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Ethical Lessons from Kanazawa: Recommendations for Writers and Editors

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Sutoshi Kanazawa's removed Psychology Today post Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? (you can read his original post here) has sparked well-deserved outrage regarding both his methods and conclusions. I discussed the specifics myself in an earlier piece and several other bloggers have as well (see here and here). I hope this conversation continues to happen. However, the fallout from Kanazawa's post reminds me that there is bigger issue here than the legitimacy of his particular claims. As psychologists and other scientists have increasing access to the public outside of peer-reviewed academic journals, there are new questions regarding what constitutes acceptable (and ethical!) behavior on the part of the scientists, as well as the appropriate role of the non-scientists who typically serve as editors of non-academic publications such as Psychology Today.

For the scientists/writers:

Blogging and the kind of citizen journalism we see at OpEdNews is, by design, a bit raw. Part of the appeal for both writers and readers is they can engage breaking news and discuss still embryonic ideas. For this to work well, the writing needs to be "published" as soon as it's written, without delay. There were no blogs before the internet, because the internet is the only medium where this kind of writing form can exist. To that end, while there are no doubt exceptions, blogs are generally not reviewed by editors (full disclosure: there is no editorial review for Psychology Today bloggers and many of the writers on OpEdNews have trusted author status that allows them to post without editorial review) and often lack the kind of careful documentation required by both academic journals and traditional journalism. There are rather obvious costs to such an approach: Conclusions are often not well supported by the evidence.  Accuracy is sometimes compromised.  Occasionally, facts are distorted.  These aren't trivial problems, but they are generally well understood by regular blog readers who are typically willing to live with them in order to realize the benefits of timely analysis and ground-breaking ideas.

For scientists, academics, and psychotherapists, as for other writers, blogging provides an opportunity to reach and educate a larger audience than the one in our classrooms or therapy rooms.  Ideally, this works to everyone's benefit. Readers receive high-quality information directly from people with the highest level of expertise, and we, writers, reap the benefits of greater visibility for our ideas and sense of contribution to the lives of others.

But what happens if the information isn't accurate?  Are we willing to just accept that as the necessary cost of operating in the blogosphere?  That might be fine for lay persons, but I feel strongly that, as Psychologists, we need to hold ourselves up to a higher standard.  Those of us with professional degrees displayed next to our name benefit from the assumptions people hold about those degrees in a variety of often unseen ways. They give us access to major high-profile publications, like Psychology Today and give us credibility with many readers who are often willing to trust what we say on the basis of our education and status.

It's great to have this presumed trust and (usual) assumption of competence, but as uncle Ben told Peter Parker when he first became Spiderman, "with great power comes great responsibility" (the original quote is attributed to Voltaire).  As Psychologists, we need to take extra care to make sure that what we write for public consumption is not only scientifically accurate but also of benefit to the society we live in. 

Kanazawa's "Black beauty" piece was woefully bad science (see critiques linked to in the top paragraph).  His claims are simply not true in any reasonable scientific sense, but (and this is really the point I want to make here), they shouldn't have been written that way (without the relevant social context of how standards of beauty are racially socialized) even if they were true.  Truth is not a justification to cause pain. It is merely information that can and should be used to create a better world.  It is true, for example, that college graduation rates are lower and incarceration rates are higher for Blacks compared to other racial groups.  This is sad to me. I wish it weren't so. However, I'm glad to have this information, not so that I can use it to bring some person or group down, but so that I can work with others to figure out how to change it. 

Scholarly sloppiness aside, this is the REAL problem with Kanazawa's post.  It's not (as some commenters have claimed) that he told an inconvenient truth but that he attributed the research results to mean something about the target group (Black women) rather than something about our society.  As such, Kanazawa used (bad) science to endorse hurtful stereotypes, the painful impact of which was magnified 100-fold because of his academic standing. It's not my place to tell others what to think or how to write. I have no interest in creating any sort of blacklist of topics (note by the way that even our language has racist overtones). My point is that, just as therapists should carefully consider the potential impact of what they say in the therapy toom on the client, rather than blurt out their first thought, so should Psychologists think about the potential impact of their own research and writing and think about how to frame the discussion so that its impact is pro-social rather than destructive. 

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Furthermore, I think it is incumbent on Psychologists to make sure that Psychology is used for the greater good by others.  One of the lessons from the Holocaust is that it occurred in part because so many "regular" people were willing to stand by and let it happen. We cannot do the same if our colleagues either misrepresent science or fail to provide the necessary context for scientific findings to be understood and used constructively.

For the editors/publisher

I am not a Psychology Today (PT) editor, so I write this section from the perspective of an outsider, though obviously one that has a personal, vested interest.  I don't know what discussions are happening among the editorial board, but I certainly hope they are, in fact, happening, because this incident has made clear that the current blogging model on this site is inadequate. 

The most common recommendation I've heard is that PT editors should review all blog content prior to publication. I don't agree. The editors on this site are talented and hard-working, but they are not scientists and, therefore, likely lack the necessary expertise to evaluate the scientific merit of any particular post.  Asking them to do so is unfair both to them and to the writers whose work would be reviewed. Psychology Today is NOT a peer-reviewed journal, and it shouldn't try to function like one.

On the other hand, it is unacceptable to me that posts like the one Kanazawa wrote be published on this site, and it is obviously the editors' job to ensure that this doesn't happen.  This is clearly a daunting task and one that may be in conflict with the publication's bottom line.  Kanazawa is a polarizing, highly controversial figure, not only in the general public but even within his own sub-discipline.  However, he also consistently generates considerable traffic to the site, which of course increases revenue for the magazine.  As I see it, PT has to decide if it would rather have the traffic and notoriety or a reputation of credibility and social responsibility.  Kanazawa has a constitutional right to his speech, but PT (or any other media outlet) does not have to provide a forum for his expression.  Blogging for this site (and, more generally, for any media outlet) is a privilege and I hope PT considers a variety of factors in addition to its bottom line when deciding to whom this privilege should be extended.  I hope every other media outlet does the same.

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http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~lyubansk/

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)
 

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It never ceases to amaze me how concerned various ... by Ned Lud on Sunday, Jun 5, 2011 at 8:53:39 PM
Chemistry or physics, I believe. In human relation... by Margaret Bassett on Sunday, Jun 5, 2011 at 9:30:05 PM
Ditto--and by the way (i.e. for lay readers) PSYCH... by Kevin Anthony Stoda on Tuesday, Jun 7, 2011 at 1:59:33 AM
This whole issue of control and censorship is bigg... by Kevin Anthony Stoda on Tuesday, Jun 7, 2011 at 1:55:18 AM
These are good points, Kevin. Thank you!... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Wednesday, Jun 8, 2011 at 9:40:44 AM