Monday 25 February 2019

Pigeons, meet cat: "The Hans Eysenck affair: Time to correct the scientific record"

I'm heading off-piste with my musings today, drawing your attention to a paper by Anthony Pelosi [1] and an accompanying editorial by David Marks [2] (both open-access) that are likely to 'put the cat among the pigeons' in some quarters (with thanks to Matthew Dalby for bringing the Pelosi study to my Twitter attention). Indeed, the publishing journal - The Journal of Health Psychology - is no stranger to 'cat among the pigeons' discussions, as per their 2017 special edition [3] on the PACE trial "for patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)/chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)." Perhaps interestingly, there is a 'psychosomatic' connection between the topic covered in the Pelosi paper and those critical musings on how to (or perhaps how not to) treat ME/CFS...

The person at the centre of the Pelosi paper is the late Prof. Hans Eysenck; a figure who anyone with the slightest interest in the discipline called psychology would probably have heard of. Personality was one of the major research interests for Eysenck, and in particular, the proposal of dimensions to personality: extroversion/introversion, neuroticism/stability, psychoticism/socialisation. Perhaps not as famously known about, but still influential, were Eysenck's views relating to "his persistent denial of the carcinogenic effects of tobacco." Indeed, his 'alternative view' that "certain personality traits that lead to smoking also increase the risk of developing cancer" is starting to look decidedly 'shaky' in modern times. More so when there is talk of 'funding' and 'sources of funding' potentially complicating the issue.

Pelosi (and Marks) make a case that the time is right for psychology and various other interconnected disciplines to start looking more critically at the collected published work of Eysenck and some of his colleagues. They argue that claims "about the alleged effectiveness of psychotherapy in preventing cancer" or that "behaviour therapy may be useful in prolonging life, as well as in preventing disease" have little place in modern, evidence-based, science and medicine. Pelosi - who has some important history of being slightly critical of some of Eysenck's findings alongside other notable names - also goes one stage further in suggesting that some of the "widely cited studies" published with Eysenck's name attached "have had direct and indirect influences on some people’s smoking and lifestyle choices." Further: "This means that for an unknown and unknowable number of individual men and women, this programme of research has been a contributory factor in premature illness and death." Strong words indeed.

Marks ends his editorial with open letters to the President and Principal of King's College London and the Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society (BPS) calling for further investigation of the points highlighted in the Pelosi paper. Pelosi has seemingly approached the BPS previously on this matter but apparently did not receive a particularly warm reception to his then request for further investigation of some of the science and conclusions made in this area (see here). Whether such a second request - made in the era of social media - will be acted upon differently this time is a 'wait and see' question. All of this taking into account the moves being made to make psychology a more credible science these days...


[1] Pelosi AJ. Personality and fatal diseases: Revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology. 2019. Feb 23.

[2] Marks DF. The Hans Eysenck affair: Time to correct the scientific record. Journal of Health Psychology. 2019. Feb 23.

[3] Marks DF. Special issue on the PACE Trial. Journal of Health Psychology. 2017. July 31..


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