APA Responds to New York Times Attack Against Behavioral Sciences

On February 16, 1997, The New York Times printed the article, "A Fine Hour for Squishy Sciences" by Pam Belluck. In the article, Belluck reported that the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which has traditionally sought exceptional high school biological and physical sciences projects, now includes research projects in the behavioral and social sciences. This year, 6 out of 40 of the Westinghouse finalists--who will soon compete for a $40,000 college scholarship--were selected for projects in those fields. This is the highest number of finalists ever for behavioral and social science experiments, and Belluck suggests that this may mean that Westinghouse has lowered its standards.

APA quickly responded to this attack against the behavioral and social sciences with a letter to the editor of the Times from William C. Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science. The following are excerpts from The New York Times piece and from Dr. Howell's letter to the editor.

From The New York Times

"It used to be that when the Westinghouse Science Talent Search rolled around, folks could count on being bowled over by the high school students who had mastered subjects most adults could barely comprehend . . . The project titles alone were deliciously impenetrable: 'Polynomial Automorphisms of Splitting Fields,' for one.

Times have changed. There are still a slew of experiments with male arboreal crickets and Fresnel Zone Plates. But nowadays, there are also projects on how parents' marriages affect their teenagers romantic relationships and surveys assessing how goal oriented various groups of people are.

Yes, the most prestigious national science competition for high school students--widely considered a testing ground for future Nobel Prize winners--has taken in the softer sciences: psychology, anthropology, sociology, and political science.

Could the judges of the contest be sending a message that the fuzzy, subjective sciences are what the nation needs now and that they should be on equal footing with the tangible world of test tubes?"

From Dr. Howell's letter

"Science evolves with the expansion of knowledge, and much to their credit, the Westinghouse people have evolved along with it rather than clinging blindly to tradition. By contrast, the Times account suggests that they merely lowered their standards to accommodate the lightweights.

A tiny bit of investigation by your reporter would have revealed that psychological and other behavioral and social research is not only well regarded within the scientific community, but has proved to be highly valuable to society. For instance, it has been directly responsible for the saving of countless lives through safer design of aircraft and automobiles. The high-mounted tail light that was mandated for automobiles a few years back is a common example. Billions of dollars are added to the GNP each year through improved design and management of our nation's businesses thanks to behavioral and social research. The computer you pound on daily is user-friendly because of contributions from cognitive psychologists. Our defense capability has consistently been the envy of the world, in part, because of what psychologists have contributed to advanced personnel selection, assignment, training, and weapon-system design.

And if you're looking to the hard sciences for answers to the myriad social problems that you chronicle each day in the Times, you have a long wait ahead of you."

At the time Psychological Science Agenda went to press, there was no word yet on whether the Times would publish Dr. Howell's letter. Although its publication would not undo the damage already done, it would at least balance the sentiments expressed in "A Fine Hour for Squishy Sciences."

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