Ctrl C, Ctrl V

June 20, 2008 at 8:13 pm (Bad Science, Media) (, , )

Psychiatrist* Dr Raj Persaud has been in the news this week following revelations that parts of articles and a book he had written were plagiarised. Despite admitting to plagiarising material, Dr Persaud “denied that his actions were dishonest and were liable to bring his profession into disrepute” (BBC report). Persaud has previously had articles withdrawn from both the BMJ and Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry due to “a cutting and pasting error” in his Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry article which, apparently, had led to the accidental omission of relevant references and unattributed use of text for his BMJ article. The allegations of plagiarism in Persaud’s book relate to parts of a Professor Bentall’s work being copied into the book. The report of the disrepute hearing is also on the BBC and the result of the hearing is also on the website.

 The first thing that strikes me here is his denial of dishonesty. I can’t see how anyone can claim that copying another’s work and passing it off as your own does not show dishonesty. The panel determined that “[his] actions were dishonest in accordance with the accepted definition of dishonesty in these proceedings” and I don’t see how they could have come to any verdict other than the one quoted here. If I were the type of person to indulge in amateur psychology, I might pontificate on whether or not Dr Persaud was in denial. Which leads me to my next point.

In my view, Raj Persaud did much to popularise televised psychologising and I’m not altogether sure this was a good thing. We now see psychologists on shows like Big Brother – which is the topic of this Guardian article. The writer of this article, David Batty [not the ex-Leeds United midfielder, just in case you were wondering] makes the point that:

According to the British Psychological Society’s code of conduct, psychologists should “hold the interest and welfare of those in receipt of their services to be paramount at all times and ensure that the interests of participants in research are safeguarded”.

Batty asks the question “if Big Brother’s expert psychologists’ main role is to help create scenarios likely to result in ‘entertaining’ – read abrasive – behaviour, should ethics compel them to quit the reality TV show?” Actually, that’s the sub-headline of Batty’s piece, so it might possibly have been written by an editor rather than Batty. I’ll assume the question was Batty’s though, since no-one else is credited. That’s the thing about reading articles – if you see only one name, you naturally assume the words are all their own. Which is why people should cite their sources where possible. And a few quotation marks wouldn’t go amiss. But I digress. The point I was slowly getting round to making here was that Persaud helped popularise something that, while perhaps not actively harmful, might be unhelpful or possibly even neglectful as suggested in the article I linked to. The TV psychologists on Big Brother had some serious questions asked of them in the Guardian article and other psychologists have also faced criticism over their TV appearances. I can recall hearing criticism of Tanya Byron, but in this Daily Mail piece on TV Psychology shows of the ‘parenting’ genre Byron was herself criticising the shows. Not to mention making an admission:

Dr Tanya Byron warned that a growing industry in parenting programmes risked exploiting troubled families for entertainment. […] In an interview, the TV psychologist admitted a ‘degree of responsibility’ for the growth of parenting shows.

Well, at least she has recognised there are potential dangers in making and broadcasting these shows and acknowledges that she bears some responsibility. It would be refreshing to see Persaud and others follow suit. There is some criticism of Byron’s TV appearances in this blog post by Paul Groves.

Something I found interesting when reading the criticism of Persaud following the allegations was that when an individual commits an act that is considered by the general public to be unethical and, perhaps more specifically, considered to be somehow ‘cheating’, [subjectively] there seems to me to be greater interest than when the individual is engaged in a practice that might be unethical or inappropriate or wrong in some other way but does not seem to be considered ‘cheating’ by the general public.**

Persaud was involved in popularising TV psychology [and psychology in the media in general] – i.e., entertaining people by pontificating on the mental states of others. It almost seemed as if he was the media’s on-call psychologist at times, so often was Raj to be heard holding forth about the latest celebrity to have public difficulties. I always felt a certain distaste for this kind of ‘distance diagnosis’ of people and in particular, I worried about how someone seeing a psychologist supposedly unravelling their motivations and inner thoughts and feelings would cope with such public exposure of these drives and emotions. As well as possibly having a negative effect on these celebrities, it’s possible that Persaud legitimised to a degree our own nosiness and tendency to guess what people are thinking or why they are doing something and to then discuss their behaviour with others. This type of behaviour could possibly spill over into bullying in the workplace. I think in the incident involving Gordon Brown and the ‘unnamed advisor’ working for Blair, the remarks about psychological flaws were appalling and while I don’t doubt that remarks of this nature would be bandied about regardless of TV psychologists I certainly don’t think that any psychologist should put themselves in a position where they may legitimise such behaviour.

*Media psychologists and media psychiatrists both seem to be available for comment. I’ve used psychologist as a general term through most of this blog post, as not all of the people I am referring to will be psychiatrists like wot Dr Raj Persaud is. Apologies to any apoplectic psychiatrists or psychologists who happen to be reading this.

**This reminded me of The Media’s MMR Hoax. The media and general public only seemed to really give up on the discredited MMR-Autism hypothesis when they found out about Wakefield’s undisclosed £55,000 legal aid funding and the “hundreds of thousands of pounds in expert witness fees in the compensation case” – BMJ or the perceived failure to uphold proper medical ethics (i.e., the birthday party blood donation issue). The mountain of evidence that pointed to Wakefield being wrong, the fact that Wakefield had been informed that the positive results he had obtained were false positives… the ‘scientific’ evidence seems to be less important to people than the ‘personal’ evidence – which is one reason why the MMR hoax took off in the first place. [Left-Brain/Right-Brain cover the PCR evidence here: Wakefiled, MMR and PCR]



  1. brainduck said,

    Pedant – Dr Tanya Byron is a Clinical Psychologist, which is a legally protected title with 3 years of post-grad training on top of a psychology degree (DClinPsych, after which you can call yourself ‘Dr’ in the PhD sense).
    ‘Psychologist’ isn’t a protected title, I can call myself one & so can you if you want. It’s a bit like the dietician / nutritionist thing (except that there are lots of other legitimate sorts of psychologist than ClinPsych, & a first degree in psychology actually teaches you useful stuff).
    Psychiatrists are medical doctors, of course, and psychotherapists are something else entirely & I don’t like them very much.
    Byron also stopped making parenting programmes after she decided they were getting too exploitative & sensationalist. She’s one of the few media psych* I’ve much time for.

  2. draust said,

    Well, Big Brother psychologist (and ubiquitous media psychologist of choice) Prof Geoff Beattie is certainly a psychologist – head of an entire School of Psychology, indeed, not to mention Fellow and Medallist of the British Psychological Society.

    It is a tricky one. Universities and professions are keen on increasing “public awareness of what they do”, and indeed Univs nowadays are told their funding specifically depends on this, among other things. So there is understandably a tendency by the institutions and professions to see public visibility as a good thing, unless it is a real train-wreck.

    I must admit, though, I do wonder where people like Geoff Beattie, and indeed Raj Persaud, would draw the line. The problem for the individuals is basically knowing when to stop. The more of this stuff they do, the more in demand they become (at least if they are successful), and for more things, as the TV producers try to “push the envelope” and come up with newer – and usually sillier – ideas. The professional-turned-performer by now has an agent, they have an increasing income stream from their media stuff, they have positive write-ups, professional flatterers on hand, and they have a “public”. The temptation to suffer a loss of perspective and not know when to say “no” is clear.

    On the specific subject of Tanya Byron, I thought her first couple of programmes were very good – though I am no psychologist – and my sister-in-law that teaches difficult primary schoolkids with usually-not-coping parents would have told you that most of her kids’ families would have benefitted greatly from watching either Little Angels or the House of Tiny Tearaways. But….the French and Saunders Christmas Special? Co-writing a fictional show with Jennifer Saunders? OK, those are a bit separate from the psychology stuff, but…. It is a fine line, basically. As Brainduck says, Byron seems to have retained an awareness of the dangers. Some other professionals-turned-media-performers over the years seem to have been less clued-up in this regard.

  3. Rich Scopie said,

    If he’s useful on the old ctrl-c / ctrl-v, he could probably get a job as a web developer…



  4. jdc325 said,

    More Raj news. Feel slightly sorry for him, TBH.

  5. jdc325 said,

    re this point I made: “I always felt a certain distaste for this kind of ‘distance diagnosis’ of people”

    Tanya Byron does diagnosis at a distance. Via teh BadScience miniblog, here’s a piece in the Times: Byron says “Your son sounds very unwell and needs support and treatment. He is clearly suffering from severe depression and acute paranoia” based on a description of the boy’s behaviour furnished by the parents. The comments that I can see for this article all refer to OCD (unlike Tanya’s article).

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