American Psychological Association and Public Policy

dreamland world
APA defines the real.

Much that passes as “scientific” in psychology fails to meet basic criteria of truth. Amicus briefs, press releases, and news articles, promulgated to the public and to the members of the profession, often do not pass fundamental “common sense” criteria of science. Consider, for example, the November, 2916 magazine cover of the American Psychological Association (APA) Monitor, a glossy magazine disseminated to its 70, 000 plus members. The cover shows a black boy about six years old with a headline in 30 plus typeface that proclaims, “This boy would be three times more likely to be placed in a gifted-education program if he had a black rather than a white teacher.” The cover headline continues, “What’s behind the racial disparity in our education system?”

To state the obvious, lunch programs, policing, parental involvement, curriculum and content, teacher remuneration, neighborhood housing, and a host of other variables impact students’ behavior and teachers’ perception. Teachers and children behave differently in inner cities than in white suburbs, differently in Northern California than in Alabama.  The question asked might be better addressed by nutritionists, educators, sociologists, but the article pegs “racial bias” as the origin. The article admits, but discounts other factors. Instead, the article propounds a psychological cause for what arises from a complex system of relations. The purported “answer” to the headline question is a reductionist solution which hardly addresses causality and at worse may falsify it. Shamefully, this sort of single-factor explanation passes for science.

Perhaps because I live in Northern California, I observe that special treatment in the form of aid, grants, and scholarships are specifically directed toward minorities. A researcher would not have to go far to find white teachers who would favor black students over white students. The point is that, on its face, the headline statement is easily falsified. However, a reader could entertain the assertion as true in a “statistical” sense, assuming the right sampling. This is doubly insidious: Not only does no necessary relation exist between the outcome for black students and white teachers, but the alleged link, if accepted, implies white teachers are racists. Thereby, white teachers must prove they are not racist. To do so, teachers must make every effort to demonstrate racial sensitivity, and, themselves, may become zealots.

The Monitor’s lead article is not science. It is a political piece similar in content, tone, and political orientation to lead articles that have populated the Monitor for decades. The article is representative of similar articles. Members of the APA receive a constant barrage of conferences, workshops, amicus briefs, and sponsored research that support or advocate identity politics.

How was the APA co-opted into this role? The APA By-laws state that the APA is a professional organization whose aim is,

“to advance psychology as a science and profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare by the encouragement of psychology in all its branches in the broadest and most liberal manner; by the promotion of research in psychology and the improvement of research methods and conditions; by the improvement of the qualifications and usefulness of psychologists through high standards of ethics, conduct, education, and achievement; by the establishment and maintenance of the highest standards of professional ethics and conduct of the members of the Association; by the increase and diffusion of psychological knowledge through meetings, professional contacts, reports, papers, discussions, and publications; thereby to advance scientific interests and inquiry, and the application of research findings to the promotion of health, education and the public welfare.”

This is no simple purpose. The reader is confronted by nebulous objectives. The mere number of which raises potential conflict. Major objectives encompass science, the practice of psychology, and “…promoting health, education and human welfare” In the lingo of clinical psychology, APA’s by laws entrap the organization in “dual roles”.

In 1988, the conflict between science and the interests of professional practice led to the establishment of Association for Psychological Science (APS) where the term science appears predominantly in its name. The By-Laws of the 33, 000 member APS state the organization’s purpose is “To promote, protect, and advance the interests of scientifically oriented psychology in research, application, and the improvement of human welfare.”  APS’s By-laws have a clear aim that declares the primacy of science.

In contrast, APA’s welter of objectives promotes the political interests that currently dominate the organization. Under the cover of “encouragement of psychology in all its branches in the broadest and most liberal manner,” APA finds itself a political front for its politically oriented divisions, among which are the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues, and the Society for the Psychology of Women.

The power of these interests is reflected in the amicus briefs filed with the court system as representative of psychology. APA briefs are of two types, those that relate to privileges accorded licensed psychologists and those that relate to public policy. The number and frequency of public policy briefs substantially increased from 1980 to the present. Without exception, the 97 public policy briefs recorded on the APA website support a “progressive” agenda. In order of frequency, APA public policy briefs address child sexual abuse (1), sexual harassment (1), children as witnesses to child sexual abuse (2), battered women syndrome (2), juvenile sentencing (3), affirmative action (5), sodomy (8), disability rights (9), abortion (11), the death penalty (11), and sexual orientation and discrimination (42).

What is striking about these briefs is not what is present, but what is absent. No briefs were filed on non-gay men’s issues, media and children, debt and well-being, veteran’s issues (except two briefs on the rights of gays and lesbians), chronic unemployment, single parenthood, adolescent gender confusion, nutrition and cognition, Alzheimer’s, and a host of current issues which warrant psychological opinion. As a political organization, APA appears to dance only to the tune of its powerfully allied, activist groups, not to basic science and the interests of society. This is a disservice to the field of psychology, to students of psychology, to professional psychologists, and to the public who are its victims.