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Apr 04 2012

Blackboxing

I’m reading Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s collection of essays Making Minds and Madness: From Hysteria to Depression. It’s about what one might call the epistemology of psychoanalysis, and its relationship to things like reputation and fashion and consensus. There’s a bit on page 160…

The fact is that psychoanalysis managed to impose itself in significant sectors of twentieth-century society as the only psychological theory worthy of the name and the only psychotherapy capable of theorizing its own practice. In such locations, calling into question the unconscious, the Oedipus complex, or infantile sexuality could – and still can – provoke the same incredulous hilarity as do Kansas creationists or members of the “Flat Earth Society.” There, psychoanalysis has become indisputable, incontrovertible. It is “blackboxed,” to use the jargon of sociologists of science, that is to sa it is accepted as a given that it would be simply futile to question. The Freud legend and its widespread acceptance are the expression of this successful blackboxing, of this supposed victory of psychoanalysis over rival theories. Better yet, they are this blackboxing itself, that which protects psychoanalysis from independent inquiry.

Sound familiar? Remind you of anything? It reminds me of religion.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Steersman

    Sound familiar? Remind you of anything? It reminds me of religion.

    Absolutely. Reminds me also that such “conventional wisdom” manifests itself in a great many other fields and that such “group-think” frequently has a great many similarities with many of the negative features of religion, at least based on a “metaphorical” definition:

    4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

    And that, as I have argued elsewhere and frequently – notably Jerry Coyne’s website – the definition is, in some cases at least, applicable to atheism and atheists and that the attendant “zeal” tends to cloud the judgement.

    But looks like another interesting book and worthwhile recommendation. Speaking of which, you might be interested in Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble with Physics at least for its exposition of similar “religious” features of string theory.

  2. 2
    smrnda

    Having studied psychology a bit, the only courses I took that dealt with psychoanalysis just seemed to contrast it with contemporary methods in that ‘psychoanalytic theories’ were for the most part totally unfalsifiable and incapable of being verified experimentally. Occasionally a nod was given to the fact that psychoanalysis led to a slightly greater openness about sexuality perhaps, but that overall it was a bunch of nonsensical mysticism.

    As a person who has seen plenty of psychiatrists, I never met one who believed in psychoanalysis but I have met people who seem to wish it was still in vogue. Part of it might be that it romanticizes mental illness in a way or that it makes mental illness “meaningful” rather than “if you take these pills you will stop having delusions owing to physical problems.”

    It kind of reminds me of how a prof I had told us that ‘behaviorism’ should have seemed like nonsense at the time – the claim that consciousness or mental events and processes cannot be the subject of meaningful inquiry because they can’t be observed would be like someone rejecting germ theory for lack of a good enough microscope.

  3. 3
    Steersman

    smrnda (#2),

    … the claim that consciousness or mental events and processes cannot be the subject of meaningful inquiry because they can’t be observed would be like someone rejecting germ theory for lack of a good enough microscope.

    Good analogy. And from which one might argue that fMRI is a step in the right direction – probably still a long ways from being equivalent to an electron microscope but a start. One might hope that it will lead to better diagnostic tools that will show the various neurochemical structures underlying various phenomena including identities and challenges to them, along with religious belief and other delusions and cognitive illusions. Might even show that they are based on, equivalently, flaws or inconsistent responses in the “arithmetic processing unit” such that 2+2 equals 3.

    Although the consequences of that might turn out to more profound or disconcerting than what we bargain for. For example, it might even turn out that “reality” is, in fact as they say, a delusion brought on by a deficiency of alcohol ….

  4. 4
    Shatterface

    And that, as I have argued elsewhere and frequently – notably Jerry Coyne’s website – the definition is, in some cases at least, applicable to atheism and atheists and that the attendant “zeal” tends to cloud the judgement.
    But looks like another interesting book and worthwhile recommendation. Speaking of which, you might be interested in Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble with Physics at least for its exposition of similar “religious” features of string theory.

    The difference being that string theorists accept it is a hypothesis based on mathematics, that the theory is open to modification or rejection if a better theory comes along, and that whether string theory is true or not superstrings don’t tell you whether girls can go to school, gays can marry or women should have access to birth control.

    Freud was a good story teller. His stories – or ‘case studies’ as he likes to call them – read like Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s the reason they are still read today.

    But what’s true in Freud isn’t original and what’s original just isn’t true. He’s a Madam Blavatsky or L Ron Hubbard, not a Darwin or an Einstein.

  5. 5
    Steersman

    Shatterface (#4),

    The difference being that string theorists accept it is a hypothesis based on mathematics, that the theory is open to modification or rejection if a better theory comes along ….

    Have you read the book, The Trouble with Physics? I don’t doubt that some might view it as you suggest. But Smolin argues that more than a few look on it as the Truth with a capital T and view those who disagree as virtual heretics – and respond accordingly:

    Despite the absence of experimental support and precise formulation, [string] theory is believed by some of its adherents with a certainty that seems emotional rather than rational.

    Many adherents and critics of string theory are so confirmed in their views [beliefs] that it is difficult to have a cordial discussion on the issue, even among friends. [Shades of Protestants and Catholics. Or of C++ and Java programmers ...] How can you not see the beauty of the theory? How could a theory do all this and not be true?” say the string theorists. This provokes an equally heated response from skeptics: “Have you lost your mind? How can you believe so strongly in any theory in the complete absence of experimental test? Have you forgotten how science is supposed to work? How can you be so sure you are right when you do not even know what the theory is?”

    Looks to me like a few flies in the ointment; something other than a dispassionate – and reasonable – outlook.

    Freud was a good story teller. His stories – or ‘case studies’ as he likes to call them – read like Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Yes, more than a passing similarity to “just-so” stories that sort of hang together, but on the basis of some very ephemeral and tenuous threads.

    He’s a Madam Blavatsky or L Ron Hubbard, not a Darwin or an Einstein.

    I would put him quite a bit higher than the first two, but within a league or two of Darwin as there seems to be some justification for arguing that “Darwinism”, if not the Modern Synthesis, has more than just a flavour of “just-so”-ism. But, of course, nowhere near Einstein as relativity has all sorts of factual corroboration.

  6. 6
    Vijen

    “Religion” is organized ignorance. Psychoanalysis surely qualifies. Also totalitarian regimes in North Korea and the USSR. Also denial of anthropogenic climate-change or vaccine efficacy. All of us are prone to ignore stuff that contradicts what we already “know”. When it’s organized it becomes “religion”.

  7. 7
    Keith Harwood

    Steersman at 5.

    I too would put Freud at a higher level than Blavatsky or Hubbard, but more at the level of Alfred Korzybsky. However, Darwin’s work is much better supported by evidence than Einstein’s, in spite of the massive support for relativity. Quantum mechanics is equally well supported as relativity, but the two do not agree, so there is something wrong somewhere. There is no similar conflict relating to evolution.

  8. 8
    Stacy

    I would put [Freud] quite a bit higher than [Madam Blavatsky or L Ron Hubbard]

    You are apparently unaware that he falsified his “case histories”. Quite a lot. Not in order to protect patients’ anonymity: in order to bolster his unfalsifiable hypotheses. Freud unequivocally manufactured “evidence” that his methods worked.

  9. 9
    Shatterface

    I too would put Freud at a higher level than Blavatsky or Hubbard, but more at the level of Alfred Korzybsky. However, Darwin’s work is much better supported by evidence than Einstein’s, in spite of the massive support for relativity. Quantum mechanics is equally well supported as relativity, but the two do not agree, so there is something wrong somewhere. There is no similar conflict relating to evolution.

    Quantum mechanics and relativity are incomplete rather than incompatable. And there are disagreements in QM between proponents of the Copenhagen interpretation, the Many-Worlds hypothesis, the Consistent histories hypothesis, the de Broglie-Bohm theory, the Ensemble Interpretation, etc.

    And within evolutionary theory there are also disagreements between theories of punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism.

    The difference between these sciences and religion or pseudoscience is that scientists agree on standards of evidence and logical arguement – even if debates can get heated, and particular scientists might have invested their reputation in particular paradigms.

  10. 10
    smrnda

    On the MRI – it’s really been an immensely important research tool for modern psychology and psychiatry – perhaps what was missing from early psychology is anything tied to a physical science.

    Though I think Freud’s theories are a crock, one thing is that it made people think that mental illnesses or emotional disorders might be capable of being systematically examined and treated.

    The thing he did which was absurd was to create this immense and complicated theoretical apparatus for explaining them without any justification for his assumptions whatsoever (which, to me, goes against the Ockham’s Razor principle), and given the subjective nature of reporting he was able to more or less fake results that got what he wanted.

    Plus, with notions such as ‘patient is in denial’ or ‘repressed memories’ you can argue that your explanations for someone’s problems are true regardless for the lack of evidence.

    Carl Jung more or less went a different direction – away from psycho-sexual stuff right into full-blown mysticism.

    Psychoanalysis seems to be a way of creating a mythology that non-religious people can believe in.

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