Apology RE Clark et al.

[Originally posted to my older website on 22 June 2020 https://web.uvic.ca/~dslind/sites/default/files/Lindsay%20Statement%20RE%20Cark%20et%20alia%2022%20June.pdf]

I write regarding a recent Psychological Science article entitled “Declines in religiosity predict increases in violent crime—but not among countries with relatively high average IQ,” by Cory Clark, Bo Winegard, Jordan Beardslee, Roy Baumeister, and Azim Shariff. I was Editor in Chief when the manuscript was submitted and when it was accepted, so I am responsible. I’m no longer Editor in Chief –- my term ended with 2019. I am writing this statement as a private individual and the views are my own.

Over the last few weeks, many have criticized Clark et al. on multiple grounds. The most important charge, as I understand it, is that the thesis of the article is fundamentally racist or at least feeds into racist narratives and undermines social justice causes. I do not know if any of the authors meant to promote racism, but in retrospect I can certainly see that their article does feed into racist narratives. Strong criticisms of the validity of the measures and analyses have also been raised. On 17 June, Clark et al. asked Editor in Chief Patricia Bauer to retract the article. Patricia has granted that request and the article will soon be retracted.

My aim here is to apologize for my roles, as then-Editor in Chief, in the handling of the Clark et al. submission, and to share my perspective on how the submission was handled. I would have liked to share these thoughts earlier, but the situation was complex and demanded care and time. Moreover, in my judgment it was important that I stay out of the way of Patricia Bauer’s handling of the situation.

I apologize for three shortcomings on my part, briefly enumerated here and elaborated upon below. First, I deeply regret that I failed to think about the racial implications of the manuscript. Second, I am sorry that I did not require revisions to correct problems with the writing such as blurred distinctions between psychological constructs versus measures and speculations/extrapolations far removed from the data. Third, I wish I had done more to investigate the validity of the measures. The second and third failings follow from the first – If I had apprehended the racial implications of the manuscript, I believe I would have handled it with greater care.

Let me provide some context about how Psych Science manuscript submissions are handled.  We received 1,693 new submissions in 2019 (an average of 4.8 new submissions per day). As Editor in Chief, I skimmed each submission and ( assuming it passed a very low bar, which more than 99% did) assigned it to a Senior Editor or to myself, depending primarily on whose turn it was to get a new batch of assignments. The Senior Editor read each assigned manuscript and then assigned it to an Editor with relevant subject-area expertise (usually an Associate Editor but sometimes another Senior Editor or me). Each of those two editors judged independently if the manuscript warranted extended review. If either editor judged the submissions to have the potential to be accepted for publication in Psych Science, then it was sent for review (with the Editor with relevant-area expertise in the role of Action Editor).

The Clark et al. submission arrived on 25 January 2019. I assigned it (along with five other new submissions) to a Senior Editor. My email to the Senior Editor included a note: “Probably needless to
say, if # 102 [Clark et al.] goes out [for extended review] at least one reviewer should be a Stats Adviser (or at least someone who has serious stats chops).”

The Senior Editor selected another Senior Editor, Jamin Halberstadt, as Action Editor. Both editors judged that the manuscript warranted extended review. Most Psych Science submissions that are sent for review get two or three external reviewers, but Jamin wisely recruited four reviewers for the Clark et al. manuscript (including one recommended by the corresponding author and one Jamin selected based on particularly strong statistical expertise). Judging from their CVs, all four reviewers are eminently qualified to assess this research. All four reviewers provided substantive assessments of the initial submission. The reviews and his own reading of the manuscript led Jamin to invite a revision in a multi-page action letter (more than 3,000 words including the reviews). The authors made extensive revisions, detailed in a 17-page cover letter accompanying the R1 version.

Jamin sent the R1 version to the same four reviewers. Each of them again came through with a review. Three of the four reviewers recommended acceptance. The remaining reviewer recommended rejection based on reservations as to the use of homicide as the index of violence. Jamin invited a second revision, and the authors again made substantive revisions, including some addressing the use of homicide to index violence. Jamin and I conferred about the R2 version, and agreed that it would be good to ask the authors to temper some of their conclusions. Jamin was satisfied with their response and accepted the R3 version (I don’t recall if I checked on it).

Jamin’s handling of this manuscript was extremely careful and thorough. Three of four expert reviewers unambiguously recommended acceptance. The one dissenting reviewer’s concerns focused exclusively on the homicide measure, and the authors provided a counter argument to those concerns. It would be extraordinary for an editor to reject a manuscript with such positive reviews.

The Clark et al. article was published online on 21 January. It did not seem to attract a lot of attention until Andrew Gelman posted a scorching critque of it (crediting an email he received from Keith Donohue). Near the end of that blog, Gelman wrote:

I’m surprised Psych Science would publish this paper, given its political content and given that academic psychology is pretty left-wing and consciously anti-racist. I’m guessing that it’s some combination of: (a) for the APS editors, support of the in-group is more important than political ideology, and Baumeister’s in the in-group, (b) nobody from the journal ever went to the trouble of reading the article from beginning to end (I know I didn’t enjoy the task!), (c) if they did read the paper, they’re too clueless to have understood its political implications.

It was (c). I saw the Clark et al. submission as likely to be controversial, but race did not enter into my concern. It seems stupid now that others have pointed it out, but race did not cross my mind. I thought that the author’s thesis would be controversial due to nationalistic/cultural concerns (as in northern versus southern Europeans) and failed to consider its implications for racial issues. I take little comfort in the fact that I am not the only one with such blinders, but will nonetheless note that Action Editor Jamin Halberstadt, too, reports that the racial implications of this manuscript did not occur to him. None of the reviewers mentioned race. Again, this is not an excuse. It is an admission. [see Peggy McIntosh about the invisibility of racism to Whites.]

I am sorry to have been so clueless. All articles in Psych Science should clearly distinguish measures from constructs and be modest in extrapolating from findings, but Editors should take special pains with submissions that intersect with sensitive cultural issues. As Editor in Chief that was my duty and I failed in it.

In terms of science, Clark et al. may not be worse than some other articles published in Psych Science during my editorship. Psychology is a young science and there are trade-offs between different considerations that sometimes make it appropriate to publish reports despite methodological problems. But the combination of an extremely fraught social issue, methodological weaknesses, and problems in the writing makes for a toxic mess. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and so too do claims that are likely to be socially divisive and hurtful.

I strongly believe that racism is wrong and unjust and that it is a sad, pervasive, long-standing reality. I have unfairly benefited from racism. Millions of people of colour have been harmed by it. I am ideologically anti-racist but I am a product of my cultural background and my insensitivity to the racial implications of the Clark et al. manuscript betrays that fact. I am committed to working against racism in myself and in my culture, including within academia and its journals.

When I learned of the criticisms of Clark et al. on 12 June, I contacted APS and the new Editor in Chief of Psychological Science Patricia Bauer. In my view, Patricia’s response to this crisis has been exemplary. She wrote a thoughtful and insightful editorial that was to be distributed by APS on 19 June. Patricia invested a lot of thought, care, and consultation into crafting that piece, but that editorial was mooted by Cory Clark’s Tweet of 17 June requesting retraction. Patricia subsequently wrote a new editorial expressing her views on this matter and the steps she plans to take to address the issues. I thank her for her leadership and wish her the best.

About Steve Lindsay

Cognitive psychologist specializing in human memory.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *