Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Rorschach Test, Wikipedia, and Psychologists' Outrage

There was an interesting article regarding research and wikipedia in the Times today. Specifically, the 10 images of the Rorschach exam up on the entry's page, as well as the most common answers offered to each of the inkblots. This seemingly innocuous posting has led to outrage and the threat of lawsuits from psychologists, who fear that the publication of the most common answers may lead, among other things, to patients "gaming" the test in the future, as well as undoing decades of papers and conclusions based upon the Rorschach test (which, I did not realize, is "one of the oldest continually used psychological assessment tests"). Wikipedia's defenders argue that the images are public domain (the copyright expired years ago), and suggest that lawsuits from companies that charge $110 to $185 for the images should be clearly risible.

Admitting my knowledge of the field of psychology is limited to an undergrad course and some readings in grad school, I have to say that I side with the Wikipedia defenders on this. Even if it is a useful tool in helping determine patients' psychological states, it cannot be the only one. I also fail to see how the publication of the images now undoes the validity of the work of "tens of thousands" of papers that base their arguments, results, conclusions, etc., on the Rorschach test, as one of the opponents suggests will happen. Likewise, I don't buy that new images can't be created because there's no "normative data" about them. If that were the case, then psychology could never use any "new" methods and tests, because the "normative data" to legitimate them is always absent at the point of initiation. Finally, as a good historian, I don't really buy into the whole "scientific" arguments of the psychologists. One of my pet peeves is when history gets lumped in with the social sciences. You can easily say that the social sciences and history unquestionably influence and dialogue with each other frequently. Yet the whole notion that there can be some "scientific" "truth" behind a lot of the social sciences is....suspect, and psychology is one of the grosser offenders in this regard.

The one thing the article never really gets into is the answers, though. Both the psychologists wanting the images removed and the site's defenders really avoid the fact that "common" answers are included. It strikes me that putting the images up by themselves in no way substantively leads to patients being able to "game" the test, but including common answers could influence the outcome, I suppose. Yet this complaint doesn't really register in either the psychologists' attacks nor in the site's defenders' arguments, which would make me think it's really not so important after all, and that it really is more a matter of control than of damaging research.

I don't think this spells doom for people who are issuing new research (like, say, oh, I don't know, publications on universities in Brazil during the dictatorship...), primarily because newer publications remain in copyright, and if anybody really wanted to learn what somebody was saying without buying the book, they can easily use a library. Still, it raises some interesting questions and debates over the role of research ("scientific" or otherwise) and publications/summarizations/etc. on public sites.