‘Dr. Laura’ debacle won’t go away as vetoed article dispute reveals

By The National Psychologist Editor
July 1, 2001



The “Dr.Laura” controversy that caused the American Psychological Association (APA) serious embarrassment two years ago, is turning into an on-going soap opera that has lately threatened to divide the association into warring camps.

The latest chapter was being written this spring when a once-accepted, then rejected, and finally re-accepted article by Scott Lilienfeld, Ph.D., an Emory University psychology professor, questioned APA’s handling of the 1999 incident over a study of child sexual abuse.

Lilienfeld went public after learning that his article, which had once been accepted for publication in the American Psychologist, had been rejected. His actions elicited an indignant outcry from the academic-scientific community, erupting in an explosion of internet e-mail messages.

Ultimately, the issues centered on academic freedom vs. government interference via a U.S. House of Representatives resolution instigated by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), charging opponents of his resolution with favoring pedophilia based on the original 1998 article by Rind.

The controversy reached its climax in several ways:

  • APA finally agreed to publish the Lilienfeld paper, ostensibly satisfying the science community;
  • Paul Meehl, Ph.D., the eminent 93-year-old University of Minnesota psychologist, wrote a letter supporting Lilienfeld;The 25-member faculty of the Harvard University Department of Psychology asked APA to publish the article and “restore the reputation of APA as a scientific organization by defending the independence of science from political pressure.”
  • Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., recipient of the William James Fellow Award for scientific achievement at the American Psychological Society convention in Toronto, commended scientists for not allowing Lilienfeld’s paper to remain suppressed. “The scientists did not shut up, and Scott’s paper will be published this year, along with commentary and debate, just as it should be,” she declared in her acceptance speech.

Meehl wrote:

“When the official organ of a purportedly scientific society plays thought-police by censoring scholarly work to appease the politicians, it ceases to deserve the allegiance of a rational mind.”

“It is sad that I, a former APA president (1962) and recipient of eight of its awards, am now contemplating resignation, emulating Dawes, Grove, Humphreys, Loftus, Scarr and others,” Meehl continued. “I’d prefer to remain, but this event may be the last straw. If I quit, I shall try to persuade young psychologists to join APS (American Psychology Society) instead.”

“The Bonfire of the Vilifiers” was the title of the article that Lilienfeld submitted for publication more than a year ago. Lilienfeld described events that transpire when social science and politics collide.

He charged that APA succumbed to pressure in Congress, led by Rep. Lay, who demanded an APA apology for an article about childhood sexual abuse.

A factious article, titled “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples,” had appeared in the APA’s Psychological Bulletin in July 1998.

The article, written by Bruce Rind, Ph.D., Philip Tromovitch, Ph.D., and Robert Bauserman, Ph.D., analyzed existing studies of childhood sexual abuse and concluded that not all instances of sex between adults and children caused psychological harm to the children.

In the ensuing 1999 media frenzy that was largely fed by “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger, the syndicated radio talk show hostess with 18 million listeners, Congress approved a resolution condemning the study and APA apologized for publishing the article.

Two psychologists in Congress at the time, Rep. Ted Strickland, Ph.D., of Ohio, and Rep. Brian Baird, Ph.D., of Washington State, came under fire from their Republican opponents in the 2000 elections for voting “present” on the resolution. Both reported that the controversy hurt them at the ballot box, although both won with respectable margins. (See article on page ___).

Richard McCarty, Ph.D., executive director of APA’s Science Directorate, has taken the brunt of the attacks by his science colleagues, condemned for having vetoed a guest editor’s approval of the Lilienfeld article after initially approving it for publication. But these invectives by his science colleagues appeared to be short-lived: McCarthy’s three-year tenure at APA ended as he was to begin his new career as dean of arts and sciences at Vanderbilt University on July 1. McCarthy’s resignation from APA was announced well before the Lilienfeld-APA dispute arose.

McCarty had been named editor of the American Psychologist when APA Executive Director Ray Fowler, Ph.D., took a leave of absence to recover from the troublesome “Dr. Laura” incident. Lilienfeld, who says McCarthy originally expressed enthusiasm for the article, criticized the decision not to publish the article.

“It may not be censorship, but it raises the specter of censorship and concerns about the suppression of writings that are critical of APA or that are critical of members of Congress,” Lilienfeld responded to McCarty’s explanation of why the article was rejected.

McCarty said that Lilienfeld’s article needed to be completely rewritten, with no emphasis on the “Dr. Laura” situation and looking at other cases where social science collided with politics. Lilienfeld said that to do so would remove the purpose of the original article.

Lilienfeld asserted that McCarty should have recused himself from the decision over publishing the article, since he was among those criticized in the article for caving in to political pressure.

Just before he left APA, McCarty agreed to publish Lilienfeld’s article in an upcoming special issue of the American Psychologist. The issue will contain other views of the article and Lilienfeld will have an opportunity to respond to any criticism the article contains in a future issue of the journal.

Whether the decision to publish the Lilienfeld article in a special edition will end the controversy and placate the scientific community is open to question.

One division president and journal editor has threatened to resign from APA to protest the decision not to publish Lilienfeld’s article. Ed Diener, Ph.D., alumni professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, said he was considering resigning from APA, but changed his mind when APA agreed to publish the article.

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