The politics of science

I APPRECIATED [APA Past-president Dr. Diane F. Halpern's] willingness to address the issues of politics and science in her column ("Politicizing science," December Monitor). The APA leadership's continuing rush to politicize our organization has led to another "good intent, poor execution" result. By resolving to support same-sex civil marriages, APA has made a poorly considered and hasty decision ("Timely action," November Monitor).

The three-month, expedited consideration of and decision to publicly support same-sex marriage may continue to erode the confidence the majority of Americans hold in the profession of psychology. By ignoring the greater religious context of this issue, APA may further ostracize the public from seeking care from professionals who they perceive are "out of touch" with their religious values and beliefs. The word "marriage" cannot be separated from its historically religious and heterosexual context in the view of most Americans.

Before the APA leadership dives into religion and politics again, I would suggest that they create a balanced working group, one with individuals holding opposing views, to evaluate such issues. A more prudent approach aimed at developing avenues for equal access for same-sex couples might involve a simple change in semantics. Instead of attempting to redefine the word "marriage," given its religious context, many advocacy groups have found success by using terms such as "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" to gain these benefits. This approach avoids politically energizing opponents of such unions by violating their deeply held religious beliefs. It also helps preserves the reputation of psychologists' practice as politically neutral and nonjudgmental.

Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia University
School of Medicine

PRAISE TO DIANE HALPERN FOR discussion of a topic that irritates many of us: APA's frequent position-taking on social issues. But her opinion that those "who believe that APA should stay out of policy-relevant pronouncements altogether" are "wrong," requires rebuttal.

Over these many years, often have I seen APA social policy statements that were, in my opinion, driven by a motivated end goal--not based upon fully comprehensive review and arguments. Equivalent time was rarely devoted to expert adversarial opinion. Too often was inexact social science called upon to buttress what seemed to be preformed opinion. Let us in APA stay clear of social issues that lie beyond the competence of our own "science."

Boca Raton, Fla.

IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT PSYCHOLOGISTS (and psychology organizations) present the best available scientific evidence on human behavior in public and political forums. We must help governments, industries and the world's populations understand what our science reveals, in the hope of contributing to a better future. Whether it is the risks posed by sleep loss (my area) or educating policy-makers on the social psychological processes of prisoner abuse, we have an obligation to openly discuss what we know scientifically without regard to our own private political perspectives.

Psychology is now a mature and diverse scientific field that has methodologies capable of identifying fundamental truths about behavior in all of its manifestations. We cannot and should not hide from what we discover, no matter how uncomfortable it may make anyone feel when our discoveries are presented publicly and discussed relative to the problems facing society. Our moral obligation is to publicly state the truth about human nature as we can best discover it using scientific methodologies.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

I BELIEVE THAT APA'S WILLINGNESS to take social advocacy positions harms our organization and my role as a psychologist more than it helps. When APA moves from information provider to social policy advocate, our credibility and the usefulness of our research is undermined.

Last year I worked on a U.S. Senate staff. They knew the difference between information and advocacy. They also knew how much they could trust the information provided them based upon its source. Halpern's statement that "APA takes more positions that fall toward the liberal side of middle" is well known among congressional policy-makers. This knowledge either helps or hurts our legislative causes depending on the politics of the congressional office. Given the legislative mix of the current Congress, I believe this reputation harms the credibility of the information we provide to the very leaders who control the policy agenda of our country.

I vote my conscience and do not want APA to speak on my behalf when it comes to social policy. When APA takes positions on sensitive social issues, the public often attributes the beliefs to me personally. Clients, colleagues, referral sources, friends and even family members have personally challenged me for the positions that APA has taken.

I want APA to represent my professional interests. I want APA to promote unbiased research that informs my stance on social issues. This tact will make us less partisan and more useful to the public and our congressional delegations.

Wamic, Ore.

PAST-PRESIDENT HALPERN'S valedictory editorial on "politicizing science" is only one among many acts of principle and good sense that have graced her superb presidency, but it is one that I particularly appreciate. Indeed, APA is cautious in vetting proposals for policy endorsement in the light of research evidence. But for APA to meet its opportunities and obligations in support of health and human welfare, it must speak forth on controversial issues that are embedded in politics. As Halpern wrote, "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?"

University of California, Santa Cruz

DR. DIANE HALPERN AND APA do not seem to have learned the lesson taught by David Hume centuries ago: namely the distinction between statements of empirical fact ("is" statements) and value statements ("ought" statements). Value statements--what we "ought" to do--cannot be derived from statements of fact without an additional, often hidden, value statement.

Two examples will make this clear. Empirical findings about the negative consequences of abortion do not imply that abortions should be banned unless one also accepts the value statement that procedures with harmful consequences ought to be banned and that this value outweighs the value that women ought to have reproductive freedom. Similarly, empirical findings about the negative consequences of pornography do not imply that pornography should be censored without the value statements that images that increase the incidence of sexual violence ought to be censored and that this value outweighs the value that U.S. citizens ought to have freedom of expression.

APA does not, in Dr. Halpern's words, simply "advise policy-makers...about our best science so they can use the information to make better decisions." APA also makes recommendations and takes policy positions on what society "ought" to do. The leap from the empirical findings reviewed by APA task forces to APA public policy positions is mediated by hidden values, almost always of a liberal/left ideology. APA must drop the fiction that its public policy positions simply reflect the "best social science data."

Wheaton College

Putting race to rest

IN HIS COMMENTARY UPON A planned educational campaign regarding the concept of race, Dr. Henry Tomes noted that geneticists see little genetic foundation to support the notion of distinct racial groups ("Deconstructing race," December Monitor). As is often observed, social groups are defined by themselves, or outsiders, according to traits, characteristics, behaviors or ideas. For better or worse, the identified factor serves to separate the group from the larger society in which the group exists. Thus, segregation is either imposed upon or chosen by the members of the social group.

If the issue of race is to become less prominent and less divisive, not only does the public need to understand the arbitrariness of such distinctions, but also public policy must reflect a legal equality of all such demarcations. As he correctly observes, the U.S. Census expects people to identify with a racial group. Additionally, the policies of governmental, educational and business institutions are designed to count individuals by race. If there is a genuine interest in discarding the idea of race as anything other than a social fiction, then the policy-makers should stop conferring benefits or burdens on the basis of race. We can't see ourselves as one people if our policies treat us as "separate, but equal."

Birmingham, Ala.