One of the great strengths of psychological science is its relevance to social problems and national needs. Our science speaks to and informs the most challenging issues of the day, including health care, crime, product safety, education and cultural conflict. Psychologists are frequently called upon for their insight and expertise, sharing what they know at congressional hearings and briefings, in public lectures, and through publications.
Our relevance is also accompanied by a special burden: The objects of our study are frequently ones that garner partisan political attention. This is a burden because our scientific credibility demands that we draw a line between our science and our own political agendas--something that is rarely necessary outside the social and behavioral sciences.
Perhaps the best example of such a line relates to questions about interrogation, coercion and prisoner abuse. Psychology provides incredible insight regarding these matters. Decades of research provide good understanding of compliance, persuasion, lie detection, obedience and prison dynamics. At the same time, politicians have staked out strong partisan positions. As scientists, we can draw from our research to inform the national debate. As individuals, we have the additional choice of taking a political position in that debate.
Another example comes from concerns about the mental health of soldiers and military personnel. Psychology helps to understand the causes and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of the research focuses on differences between today's fighting force compared with those of past conflicts. At the same time, political debate focuses on the composition and demographics of today's fighting force. It can be challenging to disentangle the research conclusions from the political positions.
A third set of examples draws from psychological perspectives on culture. Theory and research in this area sheds light on a variety of domestic and international concerns--immigration, education, conflict, and even understanding how cultural context can support the socialization of would-be terrorists. These are also hot-button political issues--ones that are simultaneously informed by our science and pursued with personal vigor.
In each of these cases (and many others not mentioned), psychological scientists have a choice. We can use our science to inform the issues or we can use it to support our own political agendas. The temptation, of course, is to mix the two. Indeed, it is far too easy to satisfy our partisan political preferences by drawing on what we know best--the science of human behavior.
This is where the special burden of psychology comes into play. As behavioral and social scientists, crossing the line between science and partisan politics can mean a loss of credibility. If we want to play the role of scientist, then we need to keep our own politics out of it. If we want to express our political ideology, then we must do so without the pretense of offering objective scientific evidence.
It is a special burden because scientists in most other fields can cross the line without impugning their scientific credentials. The physicist is free to take a partisan stand on international nuclear policies without anyone questioning the relevance of physical science for the development of nuclear technology. The social psychologist, however, cannot critique the administration's position on interrogation policies and practices without causing a dismissal of the very science on which that critique is based.
Respecting the line
It is not easy to define boundaries between psychological science and partisan politics. Some may find it distasteful. Yet, if we are serious about making our science relevant to policy development, we need to cultivatethe highest degree of respect and credibility. For now, at least, that means that we must take care both in drawing the line between science and politics, and then not crossing it.