Monday, 14 June 2010

A very dangerous precedent

Usually, any argument in academia is limited to just a few letters back and forth, buried away in some journal. Sometimes, it's elevated to the level of "Cold Stares," and then in a few rare cases, a shouting match outside a Hotel at a conference after too many drinks. They can get quite personal; I once heard a respected emeritus tell a scientist that he shouldn't be allowed near students, he was so wrong. But so far, the US's habit of suing over everything remained out of science.

Until now.

According to the New York Times, A paper published this week in the American Psychological Association's journal titled "Is Criminal behavior a central component of psychopathy?", and it is a scathing review of the standard system which individuals use to evaluate whether individuals are psychopaths, and likely to commit crimes again. The authors, Skeem and Cooke, argue that the evidence suggests that psycopathy and criminal behaviour are simply correlated, and there isn't a causal relationship between them. This is the very essence of a scientific argument, where one side attacks the other over construct validity (that is whether their scientific concept is valid), they make predictions, all in a dry and technical format. The paper was prepared for publication in 2007, and accepted. But then the person they were criticizing caught wind of a draft.

"The main issue here is that these authors misrepresented my views by distorting things I said," he said in a telephone interview. "I have been doing this work for 40 years and never seen anything like it."
Dr. Hare immediately threatened Skeem and Cooke with a lawsuit if they went forward with publication, effectively throwing the breaks on the whole thing. The APA didn't publish until 2010, claiming that it had to "All legal claims." There were three years of reviews, legal correspondences, and revisions while the damn thing dragged on.

To me, this is positively outrageous. The idea that science should be decided through legal means is somewhere between absurd and incredibly absurd. You can't litigate reality. Either a set of authors are correct in their criticisms, or they're incorrect. I can't even think of a situation where a scientist could be criminal, merely putting forward an idea. They can be disastrously wrong, but if this is the case, the peer review process, where other scientists critique work before it is accepted for publication, will sort those papers out. If you feel someone misrepresents your work, write a paper criticizing their construct of your work. And, here's a crazy idea, show experimentally why your construct is correct, and why theirs is crap.

That said, while I'm shocked by this legal battle which delayed publication for years, I half expected to see its ilk. I didn't think I would hear about it in Psychological research, but in environmental science, where some company sues some author over research which curtails oil and gas development, or something of that nature. Conservation science has become a battleground over which any random person will have an opinion, and I half expect this race to the bottom to result in lawsuits towards scientists at some point. It's for that reason I'm disgusted by the precedent this whole mess has set. Dr. Hare has done us all one massive disservice.

Dr. Hare:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The litigious 21st century...makes you wonder where simple common sense has gone.