Torture and Scientism

Last summer, the field of psychology was shaken by two reports. They called into question some of the applied and experimental activities of the field. July 2015 saw revelations that top American Psychological Association (APA) officials had been involved in the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) “enhanced interrogation techniques.” A 542-page report commissioned by the APA and written by former federal prosecutor David H. Hoffman, titled “Report To The Special Committee Of The Board Of Directors Of The American Psychological Association,” detailed that not only did APA executives and member psychologists aid in developing and implementing the interrogation techniques, but also that high-level APA officials had downplayed ethical problems with the techniques and were instrumental in skirting the APA’s ethical guidelines. The “Hoffman report” concluded that “APA officials colluded with important DoD officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines.”

In late August 2015, a four-year effort known as the “Reproducibility Project” reported that it was only able to replicate 39% of 100 psychological studies published in some of the top journals in the field. The Project concluded that much of what passes for key research findings in the field could not be replicated using the same methodology in another context. In a rather strange twist, a second report was released in early March of 2016 by another group of psychologists who claimed they unable to reproduce the results from the Reproducibility Project. This new report set off a debate: which version of reproducibility was actually reproducible?

The Hoffman Report revives long-standing questions about the role of ethics in the behavioral sciences, as well as the dangers associated with providing practical advice to governments and other powerful organizations. The Reproducibility Project questions both the long-claimed scientific status of psychology and the integrity of its frequent news-making pronouncements on all things human. While these reports may appear to be separate matters regarding very different problems, they are intertwined. They both run to deep-seated issues in the history, culture, and organization of the discipline of psychology. The field’s combination of an intense zeal to be an applied, practical, and all-encompassing science in combination with a strong and sometimes overstated style of value-free positivism or scientism, evident in particular subareas, can and sometimes has blinded the field to the practical limits of its own knowledge making and to the ethical and political dimensions of the knowledge it produces. These features, found in varying levels in other fields as well, can alter the slow and deliberate timescape of science and generate, in economists’ terms, a “perverse incentive” to quickly make “important discoveries,” publish, promote, and move on to a new study. Like other scholars, psychologists and their work must be relevant and popular, wining the admiration and money of power brokers while fulfilling tenure requirements and providing countable items to various state-driven accountability and funding regimes.

The zeal to promote a “popular psychology” has a long history. Since William James’ Talk to Teachers, Walter Dill Scott’s forays into business and advertising. and Edward Bernays’ appropriation of his uncle Sigmund Freud’s concepts to make inroads into public relations, psychologists have been keenly interested in making theirs an indispensable applied discipline. Its success and diffusion as a knowledge form has been predicated upon its ability to proselytize to the public, introduce new lexicons for the conduct of daily life, and influence the way various social institutions, such as businesses, schools, courts, and the military operate. Indeed, it is difficult to find a part of everyday life or a social institution that has not in some way been affected by psychology and its techniques and explanatory vocabulary. This unbridled and all-encompassing pursuit of always being relevant and effective can generate an impatience to “hurry things along” and to “always please” in order to not miss out an opportunity to find a new applied conduit. For example, according to the Hoffman Report, the three central motivations for APA involvement in torture were to “curry favor with the DoD,” “create a good public-relations response,” and “to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area.”

When this pursuit is combined with psychology’s scientism, a strong, instrumentalist view of people can emerge. Anything goes in the name of obtaining and promoting psychological knowledge. The design of psychological experiments often reveal this orientation with their manipulation of a stimuli (sometimes without the fully informed consent of participants, often composed of college students whose knowledge of the true purpose of the experiment might alter its course). While such an unreflective scientism may have limited effects when the objects of experimentation are slime molds, they can have deleterious effects when directed at humans. f

This was largely the point of the first part of Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s classic work on knowledge and power, The Dialectic of the Enlightenment. They argued that what began in the eighteenth century as scientific attempts to control nature over time became attempts to use science to manipulate humanity for political and economic ends. As knowledge became more closely linked with governmental and corporate power over the course of the last few centuries, knowledge makers sometimes lost sight of science’s early, more humanistic ethos and replaced it with a purely instrumentalist one. The end result, in the most extreme, can be found in the atrocities of the “Nazi science” of Joseph Mengele, the Tuskegee Study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Services, or medical tests reportedly performed on aboriginal children in Australia and First Nations people in Canada.

Last summer’s scandals do not necessarily reveal psychology as the only field capable of such problems—in the human sciences or the sciences in general. In the social sciences, one could surely cite a number of historical examples of ethical problems, such as social scientists’ involvement in Project Camelot in the 1960s, the role of Chicago School economists in supporting the Pinochet regime, or, going further back, anthropologists serving as spies in the First World War. Likewise, replication is rarely done in a number of fields, particularly education and economics, in which “buzz policies” often emerge with little reflection on or replication of the studies on which they may be based. Instead, these scandals serve as a reminder of how the organization of a discipline and its interaction with the outside world may generate an eagerness to accrue positive and newsworthy results at all costs. In the end, this may corrupt both knowledge making and application of the knowledge that is produced. Reflexivity, if not replicability, must safeguard psychology and other fields at risk of objectifying humans into fodder for the advancement of knowledge or of serving as a manipulative tool in the machinations of powerful organizations rather than as independent voices of reason and responsibility.