Monday, December 22, 2008

The despicable Paul Britton

Of the largely pseudo-science 'psychology' and it's slightly more dignified variation 'psychiatry' I've never had a high opinion. Crass as it may sound I'm convinced that, if progress in the hard sciences and technology had been in the hands of the men in white coats and their seniors with the chaise longue, I wouldn't be sitting here typing away on a computer keyboard. Mathematics, mathematical statistics, hard methodologies, ardent corroboration and combining rigorous empiricism with rationalism just isn't these guys' strong suit.

But as a pseudo-science it remains perhaps the perennial favourite in the vox populi. After all, who isn't fascinated (dumbfounded would be a more appropriate way of putting it) by the workings of the mind? And because the 'science' that concerns itself with this wondrous but still largely poorly understood organ avoids formulas, abstract representations and at first glance impenetrable models (as hard science does), reverting instead to woolly formulations prone to multiple interpretations (no matter how self-contradictory), shards of half-familiar Greek mythology and a geekish but apparently understandable tone, the common gardener often comes away with the impression he has learned something of significance. A bit like that popular Uncle of yours when he expounds on some intriguing story: true or complete baloney, you're inclined to listen and believe. The astonishing popularity of fictional crime programs in which 'forensic profilers' solve 'cold cases' and the most horrific of crimes almost single-handedly are another testimony to the credulity of the audience when it comes to all matters 'psychological'.

It should come as no surprise then that sometimes things go horribly wrong: when the naive are easily duped things often do. Ask Colin Stagg.

Nick Cohen - The Observer

A man condemned by psychobabble

In September 1994, I went with Ian Jack, the then editor of the Independent on Sunday, to present awkward questions to a senior officer at New Scotland Yard. A few days earlier, Mr Justice Ognall had accused his force of seeking to incriminate a suspect with "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind". Its attempt to convict Colin Stagg of the murder of Rachel Nickell was "misconceived", "wholly reprehensible" and "redolent with danger".

"You blundered," we said.

"No. Absolutely not."

The authoritative expression on his face has stayed with me ever since. He was convinced that Stagg was guilty and we had to pinch ourselves to stop him convincing us as well. He showed no hint of doubt, no sign of suppressed panic or remorse.

On the contrary, he looked down on his critics from a position of knowing superiority. "Exactly who is the fool here?" he seemed to ask. Not the police, led by Detective Inspector Keith Pedder and supervised by Assistant Commissioner Ian Johnston, who told a pretty constable to turn herself into "Lizzie James", a sadistic temptress who might seduce admissions from the lonely Stagg.

Not Dame Barbara Mills, then Director of Public Prosecutions, who thought the covertly collected evidence was worth presenting to a court, even though when "Lizzie" said she enjoyed hurting people, all Stagg could say was: "Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before."

To our senior officer, his colleagues and all the tame hacks who went along with them, the real fool was the judge who let off a guilty man on a technicality.

When the police go for the innocent, the guilty go free. We now know that while detectives encouraged the tabloid press to spend years pillorying Stagg, and tabloid television demanded he sit lie detector tests, the real killer grew ever more dangerous. Robert Napper murdered Rachel Nickell in front of her son in July 1992. In November 1993, he broke into the flat of Samantha Bissett and stabbed her to death, then sexually assaulted and murdered her four-year-old daughter Jazmine. How many women he attacked before the courts finally jailed him in the autumn of 1995 is an open question. Chastened officers believe he may be responsible for assaults on about 80 victims, including rapes, and possibly other murders.

Dozens of women may have paid a price - in some cases the highest price - for the smug look on my senior officer's face and the cocksure accusations of his followers in the media.

Paul Britton, a forensic psychologist practising the fashionable discipline of offender profiling, gave them their self-confidence, although even now commentators do not understand the full brazenness of his behaviour.

Operating on his instructions, "Lizzie" told Stagg to say anything because "my fantasies hold no bounds and my imagination runs riot. If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right".

To which Stagg, replied: "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't."

Detectives discounted his denial, which was convincing when you consider he had an incentive to say anything that might please his strange girlfriend. The point of the undercover exercise was not to extract a confession from Stagg, as no judge would have allowed a jury to hear evidence from a honey trap. Britton's pseudo-science aimed at securing more than a mere admission. He believed that his academic insights had given him the psychological profile of the killer.

Detectives set "Lizzie James" on Stagg to see if he matched Britton's description of a murderer, who was excited by his victim's fear and had a "deviant interest in buggery". When Britton ruled that the local loner did, the police believed him. Police say that Britton also told them that the murders of Rachel Nickell and Samantha and Jazmine Bissett were not the work of the same man, although Britton disputes this.

The specifics of Britton's folly are gruesome enough. As professor David Canter of Liverpool University said at the time, he barely mentioned the most striking and revolting aspect of the case: that the killer murdered Rachel Nickell in front of her child. As William Clegg, Stagg's QC, added at the trial, the transcripts of the conversations between his client and "Lizzie James" showed only that Stagg was a friendless man going along with a domineering but beautiful woman.

But dwelling in the detail misses the wider point. Just as dissenting economists are asking by what right their conventional colleagues demand to be taken seriously when no more than a handful warned of a coming banking crisis, so Parliament and the public should be wondering by what right psychologists demand a hearing.

It is not a reputable profession. The British Psychological Society dismissed all charges of misconduct against Britton in 2002, and no-one else has held him to account for what he did to Stagg and, indeed, to "Lizzie James", who went on to suffer a nervous breakdown.

If psychology is a reliable science - and frankly I doubt its credentials - it is a science "redolent with danger", to use Ognall's words. Britton would never have impressed detectives if he had said that Stagg was a bit of a weirdo. When he dressed up that same thought in psychological language and talked of "deviant interests" and "sexual dysfunctions", he sounded fatally convincing.

A cold-case review team caught Napper because it found a DNA sample, which the assiduous technicians at LGC Forensics proved beyond reasonable doubt came from Rachel Nickell's killer. Their evidence was the anthithesis of the psychologist's speculative theories: hard, testable and incontrovertible.

Genetic fingerprinting catches the guilty and frees the innocent. Psychological profiling traps the innocent and sends the guilty out to kill again. The Home Office might offer a small redress to the raped and murdered women if it resolved in future to tell the police to stick to what works.

And there's more: about a year ago, The New Yorker published a article titled Dangerous minds: Criminal profiling made easy, which carefully deconstructs ('tears into little shreds' would be an equally valid way of putting it) a few famous US cases, 'solved' by means of criminal profiling.

Apart from the debunking of the methodology of an infamous profiler, James Brussel, it also touches on the uncanny resemblance between techniques used by Paul Britton and cohorts and a particular class of even less bona fide 'fortune tellers', the so-called cold readers.

And somewhat deeply buried in the essay lays the following gem:
A profile isn't a test, where you pass if you get most of the answers right. It's a portrait, and all the details have to cohere in some way if the image is to be helpful. In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed a hundred and eighty-four crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That's just 2.7 per cent, which makes sense if you consider the position of the detective on the receiving end of a profiler's list of conjectures. Do you believe the stuttering part? Or do you believe the thirty-year-old part? Or do you throw up your hands in frustration?

2.7 per cent.


At 2:25 AM, Blogger Luscious Twinkle said...

I agree that profiling is a bit of a sham....but it is a relatively new discipline and cannot be compared to hard and predictable mathematics because people are soft and unpredictable.Psychology is very useful in a number of ways,most of all therapy I believe.The thing at fault here is the psychologist not the science...I dont really like to call it a science because there are no hard and fast rules. Psychologists can be as messed up if not more so, than their subjects.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Sovereign Lubricants said...

You have almost no understanding of experimental psychology. What you refer to is a shallow media take on the subject. Experimental psychology is both methodical and rigorous. It uses hypothesis testing to degree's of statistical significance, and repeats via peer reviewed publications before a claim is made within the field. All studies use the same techniques and methodologies as the "solid" sciences you refer to, if not more. Go and read a few psychology peer reviewed journal before you decide to make comment.


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