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A Rush to Judgement in Psychological Science

In its panicked dismissal of Klaus Fiedler, the APS has failed to deliver procedural justice

A Rush to Judgement in Psychological Science

An important principle of science is that testable claims about the universe should be understood as existing independently of the person who advocates them. In this way, science distinguishes itself from religion, which devalues the claims of heretics and recusants on the basis of their supposedly defective souls; and from the pseudoscience embedded in radical political movements (as with the Nazis, who spuriously rejected what they called “Jewish science,” and Stalinists, who similarly railed against science deemed “bourgeois”).    

Unfortunately, in recent years, this traditional epistemological approach has come under attack. Academics increasingly are being encouraged to announce their race, sex, gender identity, social class, and disability status under the conceit that this personal information is germane to a scientific appraisal of their scholarship. As a recent controversy engulfing the prestigious journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows, the career risks are high for those willing to speak out against this tendency.  

The furore erupted when University of Heidelberg psychology professor Klaus Fiedler, the then-newly installed editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science, set out to publish an article by cognitive neurophysiologist Bernhard Hommel, critiquing a 2020 article by Stanford University psychology professor Steven Othello Roberts. Following on his oft-stated belief that the discipline of psychology is systemically racist, Roberts had argued that journal editors should track the race of their contributing authors with a view toward enforcing diversity targets, while authors should similarly track (and be made to justify) the racial composition of their research samples. Hommel, by contrast, shares our own belief that focusing closely on skin color in this way represents an intrusion of political activism that compromises scientific freedom and independence.  

If Fiedler had left it at that, he might still be the editor of Perspectives. But he was so impressed by the critical commentary supplied by the three peer-reviewers to whom he’d sent Hommel’s article—Rutgers University psychologist Lee Jussim, Utrecht University emeritus psychology professor Wolfgang Stroebe, and University of Toronto emeritus psychology professor Keith Stanovich—that he decided to commission these responses, in adapted form, as stand-alone articles themselves. This was an unusual editorial decision. But Fiedler also invited Roberts to respond to all four critics as part of a larger “discussion forum.”

Fiedler and Roberts then engaged in a lengthy and complicated exchange of emails that lasted for months. We know this because Roberts, having lost trust in the process, decided to upload a manuscript describing the affair earlier this month, complete with a lengthy appendix that contains abundant excerpts from his correspondence with Fiedler. In the accompanying text, Roberts accuses not only Fiedler, but also Hommel, Jussim, Stanovich, and Stroebe, of militating against his work in a manner that is “unsound, unscientific, ad hominem, and racist.”

Yet nowhere does Roberts demonstrate that any of these men exhibited racial animus. And some of Roberts’s efforts to make this case are flat-out absurd. At one point, for instance, he spuriously describes Jussim’s use of an equine metaphor—“Scientists who wish to plow their fields with mules should be permitted to do so; they should not, however, pretend that those mules are horses”—as an argument that “explicitly parallels people of color with mules (i.e., the sterile offspring of a horse and a donkey), which is a well-documented racist trope used to dehumanize people of color.”

But putting aside Roberts’s unproven claims of racism (not to mention his arguably unethical decision to publish personal email correspondence without his interlocutor’s permission), the Stanford scholar does make a convincing case that Fiedler’s editorial style was unusual and exasperating. Not only did the editor ask the three peer reviewers of Hommel’s critique to formalize their own criticisms of Roberts in the form of published articles, Fiedler also planned to allow Hommel to publish a second article, this one refuting Roberts’s response.

Roberts also became evidently sensitive to the suggestion that his work somehow lies outside the domain of real science. And his reaction isn’t unreasonable. While his language betrays an excessive fixation on markers of personal identity (“When this manuscript was drafted, I identified as a Multiracial German-American,” he notes on the first page of his manuscript), racism is a real, scientifically measurable phenomenon. And while its effects are often exaggerated for political and ideological purposes, it’s obviously a completely legitimate area of study. In any event, Roberts is hardly the only psychology scholar who presents his area of study as offering uniquely urgent insights into the human condition.  

As the months passed, and Roberts continued to bicker testily with Fiedler over the confusing process they were all supposed to follow, the Stanford psychologist began to believe, not without basis, that the “discussion forum” was an unbalanced five-against-one battle—with Fiedler and the four critical writers (a quintet of “senior White men,” as Roberts calls them) comprising a united opposition. No matter one’s underlying views about the intermingling of science and activism, it’s easy to come away from a reading of the email archive wondering whether Fiedler was the correct man for this job.  

As is often the case in controversies of this type, the public reaction vastly overshot the actual misdeeds at issue: An inflammatory open letter sent to the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the publisher of Perspectives on Psychological Science, accused Fiedler not only of “general editorial incompetence and abuse of power,” but also amplified Roberts’s charge of racism. Predictably, the signatories also sought to leverage the outrage they were creating as a means to demand the usual laundry list of “immediate, meaningful, systemic change[s]”—which is to say, a slew of new anti-racism training mandates. They also insisted that Roberts be granted “any additional reparative action [he] might deem necessary”—which is to say, a complete blank check.

Within three days, the signatories had their primary demand fulfilled: Fiedler was forced to resign. The ex-editor reports that he never had a chance to present his side of things to the APS; and that the whole controversy played out while he was attending a conference in Israel, and so unable to fully engage with his critics. The Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Steven Pinker, told Quillette:

Despite CEO Robert Gropp’s claiming “we have spent the days since listening to feedback from APS Members and others within the psychological science community and convening APS leaders,” no one asked me, though I’m a reviewer for the journal, a distinguished “Williams James Fellow” of the Association.

Less than a year after the APS boasted of Fiedler’s status as “the first journal editor in chief based at an institution outside North America,” the reputation of this eminent expert in such technical subjects as “pseudocontingencies derived from categorically organized memory representations” was trashed. This is the reality facing academics today: One can be accused of a career-ending transgression at any time, convicted without trial, and summarily dispatched by an employer seeking to appease the performatively aggrieved.  

Meanwhile, the subject that Fiedler wished to explore—whether an obsession with skin color and other markers of personal identity represent a threat to the scientific method—has been cast aside. Indeed, the lesson that other scholarly editors will draw from this dust-up is likely to be that this is an area of inquiry best avoided entirely. To question the claims of scholars such as Roberts, an act that was already somewhat taboo in academic circles, is, for the foreseeable future at least, effectively verboten.      

Fiedler’s status as the first non-American editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science isn’t a coincidence. The American obsession with race, particularly among academics, is singular among advanced nations. In fact, academics in many European nations—including Fiedler’s native Germany—are pushing back on progressive dogmas about identity precisely because they constitute a manifestation of what was once dubbed American cultural imperialism. Moreover, English clearly isn’t Fiedler’s native tongue. And he betrays little of the eggshell sensitivity that an American journal editor, placed in the same position, would tend to exhibit toward a scholar such as Roberts. At various points, the email record reads like a dialogue of the deaf, with Roberts seeking clarifications in regard to the editor’s convoluted language.

One of Roberts’s specific complaints is that Fiedler had accused Roberts of being “non-professional.” But when you read the actual email exchange, it doesn’t seem as if that’s what Fiedler meant to say at all. Rather, he was referring to the casual nature of their dialogue, which Fiedler was engaging in while on vacation. Far from exposing himself as a racist editor dressing down a black scholar, as Roberts claims, Fiedler comes off as a fusty and naive European academic trying to navigate a complicated and inadvisably structured editorial project:  

Just as an explanation of the somewhat non-professional exchange we are having, please note that I am on a mini-biking tour with my wife through the Bavarian pre-alps. I am doing my email only when the rainy weather allows me … Nevertheless, here are a few remarks that may help to clarify. If you remain under-informed, I offer you a skype or zoom early next week.

The problem of racism in academic publishing—the subject of Roberts’s 2020 paper—is one of both false negatives and false positives: A white researcher, editor, or peer reviewer whose judgment is clouded by racism can be expected to pursue, publish, and approve too much research by white scholars and too little by their non-white counterparts. But as this episode makes clear, analogous risks are at stake when it comes to academics whose judgment is clouded by the expectation of racism. Roberts’s own evidence shows that he badly misinterpreted innocent word choices by Fiedler and Jussim so as to support his claim that he’d endured racist mistreatment. And far from parsing these accusations carefully, the academic mob demanding Fiedler’s public shaming signal-boosted it uncritically. Few independent observers are going to take the time to read through 10 pages of email correspondence before rendering judgment. And so it simply became received wisdom within the field of academic psychology that Fiedler was a bigot who’d done something genuinely shameful, with the APS then being driven to throw the man under the bus.

On December 9th, the German Psychological Society published a statement about the treatment of Fiedler, urging “a thorough and open-ended investigation” of events, while also noting archly that “it is not our understanding of procedural justice to condemn a person without giving him or her an adequate hearing.” This rings true to us. The scientific method and due process are alike, in that these two foundational ideas both require that claims survive objective scrutiny before gaining official acceptance. And one might expect psychologists, of all people, to understand that objective scrutiny is one thing that becomes impossible once a mob picks its target.

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