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Robert Hare Threatens to Sue Critics

June 2, 2010

Although Hare is a legitimate scholar and not a proponent of a harmful or questionable therapy, I think the topic has relevance, since such proponents also use this kind of tactic. According to Mind Hacks, the renowned researcher in the study of psychopathy, Robert Hare, has threatened to sue his critics (Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke) for submitting to a journal, scholarly criticism of his work where he felt he had been misquoted. This is yet another disturbing development in a trend that could potentially shut down criticism, leaving the mental health profession as one that essentially consists of therapy gurus who will use the legal system or threaten to use it against anyone who does. While Robert Hare is a legitimate expert in his field and I have not examined the issue at hand enough to know if he is right or wrong. He may be right, but this issue ought to be hashed out in the journals, not in the courtroom. If Hare believes his critics are wrong, the intellectually honest thing to do would be to present a scholarly rebuttal, rather than threaten legal action. If quotes of his work were fabricated, then what he ought to do is present evidence of such to the journal. Journal editors are generally honest and do not need threatening lawyer letters to remove fabrications.

Two psychology-law leaders, psychologist Norman Poythress and attorney John Petrila of the University of South Florida, had this to say:

“[T]he threat of litigation constitutes a serious threat to academic freedom and potentially to scientific progress,” write Poythress and Petrila in the current issue of the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. “Academic freedom rests on the premise that advances in science can only occur if scholars are permitted to pursue free competition among ideas. This assumes that scholars have the liberty to do their work free from limitations imposed by political or religious pressure or by economic reprisals.”


Poythress and Petrila report; a judge in one case warned that “plaintiffs cannot, simply by filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!,’ silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation.”


Because publication of the article by Professors Skeem and Cooke has effectively been long delayed, if not ultimately suppressed, one clear impact of this threat to sue is that researchers who may have been willing to investigate alternative models of psychopathy that might have been derived from the Skeem and Cooke article are not able to do so, simply because the article is unavailable. Because science progresses, in part, both by confirming viable models and disconfirming nonviable ones, the suppression of information relevant to constructing candidate models for empirical evaluation can be viewed as impeding the progress of science….

[I]t seems clear from our review that such threats strike at the heart of the peer review process, may have a chilling effect on the values at the core of academic freedom, and may potentially impede the scientific testing of various theories, models and products. In our view it is far better to debate such matters in peer review journals rather than cut off debate through threats of litigation.

Update: The paper was finally published in the June 2010 issue of Psychological Assessment, with a response from Hare and a rejoinder from the authors. A NY Times article stated that the publication was delayed by three years, thanks to the legal threats. Scott Lilienfeld, quoted in the NY Times, commented:

“This has been a really, really troubling process from the beginning,” said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University and a collaborator with one of the paper’s authors. “It has people wondering, ‘Do I have to worry every time I publish a paper that criticizes someone that I’ll get slapped with a lawsuit?’ ” The delay in publication, he said, “sets a very dangerous precedent” and censors scientific discourse.

Indeed it does. With the legal threats my colleagues and I have been getting from Ronald Federici, PsyD , who has actually sued some people in small claims court in his state (I am not being sued but some of my colleagues are), we can completely relate but we are not backing down, because the consequences of being intimidated and allowing authoritarian dogmatic assertions to rule the profession are even worse than the smear campaign, the letters to some of our deans and threats we have had to endure. Over on that other WordPress blog (which I will not link to because I do not want to give it publicity), the anonymous author is gloating about his lawsuit, neglecting to mention that it is a small claims court lawsuit and that he is attempting to sue at least two organizations based outside of Virginia (ACT – Advocates for Children in Therapy and Psychology Today) which any lawyer could have told him is not something that can be done in small claims court (suing a business located in another state). Also, it is worth noting that in defamation cases in the US, unlike the UK, it is the plaintiff, not the defendant, who has the burden of proof.

The anonymous blogger is calling the day the case will be heard (June 18, 2010, which ironically is also the first anniversary of the day I passed my dissertation defense) as a “day of reckoning” and seems to be very confident that Federici will prevail. I, for one, am skeptical of that since only the cases against the individuals can even be heard at all. The case against ACT will either have to be dismissed or referred to a higher court and if the latter happens, the plaintiff will have to hire an attorney unless he wants to go pro se, and I’m sure people are familiar with the saying that the person who represents himself, has a fool for a client.

Getting back to Hare, he defended his actions to the New York Times, stating that the authors had distorted his work. Frequently, authors who have their work criticized feel that way, but the professional way to deal with this is to write a response to the journal, providing evidence for the alleged distortions. The truth comes out through scholarly discourse, rather than legal force and readers can decide for themselves who is accurate. Of course, personally libelous smears ought not to be printed, but reputable journals already have a policy against ad hominem attacks irrelevant to the issue at hand and are very good about editing those out.

The moral of this story:  As a profession, we are moving away from authority-based mental health gurus and towards evidence-based assessment and practice. People who threaten to sue their way out of being criticized (and I mean criticism of their work, not libelous personal attacks) only lose themselves credibility.

One Comment
  1. David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. permalink

    “The moral of this story: As a profession, we are moving away from authority-based mental health gurus and towards evidence-based assessment and practice. People who threaten to sue their way out of being criticized (and I mean criticism of their work, not libelous personal attacks) only lose themselves credibility.”

    Agreed. Absolutely agreed.

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