Ethics

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.

Ethics

The BPS Ethics procedures – fit for purpose?

A reaction to Ashley Conway’s post from Peter Harvey:

It is an understatement to say that Hans Eysenck was no stranger to controversy. However, two papers published in 2019 highlighted serious concerns about possible ethical issues  – specifically relating to his work with Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. In his editorial, David Marks includes an open letter to the CEO requesting that the BPS conducts “…a thorough investigation of the facts together with retraction or correction of 61 papers.”. His plea was based on a well-referenced and highly detailed paper published in that same journal by Anthony Pelosi who concluded:

There is a complicated and multi-layered scandal surrounding Hans Eysenck’s work on fatal diseases. In my opinion, it is one of the worst scandals in the history of science, not least because the Heidelberg results have sat in the peer-reviewed literature for nearly three decades while dreadful and detailed allegations have remained uninvestigated. In the meantime, these widely cited studies have had direct and indirect influences on some people’s smoking and lifestyle choices. This means that for an unknown and unknowable number of individual men and women, this programme of research has been a contributory factor in premature illness and death. How can members of the public and their policymakers turn to science for help with difficult decisions when even this most extreme of scientific disputes cannot be resolved?

In a letter to The Psychologist (September 2019), Colman, Marks, McVittie & Smith noted that the BPS is “…uniquely placed to conduct a formal investigation and audit, and we call on them to act as soon as possible.”.

In an anonymous response (i.e. headed ‘Society reply’), after one paragraph describing the Society’s purpose (hopefully already known to its members) and another quoting from the Code of Ethics and Conduct, the third paragraph states:

However, the conduct of research lies with the academic institution which oversees the work carried out by its academics and we welcomed the investigation into this research carried out by King’s College, London.

In May 2019, Kings College reported on its internal enquiry into publications authored by Professor Hans Eysenck with Professor Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. Apart from the laudable speed  and thoroughness with which this was both commissioned and made available in the public domain, its conclusions are of considerable significance:

The Committee shared the concerns made by the critics of this body of work. We have come to the conclusion that we consider the published results of studies that included the results of the analyses of data collected as part of the intervention or observational studies to be unsafe and that the editors of the journals should be informed of our decision. We have highlighted 26 papers (Appendix 1) which were published in 11 journals which are still in existence (see list of journals and editors Appendix 2). We recommend that the Principal write to the editors of these journals to inform them that, based on our enquiry, we consider the results and conclusions of these studies are unsafe.

The Director of Research Governance, Ethics and Integrity at King’s has written to the academic lead for research misconduct at the University of Heidelberg to confirm Professor Ronald Grossarth-Maticek’s affiliation with them at the time in question, and to clarify their procedure for investigating allegations of research misconduct.

So whilst the BPS welcomed the Kings investigation, its serious conclusions and actions seem to have gone unremarked. In a much more detailed analysis of the history of this scandal and the BPS’s lack of action Craig et al., (2020) state, quite unequivocally:

The Eysenck case is a stain on the record of psychology and on science itself.

So what has the BPS done? As far as I can ascertain – absolutely nothing. I have searched the 2019/2020 archive of The Psychologist and there is no record of any statement by the BPS (I am happy to be pointed in the right direction should I have missed it). I am trying to contact the Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee – a task made harder as their name and contact details are absent from the BPS website (I will post as soon as I get a response). However, in attempting to find out about about the complaints procedure I came across the following statement:

In order for the Society to be able to take any action you must provide the evidence required, as outlined in the procedures of the Member Conduct Rules. The Society will then decide if the member has breached the rules, and decide on the appropriate action. The Society does not have a function to investigate complaints against its members, but can take action when the Society has evidence of the outcomes from any appropriate third party investigation.

I was shocked to read that the Society does not have an investigatory function. It is the one body that has access to the expertise necessary to evaluate the validity of an ethical breach. In my opinion it is a serious dereliction of duty to outsource the investigatory process. In this case, that has been done and the review raises serious questions about the integrity of widely-cited research by a very senior psychologist. So why hasn’t the BPS, quickly and authoritatively, responded? Where is the acknowledgement of the Kings Report (initially ‘welcomed’ by the BPS). They have done their duty – why not the BPS? Surely the BPS shouldn’t shirk its responsibilities in this way.

'False Memory Syndrome', Ethics

Does the BPS Care About Ethical Standards Enough to Enforce Them?

Ashley Conway writes:

Following on from my earlier post

The Charity Commission says that the BPS must follow the demands of the Royal Charter and Statutes and Rules of the Society. The Royal Charter states:  that the Society should “…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.”.

I believe that this is an area where the BPS completely fails to fulfil its obligations.

About a third of BPS members are also registered with the HCPC, and the BPS is happy to pass on responsibility for dealing with rule violations by them.  But what of the other two thirds of the membership?  The answer seems to be that the BPS does everything it can to avoid taking any responsibility, usually passing the buck to the member’s employer.  But what if they have no employer (i.e. are self-employed?) or their employer uses Non Disclosure Agreements to avoid scandal, as some universities do (see here and here)?  This could mean that ethics violations go unreported and can be repeated by a guilty individual, possibly causing great harm to vulnerable people.

I cannot find anything in either the Charity Commission requirements or the BPS Charter that says that this responsibility about ethical standards can be farmed out to third parties or ignored.

What follows is a specific example of the problem.  Elizabeth Loftus is an Honorary Life Fellow of the BPS who enjoys a high profile internationally, despite considerable controversy.  This, from The Psychologist (July 2011, 24, 490-503):

Star power arrived at the 2011 Annual Conference this year in the form of Elizabeth Loftus (University of California, Irvine), the doyenne of false memory research whos had the mixed fortune of attracting death threats and the highest academic accolades. 

However, there are, I would suggest, serious ethical questions to be raised about her conduct.

  1. As far back as 1995, complaints were made to the American Psychological Association (APA) against Loftus by Lynn Crook and Jennifer Hoult.  Both have complained that Loftus grossly mis-represented their life stories (see here and here).  Loftus resigned from the APA just before the complaints process was about to be initiated.  There were allegations that she had been tipped off about it, because for both the APA and Loftus, resignation was the best way to avoid the investigation and unwanted publicity.  
  2. She has come in for strong criticism from judges for the nature of her expert witness testimony.  In the case referenced in her TED talk described below, referring to Loftus’s actions in question (Loftus falsely claiming to be a clinician’s supervisor to gain personal information for her use), the court stated  “In our view, intentionally misrepresenting oneself as an associate or colleague of a mental health professional who has a close personal relationship with the person about whom one is seeking information would be a particularly serious type of misrepresentation …” .  In another case Judge John Fedora dismissed Loftus’s opinion as “Having been rendered after an uncritical review of an absurdly incomplete record carefully  dissected to include only pieces of information tending to support Appellant’s repressed memory theory …”.
  3. In her TED talk there is further evidence of possible ethical breaches.  (i) She reveals the name of a victim of abuse who was promised anonymity, when her very personal story was used as a case study by respectable psychologists;  (ii) Loftus states:  “She accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory” without informing us that actually the person in question had made revelations of abuse as a little girl, which had videotape and verbatim documentation.  So the accusations were based on much more than an adult’s “repressed memory”, and the truth goes very much against the false memory hypothesis that Loftus is seen to support.  (iii) Loftus states: “I became part of a disturbing trend in America where scientists are being sued for simply speaking out on matters of great public controversy.”.  But the litigation issue was not about speaking out on matters of great public controversy.  The real reason that she was being sued was for  “… for defamation and invasion of privacy…” as she herself reveals in this same talk.
  4. There have been important questions raised over the validity of the data in her famous “lost in the mall” study.

I have raised this issue of Loftus’s behaviour on a number of occasions with the BPS.  This year I wrote to the CEO about this and related issues three times.  I received no reply, which I now know has been the experience of many others.  I did, finally, get something back from a very senior member of the BPS who said “In relation to Prof Loftus, election as an Honorary Life Fellow confers membership of the Society so the member conduct rules would apply, as they do to all members. I would draw your attention to the fact that, since the Society is no longer a regulator, it normally requires ‘allegations to first have been determined using other appropriate procedures’ such as by the appropriate regulatory body.’” I genuinely do not understand this response.  What would be an appropriate procedure and who would be an appropriate body for Loftus?  The complainants above did not find one.  Where in the Charity Commissions rules for the Society, or the Royal Charter, does it say that the Society is no longer a regulator?  If this really means that the BPS takes no responsibility for enforcing its Conduct Rules or Code of Ethics, what is the point in having them?  

And BPS – how does this fit in with the requirement to “… compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.”?  

I think that the BPS owes us all an answer to this question.