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Ethics and morality, History and philosophy

A role in auditing Hans Eysenck?

Andrew M. Colman, David F. Marks, Chris McVittie and Dr Richard Smith write, and the Society replies.

12 August 2019

A recent paper (Pelosi, 2019) has provided prima-facie evidence, some of it from documents disclosed in the process of litigation against tobacco companies, that Hans J. Eysenck was implicated in what is described as ‘one of the worst scandals in the history of science’ (p.434). We believe that it is now incumbent on the British Psychological Society to conduct an audit of his scientific publications.

Eysenck is one of the most prominent psychologists in the history of British psychology. When he died in 1997, he was the most cited living psychologist and the third most cited of all time, just behind Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, according to Rushton (2001). In Rushton’s opinion, he was ‘the single most important psychologist who ever lived’ (p.17). Although many psychologists would not go that far, there is no doubting his prominence in British psychology, in particular.

He should have been investigated long ago. In 1971, he published a scientifically shoddy book on Race, Intelligence and Education. In 1976, when the Sunday Times exposed the fraudulent research of his former mentor Sir Cyril Burt on the heritability of IQ, he initially leapt to Burt’s defence, although the statistical implausibility of Burt’s data was patently obvious in the IQ scores themselves. Burt had fabricated the IQ scores and had published them in articles, sometimes with fictitious co-authors. Eysenck described the Sunday Times allegations as ‘unspeakably mean’ and likened them to ‘McCarthyism, smear campaigns, and witch-hunting’, although he was later forced to concede that all the allegations were true. He dabbled frequently in pseudoscience, and in 1977, he began to write in support of Gauquelin’s preposterous Mars effect – the supposed statistical correlation between athletic eminence and the position of the planet Mars relative to the horizon at time and place of birth. Worst of all, in 1980, he published a book entitled The Causes and Effects of Smoking that sought to discredit the well-established causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. His later collaboration with Ronald Grossarth-Maticek on related medical issues led to the latest revelations in the Journal of Health Psychology.

We are living through a ‘replication crisis’ that threatens the reputation and scientific standing of psychology. The British Psychological Society has a statutory obligation, enshrined in its charter, ‘to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology’. These latest revelations make a scientific audit of Eysenck’s research publications imperative, with a view to retracting any found to be scientifically unsound or based on falsified data. The 61 publications arising from his collaboration with Grossarth-Maticek (Marks, 2019) are most urgently in need of inspection, but a wider examination of Eysenck’s research publications would be desirable. Failing to act would not only damage the reputation of the Society and the discipline of psychology, it could also cause harm to patients and members of the general public. The Society is uniquely placed to conduct a formal investigation and audit, and we call on them to act as soon as possible.

Andrew M. Colman, FBPsS, CPsychol
Professor of Psychology, University of Leicester

David F. Marks, FBPsS, CPsychol
Editor, Journal of Health Psychology

Chris McVittie, AFBPsS, CPsychol
Professor of Social Psychology, Queen Margaret University Edinburgh

Dr Richard Smith, CBE, FMedSci
Former editor BMJ and co-founder of COPE
(Committee on Publication Ethics)

Eysenck, H.J. (1991). Smoking, personality, and stress: Psychosocial factors in the prevention of cancer and coronary heart disease. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Eysenck, H.J., & Eaves, L. (1980). The causes and effects of smoking. London: Maurice Temple Smith.
Marks, D.F. (2019). The Hans Eysenck affair: Time to correct the scientific record. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 409–420. doi:10.1177/1359105318820931
Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: Revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421–439.
Rushton, J.P. (2001). A scientometric appreciation of H. J. Eysenck’s contributions to psychology. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(1), 17–39.

Editor's note: Find much more on 'the controversial Hans Eysenck' in our archive. This debate evolved over the coming months - find more contributions.

Society reply: The BPS is the professional body for psychology and psychologists in the UK, with a leading role in promoting the advancement of psychology and setting a high standard of professional education and knowledge.

Our code of ethics and conduct and code of human research ethics provide the framework for ethical decision making for our members. They make clear that research should be designed, reviewed and conducted in a way that ensures its quality, integrity and contribution to the development of knowledge and understanding.

However, the conduct of research lies with the academic institution which oversees the work carried out by its academics and we welcomed the investigation into this research carried out by King’s College, London.