Child abuse doesn't belong in science

Why the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis needs to retract the abuse of a four-year-old
By Austin Johnson |

In October 2020, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) refused to disavow the abuse of a gender non-conforming child. 

JABA has faced increasing criticism from within the applied behavior analysis community over a 1974 paper by George Rekers and O. Ivar Lovaas. Finally, JABA decided to respond to critics by stating it would publish a “Statement of Concern,” but would not retract the paper as it was unclear whether the conduct of the researchers was unethical at the time. 

In their lab, Rekers and Lovaas subjected 4-year-old Kirk Murphy to a system that rewarded him for behavior that is socially coded as masculine (e.g., playing soldiers) and punished him for behavior that is coded as feminine (e.g., playing dolls).

What Rekers and Lovaas did to Kirk Murphy was unethical in 1974, it’s unethical now, and this paper does not belong in the scientific canon.

When a journal retracts a paper after it’s been published, it is stating that a paper is so fundamentally flawed that it doesn’t deserve to be in the scientific literature. Those flaws can be related to making up data, faking analyses, or committing ethical violations. In the case of this Rekers and Lovaas paper, the ethical violation in question was the physical and psychological abuse of Kirk, a 4-year-old boy, because he engaged in feminine behavior.

As Rekers states in a follow-up article in 1977, he collaborated with Kirk’s parents to punish this behavior in order to “prevent an outcome of transsexualism, transvestism, or homosexuality, which they feared.”

Rekers—a vociferously anti-gay minister who described 4-year-old Kirk as having “slovenly seductive eyes”—and Lovaas coached Kirk’s parents to praise him when he played with masculine toys, and to ignore him when he engaged with feminine toys. At home, Rekers and Lovaas took an evidence-based intervention called a token economy (think sticker charts and point systems) and used it as tool to shame and abuse a 4-year-old. Kirk’s parents were told to use red and blue points with him; if Kirk earned too many red points for acting in feminine ways, he either lost blue points, went into time-out, or was spanked by his father. These “spankings” were extremely severe. As told to journalist Jim Burroway, Kirk’s brother remembered that “I saw my brother’s whole back side bruised so badly one time, my dad should have gone to jail for it.”

The Statement of Concern from JABA, written by the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and Editor-In-Chief Dr. Linda LeBlanc, notes that the study was federally-funded, arguing that the findings were empirically valid and “the available evidence does not make it clear that the original study was unethical by the standards of the day.”

The world and the psychological community in the early ‘70s would disagree. 

Speaking to Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks retractions across science, NYU medical ethics professor Arthur Caplan stated on October 22 that “I think many would have found punishing this behavior wrong by the standards of the day so I am not persuaded this note is accurate.”

Indeed, from at least 1970, LGBTQ activists within and outside psychiatry were demanding that homosexuality be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It finally was in 1973, with a majority of voting members of the American Psychiatric Association approving that decision. And immediately following the publication of the Rekers and Lovaas paper, two different sets of authors submitted ethical complaints about the paper. One of these authors, Donald Baer, is a foundational member of the field. Put simply, there’s more than abundant evidence that this paper was considered unethical in 1974. 

I am deeply committed to the promise and science of applied behavior analysis. When used with compassion and as one method in a practitioner’s toolkit, it’s a powerful approach to supporting kids. This field’s premier research journal cannot condone abuse under the guise of science. Humanity has made that mistake countless times before, whether it’s the federally-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study or the misuse of genetic material from members of the Havasupai Tribe.

Like any other science, researchers and practitioners in applied behavior analysis must face the skeletons in our closet and the contemporary criticisms of our field. Rekers and Lovaas abused Kirk Murphy, a cisgender gay man who ultimately committed suicide in 2003. The words used and actions described in Rekers and Lovaas are abusive and shameful. They did not have value in 1974. They do not have value now. To comply with editorial guidelines and basic human decency, JABA must retract this paper.


austin johnson

Austin Johnson is an assistant professor and the director of the School Psychology program at the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Connecticut in 2014. Dr. Johnson’s research interests focus on the identification and implementation of evidence-based behavior assessment and intervention practices. Dr. Johnson is an Associate Editor for the Journal of School Psychology, as well as a Licensed Psychologist with the California Board of Psychology (#29540) and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (#1-15-18892). You can read a preprint he wrote about this topic here. 

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