In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, a few news organizations have broadcast remarks from various “armchair psychologists,” who have purported to analyze the gunman without ever meeting him. The Columbia Journalism Review just published a comment about this “irresponsible speculation.” What ABC News recently did along these lines violates the “Goldwater rule,” an ethical standard adopted by the American Psychiatric Association after some psychiatrists signed a political advertisement that questioned the mental stability of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
It may seem obvious that mental-health professionals should not purport to diagnose people they have never met. But that is precisely what the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and its Executive Director, Pamela Freyd, have been doing since the organization began. Of course, Mrs. Freyd, whose training is in education, has no credentials in mental health and certainly is not subject to the ethical rules for psychiatrists. But that makes the practice of “armchair psychology” all the worse. The FMSF has frequently labeled cases as involving “false memory” based entirely on claims of the accused and without the benefit of talking to, let alone examining, the person who supposedly has this “syndrome.” Their claims about the number of “cases” of “false memory syndrome” are also based on this flawed approach. The aftermath of the Aurora shootings gives us the opportunity to recognize how much of what the FMSF did over the years falls into the same category as the “irresponsible speculation” pointed out by the Columbia Journalism Review.