On September 14, 2015 a team of professors published a paper. The paper came out after a series of exposés revealed a general unreliability in the “science of psychology.” There were a number of high-profile replication failures, a few fraud cases, and questionable research practices. People were beginning to ask whether or not psychological research and conclusions could be trusted. The team observed that the field of psychology was almost entirely liberal and that the lack of political diversity was actually leading to a lack in scientific accuracy.
The scientists who published the paper were well known and respected, many of them holding liberal sentiments themselves. Yet they believed they could show how the lack of ideological diversity was interfering with the research. And what’s more, this interference was creeping into other fields as well. The result of this creep, they worried, would not only be less reliable research but, perhaps worst of all, a lack of respect, trust, and funding for future research. Their fears are being realized as funding for the social sciences is increasingly under threat from conservatives in congress as well as the National Science Foundation—which proposed cutting its own social science budget by 11% this year. Political discussions are less and less grounded in agreed upon facts because studies can be quickly dismissed as politically motivated, which is sadly often the case.
What these scientists hoped to show is that the field of psychology has some culpability in the current state of affairs. To restore the faith of the masses, they believed psychology would need to work much harder to avoid political entanglements, to stifle ideological homogeneity, and to remain pure to the principles of scientific investigation. This paper was published over three years ago. Today, the field of psychology continues to ignore it’s need for political diversity and moves further from its relm in the sciences towards the role of an idealogue. There are of course those who would defend psychology’s political leaning, saying perhaps that science is always already political. I do not mean to contest this possibility, only to say that no matter your paradigm of choice, we would all agree that a less reliable science, a science more prone to bias, more bendible to the wishes of the researchers is an inferior science. And that is exactly what psychology risks becoming, or at the very least seeming.
One example of this problem is what I call the the uncharacteristic honesty of psychologists concerning reparative therapy. I became aware of this after directing a documentary that details some of the more egregious holes in America’s mental health system. After seeing my documentary, a few psychologists have expressed concern that one of the psychiatrists we interviewed, Andrew Solomon, added homosexuality to a list of issues that might have brought someone in to see a therapist. I believe these critiques were well intentioned. They wanted to make sure we knew that reparative therapy is generally ineffective and that homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness.
They didn’t know that Andrew Solomon is a well-known LGBTQ+ advocate, and he is proudly gay himself. The offense these critics took at the very idea of reparative therapy (one we did not even mean to suggest) struck me as an uncharacteristic moment of honesty. These psychologists admitted that reparative therapy is ineffective, unproven, and potentially dangerous. Therefore psychologists shouldn’t deliver the treatment, at least not without a full and honest disclosure. I couldn’t agree more. However, the irony is that this same standard of excellence is not applied equally across the field.
Right now most therapists continue to deliver unscientific treatments for the majority of mental disorders. Seventy percent of the time a person goes into a psychologist, sits down on a couch, has the talk, and receives a treatment, they will receive a treatment that is not actually evidence-based. Most therapists rarely—if ever—use a treatment manual, which normally means they are simply doing whatever they learned in college (however long ago that was). Treatments are being proven and disproven every day, but practitioners keep using the same ineffective treatments they’ve been using over the last fifty years.
The irony is that psychologists oppose reparative therapy with religious fever while at the same time they continue to treat a host of other more common (but less politically sexy) issues such as addiction, depression, autism, and anxiety with treatments that are just as ineffective—that are at best unproven and at worst disproven or dangerous. If you want a list of misused treatments that may be just as ineffective as reparative therapy, here’s a start: play therapy, music therapy, equine therapy, attachment therapy, eclectic therapy, AA, and the list goes on. The specific ineffectiveness depends on what therapy is being used to treat which mental illness.
The great irony between psychologists’ indignation against reparative therapy and its apathy towards the many other common and disproven treatments discredits the whole field—a field one would hope showed more fidelity to its science. The way in which the politics dominate the sentiments and practices of the field throws into question what kind of science it is capable of producing. Jonathan Haidt raised this very question as the keynote speaker of the American Psychological Association convention two years ago. Even as a self-declared bleeding-heart liberal, Haidt believes this is a real problem and so he founded Heterodox Academy to publicize and advocate for ideological diversity.
Currently, the standard of evidence seems to only be used when convenient, when it aligns with psychologists’ political opinions. I would rather psychologists (whether researchers or practitioners) be true to their science—whether it’s politically popular or not, whether it’s lucrative or not. Because here’s the thing, sooner or later we are bound to come across a reparative therapy that works, whether it’s genetic alteration or a new form of cognitive behavioral therapy. And therapists need to be open to that fact and remain open to the possibilities and evidences of their science.
That’s why any attempts to unilaterally condemn all current and future conversion therapies (such as AB 2943 in California) seems wrongheaded. As for me, I think people should have the choice to pursue reparative therapy. People should also be free to practice and receive play therapy or music therapy even though it’s statistically ineffective. I sure wouldn’t recommend starting with experimental treatments. And we definitely need to do a better job advising patients about what kind of evidence supports what treatments. Because as a whole, psychology is really only being honest about reparative therapy.
But if you know what you want and you know the science, and psychologists are honest with themselves and their patience, then go ahead and try a new therapy. That’s how most of our effective therapies were developed in the first place. And as crazy and unpopular as it may sound, I think the people who should be promoting experimental reparative therapies are research institutions suffering from liberal monopolies. This way they can protect the patients from dangerous treatments, honor the patient’s wishes, and prove that they care about ideological diversity. It may be the very price they need to pay to preserve their science.