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Amid legal battle, psych journal issuing caution about torture paper

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A psychology journal plans to issue an editor’s note about a controversial paper exploring what the author called “the biggest scandal to hit” the American Psychological Association (APA) in years.

The note cautions readers that the subject of the paper, published in the SAGE journal Teaching of Psychology, is part of a pending lawsuit, and that “teachers considering using the article in their classrooms” should watch for developments in the case.  

The fate of the paper, A Teachable Ethics Scandal, has been in limbo for weeks, as Slate’s Daniel Engber has written. Published in June 2017, the article — by Mitchell M. Handelsman, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver — explored the APA’s controversial involvement with the torture of terror suspects. Handelsman called the episode the “biggest scandal to hit the APA in years,” with critics saying it reflected a permissive attitude toward abuse of prisoners.

In July, the journal decided to retract the paper after a reader complained about the piece, which looked at how the scandal over the APA’s role in condoning “enhanced interrogation techniques” could become a springboard to discuss larger issues surrounding ethical decision-making. However, last month the editors had a change of heart, deciding to leave the article in place. Now the journal seems to have reached a compromise by alerting readers about the broader context surrounding the APA scandal.

According to Andrew Christopher, editor of the journal, the journal “considered retracting the article” to give the editors time to evaluate the concerns before the paper was used further in the classroom:

But after further consultation and review, we determined that an editor’s note was a more appropriate response. This note has been drafted and will be posted soon.

Christopher sent us a copy of the letter ahead of print:

The article, Handelsman, M. M. (2017). A teachable ethics scandal. Teaching of Psychology, 44, 278–284; doi: 10.1177/0098628317712789, provides commentary on matters related to the Hoffman Report, which was produced for the APA by lead author David Hoffman and his colleagues at law firm, Sidley Austin LLP. Readers are reminded that the author’s commentary solely reflects the opinions of the author. Additionally, the author and Editor wish to alert readers to the fact that the article, as is common in the social sciences, includes commentary on ongoing events. As of the writing of this notice, the Hoffman Report is the subject of a pending lawsuit. The author and Editor urge teachers considering using the article in their classrooms to monitor developments in the case

Details of the scandal were first made public by the New York Times  in July 2015 when the newspaper wrote about an investigation dossier known as the Hoffman report. In 2014, the APA commissioned an attorney, David Hoffman, to conduct an independent investigation into allegations that the APA had colluded with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency to condone torture after 9/11. The report concluded that the APA issued loose guidelines on what constituted torture, essentially allowing the use of waterboarding and similarly extreme tactics.

But military psychologists disputed the investigation findings and several issued rebuttals. (One of the rebuttals, which claims that the Hoffman report omitted key documents and distorted facts, came from a group of military psychologists who were named in the report and who filed a lawsuit against Hoffman and the APA earlier this year).

Since the report, the APA has taken steps to revamp its policies and reputation. According to Handelsman, since 2015, the APA has issued guidelines that prohibit psychologists from engaging in torture, updated its ethics code, and established several commissions “to explore psychologists’ roles in interrogations.” And, last May, the APA asked Hoffman to continue his investigation based on information recently brought to the APA’s attention and to update the 2015 report with any new findings or modifications (also reported in the New York Times).

Despite these efforts, Handelsman writes that “the APA torture scandal is not over yet.” In his paper, he offers several reasons why the discussion about the scandal should continue, most notably:

… by discussing these scandals and ethics more generally, maybe we can delay, mitigate the effects of, or even prevent the next scandal.

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