“Psychic” Social Work Student Writes to Dear Abby
A person claiming to be a social work student who believes she has psychic powers wrote a letter to Dear Abby. Some may wonder if this letter is a prank and it may be, but the number of licensed clinical social workers who advertise themselves as practicing as “psychics” (I provide some links in the paragraphs below) shows that this topic is of very real concern and hence, valuable to discuss. This letter has made the rounds in a number of e-mail list discussion groups, including one list that has over 1,000 academic social work faculty. Although some participants opined that the use of psychic powers has no place in legitimate social work practice, some faculty members defended it and have even accused those of us who spoke out against this as being “hegemonic”. If upholding professional standards and speaking out against social workers being allowed to practice whatever strikes their whim is “hegemony” then please, by all means find me guilty.
While I will not violate the privacy of list serv members by posting their responses, I am reposting my own response on this topic that I posted to the list serv, which seems to have drawn some controversy. Imagine a profession that taking the position that practicing as a psychic under the auspices of a professional is so controversial! Yet in some areas of the profession, that seems to be the case.
While some faculty members did express appropriate levels of concern that a student would get this far in a social work program and not realize that her claimed “psychic” powers were not welcome, others responded quite defensively and attacked science as an oppressor. One faculty member even made comparisons to McCarthyism and complained of being branded a heretic by the profession for his anti-science views, based it appears upon myths and false stereotypes. Rather interesting that he would be complaining of this, given that he securely ensconced in academia whereas I am the one who has been unable to secure a faculty position. When I was a student I was warned in a friendly way by a certain faculty member from a highly ranked school of social work who supported my position, yet was concerned that if I continued to publish material exposing pseudoscience in social work practice and education, I would be unable to get a job. It appears that he was correct, but I have no regrets as I have no wish to be part of any profession that would exclude someone for that reason.
In any case, here is what I posted that appears to have gotten me branded as hegemonic and closed minded. This was posted in response to certain tenured social work faculty members who had defended the use of “psychic” powers in social work practice as something that we should be open to. One Department Chair even implied that excluding such practice would be anti-diversity. I wrote:
What I found most concerning was the student’s statement:” It’s hard to separate my own thoughts and emotions from those of spirits around me. I’m concerned about my psychic ability in relation to my clients. If I pick up on abuse in the mind of a child, for example, am I obligated to report it? “Assuming for the sake of this discussion that this letter is genuine (and given the number of LCSWs who advertise psychic services, it may very well be), clearly, this person has missed something in her education as a social worker if this person, who is nearing the end of her education, wonders whether she should report what she picks up as a “psychic” to authorities and appears to be unable to separate her personal beliefs from her professional role. Granted, I would want to get more information than what is presented in this letter, but such a statement, in and of itself is cause for concern.As for Abby’s advice, I couldn’t imagine worse advice to someone who will likely become a professional who has the safety and wellbeing of clients in her care. If someone is having feelings, intuitions, [psychic] revelations, psychic promptings or whatever they wish to label it about a client, Abby’s advice is an open invitation for confirmation bias. There is no evidence that there is such a thing as genuine psychic powers and such means of assessment has no place in our profession. Feelings and intuitions do have a place, but instead of only looking for confirming evidence, as Abby suggests, good critical thinking skills require one look for disconfirming evidence as well.As Bruce [Thyer] mentioned, he and I have conducted internet searches on “psychic” and “LCSW” and the results are of great concern. Here are just a few links:These are just the first few of many search results that came up on a Google search on those terms. There are many more.While I agree that [as clinicians] we should refrain from judging people personally for their beliefs, as professionals, especially those involved in the education of those who will become licensed social workers who will have the lives of human beings in their hands, it is our duty to evaluate and indeed judge their methods of assessment.
There are already faculty who have responded who did not like what I had to say and feel I am being hegemonic, a term Marxists love to use. For those who are unfamiliar with the term “hegemony” Wikipedia gives a fairly good explanation of what that means. Apparently there are some who feel that taking a pro-evidence-based, pro science stance in mental health practice is “hegemonic”. In the minds of such people, all ways of knowing, whether it’s psychic powers or science, are equal and to put one over the other is to exercise political dominance, since in the minds of such postmodernists, there is no such thing as objective reality, the kind that as the saying goes, does not go away when you stop believing in it.
To bring this issue back down to practical terms, there ideas have very serious real world consequences. In the letter, the student was wondering if she should report to child services, any psychic revelations she had that a child was being abused! Imagine the harm that could be done if some social work faculty got their way and psychic powers were treated as equal to scientific evidence!
I have no doubt that my stance on issues such as this has not made me popular, to say the least and it may even be one of the reasons that in spite having more peer reviewed scholarly publications than most other newly graduated applicants and comparable teaching and practice experience, I have not gotten a tenure track faculty position. However, given what is at stake, I consider this to be a small price to pay and if compromising or remaining silent on issues such as this is what is necessary, that is something that I am just not willing to do. If that is the verdict of the profession as a whole and they do not want to hire me to teach students that yes, there are standards to uphold that include using interventions and assessment methods that have evidence to back them up, then in spite of all the time and money I have invested in my doctoral level education, that is not a profession that I wish to have any part of. I am, however, still open to someone proving that this is not the case, but one thing I will not do is compromise on issues where the lives and well being of vulnerable individuals and families is at stake.
Imagine a child welfare worker who bases her assessment of family members on her imagined “psychic” powers. That is the kind of world some academic social workers apparently condone, either by explicit advocacy that all methods are equal, or implicitly in their failure to speak out when others are promoting such notions, for fear of losing their own status in the profession. It is a sad comment on the profession that this would even be considered even remotely controversial.
Nevertheless, I will not hesitate to declare that a social worker or any other mental health professional who holds licensure and hence a position of fiduciary power over others, who uses claimed “psychic” abilities or any other invalid assessment method ought to be found guilty of malpractice and have their license to practice permanently revoked. Until such standards are enforced and gatekeeping is put in place for those applying to graduate school, it is unlikely that the social work profession will be taken very seriously by clinical scientists. There are plenty of issues over which intelligent professionals and educators can disagree and have plausible arguments for both sides. This, however, is not one of them.