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Judging Hans Eysenck

Peter Morris replies to a letter in our September edition.

05 September 2019

I have considerable sympathy with the call by Andrew M. Colman and colleagues (September 2019) for an audit of Hans Eysenck’s publications. On three occasions in my own literature reviewing I found claims by Eysenck about his published research that were, at best, very misleading.

However, a word of caution: There are substantial challenges when trying to judge a deceased member of the Society. I was a member of the Society’s Council at the beginning of the long-running saga over Cyril Burt when the first decision was taken that he had invented some of his data. Hearnshaw’s 1979 biography of Burt seemed to leave little doubt. However, ten years later, Joynson’s (1989) and Fletcher’s (1991) defence of Burt opened the whole issue again. The BPS had to re-consider its condemnation of Burt.

In the intervening time the Society had learned much from the introduction of the disciplinary procedures necessary for Chartered status. Then President Fraser Watts proposed that the Society should withdraw its judgement on Burt because he was not alive to defend himself. The evaluation of Burt was to be left to historians. At the time, in my role as Vice-President, I agreed, if somewhat reluctantly. As the person chosen to answer calls about the decision, I had to deal with a very angry editor of Nature who accused the Society of letting down science.

If the Society now decides to attempt a judgment of Eysenck it will be a very big undertaking, and one that may open the door to demands for similar evaluations of other psychologists that would be challenging in expense and time to conduct thoroughly. The uncertainty over how the accused might have defended themselves if they were alive would remain.

I was particularly unhappy about the implication in the letter that the Mars effect claimed by Gauquelin was ‘preposterous’ and should, therefore, have been rejected a priori on the basis of current views. Effects should be judged on the merits of research, not a priori on the current attitudes to its hypotheses. Nothing is more preposterous than quantum theory, but it is supported in all empirical tests and forms the basis of modern physics. When I began my PhD research on the effect of forming mental images to aid remembering it was often described as preposterous even though it turned out to be a very powerful technique. One of Eysenck’s strengths was that he did not reject a theory just because it did not fit with current views.

Eysenck’s Pelican books on psychology were what first inspired me to study psychology at university. My guess is that, as with Burt, there will be many psychologists who have strong opinions, both positive and negative, about Eysenck. Judging him would open up many positive and negative evaluations of him and the Society. I do, however, strongly support historical evaluations of his work that do not require the Society to pass judgement on the dead.

Professor Peter E. Morris