice for complainants remains then a hit and miss affair.  We are in the process of preparing a fuller post about this. If selective management attention is in doubt about this gap in the system, witness how the complaints process is applied assiduously in some cases, while others are just ignored. This is not just inefficiency (though it includes that). It is mainly about interest work that inflects what is investigated properly and what is treated in a tawdry fashion. For example, anyone seriously challenging the status quo about a flawed policy is simply ignored (emails are not answered) or the complaint peters out, with no serious discussion of learning from the process by those running the Society. If a training film was needed on how not to be a ‘learning organisation’, the BPS would be an excellent start. 

Fourth, in the past few years the more general shift in organisations to the New Public Management Model and its increasing reliance on digital governance (‘computer says “no”’) has been obvious in the Society. This brings with it the same problems witnessed first in the NHS and then in higher education, with a new management class emerging to control all others. Once this emerges, considerations about the power, status and salaries of this new management elite predominate in decision-making. A ponderous slow-moving bureaucracy then is ensured. Culturally now there is the added sense of being in a lesser amusing episode of The Thick of It, with the unending obsession of BPS leaders with control over both information and people. In this case, ipso facto, this has been at the expense of openness and transparency and a healthy version of membership democracy. Moreover, unlike in the NHS and higher education, where senior managers have often actually had some proper role in their organisations over many years, in the Third Sector we witness a form of managerialism, which can be readily disconnected from the content of the employing body.

Democracy and managerialism in tension

Why should senior managers in the BPS genuinely care about outcomes preferred by the membership, or ensure lay representation within management structures like the Board of Trustees? Like politicians, their short-term interest is mainly in their own domain of power and influence. Other communities of interest might undermine managerialism and so they are instrumentally ignored, or control sought over them. Unlike its ordinary members, managers have no long-term commitment to the Society. The departed employee who kept me out of the Memory and Law group was symptomatic of this here today, gone tomorrow, managerialist culture. Witness the history of the recently and suddenly departed Finance Director, who moved on to a completely different charity before Christmas. As usual, the membership had to find out about this fact; they were not informed.

The oligarchy I describe here and in previous postings then reflects that convergence of interest between a core group of elected or appointed psychologists hanging around in the Society, for years on end, with these career managers.  Thus the recycled authority of the same names (tipped off to me in the late 1970s by Don Bannister) no longer represents the single elite group in the Society. It is now jostling for position with the new senior managers, leaving ordinary members and the general public demoted in importance or out in the cold. 

For those who are prepared to enter the Machiavellian world of this new political amalgam, and work hard at that insinuation, there are certainly gains to be made. This has been evident in the capture of sub-systems by some activists from within identity politics. Witness their persistent and recurring role over the BPS policies on gender, prescribing rights and the Memorandum of Understanding about conversion therapy. In some cases, this has meant policy indolence in the face of legal circumstances. 

For example, the Judicial Review in December 2020 changed the law on biomedical paediatric gender transition. The BPS should have immediately reviewed its policies of relevance but has refused to do so, despite representations. Its magazine The Psychologist instead of reporting the Judicial Review as a game changing legal event and exploring its ethical implications for research and practice instead issued a single pre-prepared biased account, in defiance of the unanimous judicial ruling. Witness also how managers in the BPS have signally failed to rectify the implications of this policy capture in the public interest, with most members probably being unaware of the chicanery involved. This same point applies to those representing the biased interests of the False Memory Society, noted above, embedded in the Research Board over many years.

What Next?

Where is all this going? One scenario is more of the same. The Board of Trustees might continue with its ‘problem what problem?’ approach. It will just carry on protecting the incumbent interests of the oligarchy, with its wilful blindness to endemic poor governance. (An exception here was the resignation recently of the Deputy President, citing the latter as the main reason.) Another is that more and more members will leave in frustration and this might coalesce into new organisational formations, in addition to the ACP. If this is a large fracture, with applied psychology setting up shop elsewhere, then the BPS may need to re-name itself something like ‘The Society for Psychology Graduates’. A final scenario is that a root and branch reform of the Society will ensue, to at last ensure its proper governance, prompted by a combination of press interest and Charity Commission engagement and investigation.

Watch this space.

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“…Stultifying bureaucracy, administrative incompetence and deliberate procrastination…”

The headline quote about the BPS comes from a senior and experienced clinical psychologist – and it sums up pithily our concerns about the Society and how it fails its members. Although not the author of that statement, Sarajane Aris, who is a former Director of Policy of the DCP, has been a Head of a clinical psychology service in the NHS and is a former Associate of the Care Quality Commission has experienced similar frustrations with the BPS. She has felt it necessary, but with considerable reluctance, to write to the Charity Commission with her concerns, in order to effect some change.  With her permission, we summarise the main points of her letter below. 

1. Lack of timely Professional Guidance for practitioners. 

When the commissioning of NHS clinical psychology services was transferred from Primary Care Trusts to new Commissioning bodies, clinical psychologists needed timely and informed advice as how to approach these unfamiliar organisations and demonstrate the value of clinical psychology. A group of committee members on the Division of Clinical Psychology Leadership and Management (L&M) Faculty prepared this guidance in 2009, in readiness to be used by the new groups. This included important information as to how they could show the effectiveness of the delivery of clinical psychology services and save commissioners money at various points on a variety of care pathways. It was crucial that this guidance was available to service heads and directors in advance of the formal take over of responsibilities by the commissioners in 2010. This took on an additional significance given the loss of senior posts in the profession at that time. This guidance was not published by the BPS until 2015. Thus an important document was not available in time for our profession due to delays created by the numerous BPS committees and other internal processes before sign off. Five senior and experienced psychologists worked hard – and at no cost to the BPS – to produce a document in time to have impact, and yet it took 5 years to go through the BPS before formal publication. Too late to be of any real use. 

2. Mentoring. 

The DCP had set up a mentoring website in 2016 through the L & M Faculty, following on from a successful pilot scheme. Unwillingness on the part of the BPS management and administration to take on the running of the website meant that the scheme faltered. It is now in its third iteration because of failures by the BPS to take on responsibility for it. This has resulted in significant delays and extra work – again given freely by committed volunteer members of the BPS. Contrast this to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, whose scheme has been up and running since 2015. 

3. The Universal Declaration. 

The Universal Declaration of Ethical Principles for Psychologists is one of the seven Declarations of the International Union of Psychological Sciences (of which the BPS is a National Member). It was referred to the L & M Faculty for review in 2015. This group suggested that Principle 2 be amended to include the concept of compassion. A great deal of work and effort by various people went into making the case for such a change which was supported by the then President. Clearly, such a change could only be put forward by the BPS itself. At this stage, it was sent to various committees and sub-committees within the Society and its sub-systems. The result of this toing and froing between the various groups was that the inclusion of compassion wasn’t something the BPS could support and no further action would be taken. Sarajane notes 

I spent considerable time and effort attempting to move this forwards. I tried to pursue it throughout 2016 with emails, only to hear nothing. To be honest, at that point I gave up, as I had turned my attention to another project for the DCP. 

4. DCP Policy Director role. 

In working in this role,

I was often cut across by the BPS Policy Director with no attempt at collaboration, consultation or aligned working. This created unnecessary delays, confusion and lack of clarity leading to ineffective outcomes...

The above catalogue of organisational failure should give us all cause for concern. There are clearly serious issues in the system which result in, not simply failure and frustration on the part of hard-working volunteer members of the BPS, but also in lack of support and guidance for those working in practice. Sarajane puts it well in the penultimate paragraph of her letter to the Charity Commission. She notes that she has given 

..12 years of significant input and services to the DCP/BPS, in order to make a real difference and positive impact for our profession… 

but this has had 

…little positive and impactful outcome. The BPS itself, through their processes and procedures, have prevented significant work from succeeding and impacting. I might go as far as saying hindering impactful change. In my view this has serious implications, and indicates we have a failing professional body… 

which is not acting as 

…an effective professional body and being an authentic and transparent learned Society. 

This is a sorry judgement from a senior and highly committed psychologist who, after exploring all options available to her within the BPS, felt the need to raise her concerns with the Charity Commission. Just what will it take for the BPS to realise that, as an organisation, it is failing both its members and the public? 

False Memory Syndrome

Four views of ‘False Memory Syndrome’

Peter Harvey posts….

The dissolution of the BPS Memory and Law Group has brought the controversial issue of the so–called False Memory Syndrome back into the spotlight. We show below four quite different views about how this is presented. First, a piece by the Editor of The Psychologist; second, a letter, denied publication by that same Editor setting out a very different view of Professor Loftus’s work; third, a long article from the US publication Mad in America entitled “The False Memory Syndrome at 30: How Flawed Science Turned into Conventional Wisdom”. And finally, an example of how the concept can be used to defend those accused of sexual assault. Do we need any more evidence to support the case for the BPS rescinding its fundamentally flawed decision to disband the Evidence-based Memory Group?

An ‘adulatory’ view

Jon Sutton reports from a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London

If Professor Elizabeth Loftus had her way, the solemn oath taken before witnesses take the stand would be ‘Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember?’ So far, she said with a wry smile, it hasn’t caught on.

Professor Loftus – who has been voted the most influential female psychologist of all time – was speaking at this special event presented by the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, and the Centre for Inquiry UK. Her wit and creativity shone through as she rattled through real-life stories, wrongful convictions and ingenious research that all illuminate the faulty nature of memory.

Beginning with some classic cases of political figures reporting memories that can’t be true – such as Mitt Romney’s account of the Golden Jubilee that occurred nine months before he was born – Loftus showed that ‘all that Yale school or Harvard training doesn’t stop you having false memories’. And this has implications way beyond goofing politicians: DNA exoneration studies suggest that faulty memory is responsible for wrongful conviction in more than 75 per cent of cases.

In case the assembled audience thought they were somehow immune to this, Loftus showed otherwise with a fascinating paradigm involving photos of faces. A post-event activity that induced us to pick a wrong person led to around half of the audience subsequently picking the wrong person in the test phase. ‘You’re wrong because I made you wrong,’ said Loftus, ‘right here in the middle of a lecture on false memory’.

But that’s somewhat artificial, say the critics (and Loftus says she has had a fair few, who do not like the message of her research). OK, says Loftus, what about our new study looking at military personnel taking part in a mock prisoner phase of survival school training? Here, the provision of misinformation following four days of evasion and half an hour of interrogation led even highly trained soliders to make false IDs with high confidence.

Loftus admitted to ‘nagging concerns’ around the ethics of such findings. ‘Aren’t we putting a recipe out there that could help bad people do bad things?’ On balance, she and her collaborators feel that it’s best to get the research out there in the hope that awareness could lead to ways to overcome the problem. And there is a lot to counter: Loftus’ research has shown that false memories can be induced in a variety of ways, including the use of imagination, dream interpretation, hypnosis, the provision of false information or doctored photos, and even simple exposure to other people’s memories.

It’s a research journey that has taken some tremendous turns. I love how the way the ‘lost in the mall’ analogue – convincing participants that they got lost in the shopping mall as a child – evolved in response to the repeated insistence of reviewers that ‘maybe that really happened’. When that accusation was even levelled at a study that persuaded people that they had been licked by Pluto at Disneyland – ‘disturbingly and persistently’ – Loftus and her team simply switched to Bugs Bunny, a Warner Brothers character!

Loftus had provided ample demonstration of the repercussions of false memories, in accounts of repressed memory accusations. (‘There is no credible scientific support for the notion that memories can be massively suppressed in this way’, she concluded). But what about positive effects? If psychologists can convince adults that they got sick eating a particular food as a child, could this technique be used to help people avoid fattening foods? Yes, and others have now found that this effect lasts, and affects actual eating behaviour. Welcome to the mental diet!

Can these false memories be distinguished from true ones? Not by rated emotion, and neuroimaging reveals only small differences, with true memories showing more activity in the visual cortex and false memories showing more in the auditory. But, said Loftus, ‘we are a long long way from taking a memory, examining it in the brain scanner and saying whether it is true or not.’ Memory is malleable, concluded Loftus, and if there was one take-home message from her life’s research it was this: ‘Just because memory is expressed with confidence, detail and emotion, doesn’t mean it’s true.’

After the talk, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Professor Loftus at dinner. I very much enjoyed our chat about a potential revolution in memory, as wearable devices and large, cheap storage bring ‘memory prosthetics’ to the masses. If we all have ‘personal CCTV’, like the dashboard cam footage of the Russian meteor strike, do our own memory failings become less of an issue? The professor quickly reminded me that such footage could be doctored, potentially leading to an arms race for the truth. One thing seems undeniable: whatever the future brings for memory research and practice, Professor Loftus will be at the forefront of it for many years to come. 

See also https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-10/one-one-elizabeth-loftus 

and https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-25/edition-7/interview-memory-warrior

A ‘Critical’ view

What is it about the BPS and the False Memory Syndrome (FMS) devotees?

No empirical validation has been offered for “False Memory Syndrome” as a diagnostic construct despite years of intense scrutiny; nor have its symptoms been systematically described or studied.  No professional organisation accepts it as a valid diagnosis.            . 

The leading light of the FMS lobby is Professor Elizabeth Loftus.

In the May edition of The Psychologist, the Editor, Jon Sutton, described his meeting with Professor Elizabeth Loftus (p.236).  The piece was inappropriate for several crucial reasons. Firstly it lacked objectivity. 

Dr Sutton wrote that he “had the pleasure of sitting next to Professor Loftus at dinner” and that her “wit and creativity shone through”.  I too have had the pleasure of Professor Loftus’s company for several hours, in one to one discussion, albeit some years ago. I had lots of questions for her then, and would have even more now. Here are some questions that the Editor might have asked Professor Loftus:


1. Is it true that it was the filing of two ethics complaints against you that caused your resignation from the American Psychological Association (APA) in the late 1990’s?

2.  In 2003 the APA gave you an award for Distinguished Scientific Applications of Psychology.  That’s a big change – resignation to award in a few years – what happened?

3. Are you a member of the APA today?  And what are your reasons for being (or not being) a member of the APA?

4. Memory can be unreliable in two directions – false positive (when somebody comes to believe that something happened, which did not) and false negative (where somebody comes to believe that something did not happen, that did).  False positive and false negative memory might be likened to Type 1 and Type 2 research errors, would you agree?

5. Your “lost in a shopping mall” study demonstrated that older family members play a powerful role in defining reality for dependent younger family members. You believe that it is possible that memory is so malleable that an individual could falsely recall a complex history of abuse, that in fact never occurred.    Is it equally possible that someone who was abused could be persuaded that their recall was a false memory, and that they could come to falsely believe that they had not been abused?

6. Could a perpetrator who had committed acts of abuse falsely believe that he or she was not an abuser?  (A “False Innocence Belief Syndrome” ?).


7. If the answer to this question is yes, why don’t you investigate “False Innocence Belief Syndrome” as an area of false memory?   If the answer is no, do you believe that false memories only go in one direction (false positive)?  If so, what is the evidence for that? 

8. You get some emotional reactions to your opinions.  Perhaps because it might appear to some that the direction of your work helps abusers, and disadvantages genuine victims of abuse – what would you say to that?

9. Who has benefited from your research?

10. Ted Bundy was one of America’s worst serial rapists and murderers.  He murdered 30 women in 7 states and was executed in 1989.  In an earlier article, The Psychologist reported your comments regarding Ted Bundy when you testified on his first case.  You stated: “… that was before we really knew who Ted Bundy was. He was a charming man! He was absolutely charming and obviously very sick but we didn’t really know that at the time.”  His biographer Ann Rule described him as “a sadistic sociopath who took pleasure from another human’s pain and the control he had over his victims, to the point of death.”  You have testified in many cases where people are accused of very serious crimes.  Is it possible that you may have mis-judged others, as you did Ted Bundy?   

11. False Memory Syndrome is sometimes described as a modern day pseudo-scientific version of the Oedipus complex – a way of dismissing the account of an abuse victim as fantasy, that allows our society to avoid dealing with the very uncomfortable possibility that the vast majority of allegations of sexual abuse are true.  How would you comment on that?The article in the Psychologist appeared five days before a long overdue BPS ethics committee meeting, where questions had been tabled regarding senior Society members acting as scientific advisors to the British False Memory Society, and possibly contravening the BPS Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct under our Royal Charter.

It is unfortunate that concurrently the official journal of the BPS published a glowing and uncritical piece about one of the most controversial proponents of False Memory Syndrome. To an objective observer it could appear that this was a piece of propaganda for the FMS lobby, and raise concern that the BPS has an unhealthy bias in this arena.

Yours sincerely

Ashley Conway PhD AFBPsS

A transatlatic view

For those of us not familiar with the publication Mad in America, its Mission Statement is

…. to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care in the United States (and abroad). We believe that the current drug-based paradigm of care has failed our society, and that scientific research, as well as the lived experience of those who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, calls for profound change.

The whole article (published 8 February 2021) is accessible here and the concluding paragraphs are these:

For too long, society turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children. It was a taboo subject, kept quiet within families and covered up by institutions. Soon after states finally began providing adults who remembered such childhood abuse with the legal standing to sue, the FMSF began waging a vigorous public relations campaign that discredited their memories—in both courtrooms and, to a large degree, in the public mind.

Indeed, the false memory syndrome, which was said to be grounded in cutting-edge science, regularly produced a legal—and, one might say, an epistemological—stalemate: It was the delayed memory of the accuser against the denial of the accused, and without any corroborating evidence of the abuse, it was impossible for a jury or a judge to know what had really happened.

In addition, the false memory syndrome turned those accused of abuse into “victims.” These cases were no longer simply “he said/she said,” cases, but rather “he said/she was tricked into creating false memories” cases.

However, public understanding of this dynamic has perhaps entered a new phase. There is now increasing public awareness that the sexual abuse of children is all too common. And as society assesses the claims of adults who recall memories of child abuse, it should know this about the relevant science: The false memory research provides little evidence that memories of sexual abuse are often implanted by therapists. But there is a large body of research providing evidence that dissociative amnesia is a common response to childhood trauma.

An example of how FMS can used.

From Time’s Up website of 6 February 2021 these are the introductory words to an article about the Harvey Weinstein trial

As Harvey Weinstein’s legal team mounts its defense, it has been reported that it will call at least one expert witness to the stand to testify to “false memory theory,” a tool that has been used to try to discredit survivors of sexual assault for decades.

Surely it’s time for the BPS to do the right thing and face up to its responsibilities.

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David Pilgrim’s ‘disappearing’ article

This is the article referred to in David’s previous post which was agreed for publication in DCP Forum (March 2020) but spiked by BPS office. We would also point you to a post also addressing issues of freedom of expression which did ‘not make the cut’, in that case, for The Psychologist.

GIVING AND TAKING OFFENCE

David Pilgrim

Recently clinical psychologists have reported their views on giving and receiving offence and how they might be managed within the profession. This topic reflects a wider historical ethical debate about freedom of expression in speech and writing. The traditional liberal guidance of J.S. Mill is outlined, followed by a discussion of fresh norms about diversity within identity politics, since the ‘postmodern turn’ in the 1980s. It is argued that the wisdom of the first position is being undermined by the latter and that newer well-meant libertarian intentions have culminated at times in authoritarian outcomes.

Over the past year, two seemingly unrelated controversies within British clinical psychology have emerged. The first I was part of (about transgender) and the second I was not (the slavery presentation in Liverpool at the group of trainers’ conference). Both encouraged substantial and illuminating correspondence in these pages. The topics were seemingly unrelated but what linked them was the matter of personal offence and how it could, or should, be managed in the profession. 

In my original piece on sex and gender (Clinical Psychology Forum 319) I was not only pleased that the editor published the piece but also that he then welcomed correspondence, whether it was supportive or critical. I was less pleased by efforts on the part of some to explore the threat of litigation in an effort to constrain serious debate about an important public policy matter and the BPS played its role in this regard. For example, material was deliberately delayed for publication and the editor was instructed to print a letter of complaint sent to the BPS and he was found lacking for not making clear that my view in the original piece was not that of either the Society or the DCP. (Please take the same clichéd disclaimer into account for this piece as well.)

Arguably this was a storm in a teacup: eventually people said what they wanted to say. For now freedom of expression was preserved. It was though under threat, raising the question of why we are bothered about it at all. After all, in the era of social media everyone is free to say anything they want apparently. However, the counter to the latter view is that de facto censorship in a new guise has emerged with the ‘post-truth’ society, where asserted personal opinion, fantasy and jettisoned cautions surrounding academic knowledge all mix in the same social media porridge.  Now, more than ever, the matter of freedom of expression is important for the sake of both academic integrity and social justice in any society claiming to be democratic.

Liberalism and democracy

John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (Mill, 1859/1974) argued that we must be free to express ourselves and we must be tolerant of views and those expressing them, even if we find both disagreeable. His advice was not absolute though; he offered two caveats. First, with freedom comes responsibility. This means that we might do our best to be considerate about the impact of our expressed views. If we are reckless, then it might be gratuitously hurtful and so this should be weighed in the balance by any responsible speaker or writer. 

That weighing up process is context-bound and so neat strictures to guide its success are hard to come by, but it does bring into play the question of intention. On the one hand there might be the regrettable mistake and the complexities of its conscious and unconscious elements; hence the discussion of the need to consider ‘whiteness’ by well-meaning white people in the contention I noted above at the trainers’ meeting. On the other hand there can be the deliberate expression of hateful or disparaging spite for others. The Nazis cast the Jews at every opportunity as being ‘vermin’ and we now know that if people are depicted as being sub-human, then that readily warrants their physical violation (Vicki et al.  2013). This large gap between an error of judgment and knowing hatred and all stops in between is what makes the definition of ‘hate speech’ so difficult. It might be defined as anything that causes offence and so the criterion of ‘hurt’ is relevant but not definitive. For those in the Abrahamic traditions any expressed contempt for God is blasphemy (and so is experienced as hurtful and might evoke reactive anger) but for the convinced atheist it is just fair comment, whether or not it is intended to offend others.   

Mill’s second caveat about restraint is therefore more certain: freedom of expression may encourage or legitimises actual violence against others. He was alluding to the difference between hard and soft power. The rhyme learned in childhood that, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is flawed because Mill in his first caution conceded that words can be indeed be hurtful. The question today is whether that outcome is the necessary and sufficient condition for suppressing or punishing freedom of expression. A much stronger claim for restraint applies under his second caveat about the encouragement of violence. When violence actually occurs, his point is proven.

Well over a hundred years after Mill’s defence of freedom of expression with its caveats, we are in the midst of a paradox: newer currents of political philosophy have emphasised a form of libertarianism, which is somewhat different from his classic liberalism. Below I argue that this has culminated not in protected freedom but dogmatic intolerance. Like the well-meaning white person not reflecting on their whiteness, the well-meaning new libertarian defending diversity may end up failing in their good intentions to such a degree that an opposite or different outcome accrues. 

Distinctions and dilemmas 

When we come to reflect on the tension between Mill’s liberalism and more recent arguments, we can start with two distinctions. These may mingle confusingly at times in both serious academic debates and in daily puerile social media exchanges. When this blurring occurs, more heat than light might be generated, as protagonists on all sides are caught up in the common experience of swelling righteous indignation, despite holding completely opposing views.  For clarity then we can note:

1 the distinction between an offensive view and the person expressing it: the challenge of ad hominem logic and; 

2 the distinction between identifying offensive views and identifying effective ways of reducing or eliminating those views: the challenge of the pragmatics of the social control of offence to others.

The first of these once was very clear cut and it guided all academic discourse; we learned that we should always ‘play the ball and not the man’ (apologies for the legacy of sexism here). The adage seems to have now been abandoned, with the rise of a different ethical orientation since the ‘postmodern turn’ of the 1980s. That emerged from, and was underpinned by, the cross-currents of post-structuralism, Third Wave feminism and Queer Theory, as well as their direct political expression in our now taken for granted identity politics. This constellation reflected the ‘perspectivism’ of the idealist philosophical tradition, traceable in modern times to Nietzsche, and the rejection of a realist stance on ontology, with its focus on truths and facts. 

Today the distinction between a view (offensive or otherwise) and the speaker or writer holding that view no longer exists in the minds of many. More than that, it is one’s social group membership or social position that might be taken to singularly determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of one’s view. It is not the virtue, cogency or empirical validity of what is being expressed. If a speaker or writer is deemed to be in a state of privilege, then this may then warrant dismissing anything they are saying. The postmodern turn has installed a new version of political and ethical legitimacy, epistemological privilege, which emerges from the ‘lived experience’ of some people and not others. 

For example, in the contention about transgender, a ‘cis person’ arguing that sex is not socially constructed, or that the obligation to affirm a child’s self-definition of their gender could expose them to iatrogenic risk, might be dismissed immediately as being transphobic and illegitimate, not because of the quality of their arguments and the evidence offered but because they are not themselves transgender. The neologism of ‘cis’ was only made possible because of this new postmodern logic (Sigush, 1998) and in turn this has led in academic research to a confusing conflation of sex and gender, when describing subjects or participants (Haig, 2004). ‘Cis’ is only meaningful to those who invented it (and those who are now accepting of its validity). This may cause offence to those (natal women in particular) who resent being cast as less worthy in their view about being a woman than the view of a transwoman.  For now the NHS has retained an ambivalent policy, with both biological sex and self-identified gender being noted, making record keeping challenging (Dahlen, 2020; https://medium.com/@anneharperwright/sex-gender). Some forms of pathology are unambiguously sex-linked (e.g. cervical and prostate cancer) and so this is important to recognise as a material reality informing decisions about prevention, diagnosis and disease management in health services. 

Turning to attempts to socially control offensive views, this has included appeals to legalism and codes of practice to ensure the prevention of hurt, not just violence, rendering Mill’s views on liberty precarious. There has been a ‘cancel culture’ in which those in the public eye expressing unpopular views are attacked and their reputation discarded. There has been direct action from protesters on our campuses (‘no platforming’). There have been acts of violence or potential violence from trans activists, such as bomb threats to women’s meetings discussing sex and gender. There have been gender critical views on social media being deemed as hate speech, warranting police investigation. There has been professional guidance issued that implies that gender critical arguments, or those respecting traditional scientific assumptions about mammalian sexual dimorphism, reflect a form of ethical deficit on the part of any psychologist holding such views. 

If this point is in doubt then the reader can consult the relevant guidance issued last year on ‘gender, sexuality and relationship diversity’ (BPS, 2019). The guilt or fear from a psychologist about their views on sex and gender, which to date have been ‘off message’, according to the guidance, invite new forms of compliance or anxious restraint in speaking out about their concerns.  The document focuses on the habitual obligation to affirm gender self-identification, in accordance with the ideological roots of the postmodern turn I noted above. Counter-views or scepticism from those not under its sway, whether they are philosophical realists, concerned clinicians working with children or gender critical feminists, are rendered ethically suspect and, not surprisingly, their views are absent from the document. 

The effective social control of experienced offence is not easy to achieve. In this case, the core stricture in the document, is about the intersubjective subtleties of respect for and belief in what others say about themselves. But why in social interactions should we always uncritically trust the self-statements of others? For example, we might consider the person to be mistaken, lying or even deluded. These options are the bread and butter of our daily social contract with others. 

Even when less ambiguous blanket moralisations have been raised to well-intentioned legal powers, their effectiveness has been in doubt. For example, the expression of Nazi ideology is proscribed in Germany. Holocaust deniers have been imprisoned and Nazi symbols are banned but the far right has not only survived with a swagger, it once again is on the rise. Thus legal measures do not eliminate prejudice and the hatred of others, even if they may have a contributory role in raising awareness about them. Even the latter is difficult to determine empirically in open social systems, with so many other processes at play. 

The use of the law is not only a blunt instrument for the social control of offence, it can also lead to precarious outcomes. For example, Deborah Lipstadt accused the ultra-right wing historian, David Irving, of holocaust denial in her widely read book (Lipstadt, 1994). Irving then sued her for libel but he was unsuccessful. However, as Warburton (2009) notes, Lipstadt needed the principled support and substantial financing of her international publisher, Penguin, to rebut Irving, whereas others may have been less fortuitous in having such resources. What secured the truth about the holocaust was not the law (in this case of libel) but freedom of expression (n.b Lipstadt’s, not Irving’s). For Lipstadt, the systematic murder of six million European Jews was not just another ‘perspective’ but simply the truth (n.b. no speech marks) that deserved a clear verification. That truth had to be (re)established by the free pursuit of unfettered intellectual inquiry, including viewpoints being expressed along the way from Lipstadt.  

If legal means of social control of hateful bigotry are not failsafe, then non-legalistic forms of influence may have some impact, without compromising the principle of freedom of expression. Satire and other forms of humour against bigotry actively use that principle in order to make the point. Also, the primary socialisation that encourages sensitivity about respect for all human beings and their diverse viewpoints might be altered within families and schools. All this being said, at all times freedom of expression will still be at risk. It is a fragile principle, no more so than when one party in a field of contention seeks to enforce their own particular version of expression and to suppress others. 

My own view is that the BPS Guidance document I note above has been captured by that newly emergent tendency to enforce a principle of singularity of viewpoint. This trend has deliberately discarded older traditions, about the rehearsal of competing viewpoints, which eschewed ad hominem reasoning. Now to simply discuss a sceptical position about trans-affirmative ideology and more importantly to defend the right to discuss it renders the dissenter ethically inferior (which is possible but is not a given) and their view as requiring no logical or empirical rebuttal (which is absurd because it is required). Within this new norm, open-ended diversity is liberally encouraged and celebrated as being virtuous except in cases where views are disapproved of by those promoting that diversity (Benn Michaels, 2006). 

These new libertarians have thereby become authoritarians at the blink of an eye. Their lack of ethical plausibility is not just that they are authoritarian wolves in libertarian sheep’s clothing but also they expose the ultimate failure of identity politics to provide us with clear guidance on the meaning of social justice. Once diversity displaces or trumps equality it becomes a zero sum game, when the experientially-derived rights of transgender people are asserted against those of natal women who are their gender critical opponents, objecting to the second class citizen connotation of the term ‘cis’. How does anyone decide which epistemological privilege is superior to the other in this stand off?

For those less familiar with academic discussions of healthcare ethics, other relevant case studies can be noted. Some topics have been actively and freely debated (e.g. abortion and the de-pathologisation of homosexuality), whereas others temporarily have taken on a taboo status. One was the consideration on medical grounds for infanticide by Giubilini and Minerva (2013).  This led to some ethicists defending not the arguments made by these authors but their right to make those arguments, returning us to Mill’s axiom (Shackel, 2013).  

Conclusion

I think we are now at a cross-roads. The ethical questions about transgender and healthcare may be suppressed because for now the topic has been afforded a taboo status by the new libertarians I have discussed. Alternatively, we can insist on our right to explore those questions fully and responsibly and without fear of recriminations. That would mean permitting freely expressed views that do not disparage individuals, whatever their perspective and whether they are ‘trans’ or ‘cis, but which instead attends carefully to logic and the evidence available about the topic in contention. Ultimately blanket moralisations in human affairs, whether or not they are codified in laws or ethical strictures will fail to work in practice, so we may as well concede this point and agree instead on the defence of a frank, respectful and, of most importance, non-violent exchange.  

Finally, we can note that the conflation of views and those holding them has a double and limiting significance, because it restricts the topic under discussion to the personal alone. The person giving the offence and those receiving it are certainly part of the socio-ethical picture here, but they are not the whole picture. The content of their claims should also be open to respectful democratic scrutiny and debate.  That can only happen if first we all understand why freedom of expression must be defended in principle, provided its caveats and their impact fully considered. We may then be moved to uphold that defence in practice, in the face of likely criticism and censorious pressures.

References  

Benn Michaels, W. (2006) The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality New York: Holt.

BPS (2019) Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Dahlen, S. (2020): De-sexing the medical record? An examination of sex versus gender identity in the General Medical Council’s trans healthcare ethical advice, The New Bioethics DOI: 10.1080/20502877.2020.1720429

Giubilini, A. and Minerva,  F. (2013) After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics 39:261–3

Haig, D. (2004) The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945–2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33:87-96.

Lipstadt, D. (1994) Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory Harmondsworth: Penguin

Mill, J.S. (1859) On Liberty (Published in Penguin edition, 1974) Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Vicki, G.T., Osgood, D. and Phillips, S. (2013) Dehumanization and self-reported proclivity to torture prisoners of war. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49, 3, 325-332. 

Shackel, N. (2013) The fragility of freedom of speech. Journal of Medical Ethics 39: 5.

Sigush, V. (1998). The neosexual revolution. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 27, 4, 331-359

Warburton, N. (2009) Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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The Psychologist – a cautionary tale

Peter Harvey writes….

Whilst we hope that this blog will get very wide coverage, we are realistic enough to know that it hasn’t (as yet, at least) the coverage of the BPS house publication (apparently it’s not a journal, it’s a magazine).  In order to alert the wider membership both to both the fact of the BPS’s decision not to rewrite and/or publish new Memory and Law guidelines and the process as to how this decision was made, I submitted my previous post as a letter to the editor of The Psychologist. He decided not to publish it on the following grounds

  1. It was too lengthy;
  2. I had already had a fairly full response to my queries;
  3. The members of the task force are happy with agreed way forward;
  4. The topic has been covered quite a lot over the years;
  5. When the planned journal coverage appears there might be another opportunity to cover this.

My response is below

Dear Jon,

Unsurprisingly, I am extremely disappointed by your decision not to publish my letter particularly on the grounds of length and the fact that I have already had a response.

Am I to understand that the only criticisms of the BPS that you will allow have to be squeezed into an arbitrary 600-word limit? Whilst the social-media savvy might think that you can have a reasoned and sensible debate with a packaged pullquote or 280 characters, I am of the generation that believes that serious issues demand proper space for debate. Such restrictions shut down argument, make point-scoring the aim rather than having to justify a position by evidence and reason.

The whole point of my letter was that the so-called ‘..fairly full response…” raised important issues of which neither I nor the membership were aware. My initial set of questions were simply that – to ascertain what the Society’s position on the matter is so that I was not reliant on hearsay and rumour. Once I had that information then I could comment sensibly and at proper length.

I find Debra’s statement regarding enquiries to the BPS astonishing – the point I make in the letter. It is outrageous that the Society is not being proactive here. These are guidelines that are in wide circulation still (the 2008 version is still the first hit on a Google search) and many professionals will regard them as current as there is nothing to say otherwise. Do you really expect that prior to using a set of BPS Guidelines everyone will phone the office to check on their currency?

You make the statement that you have covered the issue quite a lot over the years – of course you have and rightly, because it is a critically important issue and remains so. Are you seriously suggesting that in your editorial decision-making you are using the longevity of an issue or debate as a reason for not publishing? Does it not occur to you that one of the reasons that issues such as these command coverage on a regular basis is their importance? I find this an entirely uncompelling argument for refusing to publish.

Awaiting the decision on the proposed journal coverage simply adds further delay and uncertainty into the process. It parallels the BPS’s serious error of judgement in regards to the Keira Bell/Tavistock Judicial Review when the Society – rather than telling its members to obey the law as it now stands – has prevaricated on the basis that the decision is being appealed. Waiting on the unknown outcomes of the decisions of others is surely not a tenable position for a learned society.

The fact that this has appeared on the blog is not the issue – The Psychologist is the BPS house publication to which all members have access. The information contained in my letter has relevance to a significant proportion of that membership.  It gives them information they have a right to know and, in an open organisation, the opportunity to contest and debate.

I am unconvinced that The Psychologist actually functions, as you suggest, as the place to question the Society and its actions. One reason for starting the blog was that we have heard too many members’  experiences of the BPS and The Psychologist being unresponsive to their concerns and to healthy conflict and controversy.  And we will continue to act as forum for questioning the society until it is seen to be acting in the open and transparent manner that it claims to do.

I really don’t want to play the Aggrieved Author here but I find it dispiriting that the main forum for members to have an open debate – our house magazine/journal/publication – is so difficult to have access to. Article too long – really? Just over 2000 words in a 70 page publication. Too familiar – really?  Since when did the study of memory stop being of interest? When was it reported that the Guidelines were archived? What did a recent submission on issues around freedom of expression have to do to “make the cut” to appear? This is our publication for the membership – please give us a chance to use it fully.

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Memory and the Law – a dereliction of duty – Part 2.

Peter Harvey posts…

After a nudge –  I had no acknowledgement of my email from any of the recipients – a response was received from the BPS Director of Knowledge and Insight [sic]. This confirmed the fact that the Group has been disbanded and that the reason for this was that “…the standards of evidence for the report and the need for consensus and a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met.”.  In response to my query about informing the wider membership I was told “…To date, we have only received two enquires about this issue, including your enquiry, so we have not disseminated a wider statement to members.”. As to any future plans for providing advice to the many professionals (both within psychology and the law) who will need coherent and learned guidance from the one organisation that is in a position to provide it, they will have to access “… a special issue of a relevant journal…” because, rather than reconstitute the group (or even start over or work towards resolving the conflicts) group members are being asked to “…work on a series of articles about memory-based evidence for a special issue of a relevant journal. This would allow for a full and definitive review of the “state of the art” of different aspects of evidence-based memory and allow the space to outline where there were controversies as well as clear consensus.”.  This decision was reached after “… a  constructive and helpful meeting…in January 2021 although the decision to end the work of the group ‘… was made by the Research Board in October 2020.”.

I leave the reader to draw their own conclusions from this, but I for one, believe this to be an extremely serious error of judgement in the BPS’s part and shows an egregious lack of both moral and ethical responsibility.  What follows is my response, sent to the President, Chairs of both the Research and Practice Boards, and the Director of Knowledge and Insight.

Your response leaves me deeply unsatisfied and raises many questions. I preface these observations by emphasising that as a retired clinical health psychologist I have no current involvement in practice or in court work and I have no special interest or involvement in any pressure group. I am interested solely in the integrity and the reputation of the BPS.

  1. The BPS is in a unique position.

There is no other professional or academic organisation in the UK that is better placed to provide an informed evidence-based overview of research in human memory and how it relates to behaviour, both in a laboratory setting and in real-world contexts. No other academic or applied discipline has the historical and current underpinning of research nor does any other professional organisation have such ready access to the wide range of practitioners for whom an informed understanding of human memory is a core element of their practice. Most importantly, psychologists have developed over-arching and integrative models of memory and its various components that allow for the multiplicity of data to be placed within an explanatory framework. This is not to say that others have nothing to say and that their individual knowledge bases, perspectives and experiences are invalid or in way lesser. But psychologists are in the unique position of being able to integrate and synthesise this vast and disparate scholarship and expertise. That is both our gift and our responsibility.

2.  The BPS has a public responsibility.

Under our Charter and Statues we have a set of public responsibilities 

“…to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied…” (Royal Charter, extract from para 3).

It could be argued that the interface between the law and the discipline and profession of psychology is amongst the most important. In the arena of the courtroom, life-and-death decisions are made on the basis of attempts to understand the complexities of human behaviour.  We have a responsibility (statutory, moral and ethical)  to ensure that all those involved in the real-life process of making informed decisions have access to the best possible evidence and data – however incomplete that may be. We cannot renege on that responsibility nor should we.  By refusing to update our guidelines we are abrogating our critical role in providing support and guidance to those who both need it and to which they are entitled.

3.  “Let them read the Journal.”

It is, frankly, astonishing that the fallback position is that the group will “…work on a series of articles about memory-based evidence for a special issue of a relevant journal. This would allow for a full and definitive review of the “state of the art” of different aspects of evidence-based memory and allow the space to outline where there were controversies as well as clear consensus.”. Apart from the inevitable delay that this process will involve it is simply the wrong decision. These data are, one assumes, already out there in the various academic journals – the “new” papers will be summaries of the existing literature brought together under one roof, as it were. Why spent time and energy on re-inventing the wheel? If this were to seen as an acceptable strategy, then why not simply ask the group for an up-to-date list of papers with references and send this out to interested parties?  And what is missing from this piecemeal approach is the integration of these data into explanatory models. The aims and purposes (amongst others) of a document including the word ‘Guidelines’  under the imprimatur of an organisation are to provide (i)a set of standards for currently acceptable practice; (ii) a summary of current knowledge in the field, identifying what is known, what is uncertain (and possibly, what is wrong) together with informed guidance as to the reliability and limitations of these data. It is this latter function that may be of more importance in this case. In the highly contentious area that involves memories of childhood trauma, courts need the best possible information in order to ensure justice is done fairly and equitably for all those involved. By making access to such information significantly more difficult and without the benefit an expert, informed overview, the BPS is actively depriving people of justice. The other, highly significant problem with the BPS’s so-called solution, is that it removes the authority that the organisation gives to a document. If we take your ‘solution’ then what is there to stop stop a variety of ‘expert’ witnesses quoting from a whole range of journals – the status of which is likely to be opaque to the courts (does publication in the BJP trump the JEP?), leaving laypersons in the unenviable position of having to rate the merits of different scientific papers. What seems to have eluded those who made this decisions is that this is not some cosy academic debate in the conference hall – it impacts on people’s lives in a highly significant way.

4.  On the lack of consensus.

Why is consensus critical? I am not sure that any area of science in general and psychology in particular is reducible to a simplistic, definitive, absolutist position that would claim to have everyone’s agreement. No scientific debate is ever closed.  No reputable scientist would say that a debate is shut, that there is no debate to be had anymore. There will always room for doubt and all our knowledge is only ever provisional, awaiting the next new piece of data or new theoretical insight. Elaborating doubt and controversy is surely a sine qua non of a truly scientific approach to knowledge. In the specific setting of memory and the law I would argue that it is absolutely essential that doubts and controversies are given due prominence so that partial and partisan positions can be exposed for what they are. Giving the courts access to the doubts and uncertainties is surely helpful so that each individual case may be judged on their merits. To quote from the 2008 Guidelines

The guidelines and key points should then be taken as they are intended – as guidelines and not absolute statements. Because they are based on widely agreed and acknowledged scientific findings they provide a far more rigorously informed understanding of human memory than that available from commonly held beliefs. In this respect they give courts a much firmer basis for accurate decision-making.

Citing lack of consensus as reason for winding up a group is cowardly and deceitful and does the BPS irreparable harm. It is shameful.

5.  Conflicts of interest?

I note that the Chair of the 2008 Guidelines was Professor Martin Conway. I also note that he is currently a member of the Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society (BFMS) and I understand that he is regularly called as an Expert Witness. Without in any way impugning Professor Conway’s personal or professional integrity, why did the BPS appoint as Chair, someone who could be put in a position where there might be seen to be a conflict of interest? The BFMS is clearly a pressure group espousing a particular view of how memory works – it cannot be said to neutral. Neither is it a professional body in the sense that the BPS is. Whilst including the views of groups like the BFMS in the Group’s deliberations is appropriate (indeed, excluding such views would also be a serious misjudgement), having someone so closely linked to a particular pressure group as the Chair surely opens the BPS to serious criticism.

6.  The lifespan of guidelines.

I was surprised to find out – despite a long and involved association with the BPS – that there is a policy of archiving guidelines and other documents after a set period of time. Whilst this is clearly a sensible policy for guidance which needs to be updated regularly to reflect changes in knowledge and/or practice, there is an associated responsibility to ensure that all users of such guidance are aware of such a limitation. Nowhere on the original document is there a statement identifying the period for which the guidelines are valid, the process by which they will be reviewed and the implications of using them after their ‘use-by’ date. I would guess that most people will still be regarding these documents as current policy. When I was working I had some considerable experience of NHS guideline development both at a national and local level and it was always made clear that there was a formal, structured and timed review process together with an identified person/post-holder being responsible for that process. Relying on a redeveloped website does not solve this problem. This is passive response which puts the responsibility back onto the user. And it is likely to exclude non-members simply because I would not expect every lawyer to regularly checking up on what is current and what is not. 

7.   Communication with the membership and others.

I find worrying at best and disingenuous at worst to think that the BPS is relying on queries to the office as a means of communicating key policy issues. I have already suggested that most members and users are unaware of the archiving policy in general and the non-applicability of these guidelines in particular. Why would they contact you? This is abrogating a key responsibility of the BPS to keep its members up-to-date and to ensure that those interfaces with the public that rely on our advice are updated as and when necessary. It  is the BPS’s responsibility to be proactive here, both in this case and in general. I am, frankly, astonished by the lack of effort that the BPS has put into keeping the membership up to speed on this matter. Did you inform the membership that the guidelines – containing advice that many practitioners will have need of – were archived and no longer current? If you have, well and good; if not then the BPS has failed in its duty to its members.

8.  Consulting about the decision.

You note that the Research Board decided to disband the Task and Finish Group in October 2020. Clearly, it is within the remit of the Board to make decisions about its own groups. However, the impact of this decision spreads far and wide throughout the Society. Off the top of my head, the Divisions of Clinical, Counselling, Forensic and Neuropsychology have an obvious and immediate interest; I would guess that the Cognitive, Crisis Disaster and Trauma, Developmental, Male, Sexualities, Women and Equalities and Psychotherapy Sections would have more than a passing interest; the Expert Witness Group most certainly would have an opinion. Were they consulted, informed, included at any stage in a decision which has importance for practice? Were the sections that would be able to inform the debate asked for a view? It looks as if the Research Board paid no attention at all to the wider consequences of their decision which has been compounded by the Society’s complete lack of transparency and action in informing the wider membership.

I look forward to hearing what steps the Board of Trustees and the SMG will take to address these issues.

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The Mess We Are In (Revisited).

David Pilgrim writes…

A few months have now past since my first post. In the most recent edition of The Psychologist, the current President speaks confidently about the need to reduce barriers to our ‘profession’ (sic).  It might seem like a semantic quibble, but the Divisions of the BPS represent forms of profession, but the Sections do not, nor do the open and inclusive Regional Groups. I continue to be a member of both the Division of Clinical Psychology and the History and Philosophy Section, which I recently chaired, and so understand the conceptual distinction in practice.  

Eligibility for the BPS is based upon completing a basic higher education in the discipline of psychology. All professional psychologists are in the discipline of psychology but not all those in the discipline of psychology are professional psychologists. Analogously having a degree in law is a necessary, but not a sufficient, basis for being a professional lawyer. 

I start with this semantic argument not to be pernickety but with a larger agenda in mind. The BPS is allegedly a learned society, overseeing a body of knowledge claiming the disciplinary title of ‘Psychology’. This distinguishes it from other nearby disciplines, such as sociology, philosophy, economics or anthropology, all of which have much to say, quite legitimately, about human experience and conduct. Its charitable status rests upon this assumption of a circumscribed disciplinary authority.

Academic freedom and editorial independence

Many members may not be aware that all the publications produced by the BPS are regulated by its central office and its generally anonymous employees, who are typically not psychologists. Apart from The Psychologist being ‘the magazine of The British Psychological Society’ (words printed every month on its inner cover) its editor is an employee of the Society.  Although the various editors of publications from the Divisions, Sections and Interest Groups are not paid for their work, they must still comply with directives from the BPS office. Copy is checked by the latter and comments and edits made, which may at times over-ride the editorial independence of each. 

Unaware of this simple fact, and maybe with a fingers-crossed blind faith in a learned society unconditionally protecting academic freedom of expression, most members may simply believe the BPS does indeed ensure academic probity. However, as I found out over a year ago (and this was my contribution of a case study sent to the Charity Commission alluded to in my original posting) deliberate decisions are made on a routine basis that over-ride editorial independence. Those are made by unnamed employees of the Society. At times, editors are also instructed to post viewpoints issued by the central office. 

These insights emerged after I had written a piece for the ethics column of the Forum of the Division of Clinical Psychology about the philosophical contestation of sex and gender. This led to interference from the BPS office and the editor being censured after it went into print. The most egregious infringement was when a follow up piece from me was accepted for publication by the editor of the Ethics Column, but it was simply spiked by the BPS office. 

This piece (this, I promise, is true and of course an irony) was about the ethics of freedom of expression, in which I explored some current implications of the legacy of J.S. Mill. At first, I was told by the BPS that it was delayed because of Covid-19. On its continued non-appearance, I made a formal complaint. Eventually, the complaints team told me that it had not been agreed for publication at all because of its poor quality. This raises an intriguing question – what qualifications does the Complaints Team have to judge the academic standard of a scientific paper? Their role is to judge the behaviour of individual members of the Society not the quality of an individual piece of work. As all of us now know, from experiencing a range of frustrated and frustrating complaints, the complaints team is a buffer and shield for decision-makers above them. They pass on messages and rulings and those actually making these decisions, with their tailored and prescribed text, are generally not identifiable. This really is not a fair way for ordinary employees of the Society to be treated by those above them in salary and status. When I asked for further clarification about the decision my email was ignored. 

A full copy of the article will be posted on the blog shortly [Administrator’s note added 07 February 2021 – now available here]. Reporting this experience is neither special pleading nor sour grapes. It is simply an illustration of the failure of the BPS to understand that if it is a learned society, as it claims to be, then it should be obliged to respect academic freedom. If it cannot then it is being hypocritical and not fulfilling the expectations of either its members or the general public. Currently it condones censorship but that is only one of several processes, which we are coming across reflecting an opaque and unaccountable bureaucracy.

Is the BPS acting in the public interest?

Turning to the implications of this for public protection, since we started this blog a few lessons have been learned about the degree of constraint being imposed on academic freedom and the skewing of discourse in favour of some vested interests and not others. Other postings on the blog have highlighted the scandal of the closure of the Law and Memory group.  This is outrageous.  

The current archived report was biased in favour of one experimentalist lobby favouring the False Memory position. Anyone who knows this field now is aware of the evidence of the impact of child sexual abuse upon current and prospective mental health. That clinical and epidemiological research should now be considered fully and in the round, alongside experimental findings, in order to challenge the degree of confidence we might have in trying to extrapolate from the closed system of the laboratory to the open system of human life. For an update see here.

A second example is the complete lack of response in relation to multi-signed letters to the CEO about moves to allow prescribing rights for psychologists and concerns about the highly biased 2019 ‘BPS Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity’.  No reply was received to either of these letters and radio silence still prevails today, despite prompts. Is this what a membership organisation, which is supposed to be a learned society, should really look like? Seriously?

A failure to properly advise practitioners?

A final recent example of distorted priorities in BPS publications is the notable appearance, within a day of the game-changing ruling from the Judicial Review on the Kiera Bell case on December 1st 2020, of a defiant piece in The Psychologist. It was not from a BPS member but from a representative of a trans activist organisation, not even from the UK, scorning the new unanimous ruling from the British judges. This piece was very well written and clearly editorially polished over many weeks of collaboration. The editor subsequently confirmed, when asked, that collaboration.

Was this a balanced way of reporting the new legal context, which has been created by the Judicial Review and the international legal precedent it now set? Should The Psychologist, which proclaims itself as ‘The Magazine of the British Psychological Society’, have a duty to comprehensively investigate and report the likely implications of the ruling now for clinical and counselling psychologists?  This is now law – not an opinion – which will remain current until such time as it is changed. 

This casual indifference to the new legal context was mirrored in the half-hearted way in which the BPS itself was content not to bother reviewing immediately its problematic and highly criticised policy on gender noted above. They have parked a re-visit of this document until the appeal hearing of the Judicial Review is heard in March. If the appeal fails (which is highly likely given the December 1st judgment was unanimous), it might then go to the Supreme Court. Will the BPS stall at that point as well, kicking any need for a proper review of this flawed and politicised document well into the long grass?  In the meantime, what advice will it be offering to psychologists working in this highly controversial part of mental healthcare?

Learning points to date

What we have learned in the past few months is the following.

  • Senior members of the Society (elected or unelected) evade accountability by two main methods when approached with concerns from ordinary members.  First, they may simply ignore emails. Second, they may turn pressing concerns about policy matters, implicating public protection, into a complaint to be passed around like a multi-wrapped hot potato in a game of musical chairs. What comes out of that Kafkaesque process, and at what speed, is anyone’s guess, case by case. Whether an outcome even makes sense, common or otherwise, is also important: witness my censored article and the misleading and unfounded rationale for it being spiked. 
  • The Society has no meaningful control over ethical regulation of matters psychological, whether that is in relation to members not on the HCPC register or in relation to the ethics of research. Another irony amongst many is that members may well have received an email recently promoting a course on ethics for psychologists. This is in a context in which those running the Society seem to have lost any appreciation of the meaning of the word for their own conduct and the risks that unaccountable power always entail. Witness their evasiveness and willingness to condone censorship. We will be addressing the role and functioning of the Ethics Committee in future posts.

We can only report what we know in good faith, trying, ever hopeful, to model for the BPS how to ‘do openness’. We do not know why the Finance Director left so suddenly and why this was not reported to the membership publicly, just before Christmas. We do not know why the CEO is not ‘in his office’ and when and if he might return and why ordinary members have had no update on this matter. We do not know if the sham of a Board of Trustees, with its proven conflicts of interests and its lack of outsiders to ensure true public scrutiny, will eventually collapse from its own contradictions. We also do not know what the Charity Commission will do with the information we have supplied to them in our dossier about these serious matters of poor governance. Justice can be slow and maybe slow justice is no justice. However, those contributing to this blog will continue their work, even in the face of being ignored or intimidated. We are not going away.  

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Memory and the Law – a dereliction of duty – Part 1.

Posted by Peter Harvey

We are going to run a short series of posts concerning the BPS’s recent decision to dissolve the Memory and Law Task and Finish Group. There is a long, complex and controversial history to both the group and issue some of which we will highlight in future posts. The brief background relates to the BPS Memory and the Law reports (2008 and 2010). These are now archived as, according to the BPS “…they are no longer regarded as reflecting the Society’s current position…”. The group set up to review and revise them (presumably in the light of more recent evidence) has now been disbanded because “…it had not delivered the required output within the required timescale and failed to reach a consensus on key proposed elements of the document…”. On hearing the news that the group has now been permanently disbanded, I sent the following email (17 January 2021) to the President, and the Chairs of the Research and Practice Boards:

Dear President,

I understand that that, after its recent suspension, the Memory and the Law Task and Finish Group is to be permanently and formally disbanded. Before I take this matter further I would be grateful for clarification.

1. On whose authority was this decision made? 

2. When will the membership be informed of this decision?

3. What will the membership be told about the reasons for this decision?

4. What does the BPS intend to do about rescinding its previous documents (still in circulation) and advising both practitioners and the wider legal system that the BPS no longer feels able to offer evidence-based guidance on the controversies concerning how scientific research on memory should and should not be used in court?

As you will see I have copied this email to those within the BPS who I believe have an interest in this matter.

I should add that I do not wish you to treat this as a complaint to be channelled though the complaints process. This is matter of policy. I am requesting that you and your senior professional office-holders address this as a matter of urgency.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Harvey AFBsS; member number 5187; former Chair Division of Clinical Psychology; former Chief Examiner and Chair of Board of Examiners BPS Qualification in Clinical Psychology).

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BPS Ethics Procedures – fit for purpose – 2?

As a follow-up to my last post I have, at last, been given the name of the current Chair of the BPS Ethics committee. Just for the record, I contacted the BPS Office on 11 December 2020 and got a reply on 5 January 2021. Even allowing for COVID-19, working from home and the “festive” season, this seems an excessive delay. Additionally, I can only contact the Chair via the BPS Office. Below is a copy of the email that I asked to be forwarded:

Dear Dr Paxton,
I am contacting you in your capacity as Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee.
You will be familiar with the controversy surrounding the late Hans Eysenck’s research with Roland Grossarth-Maticek, including the letter to The Psychologist (September 2019) from Colman et al. requesting the the BPS formally investigate. The response from the Society (via an unnamed and unattributable source) effectively bypassed this by handing the responsibility on to his then employers. 
That has now been done and a report published by Kings College (freely available and in the public domain). They concluded that at least 26 studies were “…unsafe…” and contacted the relevant journal editors to inform them of this.
Where does the BPS stand now? A senior and high-profile psychologist of international repute has had parts of his work formally and thoroughly investigated by an independent group and this work has been found unsafe. Surely the BPS owes its members and the wider public some sort of response?
The BPS is ostensibly dedicated
to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied and especially to promote the efficiency and usefulness of Members of the Society by setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge.and to maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership;
At a time when science as whole is under such close scrutiny (if not threat) surely we cannot ignore this, hope that it will go away or hide behind some anodyne statement?
I would be grateful if you let me (or, even better, the membership) know what the BPS is planning to do.
Best wishes,
Peter Harvey AFBPsS (former Chair DCP).

As of today (18 January 2012) I have had no response, no acknowledgement, nothing. The title of this post remains apposite.

Peter Harvey.