On Friday, July 10, 2015, the New York Times broke the story on the Hoffman report on psychologists’ complicity in torture. The Hoffman investigation was commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA) regarding allegations the APA colluded with the U.S. government to allow psychologists to aid in the torture of military detainees.
Allegations had been raised back in October, 2014 by NYT reporter James Risen, who claimed the APA manipulated their ethics code in order to curry favor with the Department of Defense. At the time, the APA released a press release strongly denying any wrongdoing and, essentially, calling Risen a hack.
The Hoffman report substantiates Risen’s claims however, detailing widespread problems within the APA related to ethics, transparency, sincerity and politics put before integrity.
In a press release following the Hoffman report, the APA seems keen to pass the blame to “a small group of APA representatives” whose actions were “previously unknown.”
But, from the report, the collusion, to varying degrees appears to include many APA representatives, including in the ethics office, science directorate and among the executive offices. With such widespread involvement, how were such issues “previously unknown?”
Business As Usual?
It would be a mistake to conclude that a small group of rogues was at the center of these problems or that the torture collusion, as dramatic and horrific as it is, was a “one-off” for the APA. Rather, I argue that this tragic circumstance is just an extreme example of political business as usual for the APA for decades, particularly on matters of science policy.
As far back as 1996, O’Donohue and Dyslin pointed out that scientific policy statements by the APA often sacrificed objectivity and accuracy for political sound bites that appeared geared toward increasing the prestige and influence of the APA.
Why are we surprised that such a political culture led us to this?
Not much has changed since O’Donohue and Dyslin’s critiques. Certainly in my own research area of media and video game violence, APA policy statements have been nonsensical rubbish, deceptively communicating to the scholarly community and general public a research field that simply doesn’t exist in the way described.
Media research has always been messy and conflicted, but such conflicted outcomes don’t give society clear answers and without clear answer,s there’s no prestige and influence to be had for the APA and its members.
Policy statements by the APA in this realm have historically been derived by selecting only scholars arguing for causation to review their own work and declare it beyond further debate, a clear conflict of interest. Skeptical scholars have never once been involved in any APA process.
Unfortunately, with the APA’s current task force on video game violence, the APA haven’t learned their lesson or perhaps they learned the wrong lesson. Despite entreaties to comprise a task force of scholars with no prior investment in the issue, the current APA task force includes a majority of individuals who have taken public anti-game or anti-media stances in the past.
One is researcher who has attempted to link games to violence, two others signed an amicus brief supporting the regulation of violent games, one other signed a different statement following the Sandy Hook shooting linking media to violence and a fifth (out of seven members) has worked with the types of laboratory aggression measures often under criticism in video game research.
`Stacking’ the Task Force
It seems clear that the APA wished to “stack” this task force with individuals whose votes were clear a priori, while being able to argue they avoided video game researchers (aside from one, incomprehensibly).
The formation of this task force was also non-transparent. This led 238 scholars to writing an open letter to the APA asking them to simply retire all their policy statements related to media effects and adopt a neutral stance.
Despite this letter being forwarded to the task force, Science Directorate and APA leadership back in 2013, the task force has made no effort to engage with this large body of scholars and learn of their concerns in the two years hence.
Further, multiple surveys now indicate that only a minority of scholars endorse the view that media violence contributes to societal violence (Bushman, Gollwitzer & Cruz, 2015; Ferguson, in press; Ferguson & Colwell, 2015; van Looy et al., 2013).
But the task force has made no attempt to understand this widespread skepticism of media effects from within the field itself.
The dubious development of this task force, appearing to “stack” the issue toward an outcome advantageous to the APA has echoes of the torture ethics issue as detailed by the Hoffman report.
During 2013 meetings held at the Institutes of Medicine in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, I witnessed firsthand how hungry the APA was to capitalize on the tragic violence (in fairness, they certainly weren’t the only ones).
But it’s difficult argue for relevance when a field is messy, conflicted, and increasingly undergoing a replication crisis. But given the lack of transparency in its development and progress, failure to connect with a large body of scholars and perceived biases, the current video game task force should be disbanded and the APA’s policy statements on both video games and media more generally retired.
These issues on APA policy aren’t remotely limited to media effects, but likely touch a wide range of the APA’s policy actions in which cynical politics were masked in the language of science and human advocacy.
Opportunity for Reform
Corrupt practices on science policy as well as ethics have been the norm for the APA for too long. The Hoffman report provides a rare opportunity for true and radical reform of APA leadership and policy. Without a thorough approach, any hope for restoring the credibility of our field will be lost for years to come.