Conceptual Orienteering in Minefields of Controversy

Marvin J. McDonald, Trinity Western University

The key objective of the special issue is to identify a range of viable approaches to the understanding of psychology-eugenics relationships in general and the case of Raymond Cattell's eugenics in particular. As a

preliminary step in that direction, the following conceptual frameworks are summarised as promising means for exploring the these relationships.

1. Research Ethics and Standards of Scholarship

Over the last several years, controversies about manufactured data, plagiarism, and other instances of misconduct have resulted in policy development and publications making explicit what had been largely implicit codes of conduct among scientists. For example, Macrina's (1995) text was published by the American Society for Microbiology as a resource in socialising academics and graduate students to professional research ethics. Such publications often presume that scholarly standards are held in common by most scientific communities.

The Sir Cyril Burt controversy is another example of a research ethics debate that seems to have evaded resolution by scholarly consensus for more than 20 years despite systematic attention by numerous competent scholars (Samelson, 1997). In such instances important issues arise about the scope and standards of scholarship more broadly. Perhaps differences in positions and assumptions can be more important than the quality of scholarship in accounting for "persistently unresolved" controversy. Although charges of poor scholarship are easy to come by amidst academic controversies, it is less common to find thorough analysis and documentation of entire exchanges in polarised academic debates. And even in arguments buttressed by systematic documentation and argumentation, it is sometimes difficult to find explicit distinctions between (a) disagreements grounded in incompatible assumptions or values, (b) incompetent scholarship as assessed by defensible standards, and (c) defences of scholarly standards per se. Personal integrity generally involves consistency between a scholar's own standards and his or her work.

2. Interdisciplinarity and Technical Sophistication

Another key element to controversies involving eugenics is the relationships among various scientific disciplines and eugenics. If eugenics is characterised as a social policy of selective human breeding to enhance human genetic makeup, then a tremendous range of disciplines can be relevant to such policy proposals. In addition to psychology, one would consider behaviour genetics, sociobiology, anthropology, medicine, evolutionary biology, multivariate methodology, neuroscience, biotechnology, history and philosophy of science, political studies, and so on. If a high degree of technical sophistication is required in all these disciplines, then the simple quantity of considerations becomes a barrier to monitoring and evaluating such debates.

For example, several authors in a special issue on "uses and abuses" of genetics (Hirsch, 1997) emphasised high levels of technical expertise required to evaluate and critique positions adopted by various prominent scientists. But how are scholars to adjudicate claims about the relevance or irrelevance of technical considerations? Traditional criteria such as accepting the judgements of prominent experts become problematic when co-ordinating competing claims across multiple experts, multiple disciplines, and diverse research programs. In short, the interdisciplinary scope of eugenics debates can become a barrier to evaluation of arguments and to consensus building. The limited success of

"expertise-based" responses to controversies involving eugenics, intelligence, and race, for example, can be identified through the impact of previous debates (see, e.g., Dobzhansky, 1973, or Loehlin, Lindzey, & Spuhler, 1975, from exchanges in the early 1970s) or through the analysis of continuing publications in the aftermath of the "Bell Curve" controversies.

3. Scholarly Style

For instance, John Horn, editor of the "evaluative" Festschrift for R. B. Cattell published in Multivariate Behavioral Research (Horn, 1984, p. 115), has characterised Cattell's intellectual strategy, his writing style, and his reception by other scholars (see especially the introductory and closing essays by Horn). As an overview by someone who is familiar with both the author and his scholarship, Horn's comments provide a useful orientation to his work. And though generalisations should not be overextended, Horn suggests that Cattell's intellectual and writing styles sometimes lead to misunderstandings by readers and to errors of detail in his own writings. The multidisciplinary breadth, technical sophistication, and scholarly style of Cattell's work provide challenges to the evaluative task and at times may necessitate detailed analyses to determine when one can effectively distinguish between stylistic, substantive, and ideological concerns. The same kinds of questions are often useful to raise for many scholars whose work bears on psychology-eugenics interactions.

4. Science and Values

A favourite after-hours debate in the academy in recent years revolves around disagreements about "political correctness," the relationships between politics and science, and related boundaries. The special issue on political correctness in the CPA journal Canadian Psychology last year provides a case in point of efforts to advance the debate (Gauthier, 1997). An exchange on these issues addressing a charge of illegitimate ideological

influence on scientific practice emerges in the essays by Philip Rushton (1996) and Andrew Winston (1996). "Science wars" is a somewhat broader rubric that involves many of the same issues as political correctness, but can also include questions about the status of "postmodernism" as an academic and intellectual "school" or movement. These instances illustrate efforts to explore important issues in scholarly fashions amidst contention and political wrangling. Moreover, these concerns involve participants outside the academy, raising questions about values undergirding scholarship and science. Although it may be naive to presume that adequate scholarship per se "resolves" debates involving ideological and political differences, more "intermediate" goals can be established such as clarifying the questions under examination and delimiting potential arenas of agreement. Explicit identification of assumptions and ideological commitments at stake in a particular debate can, by intermediate criteria, be counted as "advancing" a discussion even when the broader questions involve social policy and political action.

5. Social Responsibility

Is psychologists' involvement in social policy, politics, and social action completely independent of their responsibilities as scientists and professionals? The current APA Ethics Code, for example, tries to balance both social responsibility and personal freedom on points of this kind (see, for example, the Introduction, paragraph 5; General Principles B, C, D; Preamble; Standard 1.01; APA, 1992). When leading Alberta psychologists such as John MacEachran and W. R. N. Blair participated on the Eugenics Board of Alberta, their involvement cannot easily be dismissed as merely "private political interests" with no bearing on their professional status as psychologists (McDonald, 1996a; Wahlsten, 1997). Due allowance must be made for the

historical, disciplinary, and political contexts of their actions, and mere "scapegoating" of individuals provides little insight into the ways that eugenic policies led to extensive abuses in Alberta. For instance, evaluating past actions of psychologists should be informed by standards of professional responsibility as they were understood at the time. On the other hand, it is equally inappropriate to avoid any examination of individual and institutional responsibility for those abuses simply to avoid embarrassment or discomfort of prominent individuals and institutions. Especially when psychologists rely on reputation or offer judgements grounded in research and professional experience, responsibility involves professional as well as personal standards.

6. Science Studies

An interdisciplinary arena of investigation has emerged in recent decades drawing on the disciplinary contributions of the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. The institutional elements of journals, professional societies, and graduate programs of study have emerged by now, pointing to some success as an interdisciplinary field. Scholars in science and technology studies have taken an interest in scientific controversies themselves (e.g., Brante, Fuller, & Lynch, 1993). In Brante's (1993) terms, psychology-eugenics controversies are "science-based" controversies since they include political and policy issues related to eugenics. Of course, much relevant work is done by scholars in these fields without explicitly adopting an STS designation, such as Porter's (1995) analysis of the social, intellectual, and historical contexts of statistics and quantification in psychology (IQ testing) and other fields. Work on psychology's disciplinary development has addressed a number of important concerns necessary for examining relations between psychology and eugenics. For example, Danziger's (1997) overview of recent work on psychological "categories" like intelligence, variables and personality explicitly addresses interactions between ideology and theory in psychology's history. In brief, historians, philosophers, and sociologists all provide scholarly frameworks for understanding controversies in science, and some analysts combine these disciplinary frameworks to develop novel insights.

7. Science-Religion Interaction

Evolutionary theory often engages people, scientists as well as others, at the level of religion, myth, and worldview, and this significance can arise over and above its scientific status and import. The so-called

"creation-evolution" controversies reflect one facet of this interaction, while another side emerges in the exploration of evolutionary ethics, evolutionary epistemology, and naturalistic worldviews. Midgley (1985, 1992) has explored naturalist appropriations of evolution, generating her own controversies along the way. Cattell's religious and ethical system, Beyondism, is an instance of an explicitly acknowledged interface among eugenics, religion, and science. The interdisciplinary field of science and religion (e.g., Barbour, 1997) can help formulate key issues in this interface. Strenuous disagreements about values, religion, and metaphysics are quite possible among scientists even when they have similar theoretical frameworks, methodological practices, and research expertise (McDonald,1996b). Scholarly examination of interaction between religion and science relies on expertise in the relevant scientific disciplines and in religious studies in addition to the investigation of relevant philosophical, historical, and social factors. Historically, we know that the influence of religious commitments on natural scientists' work has enhanced their science is some cases even while inhibiting scientific developments in other instances (Brooke, 1991). And lastly, principles of religious freedom and tolerance become relevant to examination of ideological and political commitments of protagonists in psychology-eugenics debates.


As an orienting exercise, these overlapping frameworks help characterise directions taken by contributors to this issue and can also help direct future study.

1. Standards of scholarship:

These essays do not emphasise research ethics. As Hunt and Wahlsten point out, no one has raised any such questions about Cattell, and MacEachran was not a researcher. And though none of these essays focus on Cattell’s standards of scholarship per se, that issue was central to the controversy over publishing this special issue and the decision of Cattell associates to refuse the invitation to contribute. This topic will no doubt continue to be raised in the Cattell debate.

2. Interdisciplinary scholarship:

Tucker pointed out that technical, interdisciplinary perspectives are not necessary for important questions in psychology-eugenics debates. His point is important to recognise when involving non-scientists in the evaluation of eugenics. It also raises the question of how to approach controversies when the relevance of technical considerations is itself at issue.

3. Scholarly style:

Hunt's emphasis on the choice of terms and their influence on controversy highlights this concern. Insensitivity can cloud substantive issues and create difficulties that could be avoided with greater care.

4. Science and values:

Although charges of inappropriate influence of values and ideology on scholarship arose in the email debate leading up to this issue, that specific question is not dealt with extensively in the present essays. Winston's essay does explore, however, the organic connection between Cattell's science and his views on eugenics over the last few decades.

5. Social responsibility:

Although we don't have formal theories of social responsibility being proposed here, each author explicitly identifies practical principles of responsibility in social policy and political action by psychologists. Wahlsten, for example, illustrates his standards for social responsibility through his participation in the process of removing academic honours bestowed on John MacEachran.

6. Science studies:

Historical perspectives are clearly highlighted in the work of each author, and several authors document specific points with implications for eugenics. Weizmann highlights the implications of historical work, arguing that eugenics was never displaced by scientific advances in genetics and biology as is often presumed. Mehler documents a specific aspect of Cattell's recent involvement with eugenics proposals.

7. Science and religion:

None of the contributors considers Beyondism as a religion directly, although most of them deal directly with its implications for values, ethics, and/or politics. Given the current interest in working out connections between evolutionary theory and religion, this exploration will be but a matter of time.

Of course, the essays in this Bulletin do not "resolve" the Cattell debate, nor do they offer final words on connections between eugenics and psychology. Rather, the editorial objectives guiding the conception and development of the special issue are (a) to participate in a longer-term process which eventually depolarises the issues; (b) to maintain respect for all the protagonists in the controversy over the APF award, including R. B. Cattell and his family; and (c) to give careful consideration to a wide range of intellectually defensible positions. A number of important positions are set out here, and additional perspectives will continue to unfold as scholars examine the kinds of questions which gave birth to the essays that follow.


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MARVIN J. MCDONALD, Ph.D., R. Psych., is Associate Professor of Counselling Psychology at Trinity Western University. His research interests include theoretical psychology, science and religion, and elaboration of alternative assessment practices. His recent most publication includes collaboration with a philosopher:

House, D. V., & McDonald, M. J. (1998). Realist brains and virtual conversations: Morals, molecules, and meanings in social constructionism. In W. E. Smythe (Ed.), Toward a psychology of persons. New York: Erlbaum.