A part of the mental health blogosphere (especially folks in the UK) appear to be up in arms that the British Psychological Society (BPS) is secretly trying to railroad Lisa Blakemore-Brown, a psychologist in the UK who’s caused some upset by making claims about vaccines and other topics that are controversial. In reaction to these claims, the BPS has launched a “fitness to practice” investigation. (An edited transcript of her BPS hearing may be found here. It should be noted that because this isn’t a complete transcript, whoever edited it may very well be leaving out material relevant to this discussion.) More here.
A lot of people writing appear to be upset because they are incensed that the organization is conducting a hearing in private. But before you rant about such a thing, I guess it helps to understand some of the reasons organizations hold hearings in private, especially when they deal with very personal matters. For instance, the BPS equivalent in the U.S., the APA, also holds its professional disciplinary hearings in private, as does virtually every professional group in the U.S.
To give you an example, the APA opens approx. 50-60 cases a year against psychologist members, and has anywhere from 100-200 cases open in any given year. Most cases involve a loss of licensure, often due to something like sexual misconduct with an adult. Cases are confidential, as are the hearings held in such cases. The only information the APA publishes is the aggregate data on such cases, as well as members who’ve left the organization or were terminated.
It was be a very strange thing indeed if such a hearing was a public affair, since these professional organizations are not a part of the government:
With over 40,000 members, The British Psychological Society (BPS) is the representative body for psychologists and psychology in the UK. As a learned and professional organisation governed by Royal Charter our principle duties are to the country – in simple terms the Society is charged by the Crown with overseeing, in the public interest, psychology and psychologists. For further information please visit the ‘The Society’ area of this site.
The BPS is a registered charity in the U.K. and while they make a lot of noise about their duty to Queen and Country, the fact is they are not a part of the government — they are a professional organization first and foremost, created to forward the profession of psychology in the U.K. They are not required to hold hearings in public. (Here’s a fun exchange between the BPS and someone who wanted to ‘sit in’ on the hearings.)
(Maybe such hearings should be public, as a general policy issue, but that’s another argument for another time.)
An organization like the BPS is designed to promote psychology (and psychologists) within British society. Professionals are upheld to Ethics and a Code of Conduct. Failure to abide by their ethical principles or code of conduct could result in a termination of membership. Every member knows this and this is one of the benefits of membership — that the professionals who join uphold themselves to a clearly delineated code. (Non members may also hold themselves to such a code, but there’s no recriminations of they don’t abide by it either.)
Now, I’m against a witch-hunt as much as the next person. But being against a witch-hunt must also mean that you understand all of the facts of the case and both sides of the argument. You must have access to a good deal of the material that others are using to make a judgment about something. Talking to one side about these issues isn’t really being an objective observer, is it?
I don’t know the facts of the case (nor have I read the documentation the BPS committee did), so I don’t feel qualified to pass any sort of judgment on Blakemore-Brown. From reading many of the blog entries surrounding this hearing, one would be led to believe this is clearly a “witch hunt” and Blakemore-Brown said and did nothing that would be cause for concern to others. She was apparently raising legitimate concerns about research and correlations she observed in data and such, and feels there is an effort to quash her voice (and her concerns).
Others have followed this case more closely than I and you’re welcomed to delve into it further.
One note about bringing concerns to the public… Generally, psychologists — who are trained as researchers and clinicians — know the regular avenue for expressing concerns about research data or findings. They do so through traditional outlets (journals, letters to the journal about a specific study, a new research study that shows the link via accepted statistical procedures, an online journal like PLoS, or an online response to a journal article, such as through BPS’s own journal, books, etc.) And Blakemore-Brown did go down one of these routes — publishing a book 6 years ago that lays out her concerns about the connections between Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and ADHD.
A book review that appeared in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry noted:
The book attempts to integrate a number of clinical issues relating primarily to differential diagnosis and intervention around autistic spectrum disorders, dyspraxia and ADHD. The current author asserts that overall, it is difficult to ascertain who the potential reader of this book might be, as the clinical and research information is somewhat scattergun in selection and presentation. The author wonders whether parents would be any the wiser after reading through it. Another troubling aspect that the author points out is Blakemore-Brown’s use of case material to illustrate her arguments. It is argued that even without the previous criticisms of the book, the inclusion of such material in an unedited format would seem to mitigate against recommendation of this book.
These concerns are pretty typical for books written by clinicians (and often reviewed by researchers) that want to help people understand their point of view about a particular psychological issue. The book review notes that Blakemore-Brown’s research selection to make her point is selective and potentially biased, and that she uses single case studies, rather than empirical data, to illustrate her arguments. This is exactly what most clinicians do, since they are exposed to working with clients on a daily basis, not research.
The point? I’m not sure, only to say that if you’ve tried to make yourself heard on an issue, and you haven’t had the success you would’ve liked, people either give up or take it to the next level. For better or worse, Blakemore-Brown apparently decided to take it to the next level. As a clinician, she choose “publicity” over a different course (such as working with researchers to better establish the links she sees). Either course may be beneficial, in that now that others are aware of her efforts and arguments, researchers may take up the question in a more scientific study of these issues.