Scalia on Psychological Advocacy

by on March 16th, 2005

Dissenting from this month’s Supreme Court decision ending the death penalty for juveniles who commit capital crimes before their 18th birthday, Antonin Scalia blasted not just the 5-4 Roper v. Simmons majority but  the American Psychological Association. It is inconsistent, Scalia said, for the APA to argue today that 16- and 17-year olds are not yet capable of the kind of mature decision-making that would justify a death sentence when the APA claimed in 1990 that juveniles are mature enough to decide, without notifying their parents, whether to have an abortion.

I don’t often share Scalia’s concerns, and I’m glad the Court ruled the way it did this time, but he does have a point about the APA’s liberal political agenda. I’ve made the same point myself in related contexts, though my concerns are the opposite of Scalia’s: I think APA’s science-based policy positions should be further to the left than liberal.

In Sunday’s Boston Globe, Christopher Shea’s Critical Faculties column examined the inconsistency issue, under the title “A scientific flip-flop?

Shea includes this:

But one of the academic psychologists most closely involved in drafting the recent amicus briefs, Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg, argues that there was no real contradiction…. Steinberg suggested that both claims about adolescent competence were true: In laboratory situations, he said, teenagers presented with hypothetical ethical and legal dilemmas perform equally well (or badly) as adults. But, he added, ”under conditions of high arousal and social influence, what most people familiar with the literature would say is that the maturity of decision-making breaks down.” ….Abortion decisions, Steinberg asserts, are made in reflective circumstances, with a doctor’s guidance, whereas the decision to commit a crime is usually a quick, emotionally driven one that often takes place under peer pressure.

Some psychologists, however, find such arguments tortuous. As the brief was being drafted, Clemson University’s Gary B. Melton, a leading scholar in adolescent psychology, argued that the APA was cutting scientific corners to make a political point. ”Most of the differences that one can observe across adolescents are between early and late adolescence, not between the 17- and 18-year-olds-which was the issue in this case,” Melton said …. The main limiting factor in older teenagers’ judgment is shorter life experience (still, no small thing), not biology, he thinks…. Melton still thinks adolescents should be spared the death penalty. ”It is laudable that we finally ended up joining the rest of the world community, even if not necessarily with the best of arguments,” he says.

Shea emailed last week to ask if he could interview me for his piece and apologized later for not having time to get back to me. I’m glad he spoke to Gary Melton, though, who directed the University of Nebraska Psychology/Law Program where I did my postdoctoral work in the 1980s. Melton’s willingness to take a values-based stand despite his dim view of APA’s interpretation of the science strikes me as refreshingly honest and politically on target.

Shea also writes:

Scalia’s charges show why many social-science organizations decline to take positions on controversial social issues: The scientific method coexists uneasily with the one-sided, cherry-picking argumentative approach of lawyers….

But as I see it, that many social scientists maintain the facade of scientific objectivity doesn’t mean their private positions and assumptions don’t affect their work. Here’s where I would have gone further than Melton to emphasize mainstream psychology’s inherently political nature, not just in legal briefs but throughout the broader institutions of research, publishing, teaching, and therapy. Mainstream psychology’s commitment to societal assumptions that strengthen an unsatisfying, unjust status quo are, of course, subject to much dissection by critical psychologists. The distinction between law and social science is not quite as sharp as Shea believes.

On the specific issue of teenage decision making and responsibility, I think Melton has it right. Though I don’t know if he would put it this way, the logic of his position is that adolescents by age 15 or 16 are mature enough to make more decisions for themselves, and mature enough also to live with the consequences. As a society, though, we move in two directions at once. We treat teenagers as children to keep them in line, claiming they’re not old enough to live on their own, vote, sign contracts, drink, or do many other things. So we don’t really prepare them to do these things, either. Yet when they break the law or otherwise get in trouble, we demand they be treated as adults because they’re old enough to know better.

Scalia complains about APA’s inconsistency, but he seems to want the opposite inconsistency to remain intact.

Dennis Fox