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SSCPnet Listserve Controversy

June 22, 2020

Twitter has been very active lately about a controversy that arose on the list serv for the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology. Thus far, no one has posted specifics on the post that started it all, so with the author’s (Scott O. Lilienfeld PhD) permission, I am posting it here so people can read it and decide for themselves whether the post was disempowering to minority participants or an instance of systematic racism, as assertions to that effect have been made. The list serv’s policy allows for public posting of posts to the list, so I am reproducing it here, for now, without further comment. It is important to note that the author of this post is a two-time President of SSCP, plus SSCP has an award named in his honor.

I will not comment further at this time, other than to say I have known Dr. Lilienfeld for over 15 years and yes, he is a very rigorous critic, but he is also one of the kindest and most civil people I know in the field. I will leave it to others if they want to post their responses to him, as there were many. Suffice it to say for now that the post was characterized as “racial dog whistling” and highly offensive because he pointed out the methodological problems of one of the studies listed on a spreadsheet connected with the organization and cautioned the people who put this together about being political (not because it dealt with race as is being mischaracterized, but because Trump was specifically mentioned in one of the recommended articles). It is worth nothing that most of the people who were voicing their concerns the most vehemently were young self-admittedly highly privileged white women. In any case, people can read it for themselves, posted in full below, and decide if his post constitutes “racial dog whistling” or anything else he has been accused of.

For those who don’t know the acronym, BIPOC stands for Black, indigenous people of color.

From Scott O. Lilienfeld to SSCPnet on June 17, 2020

Subject: BIPOC-Authored Psychology Papers Spreadsheet

Here is the link to what is being referred to and what follows are his two posts, in full:

Dear All: I am writing to the SSCPNET with considerable hesitation. Indeed, I’ve gone back and forth today about whether to write at all.

On the one hand, I’m delighted to see more discussion on this listserv of diversity issues, especially if they are approached from a rigorous scientific perspective, and one that encourages open debate and discussion. I was appalled by the recent murder of George Floyd and others, and I very much hope that high-quality psychological science can ultimately help to shed at least some light on these deeply disturbing events.

On the other hand, I am concerned by what appears to be a sharp turn toward political views and away from psychological science on this listserv.  To list just one example, one of the recently recommended resources refers to the “brilliant” psychological work of Claude Steel (sic) on stereotype threat, with no acknowledgment or even hint that such research has been marked by considerable difficulties with replication.

Even more worrisome, in my view, is the fact that some of the recommended resources adopt explicitly political stances.  I am confused, because the SSCP leadership has recently underscored the need to encourage a welcoming, inclusive environment for its members. For example, one of the resources recently recommended for SSCP members says the following:

“When I returned to the classroom two days after the (2016) election, the tension was palpable. I was TAing for an American Lit class at the time, and I could tell that the professor (a liberal white guy) was uncomfortable and unsure of how to address the elephant in the room. On one hand, there were students who’d voted for Trump. On the other, we had queer students, undocumented students, students wearing “F**k Trump” shirts, all of whom were seething with anger. I knew things were going to be intense after that, and that I would have to decide how I was going to approach this as an educator—would I stay quiet so as to not ruffle feathers, or would I stand up for what I believe in, which is that aligning yourself with Trump is aligning yourself with the denial of basic human rights and dignity? I knew that if I chose the path of least resistance, I’d be doing a disservice to the students whose lives and voices were at risk. I choose to teach resistance.”

I assume that at least some SSCP members (not me, incidentally…) are Trump supporters and would not find such writing to be especially welcoming.  It’s also not at all clear to me how such writing (along with much of the other recommended writing) is relevant to clinical psychological science.

I had further assumed that the role of SSCP was not to promote specific sociopolitical viewpoints, but rather to provide a forum in which rigorous but respectful debate regarding such scientifically contentious issues as implicit biases, implicit bias training, diversity workshops, stereotype threat, microaggressions, and so on, were fostered.  But several of the recent messages to the listserv seem instead aimed at promoting specific sociopolitical viewpoints, as well as at implying that certain controversial psychological questions are settled.

I have much more to say, but will stop here. I hope only that SSCP will not lose its bearings as an organization focused squarely on clinical science. If it continues to move further away from clinical science, I will be seriously reconsidering my membership in this organization.

….Scott

Scott O. Lilienfeld, Ph.D.

And a follow up response also on June 17, 2020 after a very heated discussion had ensued:

Subject: contributions by BIPOC scholars

Hi All:

Well, I hadn’t expected my message to the listserv to stir up a hornet’s nest, but I hoped that it would at least stir up some much-needed discussion and debate, so I suppose in that respect it served its purpose.  I thank those who responded to me on the listserv, to the numerous people who responded to me backchannel with supportive messages, and to the one person who responded to me backchannel with a critical but civil message. I especially thank the graduate students and postdocs who took to the listserv to voice their disagreement with my message, as I recognize that it takes courage to do so.

I have many, many thoughts in response to these multiple messages, but in the interests of time I will focus on only one of them here.

To be clear, I am of course 100 percent in favor of posting resources that are helpful in combating racism and racially motivated violence.  As Bill Sanderson and Richard Gist observed in their messages, this point should perhaps go without saying, but it doesn’t hurt to make it clear. And I am of course also 100 percent in favor of posting contributions by BIPOC scholars. These are all worthy goals on SSCP’s behalf, and I fully support them.

Where I part ways with a number of my fellow posters to the listserv is that I believe strongly that such resources should be evidence-based or at least broadly consistent with the extant evidence.  Perhaps the major reason I joined SSCP so many years ago – in addition to its pro-science advocacy – is that was something of an oasis (hardly a perfect one, of course) in which scientifically based information regarding clinical psychology and allied fields was valued.  I was disappointed that none of those who wrote to the listserv to take issue with my message attempted to address, let alone rebut, my substantive point regarding the decidedly mixed research evidence for stereotype threat effects, which as I noted were highlighted prominently in one of the resources sent to the listserv.

One of the posters maintained that although I criticized a number of the resources provided, I did not provide constructive remedies. This is not true, so I will reiterate what I wrote in my initial message, namely, that resources sent to the listserv, including those sent by the SSCP leadership, should strive to be consistent with the best available science. In doing so, they should aim to make listserv members aware of large bodies of research evidence that are inconsistent with the claims advanced. In no way, shape, or form did I imply, let alone suggest, that SSCP should take down these resources; instead, I am arguing that SSCP be certain to also present listserv members with evidence that may not be consistent with the claims advanced in these resources.

So, when SSCP members present and strongly endorse sites that laud research on stereotype threat, I am contending that they also at least acknowledge evidence that questions the robustness and external validity of stereotype threat effects (e.g., https://www.gwern.net/docs/psychology/2019-shewach.pdf).  Similarly, although I am completely in favor of providing readers with writings on the IAT as suggested readings, as one of the sites endorsed by the SSCP leadership did, I am also in favor of providing them with research that questions the robustness and real-world power of the IAT (e.g., https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-14256-002 and see https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-48911-001 for a different perspective). When psychological issues are scientifically controversial, I believe that it does listserv members a disservice to portray them otherwise.

Hence, I am favor of providing SSCP members with more information, not less, and in particular in providing them with a more scientifically balanced picture of the extant literature. I strongly suspect that SSCP members would hold their fellow members to the same standard were they to provide the listserv, for example, with an extensive compilation of resources on the efficacy/effectiveness of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that listed only studies or meta-analyses that were critical of DBT, or an extensive compilation of resources on the efficacy/effectiveness of SSRIs that listed only studies or meta-analyses that were supportive of these medications.  

I was also disappointed that the resources provided to the listserv did not at least point readers to the contributions of BIPOC scholars (psychologists, psycholinguists, social critics, among others) who have taken issue with some of the scientific claims advanced here, such as those of Craig Frisby, Frank Worrell, John McWorter, Shelby Steele, and others (please note that I do not agree with all of the writings of these scholars either, nor do they all agree with each other!).

In short, I stand by my initial concern that I very much hope that SSCP does not drift from its scientific bearings and that the listserv remains a forum in which scientifically contentious issues can be debated and discussed vigorously and freely.

Take care and all the best. …Scott

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One Comment
  1. Anon academic permalink

    Agree with Scott Lilienfeld here, and thanks for posting this Monica. From an anon professor of psychology.

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