"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance, IAPT, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

The British Psychological Society: Failing the Public

Pat Harvey posts….

Because of their acknowledged expertise, Psychologists enjoy professional autonomy; responsibility is an essential element of autonomy. Psychologists must accept appropriate responsibility for what is within their power, control or management. Awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused, the power of influence is properly managed and that duty towards others is always paramount.

Statement of values: Psychologists value their responsibilities to persons and peoples, to the general public, and to the profession and science of Psychology, including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contribution to society.

BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2018.

A dysfunctional Society

The British Psychological Society’s serious governance dysfunction, the central concern of BPSWatch (1) has important consequences, not only for the way it behaves towards its own membership, but ultimately in how it functions in relation to its responsibilities to the wider community. A Royal Chartered Charity, (2) its formal Objects may not explicitly state that it has that latter duty and responsibility to wider society, but the second Object requires it to have a Code of Ethics and Conduct (3). That Code includes the statement shown above and only a legal weasel or a BPS bureaucrat might, if pushed into a corner, attempt to deny that the Charter does not require a duty to the public at large. 

The growing awareness of the organisational dysfunction and the wilful withholding of information about this brought us together to form BPSWatch and the associated Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk. Whilst we and others have as yet failed to create sufficient pressure to see the ongoing involvement of the Charity Commission with the BPS over its governance problems escalate into a full Statutory Inquiry, we have helped to get information out into the mainstream and other media: The Times, The Telegraph and Third Sector. They will no doubt renew and sharpen their interest as anticipated legal cases become public. Meanwhile the individual concerns initially brought to us about specific policy topics which have been mishandled remain unresolved. It is our contention, and that of the complainants who have contacted us, that each of these is a matter of public concern and public protection.

 Unbalanced Views and Member Complaints

Psychology is, and should always be, alive and comfortable with controversy and debate. Members have a right to expect an open facilitative climate, where the best of psychological research, practice and policy formation would be supported and discussion promoted.  We, and others, think the BPS is failing to do this and efforts to complain about such failures have led to our focus on the actual suppression of viewpoints and the active censorship of controversies including  

Gender

Memory-Based Evidence

Prescribing Rights

IAPT

These impact directly on practitioners and the people and services they work with, but they also impact upon discussion in public life. They are matters of concern to the mental well-being of individuals who are vulnerable and finding themselves in threatening situations in their communities, in a clinic or in court. They are psychological matters still open to alignments of differing viewpoints.  We believe the BPS has a duty to address these, elucidate their conflictual aspects, review and weigh the evidence base and its adequacy, and specify remaining questions. 

Since this has not happened, members have tried to complain. They have often been ignored or met resistance.  A network of disparate, dissatisfied complainants discovered each other by word of mouth and email chains, and we were encouraged by this to set up BPSWatch.  The writer came into this originally due to what I believed to be grossly inadequate and incomplete BPS guidelines on gender for practitioners (4) which I had discovered in connection with a high profile childcare case which went to court.  I considered the guidelines totally unfit for purpose and was minded to complain. I then came across a statement made by a key player in their construction. This person’s formal presentation as an expert psychologist was recorded at an academic forum which was posted in an online video. They made a categoric statement that, based on what they held to be definitive research findings, the question of psychological outcomes of gender reassignment surgery was closed, stating “…the debate is shut. There is not a debate about that anymore…”. This is not a statement that any Chartered Psychologist should be making either in form or in content. It constitutes what will be taken by audience and viewer as authoritative summation of the current evidence base on outcomes of surgery. It misrepresents how psychologists should talk about scientific enquiry, and is actually untrue. It is, therefore, unethical. Furthermore, as a ‘take-away message’ in that forum and online, with the implied weight of the British Psychological Society behind that person’s position and reputation, it is seriously irresponsible. That message had the potential to impact directly, if heard, upon people making life-changing choices.

The BPS complaints team batted the complaint about the statement away. The first response (stage 1), was a blithe and ironic “…we are a broad church…”. I persisted, with references, and this aspect of my complaint, whilst taken more seriously and addressed in more detail, was rejected. They stated “…Although there will always be some dissenting voices, the idea that this represents a real schism in the scientific community [note, this misrepresents my precise concern] … is incorrect…”. In fact, subsequent reputable research publications (5) have strongly supported my contention that the jury was still out on this, and the debate is, and should, remain open. Uncertainty about those outcomes remains, and needs to be the subject of much more adequate data collection, follow-up and methodologically sound research. The psychologist I complained about was peddling certainties, taking a protagonist/activist position in the guise of the science, and the BPS was wrong to continue to support that. Vulnerable people, their families and their rights are ill-served by false certainties coming from supposedly highly authoritative sources, backed by the BPS

Conflict Avoidance

I have cited the above to illustrate not only the tortuous experience of trying to make a complaint to the BPS but also to illustrate how poor is the quality of the Society response. In the case of another of the topics listed above, Memory-Based Evidence, the BPS took a different tack – they dumped the challenge half-way through. The BPS’s previous out-dated guidance on this area was deemed to have been skewed at the time (2008, 2010) by the impact of the false memory/recovered memory lobby (6). The BPS had seemed, over the years and in the pages of The Psychologist, to have had stars in its eyes around a famous and foremost proponent, Elizabeth Loftus (7). She had been made an Honorary Fellow of the Society and lauded for her subsequent awards. Not all members were happy about this (8). For the interest of the reader, an admirable and informative account of the journalistically styled ‘Memory Wars’ can be found outside the pages of academic journals and The Psychologist in the link below (9). Such informed coverage puts the BPS house journal to shame. During the of writing this article, a US jury have shown limited sympathy with the defence case for which Loftus gave her usual form of evidence (10) and Robert Durst has been found guilty of a murder committed 20 years ago.

 A BPS-appointed Task and Finish group was set up to revise their outdated guidance. There was a good deal of demand for this from practitioners who appear in court in connection with many kinds of trauma, particularly in the context of historical child abuse allegations.  Well into its work, the working group was unexpectedly closed down (11). The Psychologist published a statement from the Chair of the Research Board suggesting this was an amicable and consensual decision – we have been directly informed by participants it was not.  As one comment amongst the many to The Psychologist stated “…I am a member of the Memory Based Evidence Group and I would like the right of reply to respond about some of what has happened in this Group, which was tasked on writing a document on Memory and the Law. I am unhappy about the Research Board’s decision to disband the group, and I do not think that there has been a satisfactory answer to why such a decision was made; this decision was made without consultation with the group members, nor with the wider Society….“(11). The announcement in The Psychologist was made with this statement “Unfortunately, the standards of evidence for the report and the need for consensus and a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, [my emphasis] as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met.”. (11)

Contained within this statement, one which might immediately raise the questions: “Who set those terms of reference?” and “Isn’t the contentiousness the very reason for these guidelines?” is a clue to where some of the underlying and poorly managed tensions may originate. Academic/practitioner conflicts have dogged other psychological associations; for example the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science in the USA (12). As someone from a practitioner background, my view would be that there are serious drawbacks to research which sets out to answer questions arising from the clinical environment using crudely artificial analogues. Memory based evidence is one topic illustrating the drawbacks in using research set up in staged non-personal settings to discredit the opinions (in the legal sense) of practitioners working in non-analogous trauma related circumstances.  If you have any doubts about the dire need for an authoritative dispassionate view on this particular controversy to protect individuals on both sides in an adversarial court environment, consider what the absence of that psychological balance does – it leaves courts wide open to the machinations of the British False Memory Society. How it actually goes about doing its work is described in detail in this video (13).  A balanced view from the BPS could surely weigh the concerns about false positives and false negatives within the context of BFMS strategies, the applicability of academic research to traumatic memory, and social context of the serious underreporting of child sexual abuse (14). This would greatly assist in the court setting which itself attempts, as does a practitioner, a case-by-case assessment of veracity. The BPS Research Board have in effect kicked the revision of the guidelines into the long grass, the old guidelines having been archived.  These, however, are still available to be cited and used on the uninformed if you know where to look online. 

The BPS Working for the BPS?

Further discussion of these topics, and also of the implications of the BPS failings on Prescribing Rights and IAPT, can be found in specific articles on the blog (15, 16, 17). They illustrate a systematic failure to conduct proper consultation over key concerns in service provision models and health service professional practice. Why and how is this happening? 

The BPS, it seems, has an opaque system and uses equally opaque criteria for choosing its preferred advisors and for what policies are to be discussed with government departments and the NHSE. Feedback to members is minimal or non-existent. We have been reliably informed that a BPS CEO felt quite free to negotiate with NHSE without the presence of any psychologist. This leaves the room for a Society with an ever more rapacious in-house business agenda to be sucked into any government ideology where a shared vested interest may appear. The wider views of members working in the field may well be sidelined or completely ignored. The alleged current government agenda on privatising health care/moving to insurance models is open to facilitation by the self-interest of particular voices who manage to gain favour. In that context, note the latest BPS attempts to convince the NHSE and PSA that the Society can regulate an influx of less qualified younger members who will bring in fees and subscriptions to swell the coffers. There is little reason to think this will go well. In contrast to welcoming ever wider groups for membership, senior members seem to be regarded as a nuisance – maybe more trouble than they are literally worth, unless they are securely corralled within the system’s tent and staying ‘on script’ with the assistance of the Society’s Comms team – being one of the ‘cronies’.

Cronyism and Its Ills

We arrived at the term ‘serial office holder’ to describe how some psychologists have made a parallel career from being a BPS ‘apparatchik’. These psychologists move from one office to another over years (sometimes decades), sometimes elected, sometimes appointed. They make a virtue of their extended contributions. They are able to use the BPS logo on their websites and list the many impressive offices they have held on their CVs. Thus their BPS career is likely to enhance their professional reputation. They like to give each other honorary lifetime memberships and even when that is done in an AGM on Zoom in 2021, you may be expected to stamp your feet under your desk in approval.

 It would seem highly likely that a regime where cronyism is a norm will lead to complacency, lack of critical reflection, closing ranks, and resistance to newcomers taking important roles. An extreme example of this was the opposition to, and the action taken against, the President Elect 2020-21, Dr Nigel MacLennan. He was elected on a reforming mandate and then expelled. The expulsion was heralded in a vilifying YouTube video for all to see even before he had chance to appeal. We know many members thought that horrible and immoral, and one can only shudder at the extent to which living in the BPS bubble has distorted the judgement and the personal morality of those implicated in, and complicit with, show trial tactics. The person chosen to conduct his ‘appeal’, far from being independent of the previous proceedings and personnel involved, described himself in an interview with The Psychologist, on assuming his own presidential office, as “…a BPS Junkie since 1984…”. He has been around the corridors, real and virtual, of the BPS for more than 30 years, the BPS and he being ‘in each others’ DNA’ so to speak. 

Not all serial office holders are treated well in the BPS, however, particularly if they start to question how things are being done. They too may be attacked and threatened like MacLennan. We have heard how some become very distressed, visibly so in meetings, but then increasingly conform; others resist but remain peculiarly defensive of some idealised notion of the organisation and its capacity for change despite all evidence of its malign dysfunction. These patterns are reminiscent of what has been called Stockholm Syndrome. It is pertinent to consider how an unhealthy organisational environment where the main focus is self-perpetuation might allow for another form of organisational capture, by activism. Any would-be activist moles would be well-advised to get their feet under the table by not rocking the organisational boat and to volunteer for taking on work others don’t want. Then they just need to wait for their policy agenda to float into view and haul it in.

Psychologists, Psychology and Activism

The writer has been a lifelong political activist and vigorously supports, in her personal life, action on climate change, poverty, inclusivity and world peace. I took to the streets in the 1970s when my town elected National Front/National Party councillors. I was part of the making of a World In Action TV programme on that racist environment. Those passionate views had to be put on mute in my clinical work. I currently hold strong views about many of the contentious topics in psychology, but our focus at BPSWatch is to ensure that no partisan view – including my own – within an area of ongoing scientist/practitioner debate captures the BPS. Some activists had assumed because we criticised BPS bias that we supported their ‘side’ of a particular argument, hence we have revisited and set out our agenda (19) – good governance, not certain ‘causes’.

We argue in BPSWatch that gender, memory-based evidence, prescribing rights and IAPT are amongst the topics that have been captured by a particular viewpoint and its activists. What follows capture is that debate is shut down, information restricted. Certain topics are being precluded from teaching and some psychologists are being maligned. Deeply unfair accusations of transphobia, sexism, racism, classism (the list grows daily) are never challenged by the BPS. This is aided and abetted by The Psychologist which actively fails to give balanced coverage to all legitimate views. Members have told us how their contributions have summarily been spiked in the in-house publications. It is not for the BPS to enter party politics and campaign, for example, on specifics such as Universal Credit. Rather, it should be making available the best research on poverty in relation to child development, adult mental health, crime and suchlike, and vigorously bringing this to the attention of politicians and decision makers. The same applies, as with the topics covered above and numerous others, to public awareness of the best evidenced range of views within which individual people are making the kinds of choices that many face and which will often change the course of their lives. This does not include rushing to be a signatory to a range of worthy campaigns (and how is the decision to sign – or not – made?). These psychological matters are serious.

The Results of Misgovernance are Failing the Public

The well-staffed, wealthy but seriously misgoverned charity that is the current British Psychological Society continues to fail its members and the public on the most crucial of standards, and for this we will continue to hold it to account.  We have hoped to see moves for radical change which would enable open communications with the large membership, bottom-up consultations and an inflow of new actively welcomed volunteers.  We hope to see new healthy structures at the top of the organisation, independent lay people as trustees. We believe it is only then that the BPS will serve the membership and the public as it should. Sadly, it just is not happening and there are no signs, despite the recent talk of ‘crossroads’, change programmes and tinkering with governance, that the change will come from genuine reflection within. Perhaps, therefore, it must come from without.

**************

Notes and Links

  1. Why the blog and why now? Charity Commission to Blog Author: “We are currently engaging with the society over a number of issues and have found deficiencies in some areas of operation” https://bpswatch.com/2020/11/20/why-the-blog-and-why-now/ 
  2. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/How%20we%20work/BPS%20Royal%20Charter%20and%20Statues.pdf
  3. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy%20-%20Files/BPS%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20and%20Conduct%20%28Updated%20July%202018%29.pdf
  4. https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity 
  5. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.1778correction 

“The results demonstrated no advantage of surgery in relation to subsequent mood or anxiety disorder-related health care visits or prescriptions or hospitalizations following suicide attempts in that comparison. Given that the study used neither a prospective cohort design nor a randomized controlled trial design, the conclusion that “the longitudinal association between gender-affirming surgery and lower use of mental health treatment lends support to the decision to provide gender-affirming surgeries to transgender individuals who seek them” is too strong”.

  1. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/august-2017/positives-negatives-and-empirical-reasoning 
  2. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-26/edition-5/news
  3. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/february-2017/no-congratulations-here
  4. https://www.thecut.com/article/false-memory-syndrome-controversy.html 
  5. https://www.courttv.com/title/8-4-21-the-jinx-murder-trial-intense-cross-examination-of-memory-expert/
  6. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/april-2021/not-good-look 
  7. https://behavioralscientist.org/long-winding-road-125-years-american-psychological-association/ 
  8. See Dr. Kevin Felstead, Communications Director, British False Memory Society reveal their strategy at I hour 4 minutes in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WsY-AqM4Y8 
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/sep/02/millions-children-religious-groups-vulnerable-abuse-england-and-wales
  10. https://bpswatch.com/category/false-memory-syndrome/
  11. https://bpswatch.com/category/prescribing-rights/
  12. https://bpswatch.com/category/iapt/
  13. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/07/bps-bullshit/ 
  14. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/14/what-this-blog-is-about-a-re-statement/ 

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