Psychology’s failures a ‘tragedy,’ Fox tells convention

By The National Psychologist Editor
September 1, 2003 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Toronto–Until psychology gets over its fascination with disciplinary navel lint, the profession will continue to fail in its primary mission, says a leading figure for 40 years in the American Psychological Association (APA).

Ron Fox, Ph.D., a former APA president, called psychology’s failure to develop into a strong, relevant and robust profession “one of the tragedies of our times” during an address at the association’s 111th annual convention here.

Fox, executive director of the Executive Group of HRC in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the real tragedy of psychology’s failed promise as a profession was not caused over disagreement with science, effectiveness of treatments or charlatans and sham psychologists.

Rather, he explained, “Our tragedy and great failure is that we know so little about how to help our fellow man and are poorly positioned to apply what we do know.”

Psychologists should be more concerned with how to prevent war, how to deal with poverty, how to cope with racism and the reduction of human misery than with the truly petty questions that Fox said “clog the channels of too much of our scholarly discourse.”

The big issues that psychology has not dealt with, Fox claimed, include racism, poverty, hate and the healing power of human love.

“If we hope to flourish and fulfill our own promise, we cannot expect the world to wait indefinitely for what it needs from us while we indulge our fascination with our disciplinary navel lint,” Fox explained.

He said that psychologists would rather argue over the nature of evidence than focus on the great unknowns of the human condition and how to improve it. Instead of attacking important human issues, psychology first wants to convert everyone to the same methods and get rid of anyone who does not think the same way.

“Instead of conducting ourselves as confident and competent professionals, we obsess over whether our practitioners have the right attitudes. In need of lightning bolts to illuminate the storm clouds of human misery, we have only lightning bugs,” Fox admonished.

Fox said that he did not expect everyone to agree with his assessment of the profession, but insisted that he was sincere in believing psychologists have miserably failed its social responsibility to build the psychological profession “that is so desperately needed.”

He compared the profession’s obsession with the “how” rather than agreeing on the “what” with a dysfunctional family that never takes a vacation trip because its members cannot agree on which airline to use.

Complicating the practice of psychology and adding barriers to become more relevant to society, Fox added, is the current debate by practitioners and scientists on the controversial evidence supported treatments (EST) that he said threaten to turn psychologists into technicians instead of therapists.

He said science was necessary, but that some scientists went to far in their attempt to remedy what they saw as shoddy practices and extravagant claims of some clinicians and the perceived failure of organized psychology to forcefully address such unscientific and unprofessional behavior.

“Some scientists inappropriately advocated for the incorporation of EST therapies into accreditation standards and their acceptance as the standard, ethical practices for clinical interventions,” Fox explained.

He said others event went so far as to call for professional organizations to impose stiff sanctions, including expulsion if necessary, on clinicians that routinely used interventions and assessment instruments that were deemed devoid of what those scientists deemed lack of supporting data.

Therapists that feel force to restrict themselves to only those therapeutic approaches that have been scientifically validated run the risk of limiting their role to that of a technician, Fox said.

“Clinicians rarely face clearly defined problems for which they can prescribe pre-designed solutions,” Fox said. “Rather, the most common need is for flexible, problem solving solutions for complaints that are not precisely definable and that change with time.”

Therapists live in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, Fox said.

“It is their job to use their experience, knowledge and skill to help resolve the problem with which they are confronted, nothing more or less.”

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