Is “The Goldwater Rule” Necessary?

Barry Goldwater

From an  edict handed down last week by the head of the American Psychiatric Association:

“Since 1973, the American Psychiatric Association and its members have abided by a principle commonly known as “the Goldwater Rule,” which prohibits psychiatrists from offering opinions on someone they have not personally evaluated. The rule is so named because of its association with an incident that took place during the 1964 presidential election. During that election, Fact magazine published a survey in which they queried some 12,356 psychiatrists on whether candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee, was psychologically fit to be president. A total of 2,417 of those queried responded, with 1,189 saying that Goldwater was unfit to assume the presidency.

While there was no formal policy in place at the time that survey was published, the ethical implications of the Goldwater survey, in which some responding doctors even issued specific diagnoses without ever having examined him personally, became immediately clear. This large, very public ethical misstep by a significant number of psychiatrists violated the spirit of the ethical code that we live by as physicians, and could very well have eroded public confidence in psychiatry… I can understand the desire to get inside the mind of a Presidential candidate. I can also understand how a patient might feel if they saw their doctor offering an uninformed medical opinion on someone they have never examined. A patient who sees that might lose confidence in their doctor, and would likely feel stigmatized by language painting a candidate with a mental disorder (real or perceived) as “unfit” or “unworthy” to assume the Presidency.

Simply put, breaking the Goldwater Rule is irresponsible, potentially stigmatizing, and definitely unethical.”

Naturally, as he is significantly responsible for much that is going haywire in the culture—CNN experts using words like “dick” on the air, a Fox News star and a Wall Street Journal editor calling each other names on Twitter, the New York Times announcing that it no longer is even pretending to follow its own ethics code—this can be partially placed at the feet of Donald Trump, though Ann Althouse’s suspicions that it is really designed to protect Hillary Clinton cannot be discarded.

I agree that professional groups that use their collective weight and credibility to assume greater influence in political matters than their biases and relevant expertise warrant are abusing their positions. I agree that psychiatrists pronouncing public officials mentally unfit for office without the same kind of examination that they would demand with a patient is a dubious practice, ripe for abuse. Still, I wonder if the situation with Trump doesn’t pose a different problem. Continue reading