By Michael Venables, originally published on Forbes.

Update, Oct. 2.
I received the communication below from the APA Office of Public Affairs regarding the APA’s timeline in setting up the task force that is currently reviewing the 2005 policy statement. Also reiterated in the communication was what the task force’s scope will be as far as its review of the research literature, the date of its expected completion, and any future avenues of action that will be forthcoming after the literature review will be completed. 

With regard to the American Psychological Association’s position on video game violence, the APA Board of Directors appointed a seven-member task force in April to evaluate its Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media. That policy statement was adopted in 2005, based on science published before that date. A review of research published in the intervening eight years is appropriate and will help determine if changes to the policy statement are needed.

APA’s goal in forming the task force was to create a blue ribbon panel with expertise in research and methodology. Members of the APA task force have experience and expertise in meta-analysis, child development, learning, digital media, multicultural psychology and aggression. In addition to its own review, the task force will invite input from content experts within the scientific community, especially for data relevant to questions and concerns.

The task force has begun its review and anticipates making final recommendations regarding the 2005 resolution sometime next year.

A prominent group of international psychology, communication and media scholars have expressed concern regarding the American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media and its review of its 2005 policy statement,Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media on the topic of media violence. The cross-disciplinary group of 228 scholars delivered a letter expressing specific concerns about the characterization of current research literature on this issue, the scientific quality of psychological research being conducted and the future of psychology as a scientific discipline. After reviewing the scholars’ document, I contacted one of the signers of the Statement via telephone, Dr. Christopher Ferguson, newly appointed Psychology Department Chair at Stetson University for comment on this latest chapter in the ongoing culture war about the issue of media violence.

One core point of contention in the letter is the 2005 Resolution document, which states that there ”appears to be evidence that exposure to violent media increases feelings of hostility, thoughts about aggression, suspicions about the motives of others, and demonstrates violence as a method to deal with potential conflict situations.” The international team of scholars cautions that the APA is making an unwarranted claim about consensus in the scholarly community regarding the correlation of media, aggression and violence. In the letter, the scholars advised that the 2005 APA statement “delineated several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence,” and that research produced since the 2005 statement “has provided even stronger evidence that some of the assertions in it cannot be supported.” Frank Farleyaptly termed such misapplications of reasoning, “answering big-V questions with little-v research.”

Historically speaking, there has been a cultural habit of mind linking media and violence, one that was coalesced into the popular consciousness by the 1972 Surgeon General’s report, Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence. It was this report, Ferguson tells me, that launched the nation’s moral panic and culture war over the issue of media consumption and it’s link to aggression and violence. The cause of aggression and violence was squarely blamed on television in the Findings and Conclusions section,

First, violence depicted on television can immediately or shortly thereafter induce mimicking or copying by children. Second. under certain circumstances television violence can instigate an increase in aggressive acts.

When the shift in children’s entertainment began to shift towards the early arcade games of the 1970s, the blame started to shift from the screen to the pixels, and the blame game on video games started in earnest with the production line of psychological research studies.

Ferguson pointed out to me that the goal of the scholars’ letter to the APA was to communicate the caveat that it should remove itself from “policy-making” and make another acknowledgment that there does exist a current debate on the issue, and that the evidence (per the research data) is inconclusive. The most egregious issue highlighted by the scholars in the letter concerns the nature of the research that is currently being conducted by psychologists on the issue of media and violence. There is concern in the psychological research community that some current research that does not support the “exposure to violent media” hypothesis is not being properly disseminated, “Obviously, positive findings should certainly be welcomed, but so should “negative” findings or failed replications.” The letter mentions that “As a simple matter,boys both consume more violent media and are more aggressive (emphasis added), so small correlations may reflect gender effects,” and that data exists proving that other variables might also explain any small correlations between boys and aggression. Another point raised in the letter is that focusing on the average bivariate effect size in meta-analyses (the strength of the relationship between two variables) may hide failed replications and publication bias.

Political science theory, indeed, bears out Ferguson’s contention that the divergent results of “negative” findings or failed replications should be included in research analyses and public reports. Obfuscating such findings is contrary to the open-minded inquiry of the science of psychology, and, of any science, for that matter. The consideration, balancing and deliberation of divergent opinions is one of the great attributes of deliberative democracy.Amy Gutmann points out such an attribute,

the fourth characteristic of deliberative democracy–its process is dynamic. Although deliberation aims at a justifiable decision, it does not presuppose that the decision at hand will in fact be justified, let alone that a justification today will suffice for the indefinite future. It keeps open the possibility of a continuing dialogue, one in which citizens can criticize previous decisions and move ahead on the basis of that criticism.

Towards the end of our telephone conversation, Ferguson shared that his personal hope is to “get the science of psychology out of moral statement-making,” — the moral statements that are disguised as scientific statements when the data isn’t there to support a moral stance.

I think it would be well for the APA to consider the entirety of the comprehensive pool of data in media violence studies, given the seriousness of the issue, and its position as an authoritative body with such an heavy influence on public opinion. As the academics succinctly phrase in their letter, “Only with the freedom for data to sort itself out can this field progress.” And their suggestion points to a general restlessness among the research rank and file that the very integrity of scientific inquiry in the field of psychology is at stake. Not considering all the data, then, is not only anti-democratic, but anti-scientific.

Eisenhower was speaking of the military when he cautioned the United States in his great address, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” but he could have been speaking of political influence in the State of Academic Discourse. One hopes that the value of psychology as a research science and the openness of scientific and cultural discussion in our public sphere will not be consumed by parochial political will and pedestrian debates on morality in the name of science.

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