'Psychologists Reject Science': A False and Misleading Article

Danger: Newsweek reports psychologists reject science and are ineffective.

Posted Oct 13, 2009

With healthcare in the national spotlight, last week's Newsweek.com article, Ignoring the Evidence: Why do psychologists reject science? was timely. But to me and many of my colleagues, it was alarmingly misleading. Basically, author Sharon Begley indicts psychologists, in general, for failing to practice evidence-based therapy and for rejecting the relevance of science to our profession.

I think that she has gotten caught up in some of the more controversial politics within the field. She based her article's conclusions on a report published by the Association of Psychological Science (APS). (Another article Where's the Science? on sciencedaily.com also summarized the findings in this APS publication.) The APS report largely represents the views of a group of clinicians who strongly advocate cognitive-behavioral therapy (often short-term treatment) to the exclusion of other treatment types. This camp sometimes challenges their colleagues, such as those psychologists who practice psychodynamic treatment (which is often longer-term).

There is a philosophical and political struggle between the group represented by the APS report and the mainstream. And each side does have its merits. But to air the strong-worded challenges of the report, without presenting the other side's rebuttal, is not only unbalanced; it further serves to unfairly stamp all psychologists as rejecting all forms of science. Note that the title of the report did not ask, "Why do other psychologists reject our science?" Though maybe it should have.

The average time it takes psychologists - from either camp -- to earn their doctorate is six to seven years after they receive their undergraduate degree; followed by a year of postdoctoral work and the time it takes to study for their licensing exams. Contrary to the Newsweek article, over the course of our training, we study methodology and statistics essential to conducting and evaluating research. In addition, the APA mandates that its member psychologists use their scientific knowledge in their clinical judgments.

Cumulative psychological literature shows that when competing forms of therapy are compared, the outcomes almost always come out about the same. The quality of the therapist-patient alliance is the best predictor of outcome (see Let's Face Facts article). This means that people who need help will benefit most from finding a qualified therapist with whom they connect and who expresses views that fit with how they think. (I have no doubt there are nuances to this rebuttal that can be argued by those supporting the APS perspective.)

The issues debated among psychologists of varying therapeutic orientations are complex; more complex than I can present here. (To read more, see Doctors and Psychologists Don't Hate Science.) I think this is inevitable, just as it is in any developing field. And, in reality, many (if not most) therapists are skilled in multiple approaches and try to blend and match their treatment to the person who is in the room with them.

As such, the misinformation in Begley's article has been distressing to a large number of my colleagues. I know this because I first learned of the Newsweek.com article on the New Jersey Psychological Association listserv; where many psychologists share our thoughts about effective treatment, among other issues. By stereotyping us all on Newsweek.com as "rejecting science", Ms. Begley was not only disparaging to psychologists, but she may also have steered many of her readers away from the very help that they need most, leading them to spurn the professionals best qualified to help them in the real world.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.