This post has been modified to include an addendum (shown after the references) to include feedback received since the original posting = Blog Administrator (8 January 2022).
David Pilgrim posts….
During 2021 the large fraud in the BPS was dismissed as a minor footnote in the Society’s accounts. Three elected Presidents disappeared over a two month period. Two resigned and another was expelled after a kangaroo court and a rigged appeal. In the interim period between the latter two events, he was publicly disparaged in a YouTube video.
For most of the year the CEO was suspended in the wake of the fraud. A temporary President was drafted in, with the help of a contrived illegitimate election, to bolster the diminishing credibility of the Board of Trustees. The Psychologist played its faithful role, as ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’, in what it reported and, more importantly, what it did not.
In the midst of these political events, poorly explored in public, there was another that went under the radar. An over-worked and under-paid part time archivist, in the History of Psychology Centre (HoPC) resigned, leaving it with no academic director or archiving staff and an uncertain future. Although the HoPC is not the singular route to build up a history of British psychology, it is fairly important. Accordingly, its sustainability, as a vaunted part of the BPS, is crucial for scholarly activity both inside and outside the Society.
The SMT have done little or nothing to protect it in recent years. Their mind has probably been elsewhere, managing the crisis they both inherited and amplified. One tactical option they seem to have chosen is to suppress history and to be evasive about their own detailed accountability. If that interpretation is correct then their motivation to support a proper history, especially recent history, will be weak or absent.
Whatever else we might say about the BPS, it is not a learning organisation. That aspiration would entail organisational norms, which celebrated transparency and honest reflection about current problems and their antecedents. Many of the postings on this blog have explored failures of probity and the evasion of learning from them on the part of the SMT and Board of Trustees. Here I want to just focus on the possibility of a history of the BPS.
Celebratory and critical histories
Until the middle of the 20th century, British psychology was expanding slowly and loosening itself from the constraints of both medicine and philosophy. Early historical accounts, such as that of my old teacher, Lesley Hearnshaw, paid little critical attention to the Society and focused mainly on epistemological tensions (Hearnshaw, 1964). His task was empirical: map out what could be discerned to date about theory and findings, within the strengths and weaknesses of the British empiricist tradition. A critical take on that history awaited (cf. Pilgrim and Patel, 2015).
At that juncture, some early signs of malaise had to be acknowledged during historical uncovering. Hearnshaw was a friend of Cyril Burt and began to write a celebratory history of his work after his death in 1971. As the proofs were being prepared, accusations were emerging of Burt falsifying data and people. Hearnshaw had, as an old fashioned honest scholar, to re-write his ending. Hagiography had to be replaced with Burt being damned with faint praise. He had been President of the BPS (1941-1943). He was the trusty servant of the eugenic tradition developed by Pearson and Spearman at University College London. He was the main man in the mid-20th century.. He was a public intellectual promoting an elitist eugenic view of human nature and he was not challenged by his peers of the time (Chamarette, 2019). At that time he was Mr British Psychology.
Burt succeeded Spearman as Professor of Psychology at University College in 1932. He always maintained the Spearman-Pearson position on ‘innate general cognitive ability’, which could be ‘objectively determined and measured’ (Burt, 1909). After the Second World War, he shaped the structure of British schooling and his advice to policy makers was well received in his Eugenics Society lecture (Burt, 1946).
Hearnshaw sadly had to record Burt’s fall from grace for the first time, leaving others to squabble over the best post-mortem (Hearnshaw, 1979; cf. Mackintosh, 1995). These efforts reflected efforts to respect the Popperian hope that science is self-correcting, via falsification and open contestation about findings and interpretation. In recent years, psychology in Britain and elsewhere has faced two challenges in this regard. The first is the replication crisis and the second relates to cheating; at times in psychology and other disciplines these have overlapped.
The Burt scandal reflected badly not only on British eugenics and British psychology but also on the BPS itself, given his past Presidential role. The force of eugenic psychology meant that ideology preceded findings; Hearnshaw used the phrase accurately from logical philosophy of Burt ‘begging the question’ (Pilgrim, 2008). Findings were co-opted selectively and then massaged (or invented) to maintain a pre-existing ideological position. This drama has repeated recently in the critique of Burt’s student, Hans Eysenck.
At the time of writing I understand that this matter is being reviewed by a group in the Society. Eysenck’s implausible findings about cancer and personality were reviewed by King’s College (KCL). Eysenck successfully courted funding from the tobacco companies. In exchange he offered them the comforting theory that cancer-proneness and addictive tendencies were inherited. The narrative of these coming together to account for lung cancer incidence could then displace the idea that big business was encouraging addiction for profit and was the source of a major public health problem. Favourable research might augment cigarette marketing.
In 2019 the KCL review* of Eysenck’s work concluded that it was ‘unsafe’ and incompatible with expectations of good clinical research. Criticisms of this work had been known since the 1990s and eventually lobbying from those like Anthony Pelosi prompted the KCL review and the incipient look back from the BPS (Pelosi, 2019).
An organisation without a memory?
Will the BPS be forced to deal (eventually) with the Eysenck question, as they had in days gone by to deal with Burt and his dubious findings? The jury is out for now, but the following might be relevant to note. The editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, David Marks, wrote to Sarb Bajwa in November 2018 asking for the BPS to take its responsibilities seriously about Eysenck, and received no reply.
Three years of radio silence later and after a prompt, Marks still had no reply from the CEO but he did get a response from Rachel Scudamore (‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) apologising for Bajwa’s inaction. She opted to use the first person plural to avoid a third person accusation of her manager.
Why Bajwa did not reply apologetically himself is not known. However, it was a time when those at the centre of the BPS would quite often fail to reply to concerns. (We have reported this norm of contempt from the centre in previous postings, often about very serious matters.) One manifestation of secrecy at the centre of the BPS has been a casual indifference to membership inquiries and concerns.
As is often the case with scenarios like this, when trying to communicate with the powers that be in the BPS, we enter an Alice in Wonderland World, while being asked to take those leading the Society seriously. Credulousness is demanded in the face of the incredible material facts. The BPS until proved otherwise, is a self-deceiving and secretive bureaucracy. For now, with its governance unreformed and a cabal culture normalised, it is an organisation without a memory (cf. Donaldson, 2002).
This much we can say
In light of the above we can see a pattern of a rhetoric of history being taken seriously, alongside evasiveness in practice about any meaningful historical reflection. The HoPC has great rhetorical value for the BPS: just go onto the website and see it there as a key advertising feature for an alleged learned body. For now, like with much that is claimed from the cabal, this is bullshit.
The casual use of censorship by the cabal and the biddable role of The Psychologist reflect a disdain for academic freedom. Even if the HoPC were to be rescued from its near oblivion, what chance it developing and defending a critical, rather than a sycophantic and celebratory, history of the BPS? Will the SMT bother to finance such an academically independent Centre? Alternatively, will they continue to let it wither on the vine, while retaining its vacuous image cynically on the website? The BPS has huge reserves, some of which are being squandered on a poorly justified ‘Change Programme’ to the tune of (at least) £6 million. ‘Spare some change for the HoPC, governor?’ ‘Sorry mate, busy spending it elsewhere.’
As for the Eysenck review, we are all curious to watch its development. Though never given a Fellowship of the BPS, his leading role in British psychology has to be acknowledged by friend and foe alike. After his death in 1997 an annual memorial lecture was set up in his honour in the Society. It sits proudly in celebration of the British eugenic tradition, alongside the Spearman Medal.
Some have already queried the point of mulling over Eysenck’s flawed work (maybe like digging up Cromwell’s body and chopping off his head during The Restoration in 1661) (Hall and Scarnà, 2019). However, if the BPS cannot pronounce on the integrity of Eysenck’s work then who else can? Maybe the review of these alleged sins of the past is a convenient diversion from those of the present. Either way, his own words might be an ethical guide:
I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he (sic) sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts. (Eysenck, 1990: 229)
The KCL reviewers were unimpressed by the facts he favoured. At the time of writing, fourteen retractions from journals have been recorded of Eysenck’s work. His critics trace problems going back to just after the Second World War. Their vulnerability lies in Eysenck’s eugenic thought, repeating the problem of his mentor. A contradiction of his approach was that he was both a methodological behaviourist and a biogenetic ideologue. His cancer work reflected that: heredity accounted for causes but the treatment of patients warranted CBT (behaviour therapy was its ‘first wave’.)
How the BPS review of Eysenck’s work exactly came into being, and who was chosen to be part of it, remains a mystery. As with much that goes on in the BPS we will never know. Groups emerge by grace and favour and a tap on the shoulder to candidates who will not rock the boat. Given the preference of the CEO and the illegitimate President to look forwards, Pollyanna fashion, and never backwards, the prospect of an honest history of the BPS in the recent past looks slim indeed (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-35/january-2022/president-and-chief-executive).
The Burt and Eysenck examples show that historical clarifications, guided by Popperian criteria of scientific correction and probity, are not easy, but they are at least possible in an open democratic society. Sadly it looks as though currently the BPS does not have the intellectual culture to deliver the same expectation. Toxic managerialism and a lack of independent trustees (a structural fault traceable to 1965 and not rectified when the opportunity arose in 1988) have suppressed, rather than celebrated, the obligation to learn from experience in the public interest.
Anti-intellectualism, censorship, secrecy, PR, spin, impression management and rigged expulsions and elections, for now dominate the decision-making priorities of the leadership. As a consequence, bullshit constantly displaces implausible claims of transparency. Maybe we will have to look outside for an authentic historical reckoning. It may have to come from the courts and investigative journalists.
Burt, C.L. (1946) Intelligence and fertility. Eugenics Society Occasional Papers Number 2.
Burt, C.L. (1909) Experimental tests of general intelligence. British Journal of Psychology III 94-107.
Chamarette, M. (2019) Psychologists as public intellectuals: Cyril Burt at the BBC in the 1930s. Stories of Psychology Meeting organised by the History of Psychology Centre, November 7th.
Donaldson, L. (2002) An organisation with a memory. Clinical Medicine 2, 5, 524-7.
Eysenck, H.J. (1990) Rebel With A Cause London: Transaction
Hall, J. and Scarnà, A. (2019) An aggravating controversialist or ahead of his time? The Psychologist November, 32, 5.
Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979) Cyril Burt: Psychologist Icatha NY: Cornell University Press.
Hearnshaw, L.S. (1964) A Short History of British Psychology London: Methuen.
Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421-439
Pilgrim, D. (2008) The eugenic legacy in psychology and psychiatry. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 54, 3, 272-284.
Pilgrim, D. and Patel, N. (2015) The emergence of clinical psychology in the British post-war context. In J. Hall, D. Pilgrim and G. Turpin (eds) Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives HoPC Monograph No 2. Leicester: BPS.
Mackintosh, N.J. (ed) (1995) Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* The Institute of Psychiatry, where Eysenck worked, was subsumed into KCL in 1997, hence that College of the University of London now being the academic ‘owner’ of his legacy.
This post has prompted email feedback from colleagues. I am grateful to them for the following minor corrections and their invited clarifications.
1. The archivist who resigned in 2021 was now, I understand, full-time not part-time. She left behind an assistant to work on her own in Leicester. To date the review group, set up three years ago to reinvigorate the HoPC still has had no formal commitment from the CEO or SMT to support an academic director, who would be guaranteed full autonomy in their role. To my knowledge no meeting has taken place in the interim between the Chair of the review group and the CEO. I understand from anonymous sources that a consultant may be imported temporarily to advise on archiving. However, I have been unable to confirm this possibility and its source, if any, in SMT decision making. (A theme on this blog is the arcane nature of decision making at the centre of the BPS.) We would of course welcome a full and clear update from the CEO or the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ about their intentions about the ailing HoPC. I would put a very low probability of this happening, as the SMT have opted for a wilful and consistent policy of non-engagement with us. I have also sent a letter about my concerns about the HoPC to the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ (copying to the CEO). Based on past trends, there is little likelihood that I will receive a reply. Currently I am Honorary General Secretary of the History and Philosophy Section but I sent my letter in a personal capacity. The Section will of course be taking all of the above matters seriously in relation to the vulnerability of the HoPC now and its future prospects.
2. The Spearman Medal has now been abandoned by the BPS in the face of criticisms about its eugenic roots. It was awarded finally in 2020 but, note, was only set up in 1962. The latter date reflects a mainstream commitment to the eugenic tradition in British psychology well after the Second World War. The British Eugenics Society changed its name to the Galton Institute in 1989. This euphemistic naming and the current rationale for the Institute can be found on its website. In 2020 University College London, removed the names of Galton and Pearson from its rooms and buildings.
1 thought on “Is an authentic history of the BPS possible?￼”