Science Behaving Badly IV.

Boxing for Science
By Richard Flavin


And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?  Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze?  Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

From “Wish You Were Here" (Gilmour/Waters), Columbia Records 1975.


John S. Douglas, Marquis of Queensberry.

     Pugilism, or the “sweet science” (Liebling 1956), comes from the Latin pugil and the PIE root-term *peuk (var.*peug) which also gave us such words as pugnacious and impugn.  John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquis (var. Marquess) of Queensberry, is renowned for establishing the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, twelve conditions of engagement which form the foundation of today’s professional boxing.  Queensberry is also known for his lawsuit with Oscar Wilde (leading to Wilde’s imprisonment), as well as for being denied a seat in Parliament for not swearing allegiance while holding The Bible.  A subsequent pamphlet by the Marquis on secularism (Queensberry ca. 1881-1885) contributed to the passage of Britain’s 1888 Oaths Act which allows the non-religious to hold public office.  Pugilists, or those who box, are also ‘vigorous controversialists’, as used in a figurative sense.  As controversy leads to debate and discussion is a mainstay of modern science, it should follow that ‘boxing’ for science be unrelenting regardless of situational unpopularity.


Early 1970s' photograph of Rosenhan.

     When Prof. David L. Rosenhan (Stanford, psychology and law) published his data involving an experiment of pseudopatients admitted to various mental health facilities, how long it took for the pseudopatients to be released, and questioned the basic merits of the psychiatric system (Rosenhan 1973), the results immediately polarized the psychology community (Fleishman et al 1973; Neisser 1973) and continue to inspire much debate.  An experiment conducted in 1971 reached the same conclusions in that normal behavior fluctuates and interpretations are often subjective rather than objective (Caetano 1974), but has received far less attention, as have other similar experiments.  [Note: A second experiment by Rosenhan about deceiving staff into believing pseudopatients would be entering their institutions will not be addressed here for space considerations.]

     Rosenhan’s experiment consisted of explicit entrapment (essentially a “quality control” study), much like the police using minors in sting operations to procure tobacco or alcohol and female police officers posing as prostitutes to solicit offers of money for sex.  The entrapment aspect was termed “distasteful” by Rosenhan, though justified by “Without concealment, there would have been no way to know how valid these experiments were... (Rosenhan 1973, Note 9. p. 258).  The experiment to test the competency of mental health facilities was judged worthy by its financial backers and participants, though as ‘hard’ science yields precise results, ‘soft’ science most often produces data which necessitates interpretation by assumption and requires a well argued presentation.  Rebukes of Prof. Rosenhan’s paper have mentioned his ambivalent conclusions and his somewhat antagonistic writing style to report and explain results.

     We are self-defined by our available and chosen vocabularies, a process which individuals celebrate, or feel constrained, and all degrees of description in between.  Yet, complex discussion requires words (or signed language) and limitations are built-in and unavoidable.  As pointed out many years ago in The Reader Over Your Shoulder, with James Joyce having previously violated nearly every rule of composition, writers of English language prose should strive to write as clearly and simply as possible (Graves & Hodge 1943).  Writing guides such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manuel of Style, and others offer similar advice.  It’s always best to mean what you write and write what you mean.


Recent photograph of Fleischman as a Vipassana meditation teacher.

     Dr. Paul R. Fleischman properly identified Rosenhan’s usage of “insanity” as incorrect, declaring “Insanity is a legal term.  It is not a psychiatric diagnosis (Fleishman et al. 1973, p. 356).”  While this flaw is damaging, especially with Rosenhan’s law background and his use of the legalese term, “prima facie evidence” (Rosenhan 1973, p. 250), it’s a stylist error and in no way concerns the experiment and results.  Dr. Fleishman even provided a possible summary for Rosenhan’s observations to assist future readers (op. cit.).



     Concise writing and accurate terminology are not only recommended for authors, but for their critics as well.  A leading opponent of Rosenhan’s experiment, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer (New York State Psychiatric Institute, Chief of Psychiatric Research/Biometric Research Dept.), wrote a much cited review, “On Pseudoscience in Science, Logic in Remission, and Psychiatric Diagnosis: A Critique of Rosenhan’s ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places,” which begins “Rosenhan’s ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’ is pseudoscience presented as science (Spitzer 1975, p. 442).”  Spitzer alleges pseudoscience in the title of his critique and in its first line, but the term is never defined or used again in an article that runs ten pages in length.  In much the same way as Rosenhan’s experiment begs the question of inherent systemic ineptitude versus common error in psychiatric diagnosis, so too it should be asked if Spitzer used “pseudoscience” in error when an expression such as quasi-science may have been a better choice.  Or, plainly put, if he opted for viciousness over accuracy.

     Under ‘pseudo-science’, the Oxford English Dictionary references: “1973 C. SAGAN Cosmic Connection (1975) viii. 59 An enormous interest is apparent in a range of pseudo-scientific or borderline-scientific topics{em}astrology, scientology, the study of unidentified flying objects, [etc.].”  Just over a dozen years ago, the Rosenhan experiment was discussed along with other “hoaxs,” but the author disassociated the experiment from blatant frauds and nearly apologized for even mentioning Rosenhan in the first place (Schnabel 1994).  Perhaps Dr. Spitzer was just being pugnacious.


Slater reading poetry in London in 2001, cover of Opening Skinner's Box, and 2004 photograph of Slater.

     A few years ago, the experiment again caught the attention of the press and received re-evaluations in a peer-reviewed journal.  This flurry of publicity was generated by the publication of Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (Slater 2004).  A brief commentary in The New York Times characterized the book as “a wayward and powerful blend of science, autobiography and imagination (Miller 2004).”  In a chapter on Rosenhan, Lauren Slater (MA Harvard, psychology; EdD Boston University, Educational Media and Technology) an author of “creative nonfiction” and a “fashion writer,” describes Rosenhan as a “bald boxy man,” “built like a boxer,” enjoyed large parties and as having “lost his mind” to a series of strokes.  As of late April 2007, both offices of the law and psychology departments he maintains at Stanford report that he’s fine and stops by regularly.  He must have gotten better...

     In her 2004 book, Slater wrote that she performed a version of the experiment, a claim which instigated inquires from Spitzer (and others) resulting in a letter from Slater’s attorney accusing Spitzer of trying to “impugn Ms. Slater’s reputation (Rubin 2004).”  After many rounds in the media arena (i.e. print and online or electronic venues), a discussion took place in the pages of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Spitzer, Lilienfeld and Miller 2005; Zimmerman 2005; Slater 2005; Lilienfeld, Spitzer and Miller 2005) which ended with Slater admitting her claim was false and stylistically infelicitous (e.g. “anecdotal” and “vernacular” usage“).

     Slater should be described as an autobiographist and quasi-science writer.  The “quasi” is evident from her mention of the “prestigious journal Science,” and several lines later, writing “SCIENCE, A MAGAZINE still published today, has a circulation of about sixty thousand.  In general, from what I can see, having perused many issues of it now, a lead article generates maybe a handful of anemic responses, letters lacking utterly in punch (Slater 2004, p. 73).”


Title-page of the first issue of Science, artist's imagining of Edison reading Science, and cover of May 4, 2007 issue

     Science is the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has been issued regularly since 1880.  The AAAS website states: “Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million (AAAS 2007).”  Science is an embodiment of the modern scientific method of testing and debate, as evidenced by the recent stem-cell cloning hoax (Hwang et al. 2004, 2005) and its timely exposure and redress.  As science corrects itself, so too does Science, and the fifteen professional psychologists who replied to Rosenhan’s experiment (Fleishman et al. 1975) would undoubtedly take offense at Slater’s unprofessional assessment.  Instead of boxing for science, Lauren Slater, EdD., decided to sit ringside and vigorously cheer for entertainment over education.

     Prof. Rosenhan’s pseudopatient experiment generated deserved criticism, yet also continues to inspire the (rather) young discipline of psychology to better police itself.  Dr. Spitzer brusquely denies the experiment could be repeated today and implies that it shouldn’t.  A scientific approach would allow for new theories which could be tested, however psychology appears to still maintain its connection with philosophy and believes words alone will suffice.  They won’t.



Bibliography:
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