Margaret Singer

Who was Margaret Bridget Singer?

Margaret Singer was a psychologist whose theories of so-called “cultic coercive persuasion” have been discredited by her own profession. The American Psychological Association (APA) rejected these theories as lacking scientific foundation.

Several courts have forbidden Singer to testify as an expert on these theories because, as one court stated:

“her coercive persuasion theory did not represent a meaningful concept.”

The APA formally dismissed Singer’s ideas in the 1980s after she and her associates from the American Family Foundation (AFF) (an anti-religious hate-group) had formed a task force within the APA on “deceptive and indirect methods of persuasion and control.” This task force submitted its report to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA.

The Board rejected the task force’s report in May of 1987. The APA stated that:

“in general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach needed for APA imprimatur.”

The APA requested that the task force members not imply that the APA in any way supported the positions they had put forward in their report.

Prior to its rejection of Singer’s report, the APA had already endorsed a position contrary to Singer’s “coercive persuasion” theory in an amicus brief before the California Supreme Court in Molko v. Holy Spirit Association for the unification of World Christianity.

The forward of the amicus brief contained a stinging comment that forecast the repudiation the APA would later deal to Singer:

“[the] APA believes that this commitment to advancing the appropriate use of psychological testimony in the courts carries with it the concomitant duty to be vigilant against those who would use purportedly expert testimony lacking scientific and methodological rigor.”

Blind to this lack of support from her colleagues, Singer continued to sell her services as an “expert” witness and was permitted to testify in the case of Kropinsky v. World Plan Executive Council.

However, in August of 1988, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals overturned the case, citing the lack of acceptance of Singer’s theories:

“Kropinski failed to provide any evidence that Dr. Singer’s particular theory, namely that techniques of thought reform may be effective in the absence of physical threats or coercion, has a significant following in the scientific community, let alone general acceptance.”

[imgleft][/imgleft]In 1989, Singer’s status received another blow in the decision of the Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeal of California in the case of Robin George v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California. Singer was hired to testify that Robin George had been “brainwashed” into joining the Krishna movement.

The appellate court dismissed her testimony, finding it to have been merely an attempt to bolster a civil litigant’s attempt to collect damages:

“… Robin’s brainwashing theory of false imprisonment is no more than an attempt to premise tort liability on religious practices the Georges find objectionable. Such a result is simply inconsistent with the First Amendment.”

In 1990, U.S., in United States v. Fishman, District Court Judge D. Lowell Jensen rejected Singer’s theories and those of her sociologist colleague, Richard Ofshe. He prohibited both Singer and Ofshe from testifying about “thought reform” as expert witnesses.

In 1991, in the case of Patrick Ryan v. Maharishi Yogi, the U.S. District Court in D.C. applying a looser standard than the Fishman case, still found that Singer’s theories lacked acceptance in the scientific community.

Instead of attempting to compile scientific evidence to support their theories (or adopting theories that could stand up to the rigors of scientific inquiry) Singer and Ofshe then took the novel approach of suing the APA and the ASA for having rejected their theories and respected scientists for having criticized their shoddy research methods. Singer and Ofshe complained that the defendants had conspired to deny them employment as paid expert witnesses in the anti-religious community. Judge Lawrence Mc Kenna dismissed their complaint as “absurd”.

Undaunted, Singer and Ofshe filed a similar case in California. This complaint was stricken by Judge James R. Lambden under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute.

Singer was an advisory board member of the old Cult Awareness Network (CAN) until it went bankrupt in the face of a $1.8 million civil judgment for the deprogramming of a member of the Pentecostal Church. She was also an advisory board member of the AFF. Both groups have relied on her discredited theories of “brainwashing” and “coercive persuasion” to lend an air of respectability to their attacks against minority religions. While this theory initially gained some popularity among civil litigants in the 1970s and 1980s who were seeking large damages awards for their voluntary participation in religious activity, the theories were unable to withstand scientific inquiry.

As Professor Harry Cox, Professor of Divinity at Harvard University observed:

“the term ‘brainwashing’ has no respectable standing in scientific or psychiatric circles, and is used almost entirely to describe a process by which somebody arrived at convictions that I do not agree with.” John T. Biremans: The Odyssey of New Religions Today).

Dick Anthony has compiled an excellent study of the scientific literature debunking Singer’s theories (and those of her colleagues in the anti-religious business). Singer bases her work on what she claims to be the results of studies into the treatment of prisoners of war during the Korean conflict. Anthony shows that the entire Korean brainwashing scare was without substance and was merely a political campaign concocted to perpetuate the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.

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