APA to the Rescue--One More Time


William C. Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science

One of the services APA provides on behalf of society and our profession is advising the justice system on matters relating to psychology. Generally, what this amounts to is preparing and filing amicus curiae ("friend of the court") briefs in cases where the litigation involves some issue of relevance to the field.

Like all legal matters, it's an expensive proposition--one that can run well over $25,000 for even a fairly simple case. But it's also an effective way to use psychology in the public interest. To the extent that it affects a trial outcome or a judge's written opinion, an amicus brief not only contributes to the just resolution of a particular case, but may also be cited in subsequent litigation and, thus, influence case law. And if it is a high-profile case, it can even help to educate the public.

For all these reasons, decisions on whether to enter a case are not taken lightly. APA relies heavily on the advice of its legal staff (notably Jim McHugh, JD) and the Committee on Legal Issues (COLI) in making each commitment. Also, input is solicited from each directorate.

Most cases about which APA is approached involve practice or public interest issues, but some do have at least a peripheral science angle. So I generally review them and add my two cents worth--particularly, where I think psychology has nothing unique to contribute and, hence, should not get involved. My personal belief is that APA has no business getting involved just because the cause is a worthy one. I see a big difference, for example, between a case involving gay rights in general and one in which the welfare of a child raised in a same-sex household is at issue. Psychology has solid evidence to contribute to the latter, whereas the former usually turns on constitutional or moral arguments.

Occasionally, a case comes along that bears directly on our science. In the last one, PAWS v. University of Washington, APA was the only scientific society to put its money behind the University's cause, despite the fact that the issue at stake was a significant one for the entire academic research community! We were understandably proud of that.

Now we have another one, People v. Pedro Gil, and I'm pleased to report that, once again, COLI has come to the aid of our science. At the request of its chair, Bill Foote, PhD, I was invited to participate in their deliberation of this matter. It is a case pending before the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, and the appeal centers around a judge's ruling against the admissibility of cognitive research evidence and the testimony of an eminent psychological expert in the initial trial.

The facts in the case are that the defendant, Gil, threw a bucket of plaster from a 6-story building and killed a policeman accidentally, by his account. A pivotal question is whether he understood where the bucket would land, and an important body of evidence is afforded by the cognitive literature on intuitive physics to which psychologist Michael McCloskey, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, has been a leading contributor. This literature documents consistent misconceptions that people hold regarding basic physical laws. One of them is directly relevant to Gil's bucket toss: the tendency to underestimate the lateral distance such an object will travel en route to the ground.

The judge was not impressed. He opined that since such knowledge is part of the jurors' common knowledge and is not science-based (noting that McCloskey is not a physicist), neither the phenomenon nor the expert are admissible. Thus, the case was tried without this information, and the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder. The verdict is being appealed on the grounds that important scientific knowledge--psychological knowledge--was not allowed into evidence. The APA brief will support this contention.

The judge's ruling in this case obviously reflects the popular belief that psychological science is nothing more than glorified common sense, and it compounds the insult by inferring a comparison with physics (i.e., a real science). Letting this misinformed opinion stand would not only be a gross miscarriage of justice, it would establish cognitive psychology as a pseudoscience in the case law, thereby making it more difficult to apply what we know to future cases. And as Gil so aptly demonstrates, psychology has a lot to offer, and not just on matters related to mental health.

You should be gratified to know, as I am, that APA has the will and the resources to meet challenges to the credibility of our science in the courts. It's just one more of the many ways the Association serves psychology's science-academic interests every day. Too bad more members of that community, particularly younger folks who stand to benefit most but seem to value APA the least, aren't better informed in this regard. Perhaps you could help us enlighten them.


[ guffaws to / ]