Thinkers divided over role in media

January 27, 2006

A battle of wills has left the British Psychological Society in two minds over whether its function is that of introspective learned society or extrovert commentator on popular issues of the day, ranging from government policy to TV's Big Brother .

The debate is broadly between clinical and academic psychologist members of the 42,000-strong society.

On one side are the clinical practitioners who want the BPS to act more like a professional body that is prepared to engage with and comment on all aspects of society. On the other are the academic psychologists who tend to see the BPS as a strictly academic learned society that reserves its judgment and commentary.

A number of clinical psychologists have told The Times Higher that they feel the society is missing a trick by refusing to comment on aspects of popular culture where there are clear psychological and ethical issues involved. The mental health and treatment of participants in the current series of Celebrity Big Brother , is given as an example, along with the war in Iraq.

Peter Kinderman, clinical psychologist and member of the society's press and communications board, said: "We have talked about it a lot but there's no formal line. The society should be more outspoken on these things and should be more confident about expressing a view on social, political and quasi-ethical issues.

"Many people within the society believe psychologists should have more of a say in these types of issues. Psychologists could, and should, comment on matters such as the war on terror, civil partnerships, sexual offenders in schools, identity cards and caring for the terminally ill."

Ian Robbins, professor of psychology at Surrey University, said the society's position was understandable.

"They are keen not to be seen as engaging in political activity but I believe they are failing to speak out on issues that are psychological in nature but have a political dimension," he said.

But Professor Robbins drew the line at Big Brother . "Given my detestation of reality TV shows, any lack of comment on those is at least a small mercy," he said.

Members say the society could comment on psychological processes germane to issues in question, which would raise the society's profile, inform public debate and provide information for non-psychologists.

Ron Roberts, senior lecturer in psychology at Kingston University, said:

"As an organisation, we carry some weight that individuals do not, however good their intentions."

But Ray Millar, president elect of the BPS, urged caution.

"Within any society there is a wide range of opinions on a variety of topics. If there's something specific that can be said from a psychological perspective then it would be appropriate for us to comment on that," he said. "It has to be done in a cautious and appropriate way, rather than off the cuff."

A spokesman for the society said: "The society's position is that it is willing to comment on national policy that affects psychology and grave matters of importance to the nation where psychology has a bearing.

"We encourage members to work with the media and have a system that facilitates that, but we also want members to remember they are bound by a code of conduct."

Pam Maras, chair of the BPS's publications and communications board, said:

"The role of psychologists is to use psychology evidence wherever appropriate in relation to the human condition.

"We are bound by a charter as a charity not to speak on political issues but that's not to say that politics doesn't have psychology in it."

Stephen White, manager of the BPS's publications and communications directorate, said the society was bound by its mission - broadly to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology - and Charity Commission rules against partisan politics. "On many issues there will be a huge amount of grey because it's about interpretation, mainly by our trustees."

anthea lipsett@thes.co.uk

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