The media has a penchant for psychoanalysis that often gets news outlets into trouble. From killers to celebrities to dictators, this year has already born witness to more armchair psychiatry than critics can stomach.

As soon as police released a mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner exhibiting an enigmatic smirk after his arrest for a January for a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona that injured nineteen and killed six, evaluations of his mental health appeared in every corner of the media, much to the dismay of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn, who observed that:

Psychiatrists, psychologists, news anchors, and others have shown little reluctance to diagnose Loughner, whether or not they know anything about psychiatry, and in the face of what might seem to be a rather large impediment: None of them have examined the patient.

Raebrun was equally irked when the same thing started happening following actor Charlie Sheen’s rampant ranting in February. He and others, including MedPage Today and MinnPost.com, argued that the press was violating the “Goldwater rule,” an ethical standard adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, which warns (see section 7.3) that:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

The rule came into being after the publication of a 1964 article in Fact magazine, which had conducted a mail survey of over 12,000 psychiatrists asking if the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was fit to lead the country. Of the more than 2,000 that responded, about half said, no, variously characterizing the U.S. senator as “immature,” “impulsive,” “paranoid,” and even schizophrenic. The American Psychiatric Association issued public statements condemning the commentary and included the “Goldwater rule” when it drafted The Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry in 1973.

“Psychobabble reported by the media undermines psychiatry as science,” the association’s former president, Herbert Sacks, wrote in the late 1990s in a column explaining the history of the rule.

It also undermines journalism as professional practice. Goldwater successfully sued Fact for libel. Yet as the decades passed, the press continued to struggle to reign in “psychobabble.” In 2007, the American Psychiatric Association issued an “ethics reminder” about the “Goldwater rule” in response to “sensational commentary” following fatal shootings at Virginia Tech. Even reporters themselves have been the subject of baseless diagnoses from afar, but one of the media’s favorite and most enduring targets has been the dictators who enforce autocratic regimes in countries around the globe. Indeed, given the myriad comparisons between Sheen and Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in the last month, it would be surprising if journalists passed up an opportunity to analyze the latter’s mental health as well.

For going on three decades, the go-to psychiatrist for questions about an autocrat’s state of mental health has been Dr. Jerrold Post, the director of the political psychology program at The George Washington University. Before joining the school’s faculty, Post spent twenty-one years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he founded and directed the Center for the now-defunct Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior (according to a 1994 article in Foreign Policy, it was renamed the Political Psychology Center, but eventually closed, with the profiling operations transferred to another unit).

Post has been a busy man since fighting began in Libya in late February, appearing in numerous articles speculating about Qaddafi’s mental state. It is difficult to criticize Post for breaking the “Goldwater rule,” however, since it is, in effect, his job to do so. In the case of Libya coverage, the onus is journalists to put his remarks into proper context, sprinkling grains of salt on their stories where needed. After Qaddafi claimed that there were no protestors in Libya, in late February, and then that they were actually drug-crazed al-Qaeda members, Post told a Public Radio International and WNYC show that Qaddafi has “borderline personality” disorder—but the show did not mention, let alone explain, the caveats that come with such an assessment.

A Fox News article was even worse. Toward the end it cited Post talking about the dictator’s borderline personality. But it started by quoting two anonymous “U.S. officials,” the first saying, “Obviously, we all know [Qaddafi] is nuts,” the other saying, “We don’t know that he’s insane.” In between the two quotes were two paragraphs that read:

While admittedly non-clinical, the view that Qaddafi is “nuts” is widely shared, if not pervasive, within American policymaking and scholarly circles. The official spoke on the very day the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, a move that reflected growing U.S. uncertainty about what Qaddafi might do next.

The belief that Qaddafi is insane, a non-rational actor striding the world stage, is of course not new. It became conventional wisdom with the erratic appearance and conduct of Qaddafi himself over the years: the bizarre costumes, the dazed and confused manner, the aspirations to grandeur, messages that were both cryptic and apocalyptic.

The statement that Qaddafi’s insanity diagnosis is “admittedly non-clinical” is a weak disclaimer and totally inadequate given the forceful charges that follow. What all articles quoting Post call for is a longer explanation of who Post is and the methods he uses to make his assessments. The only outlet that has delivered that context seems to be The New York Times, which ran a detailed article about CIA profilers on the front of the weekly Science Times section on Tuesday under the headline, “Teasing Out Policy Insight From a Character Profile.”

The piece, by Benedict Carey, begins by knocking the media. It points out that “Journalists have formed their impressions [of Qaddafi] from anecdotes, or form his actions in the past,” and contrasts their behavior with intelligence professionals, who have “tried to construct a profile based on scientific methods.” After outlining the speeches, writings, biographical facts, and observable behavior on which clinical psychologists depend, however, the article quickly turns around and questions its own thesis, suggesting that “‘at-a-distance profiling,’ as it is known, is still more an art than a science.”

“Expert profilers are better at predicting behavior than a blindfolded chimpanzee, all right, but the difference is not as large as you’d hope it would be,” Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, tells the Times.

The article then delves into the history of CIA profiling. Carey cites embarrassing and flawed attempts to characterize dictators like Adolf Hitler (the agency’s first profile), Saddam Hussein, and Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as well as more successful profiles of men like Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat, which former president Jimmy Carter said helped him broker the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The piece also discusses efforts to improve profiling, noting that “Intelligence specialists have learned to hedge their bets over the years, supplementing case histories with ‘content analysis’ techniques, which look for patterns in a leader’s comments or writings.” Ultimately, however, Carey concludes that:

What is missing amid all this number crunching and modeling is any sense of which methods are most useful when. In an exhaustive review of intelligence analysis published this month, a prominent panel of social scientists strongly agreed: psychological profiling and other methods intelligence analysts use to predict behavior are sorely in need of rigorous testing.

What the Times doesn’t mention is that people have been highlighting that need for decades and little seems to have changed. An even more thorough account of CIA profiling, which Carey cites, appeared in Foreign Policy in 1994. The 6,100-word article, by Thomas Omestad, is a fascinating read (unavailable online, unfortunately), which goes into exquisite detail on the history of profiling from afar, as well as Post’s and journalists’ preeminent roles therein:

It was Post’s portrait of Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf crisis that focused public attention on psychological profiling as never before,” Omestad reported. Not since Hitler had the mentality of a leader so seized the American imagination and seemed so threatening. Hussein was the Evil Dictator from Central Casting. The media’s appetite for material on Hussein was intense, and Post was all over the airwaves and op-ed pages to sate it. He presented his portrait of Hussein in congressional testimony that subsequently encouraged some lawmakers to authorize the Bush administration’s use of force against Iraq.

Post is at it again, this time with Foreign Policy’s help. The outlet ran a commentary from him on March 15 that assessed Libya’s “mercurial leader” and argued “Qaddafi is indeed prepared to go down in flames.” About a year before that, in May 2010, it ran a piece headlined “Profiles in Phobia—The irrational fears that keep the world’s most powerful leaders up at night,” which also looked at Qaddafi, among four others. Unfortunately, neither of these pieces exhibited the context or skepticism of Omestad’s article from 1994, which laid bare numerous problems related to profiling. It even quoted our current secretary of defense, then recently retired from the CIA, reporting that:

Outside a small circle of practitioners, the methods of profiling are dimly understood. Even former and current officials who praise particular profiles tend to be deeply skeptical about the field. Typical is the comment of Robert Gates, a former CIA director and deputy national security adviser: “Trying to diagnose somebody for 5,000 mile away who you’ve never seen does not fill me with confidence.”

Later, the article expands on this criticism, pointing out that, “The pitfalls of psychological inference aside, the CIA profiling suffers from a more prosaic, but serious problem: factual errors … The CIA would stumble over such basic facts as where a president or minister was educated, whether he was married, and how many children he had.” Omestad actually deems these errors to be profiling’s “biggest flaw,” and concludes with some suggestions about how the technique could be improved:

The CIA needs to renews a rigorous effort to check facts, principally through open sources. More consistent and intensive review of profiles by regional specialists and psychologists outside the agency - and when possible by people who have known the subjects - would root out some mistakes and help deter the CIA from hewing to a rigid institutional view of certain leaders…

The profilers should take care to distinguish conjecture from fact—a kind of truth-in-labeling practice. Those warning labels might remind readers that a profile is but one analytical tool among others. They might also caution that explaining a leader in purely rational terms inevitably overlooks the unknowable influences of irrationality, chance, and even serendipity on how that leader will really act. Policymakers, for their part, should stop pushing the CIA to make bold predictions about foreign leaders when the necessary data is simply unavailable.

It’s spot-on advice for journalists as well, and reporters should look up Omestad’s article before embarking on any stories about profiling or the mental state of dictators. They should also bear in mind the “Goldwater rule” when attempting to cover the antics of alleged madmen—whether they be murderers, celebrities, or anybody that has not undergone a formal psychiatric evaluation.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.