Thursday, March 29, 2007

Christian Ethics in Research

I've been working on my master's research project over the last few months and have, at times, lost sight of the bigger picture. But one thing I hope is that my Christian faith will be apparent by the quality of research I do, both scientifically and ethically. You see, as a Christian, I believe that I am not only called to follow ethical rules (like respecting confidentiality, not fudging my results, etc.) but also that I should work as if working for the Lord (Col. 3:23). For research that means researching topics that are beneficial to practitioners and researchers, having sound methodology, and doing a proper literature review. Thankfully I'm being supervised in such a way that these should not be an issue.

As my research develops, I will certainly update you on my progress. Thankfully I'm working on a topic that I am excited about. Perhaps this post can be a reminder to you to consider how you can better honor God in your work. From tent-makers to cupbearers, the Bible is full of hard working individuals whose work habits flow from their relationship with God. Hopefully, more Christians might find joy in doing the work that is before them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reconciling Individual Differences

One difficulty in working as a therapist - well it's a difficulty in being a person, too - is that you have to learn to see things from a perspective that you aren't really used to. I was reminded of that in my diversity lecture this morning. I am well aware that I can be a bit pig-headed at times. I'm ruthless about being on time to things and expect the same of others. I expect others to listen to what I have to say but don't extend the same courtesy.

The trouble is that I can become so stuck in my way of thinking that I can miss the perspectives of others. I think there are two parts to it. The first part is that I like to be right because it validates my judgment and makes me feel safe. The second part is that I like to be admired for being right. The problem is that I can sometimes only acquire that respect by proving that the other person is wrong. And I pursue these ends despite all evidence to the contrary. This is simply self-centeredness.

I believe that loving others requires us to humbly put down our entitlement to be correct. We must begin listening and learning from others. I try to remind myself every day to surrender my right to be right. Are there any areas in your life where you struggle with seeing things from another's point of view? What is keeping you from listening?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Men Versus Women

In my neuropsychology class that I recently finished, we learned about sex differences in cognitive functioning. The book published the results of a number of studies done on different areas of cognitive and motor abilities. So the question you've been dying to know - who is more gifted, men or women? - has finally been answered. See the results below:

Men scored points (do better) in: target throwing and catching, mental rotation, spatial navigation, geographical knowledge, and mathematical reasoning.

Women scored points in: fine motor skills, spatial memory, computation, sensitivity to sensory stimuli, perceptual speed, sensitivity to facial and body expression, visual recognition memory, fluency, and verbal memory.

Men: 5 Women: 9

Of course the scoreboard is in jest. But it illustrates three key points.

1. We put values on skills. Most people would argue with the results, saying that certain skills are more important than others. But this way of thinking has historically led to men being considered better than women. What if we learned to value skills other than strength and mathematical ability as important? What if we learned to value diversity?

2. We love to be associated with the "better group." This has more to do with your reaction to the findings than the findings itself. I'm betting that you did not passively interpret the results. If you are a man, I can hardly imagine that you did not question at least some of the findings. If you are a woman, I'm sure you feel at least slightly empowered by the findings.

3. Men aren't necessarily smarter than women. In the past, women were thought to be incapable of handling complex thought because they were too fragile. While women have gained headway in working professions, proving this to be far from true, there still remains some stereotypes that they are not as smart as men. However, research seems to indicate otherwise.

As a final warning, there is more variability within than between the sexes so don't take it as gospel that one sex will always be better than the other sex at that skill. The reality is far from that. In fact, I don't even know exactly how much better each sex is than the other for the skills. My point was really to provoke thought, not to show who is better.

See Kolb and Whishaw (2003). Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Moral Appeals

In my last post, the issue came up about where we can look to find our moral values. I am reminded that as a Christian I have inherited a moral tradition from a number of arenas: the church I grew up in, my family, the Bible, plus a number of others. Each of these, and the following, have a number of difficulties around them, as will become apparent below:

Should we base our morals on what promotes a functioning society? Something could be wrong depending on whether or not it allows society to function well. Works well in explaining why we shouldn't steal but not for issues like exploitation of the poor. This might be considered the utilitarian viewpoint. The problem is that this ignores the individual in favor of the group and ignores the possibility of God and an ultimate morality.

What about on personal experience? Many are influenced to believe homosexuality is immoral because they have known (personally or through the media) homosexuals who were promiscuous and perhaps a little bizarre. Then there are people who have known homosexuals who were nice people and they are more likely to believe that homosexuality is not immoral. If experience is our guide then we claim that our life determines what is universally right or wrong and that is narcissistic in its own right. However, given that we cannot escape it, it can be useful in shaping our beliefs if we put experience in its proper place.

Genetics? As I said in my last post, we can't argue morals based on our design. Just because we have some sort of biological inclination towards some behavior doesn't make it right.

General opinion? I think that's where most people appeal for their morals. Didn't racism become wrong for most of the US only when it became unpopular? The problem is that morality is therefore completely relative.

Divine revelation? Some have argued that the Holy Spirit has made it clear to them that homosexuality is not a sin and others are saying the converse. Well when you have opposite sides claiming the Holy Spirit is on their side, you begin to wonder if the Holy Spirit is even involved at all in their conclusions.

The Bible? Besides the fact that most people don't see it as a moral authority, there is also the problem that there are Christians who believe that the Bible does not say that homosexuality (in terms of two consenting adults) is wrong. While I think that the Bible is the best place to look for authority, since it is the Word of God, the interpretation of it goes through fallible human minds.

In the end, we find ourselves in the precarious position of having to argue for morality with the full knowledge that we don't have a firm grasp on what truth really is. Unlike the anonymous commenter on the last post, I believe we need to look at more than just what the Bible says. We need to look at how the church has traditionally interpreted the Bible, we need to look to reason, we need to our own experiences and then we can humbly realize that we do not know without doubt what is right and wrong.

While that is an uncomfortable position, we must realize that our highest calling is not to protect a moral system but is, in Jesus' own words, to "love one another." In this light we see that we ought to act based on our best judgments as to what the Bible says is truth but keep our interpretations humble. Loving others means doing what we think is best for them, and while we can sometimes argue that our moral tradition would be best for them, we need to love them as servants not as ones who are in a position to command them how to live.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Is Homosexuality Genetic? A Theological Response

I just read an article on MSN about Southern Baptist Seminary president, Rev. Albert Mohler, Jr., who wrote an article on how homosexuality is likely to have a genetic basis and then raises the question of whether or not it would be right, if it were possible, to treat the babies with hormones to change their sexual orientation back to heterosexual. A provocative thought, to say the least. He's managed to anger both conservative Christians, who think homosexuality is a choice, AND gay rights, by suggesting a "treatment." I didn't read what Mohler actually wrote but it seemed like he merely wanted to dialog about it. I would like to address why I think a genetic cause for homosexuality does not mean that homosexuality is moral.

Do I believe homosexuality has a genetic component? Yes. Current research strongly supports this position. (Actually, research supports the finding that homosexuality has a biological basis - more likely to be associated with hormones than genes... but that can get confusing to the average layperson) Does that make homosexual behavior moral? No.

If morality is simply dictated by our biological makeup, then we have surrendered any belief in personal agency. It is each person's responsibility to do the most with their life that they can. Alcoholism is perhaps the simplest example, if there is a gene for alcoholism does that make it okay to be an alcoholic? Of course not. If there was a gene for pedophilia, would we excuse it? Absolutely not.

Now I would hate to insult homosexuals by equating them with pedophiles so let me make it clear that that is not my goal. I simply want to illustrate that genes = moral is a fallacy. It is unfortunate that both gay rights advocates and conservative Christians have fallen for this simplistic thinking. So how do we judge if homosexuality is immoral or not? If we cannot appeal to the "natural order" (whatever that is) then to what or to whom do we appeal? I cannot answer that question [for those who do not follow Christ (added 3/16)], all I can do is show you that we cannot appeal to science. Science is not ultimate truth.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Changing From Information to Transformation

I was looking at a site on Christianity and Mental Health called Mind and Soul and came across an article on the need for churches to change their approach on how they teach their congregation. The situation that is described is one that I have certainly felt - being told what's wrong with you but not how to fix it. The truth is that even if I do learn something new, if I don't apply it then I will forget it.

I think one sentence sums it all up well, "Most people don't need information, they need techniques to help them change and a supporting culture in which to do (so)." I think that is what many of us long for. The opportunity to grow in a supportive and instructive environment.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Is My Education Making Me a Better Person?

If you count Kindergarten, I have been in school for 20 years. And since I still have four years ahead of me until I get my doctorate, I guess you can say that I'm a believer in education. But while I believe all this education will open up career options for me, I still have to question whether or not I am becoming a better person out of all this time in school. I regularly visit a blog by a psychologist who is a professor at Biblical Seminary and he wrote a personal apology for a statement he made in a class. One sentence captures the message well, "Seminary education can be rather dangerous."

As a student of both psychology and theology I can relate. I can often feel the pull towards smugness and pride whenever I get into a conversation on either topic and perhaps I should apologize to those who I have vainly given my opinion to as fact (and sometimes rather insensitively). Education can make you feel empowered and that can indeed be dangerous. I think it's good to be critical - to know your weaknesses - and that is no less true for ventures where you are pouring your time and money into. I must critically ask myself if my education is making me a better person.

I've noticed, paradoxically, that learning makes me both more open-minded and closed-minded. At times writing position papers, learning theory, or criticizing theology can make me choose sides and suddenly my views are the "right" views. But there are also times when I, as a result of my psychological training, can see that where a person is coming from is more important than what they are saying. I can see their side because I can sense their passion, pain, or fear about an issue. It can often depend on my mood whether or not I am close-minded with others and perhaps the work ahead of me is to better control my mood.

Beyond that, I believe that the trials of being evaluated and stretched have forced me to develop a better work ethic. While in college I could skate along with a mediocre work ethic, I find myself needing (and occasionally desiring) to work hard and become the best psychologist I can be. I also have learned how to balance my life with school, work, social events, and time to relax. And of course everything I learn about people in my classes I can apply to myself.

So, indeed I would say: yes, my education is making me a better person. But I know that it doesn't always do so. In the past two years I have managed to stave off burnout and hopelessness (for the most part). Perhaps that is because in those dark times where I feel so stressed out, I usually take a minute and see how this is all shaping me to become the person I want to be. If I did not have those times of renewal, and the people who encourage me on, I could easily become bitter and my education would be my downfall. Although I wish at times I could be in a steady 40 hour week and making money, I am thankful for the opportunity that has been set before me. God has brought me this far, he will lead me on.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Prescription Privileges for Psychologists

In the last month, a bill has been introduced to the California state assembly regarding prescription privileges for psychologists. Similar bills have already passed in New Mexico and Louisiana. Now, in case you didn't know, psychiatrists are medical doctors and have the ability to prescribe medications while psychologists do not. However, this bill would change that by allowing psychologists to gain prescription privileges (RxP) by undergoing a two-year post-doctoral education that involves both didactic instruction and practicum. The American Psychological Association is lobbying for this bill to pass under the auspices that psychologists can help meet the needs of underserved populations, particularly in rural areas. However, it seems that the true purpose is to gain a clear distinction for psychologists from other mental health workers - in other words RxP is for economic purposes. The bill is opposed by psychiatrists and some other members of the medical field.

I want to bring up a few key issues why I think it is a bad idea for California to allow psychologists to gain RxP.

1. There is little evidence to show that psychologists can provide quality medical care. 50% of all mental illnesses are associated with an underlying general medical condition. Psychologists may not be able to understand all of the nuances of these conditions to treat properly. The real problem is we do not know if psychologists will provide quality care, we should wait to see how it goes in New Mexico and Louisiana.
2. The reasons for pursuing RxP, particularly meeting the needs for clients in rural areas, may be a fallacy because it seems that most psychologists who pursue the further education will want to work in urban and suburban areas.
3. The training program may be too short to properly train. The APA is lobbying for a training plan but the plan is much different from the one that the Department of Defense used to train psychologists to prescribe. Again, it's a question of knowing whether or not it will work.
4. The occupation of the psychologist will work best if there is unity within the members. RxP will cause a disunity as psychologists choose to either pursue RxP or get left behind. As a field, psychologists need to stick together.

In the end I recognize that there are problems with the system we currently have. There are not enough psychiatrists and most prescribing is done by general practitioners who have little training in psychopharmacology (i.e. meds for mental health issues). This is a problem. But I don't think RxP is the solution at this time. Psychologists already have the ability to gain RxP through gaining an advanced nursing degree, which takes about three years, so proposing a separate avenue is premature at this point in time.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Critique of Christian Apologetics

In high school I had a stage where I got very interested in apologetics. If you don't know what it is, Christian apologetics is making an argument for Christianity based on logic and reason. But I no longer get much comfort from most of the philosophical arguments that are made. Why? Here's a few reasons:
1) A great deal of apologetics is based on "straw-man" arguments. By straw man I mean that Christians will misrepresent the secular viewpoint as being simplistic and then will make easy work of demolishing "their" viewpoint.
2) Apologetics is often based on poor interpretations of science. I will limit my argument to evolution. Evolution does not mean that humans were created by chance. Evolution is a systematic law that makes sense. One can argue that it would take tremendous time to come together or that their would be roadblocks to evolution (like human consciousness) but that is based on solid science. Again, this is creating a straw man but it is particularly aggravating to me when science is portrayed as being irrational.
3) Arguments often rely on intuition and pathos. The one I hate is "I can't believe we evolved from monkeys." Like it or not, that doesn't influence it's truth.
4) Most importantly, apologetics look primarily at the God of creation but not at the God of Subsistence. Sure, we can argue for a first cause of the universe till the cows come home, but where is God in the world today? In a world where science seems to have an explanation for everything, where does God fit in? I want to know that God is present in my life and hears my prayers.

While I've found great comfort in a limited amount of apologetics, particularly reasons to believe in the resurrection of Christ (particularly relevant considering the latest archaeological "findings"), I am in a place where I must rely in part on a non-rational faith. Instead of knowing the truth, I must live the truth. I do not know that God truly exists but I have chosen to live His life, accepting the truth as best I can, because the one thing I do know is that my life is better when I live it as he revealed it to us. I cherish that Paul commanded us to be "stewards of God's mysteries." (1 Corinthians 4:1)