This is the Age of Science, So Let’s Crunch the Numbers!

scientists_studying_psychologistsThe Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners has come under a lot of criticism recently, but how can we tell if it’s justified? Well, this is the Age of Science, so let’s do some research!

May 25, 2015: This is a work in progress. I’m putting the framework here and providing access to the raw data. As I work my way through the data, I will post conclusions. I will also add links and references over time.

June 2, 2015: I’ve uploaded a spreadsheet with most of the data entry complete, but not the analysis. See the update at the end of this article.

Purpose of the Experiment

To see where the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners (OBPE) lies on the spectrum between scrupulous, even-handed fairness and the reckless, biased, abuse of power.

Background About the Fairness Problem

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
— Lord Acton

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

These guys were all peaceniks …They became like Nazis. It shows how easy it is for good people to become perpetrators of evil.
— Psychology Prof. Philip Zimbardo, recalling his 1971 Stanford “Guards and Prisoners” experiment.

The Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners (OBPE) has been accused of a pattern of bias. In particular, they are accused of treating PhD licensed psychologists lightly, and everyone else harshly.

As healing professionals, any abuse of power would be particularly odious. As licensed psychologists (six of the nine board members are licensed PhD psychologists), failing to compensate for psychological factors that are likely to cloud their judgment would show a lack of professional competence. If trained psychologists and healing professionals cannot discharge their disciplinary duties in an impartial way, then who can?

Statutory Environment

In Zimbardo’s landmark 1971 experiment, student volunteers were divided into “guards” and “prisoners.” During the course of the experiment, the guards became increasingly abusive and the prisoners became increasingly distressed. This seems to be a set of behaviors that can be reliably evoked if the environment is set up in just the wrong way.

Oregon statute for occupational licensing boards, such as the Board of Psychologist Examiners, can be criticized on Zimbardo grounds. The licensing boards operate without any kind of routine oversight, and, in an unusual twist, they act as judge, jury, and executioner in disciplinary actions. True, contested case hearings are held in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who prepares a proposed ruling. But the Board can simply ignore this ruling and create a final ruling of their own. (See ORS 183.464.) This means that the Board operates without supervision, in an echo chamber, where whatever they say goes, unless the defendant goes to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which few do.

This means that, for practical purposes, Oregon’s occupational licensing boards can do what they like. They can destroy a licensee’s career with near-certainty of success. And the Board’s power to arbitrarily revoke licenses discourages licensees from criticizing the Board.

Since one can expect those with power to use and abuse it unless they are provided with enough oversight to keep them on the straight and narrow, it seems reasonable to expect that occupational licensing boards in Oregon will show obvious signs of injustice.

It seems reasonable … but is it true? That’s what the data should show.

Hypothesis

While there are many ways of looking at fairness, only some are amenable to numerical analysis.

Remember, the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners always contains a majority of licensed PhD psychologists (currently 6 of 9), plus a minority of  “public members” who are fully outside the psychology profession. But the Board’s disciplinary actions are not restricted to PhD licensees, but to other groups as well.

My hypothesis:

  • If the Board is fair and even-handed, its disciplinary decisions will show the same patterns when applied to people like themselves (licensed PhD psychologists) and those in other categories (MA Psychologist Associates, license-track applicants, unlicensed practitioners, etc.)
  • On the other hand, if the Board is biased, it will treat PhD psychologists favorably, while treating others in a more punitive manner.
  • Also, if power corrupts in a long-lasting way, then the rate of misconduct (reflected in disciplinary actions such as license revocations) may be higher for PhD psychologists after serving on the Board , compared to those who have not. (Admittedly, such an effect may be masked by Old Boys’ Network effects.)

Experimental Method

The experimental method is simple:

  • Examine the disciplinary decisions of the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners for the five years 2010-2014.
  • Categorize defendants as one of: licensed psychologists (PhD), licensed psychologist associates (MA), residents (PhD) under a 24-month exemption, license-track applicants, and unlicensed practitioners.
  • Categorize complaints as: Involving allegations of harm to an actual client, potential harm to potential clients, or technical violations not directly related to client sessions, such as incorrect word usage, missed filing deadlines, and so on.
  • Categorize penalties as: Reprimand, fine, probation, suspension, revocation (along with the size of the penalties).
  • Categorize decision types as stipulated order (an agreement), final order (client contested the decision), default order (no defense was made).

If the decisions are fair, then one would expect:

  1. Regardless of the category a defendant is in, similar offenses should carry similar penalties.
  2. Stipulated orders should represent roughly the same percentage of disciplinary actions across different categories.
  3. Offenses that cause actual harm carry the highest penalties, followed by clear potential for harm, while purely technical offenses should carry the lowest penalties.
  4. First offenses should carry lower average penalties than subsequent, similar offenses.
  5. Default orders (where the defendant did not contest the proceedings) should carry similar penalties to contested proceedings, since, if “fairness” is contingent on the presence of an attorney,  that’s a different kind of fairness from what’s being measured here.
  6. Rates of discipline for those who have served on the Board should be similar to, or lower than, those who have not.

 

Source Data for OBPE Actions

I acquired the source data from an OBPE repository. These files are quite hard to find via the OBPE Web site, but some diligent Googling revealed them. I downloaded them all, since OBPE files have been vanishing recently.

I combined all these files into a single file and ran Adobe Acrobat’s text-recognition feature on them to make sure they were searchable. The resulting file is more than 10 MB long.

Download it here: All Disciplinary Actions by the OBPE (Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners)

It’s arranged alphabetically by last name

Let the data crunching begin!

Update, June 2, 2015

I’ve created a spreadsheet that links back to all the original disciplinary actions. You can download the spreadsheet here.

Notes:

  • The spreadsheet currently contains only the source data on which I’ll base my analysis. I’ll do the actual analysis within the same spreadsheet. All my data and all my calculations will thus be fully public.
  • Comments and criticism are most welcome.
  • The spreadsheet columns are filled in for cases within the last ten years. Older ones, not so much, as I’m not planning on crunching that data anytime soon.
  • Every row is a disciplinary action, and each one has a link to the actual source document.
  • I intended to see what happened in cases where harm to a client was alleged, compared with those where it wasn’t. This isn’t going to work as intended, because, in spite of their mandate to “protect the public,” the Board rarely clarifies whether they’re concerned about actual harm, or are just mechanically enforcing rules without regard to harm. So I’ve modified my plan, and will simply note whether a real live client is even mentioned in the case, thus at least raising the possibility that someone was harmed. This means I have to go through all the documents again. Sigh.
  • The maximum fines allowed by law changed during the period in question, and I’ll update the “Max Fine” column accordingly.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *