As the song goes, "I get letters, I get lots and lots of letters," every time APA takes a position on a controversial topic that has public policy implications. Although much of the correspondence is laudatory, there is at least a subset of members who think that we should not be taking positions on any politically sensitive issue. Because I believe that it is critical to inform public policy with social science data, let me take a position of my own.
Whose opinion is it?
When APA takes a position on a topic--for example, our recent positions on "advertising to children" or "same-sex relationships,"--the position is a conclusion or a decision that is supported by the best social science data and other evidence. By contrast, an opinion (unlike its use in "legal opinions") is a preference or belief that does not require evidence or reasoning. Before APA takes a position on a topic, a task force of psychologists and others with expertise and differing backgrounds and points of view review the literature and write a report. Every task force strives to provide a fair and balanced report--noting evidence that both supports and fails to support the conclusion--and the overall strength of both types of evidence. The report is reviewed by multiple committees and boards and then goes to APA's Council of Representatives for a vote. Although the president is often the spokesperson for APA, it is not my opinion or anyone else's that becomes policy. A policy-relevant position taken by APA represents a majority vote by the Council of Representatives, based on scientific evidence and expert recommendations.
Are we politicizing science?
Of course, science can never be free from the values or beliefs of those who conduct it or the sociohistorical context in which it is conducted, but it is the least biased method we have for answering complex questions. Our politics or social agendas influence the way we think about and execute research--starting with the questions we ask; what research projects agencies fund; what our journals publish; how we design studies and collect and analyze data; and perhaps most importantly, how we interpret or make sense of results. Because every stage of research requires judgment, there is always the possibility of politicization of science, which is why we need free and open academic debate and training in ways to respectfully disagree about scientific research and findings.
In my role as APA president, I have been asked why APA takes more positions that fall toward the liberal side of middle. I don't know why a zero balance point on a political number line is expected or desirable, but there seems to be some sentiment among those who write to me that it would represent political neutrality and "pure science."
In defense of similar criticisms of his work in the area of "well-being," Ed Diener, PhD, points to the positive effects of strong marriages, consistent employment and being religious, all of which could be associated with liberal or conservative politic agendas. As Diener notes, the finding that strong marriages and other social relationships are associated with well-being could support tax reductions for couples who marry, same-sex marriage or both. Similarly, the importance of employment could be used to support "trickle-down" economics or job training programs for inner-city youth. The term "politicization of science" is most often used to describe the misuse of science by politicians with a conservative agenda, but it can be a two-way street. We need to encourage constant vigilance and debate from all political perspectives about the way we interpret and weigh social science data.
Finally, for those of you who believe that APA should stay out of policy-relevant pronouncements altogether, I have this to say: You're wrong. (Okay, so that is an opinion.) I believe we have an obligation to advise policy-makers and citizens about our best science so they can use the information to make better decisions. If we do not evaluate the evidence that is relevant to controversial issues that are important to many people as fairly as possible, then who should? I cannot think of anything that our government does or spends money on that cannot be informed by knowledge of psychology and psychological research. But then, I really do see the world through psychology-colored glasses.
Thank you for the privilege of serving as your president this past year. It has been a great honor. I hope that I have served you well.