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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

May 21, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Once Warshak’s review of the literature on shared parenting and overnights for very young children came out earlier this year, McIntosh et al’s work was exposed in all its weakness. Of course the fact that Warshak’s work was endorsed by no fewer than 110 eminent social scientists gave it a heft that was hard to overlook and fortunately, it hasn’t been. It was discussed by Bettina Arndt in the Australian daily The Age and soon began changing attitudes among decision-makers on custody issues.

Then of course there was Dr. Linda Nielsen’s article that had much the same purpose as Warshak’s - to set the record straight on the science on overnights for young children and, in the process, knock down McIntosh’s flawed work.

To all those events, McIntosh’s response was immediate, accusatory and in stark contrast to her writings and statements of the preceding three + years. I suppose that’s not surprising. After all, when the work you’ve been touting all that time, and that’s made you a bit of a star in parental rights field, all of a sudden is thoroughly debunked and, to add insult to injury, compared to a children’s book, a posture of aggressive defense is probably the best you can do.

So lately McIntosh has been hard about the task of attacking Warshak and Nielsen personally and desperately trying to distance herself from her work and what’s been made of it. I’ve written before about her scurrilous attacks on Warshak and Nielsen, and there’s little more to say. Face it, McIntosh is trying to defend her own bad science against the reasoned and fact-based onslaught of 110 scientists around the world whose endorsement of Warshak’s paper can reasonably said to have been done for the very purpose of burying once and for all her shoddy stuff. That’s not an easy thing to do and few will be surprised to learn she’s making a hash out of it.

But apart from her ad hominem attacks on Warshak and Nielsen, McIntosh’s self-defense comes to essentially three things – first, that she explicitly stated her work was not to be used as a basis for public policy, second, that she’s only ever said that it’s frequent overnights she’s opposed to, not overnights generally, and third that she’s not responsible for what other people say about her work.

As to her first argument, it’s a mystery where she ever said that her work shouldn’t be used to inform public policy on overnights. Linda Nielsen and others have looked for it and come up empty. Where and when did she let anyone know this fact that seems to utterly at odds with her statements and behavior? Remember, her original paper was done for the Attorney General of Australia. What did she think he was going to do with it? What did she think he meant when, six months after receiving it, he said it constituted “strong evidence” to attack the pro-father 2006 amendments to Australian family law? What did she make of the fact that numerous organizations, in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom cited her work for the proposition that overnights for young children, and indeed shared parenting generally, aren’t favored? When she made speeches to various organizations throughout the English-speaking world that then took action opposing overnights and shared care, what did she imagine her effect to have been? Did she think these various decision-makers got their ideas on the very subject she’d written and spoken on at such length out of thin air?

The simple and obvious fact is that, for over three years, McIntosh was perfectly content for her ideas to be put into practice as part of public policy on parenting. Not once during all that time did she ever shout “Wait! My research is inconclusive. You’ve gotten the wrong message. You’re making claims my research doesn’t support.” She said nothing of the sort, and in fact went silently along with every word others said and every policy paper written. When her research was used by the Australian Attorney General as the centerpiece of his opposition to the 2006 amendments to Australian family law, where was McIntosh’s cautionary voice? Silent as the grave. When the British government used her work to, as a matter of public policy, oppose equalizing fathers’ rights in that country, did McIntosh correct their error? She did not.

But to suggest that she was merely silent in the face of the widespread use of her work to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children would be incorrect. No, during the three + years since the publication of her first paper on the subject of overnights for young children, she was furiously adding to her claims that remained distinctly unchanged. So her special publication for the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts (AFCC) I referred to in my previous piece added a heavy layer of gilt to the lily of her 2010 paper.

And that AFCC piece was at the time (and still is) recognized for exactly what it was – a work with a specifically partisan bent. Its goal was to reinforce the idea, already taking root in the minds of policy-makers, that overnights for the very young should be avoided. Why else would McIntosh, who was chosen to edit the edition, select only scientists whose opinions matched her own? And having done so, why would she then announce that “Anyone in the know about attachment will agree: this is a stellar, comprehensive lineup of experts?” Where in that edition were the many voices, the weight of solid science that contradicted McIntosh’s ideas?

The answers are clear. She did it all for the very purpose of influencing public policy. Even if her disclaimer could be found, it wouldn’t convince. A single throw-away line will never overshadow over three years of words and actions that belie it.

Now, it is certainly true that neither Jennifer McIntosh nor anyone else can be held responsible for what others say about their work. We all understand that, when one puts a statement out into the public domain, others may misunderstand, misrepresent or intentionally distort it. Such is the life of every artist, politician, public intellectual, etc. But, as is so often the case with her, McIntosh’s attempt to use that simple fact to defend her own behavior is too glib by half.

The simple fact is that, if someone misrepresents what you’ve said, you have an ethical obligation to correct the record. And indeed, most such public figures would want to do just that. After all, who wants his/her work distorted? Doesn’t everyone want their work represented accurately so the public will know what they’re saying and not some falsified or incorrect version thereof?

So when the Sydney Morning Herald announced, shortly after interviewing McIntosh that, “The majority of babies who live alternately with their divorced parents develop long-lasting psychological problems, new research has found. Such arrangements cause enduring disorganised attachment in 60% of infants under 18 months, says clinical psychologist and family therapist, Jennifer McIntosh,” did she pen an indignant rejoinder correcting their misconceptions? Again, she did not. Nor did she respond to the numerous other articles in the same vein.

At some point, it becomes impossible to conclude anything but that McIntosh knew how her work was being construed and used, and was content with it. No one would expect her to respond to every article every inaccurate fact, every misquotation. But when years go by and article after article, public figure after public figure, organization after organization, say such similar things about her work, with no rejoinder from McIntosh, the message is clear – they got it right, and nothing she says now will change the fact.

If McIntosh now disagrees, perhaps she can explain to the rest of us not only how so many got her words so wrong, but how they all did so in the same way. The journalists who wrote about her work, the office-holders who relied on it in their public pronouncements, the organizations that used it to formulate policies, all did so in a particular way – that overnights with Dad are to be avoided as is shared parenting generally. If we were truly faced with a matter of miscommunication, you’d think that some of those folks would have gotten one idea of what McIntosh’s message was, some another and still others yet a different notion. But they didn’t; they all thought the message was clear, and that strongly suggests that it was.

The requirement that she correct the record (in the unlikely event that it needed correcting), is not just mine. Likewise, it’s not just a general matter of personal integrity, i.e. that anyone who’s been seriously misrepresented would be at pains to set the record straight. No, the requirement turns out to be more. Here’s one of the canons of ethics of the Australian Psychological Society, of which McIntosh is a member:  

C.2.2 Psychologists take reasonable steps to correct any misrepresentation made by them or about them in their professional capacity within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the misrepresentation.

McIntosh certainly knew what people were saying and writing about her work. She well knew the uses to which it had been put in public policy and elsewhere. But never – not once in over three years – did she lift a finger or say a word to make it stop. Had she truly believed that all those people were getting her message wrong, she was bound, not only by the tacit rules of personal integrity, but the written ones of her own professional organization to correct the record. But again, she was silent.

It’s not as if she doesn’t know how to speak out in defense of her own work. Since Warshak, et al and Nielsen’s recent slam-down, she seems to have done little else. But for years, she was content to be seen as standing for the proposition that fathers’ overnights with their children should be sharply restricted, saying nothing to the contrary.

Now she wants us to believe that she was misunderstood and misrepresented. It won’t wash. If she really believed that, she’d have said so years ago, but didn’t. Now she’s “pinned and wriggling on the wall.” It’s her own fault, and she won’t get off any time soon.

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