I have never been the target of an attack by journalists, but one day it is bound to happen. I do research in a controversial area: forensic psychology. I’m the guy who claims that psychopaths can be treated. I’ve spent the past ten years of my life doing research to prove it. I’ve rarely sought media attention, but that can’t last forever. When you do controversial work, you can suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a media fusillade.
Take the recent attack on my colleague, Prof. Corine de Ruiter. In a court case, she gave expert testimony that offended the brother of an accused perpetrator of spousal abuse. He filed a complaint with the Netherlands Institute for Psychology (NIP), which reprimanded her for drawing diagnostic conclusions that strayed from the evidence in the case. Some news outlets, including the Observant, covered the story in a balanced way. Others, however, were decidedly one-sided: not mentioning, for example, that the NIP had never read the report that Prof. de Ruiter had written for the court, and jumping to conclusions based on the vague impression that she is “controversial”. In response, Prof. de Ruiter wrote a clear, well-reasoned critique of the NIP’s decision (fpblog.nl). And yet, some people who believe uncritically what they read in the press will get an erroneous impression.
Marshall McLuhan famously called our modern, inter-connected world, “the global village”. Yet, this virtual village differs in important ways from a real one. In the global village, we often jump to conclusions based on scant evidence, influenced by some journalists who thrive on attention-grabbing narratives such as “esteemed professor humbled by NIP.” In a real village, we can judge someone’s character based on long observation and direct experience. And this intimate knowledge tempers our tendency to jump to conclusions about them. In fact, Prof. de Ruiter has done more than practically anyone in this country to advance the cause of evidence-based practice in forensic psychology. Sticking to the evidence is the central tenet of our Masters program in forensic psychology at Maastricht University, which Prof. de Ruiter leads. Yes, I know that someone in the public eye needs to be able to take the heat. Prof. de Ruiter can handle it. Still, how can the people who are criticizing her about evidence in the courtroom pay so little attention to it in the court of public opinion?
David P. Bernstein, professor of Forensic Psychotherapy at the faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience