Coyne was the perfect candidate for a Sense about Science JM Prize until a few years ago. He was the first to wade in and rubbish anyone who might have thought there was something wrong with a medication. His dark past had not come to light.
But too many people now know that there have been a string of universities who, rather like the Catholic Church handling pedophile priests, have gotten rid of him in some cases by giving him glowing references. And Simon Wessely thought he was great.
The clincher has probably been a recent blot on his copybook. Even SAS , unless they go into full new politics mode and view anything inconvenient as fake, would find it difficult to Maddox him. The latest episode – see below – led to a series of public domain communications from a number of leading figures in UK clinical psychology and related domains, which gives a feel for what happened.
For all the talk about ‘safe spaces’, universities have been remarkably reluctant to take action against a convicted domestic abuser in their midst – until now.
Bullying and point-scoring in the academic world is nothing new, although social media like Twitter and Facebook might be making it more visible. Recently, however, a letter to the Universities of Groningen and Stirling, has highlighted the extent of the problem and, in the case of one American professor, given a clue as to why it might sometimes be going on.
The unacceptable behaviour of Professor James Coyne became public knowledge during the reporting of a major research trial into ways of helping people struggling with chronic fatigue. Several national British newspapers reported leaked emails from Professor Coyne showing that he had referred to a male academic colleague as a ‘disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite’ and had told a female colleague ‘let’s get all this backchannel bullshit into the open, you ol’ sleazebag’
A frequent visitor to the UK, Professor Coyne is a former visiting professor at Stirling University and relentlessly attacks British mental health professionals and researchers on social media. But while one eminent professor recently lost his job for a joke about being distracted by women in the lab, Professor Coyne’s behaviour has gone unchecked, despite numerous complaints. He regularly accuses fellow professionals of unethical behaviour, racism and so on while using grossly sexist epithets to female professionals such as ‘bimbo’ and ‘bitch.’ On one occasion, his threatening behaviour (he was overheard saying; ‘I’m going to get that c***.’), a university is reported to have hired a bodyguard to protect a fellow lecturer (https://davidhealy.org/harassment-rolf-harris-to-james-coyne-to-doctor-who/ ).
Matters became more serious with the publication of a blog by Professor Coyne on 15th November 2017 entitled; ‘Stop using the Adverse Childhood Experiences Checklist to make claims about trauma causing physical and mental health problems’ (https://www.coyneoftherealm.com/blogs/mind-the-brain/stop-using-the-adverse-childhood-experiences-checklist-to-make-claims-about-trauma-causing-physical-and-mental-health-problems ). Purporting to be a critique of an assessment tool for traumatic events such as abuse, domestic violence and emotional neglect, the blog made the astonishing claim that behaviours fitting the definition of sexual abuse can be a ‘positive, liberating experience.’ Coyne’s actual words were: ‘There is so much ambiguity in endorsements of (ostensible) sexual abuse. Maybe it was a positive, liberating experience.’ He elaborated thus: ‘What if the “perpetrator” is the 20 year old boyfriend or girlfriend of a 14 year old?… Arguably, the event…..could actually be quite positive.’
Professor Coyne followed up with a series of provocative posts on social media including comments in tweets about the numerous professionals and survivors of abuse who protested: ‘moronic’, ‘what a low lifer’, ‘a sleazy troll’ ‘another appalling sleeze troll’; and so on. He has also castigated colleagues with comments such as: ‘a real asshole’, a ‘pompous buffoon’, a ‘puritanical classist prig’ and ‘a moralistic cloistered white prude’ for raising the issue.
Meanwhile, as colleagues were moved to complain about Professor Coyne’s behaviour, social media also revealed what may be clues explaining his behaviour. Professor Coyne has a history of arguing that psychological trauma is relatively unimportant as a cause of later mental health problems. This may have something to do with the fact that Professor Coyne himself has a history as a perpetrator of domestic violence, which has included substantial damages for the infliction of psychological trauma (https://cases.justia.com/michigan/court-of-appeals-unpublished/20030424_C232981_53_232981.OPN.PDF?ts=1396125300 ).
The balance between academic freedom of expression and unacceptable behaviour is a fine one. The fact that Professor Coyne’s behaviour on social media – in minimizing the effects of traumatic experiences on our mental health, and abusing colleagues – reflects a history of abusive behaviour in the real world, may give a clue as to some of the origins of this repellent activity.
Finally, however, the tide may be turning. The Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, (with whom Coyne claimed a professional affiliation) described Professor Coyne’s behaviour as ‘reprehensible’ in a letter to professional colleagues. She regretted the abuse that colleagues had been subjected to, and condemning his ‘appalling’ language and actions (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ClinicalPsychologistsUnite/permalink/1683756198354459/ ).
The Dean of the University of Groningen also expressed condemnation of Professor Coyne’s ‘continuing unacceptable behaviour’ along with a ‘strong request’ for Coyne not to present himself as a current employee of the university (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ClinicalPsychologistsUnite/permalink/1683756198354459/ ).
Presumably as a result of this criticism, Professor Coyne has subtly altered his profile on social media (https://www.coyneoftherealm.com/pages/biography ), referring to his various university affiliations in the past tense. He continues to offer online guidance to junior colleagues, charging $75 for an online course. Given his reputation, it is difficult to regard this as value for money.
Formal complaint about James Coyne’s behaviour
Professor James Coyne is a clinical and health psychologist based in the US who is well known on social media for his abrasive and attacking interactions.
On his website https://www.coyneoftherealm.com and on social media, Professor Coyne claims the following affiliations:
- Professor of Health Psychology at University Medical Center, Groningen, the Netherlands, teaching scientific writing and critical thinking.
- Visiting Professor, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy & Aging Research, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
- Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He also claims on his website to be a blogger at PLOS Mind the Brain.
Following the publication of his recent blog claiming that experiences classified as what he calls ‘ostensible’ sexual abuse can be a ‘positive, liberating experience’, which aroused widespread shock on social media, a group of us wrote the following letter of complaint to the University of Groningen and copied it to the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University: We write, as a matter of deep and urgent concern, to make you aware of the behaviour of one of your colleagues, Professor James Coyne, who holds the position of Emeritus Professor in your Department. For many years, now, Professor Coyne’s behaviour on social media has crossed the boundaries of common decency, and could be characterised as bullying, harassing, offensive and defamatory. Of particular concern is Professor Coyne’s misogyny; with examples of him using language such as ‘bimbo’ and ‘bitch’ about professional women on social media. Professor Coyne’s unacceptable behaviour became public knowledge when several national British newspapers reported that leaked emails showed that he has referred to a male academic colleague as a ‘disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite’ and had told a female colleague ‘Let’s get all this backchannel bullshit into the open, you ol’ sleazebag’ (The Times; https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ scientists-trade-insults- over-myalgic-encephalomyelitis-me-study-slk0cv5lj;
Matters became even more serious with the publication of a blog on 15.11.17 titled: ‘Stop using the Adverse Childhood Experiences Checklist to make claims about trauma causing physical and mental health problems’ (https://www.coyneoftherealm.com/blogs/mind-the-brain/stop-using-the-adverse– childhood-experiences-checklist-to-make-claims-about-trauma-causing-physical-and-mental-health-problems).
Purporting to be a critique of an assessment tool for traumatic events such as abuse, domestic violence and emotional neglect, the blog made the astonishing claim that behaviours fitting the definition of sexual abuse can be a ‘positive, liberating experience.’ Coyne’s actual words were: ‘There is so much ambiguity in endorsements of (ostensible) sexual abuse. Maybe it was a positive, liberating experience.’ He elaborated thus: ‘What if the “perpetrator” is the 20 year old boyfriend or girlfriend of a 14 year old?… Arguably, the event…..could actually be quite positive.’
As a group of mental health professionals, survivors of abuse and senior workers in related fields, we hope it is abundantly clear that sexual abuse is never a ‘positive, liberating experience’. We also hope it is not necessary to point out that a sexual relationship with a 14 year old is illegal, and that the situation in which an older person has persuaded the younger one that they are in a caring boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is a very common abuse scenario. We trust it is obvious to you that Professor Coyne’s stated views are not only deeply offensive, but utterly irresponsible given his professional status, and a clear breach of professional ethics.
We regret to tell you that Professor Coyne has responded to widespread horror on social media about his views in his traditional unacceptable style. He has directed these comments in tweets about the numerous professionals and survivors of abuse who have protested: ‘moronic’, ‘what a low lifer’, ‘a sleazy troll’, ‘another appalling sleeze troll’; and so on. He has also stated that Professor Kinderman is ‘a real asshole’, a ‘pompous buffoon’, a ‘puritanical classist prig’ and ‘a moralistic cloistered white prude’ for raising the issue. Meanwhile, his history as a convicted domestic abuser has come to light and now appears to be common knowledge (https://cases.justia.com/michigan/court-of-appeals– unpublished/20030424_C232981_53_232981.OPN.PDF?ts=1396125300).
We understand that Professor Coyne has been the subject of formal complaints in addition to ours. We are frankly appalled that no effective action has been taken, and that Professor Coyne is still in post. You may be aware that his recent behaviour is causing outrage on social media, with numerous angry and horrified comments on several Facebook websites, including the UK Clinical Psychology Facebook group, and on Twitter (https://twitter.com/clinpsychlucy/status/931154076162777088). Since his grossly unacceptable conduct has already been exposed in the national UK press, we are astonished, among other things, that you are prepared to risk the reputation to your University of continuing your links with a man who continues to behave in this manner.
We ask you to act urgently and decisively on this matter and to inform us of the outcome.
In an immediate and strongly-worded reply, the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, described Professor Coyne’s behaviour as ‘reprehensible‘. She regretted the ‘abuse’ that colleagues had been subjected to and joined us in condemning his ‘appalling’ language and actions. We welcome this statement and believe it reflects well on the Faculty.
The Chair also clarified that ‘Dr. Coyne has not worked at the University of Pennsylvania since 2013 and we do not anticipate any relationship with him in the future.’
The Dean of the University of Groningen also expressed condemnation of Professor Coyne’s ‘continuing unacceptable behaviour.’ The Dean said that a second letter had been sent to Professor Coyne about his professional misconduct on social media, along with a ‘strong request’ not to present himself as a current employee of the university.
The University of Rutgers has no mention of Professor Coyne on its faculty list.
We understand that Professor Coyne has been asked to step down from his role as blogger at PLOS. He is not currently registered as a practising clinical psychologist with the state licensing board of Pennsylvania.
As of 13th Dec 2017, his website has not been altered in accordance with the University of Groningen’s request, and nor have the additional inaccuracies been corrected.
Given this appalling history of misrepresentation, harassment, abuse and criminal behaviour, we advise people to be extremely cautious in their interactions with Professor Coyne and very sceptical about the accuracy of any blogs, articles or claims by him, either personal or academic.
Professor Richard Bentall, Professor of Clinical Psychology, U of Sheffield
Dr Jacqui Dillon, Chair, Hearing Voices Network England
Dr Alec Grant, Independent Scholar in Narrative Mental Health
Dr Lucy Johnstone, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Professor Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology, U of Liverpool
Dr David Pilgrim, Visiting Professor of Clinical Psychology U of Southampton
Dr John Read, Professor of Clinical Psychology, U of East London
Dr Akima Thomas, Clinical Director of Women and Girls Network and W London Rape Crisis Centre
Jo Watson, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist
Editorial: Its likely too difficult to nominate JC for a JM Prize. I would like to call for your suggestions for someone else to nominate instead.