July 30th, 2009
What does image plate III above mean to you? Itâ€™s one of the inkblots from the famous Rorschach test template. The test was first devised and patented in 1921 by the Swiss psychiatrist after whom the test was named. Anyone growing up in the last century will remember the test being administered in movies (eg Flowers for Algernon) and tv crime dramas (Perry Mason et al), where a subjectâ€™s sanity was often measured by the nature of his reactions to the ten inkblots. There are no right or wrong answers to the blots, but a subjectâ€™s responses could ostensibly tell you something about his tendencies. Was he a sex addict or a bank robber, that sort of thing. In this century, we need only invoke the Watchmen series and its hero, the tellingly named Rorschach whose face in the recent film version is masked with what always strikes me as tightly drawn cheesecloth marked by some really bad ink spills.
Iâ€™m mentioning Rorschach because thereâ€™s a tempest in a teapot brewing over the ownership of those images. The New York Times has been all over the unexpected and apparently hostile controversy, which involves Wikipedia and a group of psychologists who are furious that the popular web site has published all ten of the famously tagged blots.
You see, the whole idea behind those ink stains was that the subject would be reacting spontaneously to them, without premeditation, so that the responses would be deemed more true to the self, or to the inner, repressed, hidden self. Even when you saw them flashed in film or on television they were so small or so very far away, or, as with the Watchmanâ€™s hero, more a suggestion of a Rorschach than the authentic blot, they could not be identified or copied as the real thing.
Well, the copyright has long worn off and those inkblots have been free to be displayed in the public domain for some time. Before the web and Wikipedia, Rorschach-hugging psychologists figured the images were still top secret, but in an open access, increasingly transparent universe there are fewer and fewer secrets. The whole argument took a real turn a month ago when a Canadian scientist based in of all places Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, posted the images in his piece about the test for Wikipedia. What really bugs the raging psychologists is that the scientist wrote about what the common reactions to the blots have been over up to 90 years of their application. That â€˜researchâ€™ has fed into what is essentially a normative standard, and so if you knew the blots in advance you could, presumably, cheat: that isâ€”not tell the psychologist what you think he was looking for.
So it is that there are now law suits and countersuits, and Wikipedia is currently being demonized in some circles as having compromised years of accumulated research. To be fair, this group of Wiki detractors comprises a small minority. Look, itâ€™s not as if the publication of those blots is equivalent to publishing the answers to a multiple choice psych examination. You have to chuckle at one irate psychologistâ€™s argument that in the wrong or inexperienced hands the tests could lead to danger. Right, donâ€™t try this at home: you might start seeing double.
This gurgling issue is interesting in a couple of ways. It demonstrates the fragility with which information can or should be kept secret or confidential in a world in which Wikipedia and its free information culture thrives. Equally interesting, it raises the question of whether or not the blots have as much validity as some once thought they did. Surely there are other ways of doing psychological testing in the twenty-first century? Have we learned nothing in 90 years since their conception about how to tell a robber from a psychotic or from a really nice guy?
I am not a psychologist and so I am probably not on solid turf being so glib about the subject, but lawyers and ethicists have weighed in with as much amusement as I am taking from the story, and so I am buoyed by their giddiness. The thought that in 2009 you can actually prevent those imagesâ€”which are not exactly CSIS filesâ€”from web circulation strikes me as utterly absurd.
As for the image above, I swear I see the island of Newfoundland on both sides of Plate III. Hope that doesnâ€™t make me too pathologically parochial.