The “Meh” Singularity


I encountered a singulatarian recently. And we had an interesting conversation, using mostly very old technology (called “language”) while he waxed poetic about the rapid increase of new technologies and how powerful they are. Now that I am becoming a grognard, I had to allow that I was less impressed. I did a version of this chart on a napkin, which I have since translated to powerpoint:

singularity

As you can see, things have been going downhill rapidly for humankind, and are not just getting worse, they are getting worser faster. We went from the invention of music, to iTunes, in a very short time, with a brief upward tick caused by The Ramones (not shown)   We went from horses (which were basically reliable and self-powered and self-driving within limits) to USAirways and self-driving cars – and now it takes all day to get anywhere even though we can travel at 600mph. We went from Plato and Lao Tze to Britney Spears and from taming fire to “Internet of Things” remote-controlled bongs that take hours of configuration to set your couch on fire.

Futurists like Ray Kurzweil like to cherry-pick their data points to show this tremendous uptick in processor power in the last 30 years (that’s true!) but neglect to consider that the processor power isn’t actually making gameplay any better.

The futurists’ claim revolves around “things are getting better” but if you want to think in terms of positive human impact, which was greater: the invention of “fishing” or the hard disk drive? The bacterial model of infection, or “psychology”? Darwin’s “Origin of Species” or “Harry Potter”? Agriculture or the Internet? Alcohol or Playstation? Murasaki Shikibu or “50 Shades of Gray”? Voltaire or Milo Yiannopolous?

This idea came to me a few years ago, when I was watching a talk by Burt Rutan in which he explained that humans developed flight and perfected it fairly quickly. In fact, he argues, we perfect stuff pretty fast and then spend a long time making it cheaper and improving it incrementally. That appears to be the case, to me. When I look at computers, I don’t see them as tremendously different, really. Running a new system that is 100,000 times faster than the first one I programmed doesn’t make computing much better because the operating system (which my first computer didn’t bother having) is 50,000 times slower and the code is running in an interpreter in a browser. If people are going to “upload” to computers, they’d better get rid of Javascript and SSL before they do.

divider

I’m pretty sure I’ve overlooked a few important data points. Was human achievement of flight more significant than the discovery that we could tame horses? I know I’m being unfair to the present: there is some amazing stuff being done, like semi-controlled nuclear fusion. It just seems weird to me that the species that created The Great Library at Alexandria also developed iTunes. Are we getting stupider or is it something in the water?

Re: Rutan – we went from hot air balloons in 1783 to the SR-71 in 1966. That’s a measly 183 years. Then, we basically discovered that going 5+ times the speed of sound is of limited usefulness: it’s much more useful to pack 400 people knee-to-seatback in a commercial jet and get them to Disneyland cheaper. What happened was that we start bumping quickly into the physical limits of scaling things. That’s basically the problem with the “singularity” – it presupposes unlimited scaling without physical limits, except that our gross energy budget has not actually been scaling limitlessly.

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    Nice.

    What happened was that we start bumping quickly into the physical limits of scaling things. That’s basically the problem with the “singularity” – it presupposes unlimited scaling without physical limits, except that our gross energy budget has not actually been scaling limitlessly.

    No — it posits weakly god-like entities in regard to knowledge.

    ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity )

  2. says

    Not another singularity theory!

    I object to the cherry picked choice of items and the unverified ranking of “impact”. Our knowledge of history is (probably) mostly distorted by a bunch of important stuff getting remembered. The ancient sub-par stuff is easier to be forgotten by everyone forever. (but then there’s mummification, preserved for all to see)

  3. says

    Exponential curves are almost always sinusoids in disguise. As soon as the damping factors rear their heads.

    Venture capitalists and singularity nerds watch the father pull his small daughter back on a swing and let her go. The child accelerates for a few milliseconds. The observers deduce that in a minute or two the child will pass through the center of the earth at a substantial fraction of c.

    This is because the observers are idiots. I’m looking at you, Vinge, who ought to know better.

  4. cartomancer says

    I’m going to get kicked out of the club for this, but the idea that the ancient world was full of nothing but wonderful inventions and profound advances is a plot by classicists to keep the funding coming in and maintain our entirely undeserved aura of intellectual brilliance.

    It’s only partly true that we’ve only preserved the great works of literature and philosophy from the ancient world. We’ve done that, but there’s a surprising amount of mediocre crap too. For every Oedipus Tyrannos and Aeneid there’s also a book of bad jokes (the Philogelos) and a crank fortune-telling kit (the Oracles of Astrampsychus). For every Plato’s Republic and Tusculan Disputations we also have piles of papyrus complaint letters to the council (the Oxyrhynchus papyri contain numerous angry complaints about failures of hedge trimming, as well as one letter from two schoolboys to a classmate offering him a cessation of bullying if he lets them bugger him. This last has a helpful illustration attached), and inscribed accounts lists for public building work.

  5. cartomancer says

    I think we can build a more accurate cyclical model of human regress, however. The Egyptians started out with cumbersome, dificult to use hieroglyphs, which eventually developed into more practical alphabetic symbols among the Phoenicians and were rounded out with vowel symbols by the Greeks. A period in which Literature happened followed. Then, some time around the turn of the the second millennium AD, text speak contractions started taking the vowels out again. We’re now almost back to hieroglyphs with the dawn of the Emoji.

    Likewise, the Egyptians were ruled mostly by self-important people in orange make-up and bad wigs who plastered everything in gold and had their names put up on all their buildings. This is happening again.

    As such, it seems obvious to me that there is a singularity, but rather than heading at an increasing rate towards it human progress has achieved a stable steady orbit around it.

  6. militantagnostic says

    Do you have a reliable algorithm for telling them apart?

    Other than credentials, no. Although, I would have to say that Keynes was no dummy, nor is Krugman. I suspect that the loudest voices are the cocksure who do not acknowledge uncertainty of their underlying assumptions and non-fools are the hesitant who do not seek the spotlight.

  7. says

    @cartomancer:
    Seconded. When people complain about “fake news” and the internet’s conspiracy-mongering, I think about the proliferation of flyers after the spread of the printing press, which contained all kinds of crazy stories. Someone recently made the argument to me that behind a lot of the narratives of people complaining about culture going down the drain is the fact that what we teach about historical cultural achievements is limited to “great works of art”, leaving out all the dumb, everyday random crap that was always going on. The classicist conspiracy, though, doesn’t seem very successful to me – a lot of the classicist departments at German universities (don’t know about UK) have been downsized significantly in the last twenty years or so.

    One small point concerning language: Arabic newspapers have always left out vowelization, so in that case at least, there’s no cyclical development.

  8. Dunc says

    Are we getting stupider or is it something in the water?

    No, it’s just some combination of the law of diminishing returns and the law of diminishing marginal utility – you know, two of those awkward principles of economics that been uncontroversial amongst real economists for centuries, but that get ignored by the court astrologers who call themselves economists nowadays, and all the people who play economists on the TV and internet, on the grounds that they’re inconvenient to their preferred fairy stories.

  9. says

    Brian Pansky@#3:
    I object to the cherry picked choice of items and the unverified ranking of “impact”.

    I confess: I made it all up.
    It was largely controlled by the iconography I had available at the time. And my assessment of impact had more to do with available space on the page layout than any other reasons.

    … at least I admit it.

  10. says

    militantagnostic@#8:
    I suspect that the loudest voices are the cocksure who do not acknowledge uncertainty of their underlying assumptions and non-fools are the hesitant who do not seek the spotlight.

    That seems to be so often the case! People who actually know what they are talking about tend to lead with a great deal of “it depends” and “I’m not sure but..” waffle, whereas the less knowlegeable charge right out with certainty and lots of powerpoint.

  11. says

    cartomancer@#7:
    We’re now almost back to hieroglyphs with the dawn of the Emoji.

    I can hear someone already thinking: “perhaps we have gotten so smart we don’t need grammatical cues anymore and can interpret everything by context!” Do a TED talk, stat!

  12. says

    cartomancer@#6:
    We’ve done that, but there’s a surprising amount of mediocre crap too

    Well, yes. Didn’t the ancient Chinese really invent Facebook? I forget…

    I think the idea is not that “old is great” but that there are foundational ideas upon which civilization greatly rests. The singulatarians argue that more foundational ideas are forthcoming, at a faster rate, which will turn us god-like. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but rather that quite a lot of today’s important ideas are dependent on taming fire, and are probably not as important.

  13. tbrandt says

    I’ll make a bold prediction: semi-controlled fusion will never be useful. It’s too hard and expensive to confine plasma magnetically despite decades of well-funded effort. Iter, the world’s flagship program, just had another schedule slip and won’t be fusing deuterium and tritium until at least 2035. A decade later maybe this $15 billion (and rising) project might produce a couple hundred MW of useful power, though I doubt it. Fast neutrons will also make a mess of the confinement material.

    Nature already confines plasma at high pressure and temperature in the Sun’s core, and we can easily build 500 MW solar farms today for a whole lot less money than Iter; solar is competitive right now with coal. The energy storage problem for solar energy is hard, but a lot easier than fusion, and there is tons of private money going into battery development. I would be absolutely shocked if fusion could ever be made feasible for general electricity generation, let alone competitive with solar power.

  14. says

    The bacterial model of infection, or “psychology”?

    Dafuq? Did you just include shitting on all of psychology in your false equivalences?

  15. says

    tbrandt@#15:
    I was referring to the fusion that humans are mostly prepared to use, where you make a small amount of fusion happen over a city full of people, to get them to change their minds about their leaders’ politics.

  16. says

    abbeycadabra@#16:
    Did you just include shitting on all of psychology in your false equivalences?

    While I was being somewhat facetious, are you trying to tell me that any of psychology has had as much positive impact on humanity as bacteriology?

  17. says

    You put “psychology” in scare quotes, and included it in a list where the philosophical analogy was Yiannopolous.

    I’m not reacting to the comparison to bacteriology so much as what appears to be the (facetious?) suggestion that psychology is harmlessly worthless (Harry Potter, Playstation) or outright harmful (50 Shades of Grey, Yiannopolous).

  18. says

    abbeycadabra@#19:
    I do not think particularly highly of psychology and I’d actually say it’s closer to outright harmful than harmlessly worthless. I think you position my overall opinion on pyschology very well.

  19. invivoMark says

    Marcus@20:

    Um, you might want to check your privilege and seriously reconsider your assessment here. That’s a pretty fucking ableist statement to make.

    I was about to make some snarky comment about placing cats above the bacterial model of infection, but… this toxic view is kind of killing the mood.

  20. says

    abbeycadabra@#21:
    And what is your position on people who want or need the benefits it provides?

    What benefits it does provide, are fine. I am glad the people who are benefitting from it are doing so.
    Are you referring to psychopharmacology, or to cognitive therapies?

    Because I am unimpressed with psychology doesn’t mean I have anything against people who benefit from it. Depending on what branch of psychology you’re talking about, though, it may be a question of why and to what degree. But, are you seriously going to tell me that either psychopharmacology or cognitive therapies (those are two of the parts of psychology that I am aware of that actually do something) have affected as many people in a positive way as understanding bacterial infection?

    I’m not trying to turn this into a general referendum on psychology. You are.

  21. says

    InvivoMark:
    Um, you might want to check your privilege and seriously reconsider your assessment here. That’s a pretty fucking ableist statement to make.

    Ableism would be if I were making fun of people who are disabled. I’m criticizing psychology. That’s no more ableist than criticizing acupuncture is ableist against the people who undergo acupuncture interventions. I certainly acknowledge that there are people who have been helped by psychology. But that doesn’t automatically place a field above reproach, nor does it mean that someone who sees flaws in a field is disrespectful of the patients in that field.

    I was about to make some snarky comment about placing cats above the bacterial model of infection, but… this toxic view is kind of killing the mood.

    I acknowledge that you wish to characterize my view as “toxic” but I reject your characterization.

    WRT cats: I actually put some thought into that, for all that I was being silly. It’s possible that cats have done a tremendous amount for humans over time by keeping plague carriers and grain-eaters down. We haven’t had bacteriology anywhere near as long as cats, and I think one could argue that thousands of years of alliance with cats (as with dogs) has had a tremendous impact compared to the shorter-term impact of bacteriology (or Facebook)

  22. says

    As I said, I am not interested in the comparison to bacteriology. I am interested in the comparison to worthless and harmful things.

    This is not a ‘referendum’, there is no poll here. I am inquiring of exactly one person with a platform what their position is on a subject that has direct and intense bearing on the lives of marginalized people, because the suggestions from the OP were… disturbing.

    invivoMark has hit the point: shitting on a large branch of science with active, current medical applications is ableist, and it raises a lot of questions about how you view the people connected with it. I am referring to both psychopharmacology and talk therapies, especially since AFAIK they are almost always used together.

    Consider: You say psychology is worthless or harmful. Let’s assume that’s true. Mental illness is a phenomenon entirely identified and defined in this discipline*. If psychology is bunk, does mental illness exist? Does gender identity – again a strictly psychological phenomenon – exist? In the absence of psychology, how would you recommend people presenting with the symptoms of these things (who empirically do exist) are treated?

    I have generally seen you to be a voice of reason and (a harsh brand of) compassion on this site. What I’m getting out of this is a faint whiff of unconscious, unexamined bigotry. I am hoping I’m wrong, but have been burned before. Including on this site, epically.

    Forget the bacteria, please. I’m worried about how you see people.

    * You might argue this is psychiatry, but this would be disingenuous; psychiatry is psychology plus neurochemistry, and the former cannot exist without the latter.

  23. invivoMark says

    It’s ableist to suggest in a serious way that psychology has done more harm than good. It’s sort of like saying that wheelchairs have done more harm than good; what would be the implication of that statement? That the world is worse off when people who can’t walk are able to get out and exist among the rest of us?

    I have known many people who would be unable to function normally in society without the advances of psychology – and that means both psychopharmacology and psychological therapy. Without psychology, their lives would be wasting away sitting at home, or they’d be locked up in asylums, or on the streets begging for food. And that says nothing about the millions of people with social anxiety, crippling phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and chronic depression who are helped by modern psychology. So when you suggest that psychology has done more harm than good, when you put them on the same level as 50 shades and Milo Yiannopoulos, yeah, that’s a pretty fucking toxic and ignorant thing to say. You’d better either have something really deep and well-researched to say about psychology, or be ready to tell us why you don’t care about the quality of life of everyone who needs mental healthcare.

  24. says

    There has been a certain amount of research into the efficacy of therapy animals as compared to therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. I dare say you can find completely definitive studies either way, and that you can correlate the result produced with the funding source with near perfect reliability.

    Cats don’t seem to hurt anything except bird populations.

  25. says

    Perhaps it is worth noting at this point that Marcus has (I think I am correct here) a degree in psychology, so he’s not speaking from a position of utter ignorance, and could probably explain in more detail what he meant.

    You could, at this point, it’s up to you, take what you know about Marcus and decide that he probably means something sensible and reasonable which for whatever reason isn’t coming across to you, and let it go. If you were especially open minded, and perhaps looked up at the domain name above, you might even go so far as to speculate that maybe, just maybe, your own built in prejudices, privileges, and disprivileges, are contributing to the communication failure.

    But, you know, choose your own road. Far be it from me to dictate. Free thought, wot?

  26. says

    Andrew

    Or maybe I’ll take my lived experience, which is full of seemingly-reasonable people suddenly busting out massive bigotry about something, including authors on this very network, and inquire about what exactly he DOES mean.

    Gathering evidence, remember that? It’s part of that little domain name.

  27. says

    invivoMark@#26:
    It’s sort of like saying that wheelchairs have done more harm than good; what would be the implication of that statement? That the world is worse off when people who can’t walk are able to get out and exist among the rest of us?

    No, that’s not ableist. That would be “stupid” but not ableist. Ableism would be actually saying that people who can’t walk shouldn’t be able to exist among the rest of us. You’re incorrectly treating an offhanded observation about that there are problems with psychology, and that psychology may well have caused more problems than benefits as though it were a statement that psychology is purely without benefits and that all the people who benefit from it should get stuffed, or whatever. To say that you’re mis-characterizing what I said is a huge understatement.

    I acknowledge that psychopharmacology and some cognitive therapies have benefits! I have acknowledged that repeatedly.

    Now, if you want to set against that a couple generations of pseudoscience, “pop psychology” (much of which is derived from made-up bullshit peddled by first generation psychologists like Freud, Maslow, Jung, etc and which has no basis in reality) and psychology’s nasty tendency to describe things as “disorders” in the absence of actual – well – disorder – psychology has a problem. Remember that for most of its history, until very recently, psychology served the prevailing social order and declared homosexuality to be a disorder, “hysteria” to be a disorder (to be cured with laudanum), and served the prevailing misogynistic social order by giving ammunition while suffragists were treated as disordered, etc. Psychology also brought us some “social science” disasters that were so horrific that the other sciences had to invent controls on experiments involving humans, thanks to things like the Stanford prison experiments and “a class divided”. Psychology has aided and abetted “insane asylums” and horrific, pointless, and ineffective “treatments” for people with mental health problems including but not limited to promoting and normalizing frontal lobotomy and electroshock therapy as a behavioral modification technique for unruly/non-normative people.

    Now, read this carefully: Some people have benefitted from electroshock therapy. I am not being disrespectful or ableist about them when I observe that psychology wrongfully promoted the technique in what amounted to unregulated torture of human subjects.

    Psychology is still in the process of whitewashing its absolutely atrocious history – but by all means, do go ahead and help.

    that says nothing about the millions of people with social anxiety, crippling phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and chronic depression who are helped by modern psychology

    Yes, and there are also a lot of people with anxiety, phobias, and depression brought on by pop psychology. Which, whether like it or not, is part of the horrible history of the field. I lived through the 70s and I got my degree in psychology in the 80s and I’ve observed that a great deal of the question “am I normal?” which bothers a lot of people has been tremendously exacerbated by other products of psychology including IQ testing, standardized testing and psychological assay batteries. You want to give psychology credit for social impact? Psychologists are the people who cooked up all those infinitely damned testing batteries that told little girls they could be home-makers and housewives not rocket scientists and roboticists. I took those damn tests when I was in 8th grade and I remember they told me I’d make a good auto mechanic. OK, so that was probably right. Corporate psychologists still, today enforce desirable social norms through corporate-sponsored pseudoscience “tests” like Myers-Briggs personality index (which is based on Jungian bullshit) The whole field of standardized testing, with all its massive cultural biases and enforcement of norms, can be laid at the feet of psychology (as can young people who are being tortured about “Body Mass Index” which is BS made up by Adolphe Quetelet based on body shape distributions of a bunch of his friends, one day in 189?…)

    Psychology has done some good stuff. It has done a lot of horrible stuff. In the last few decades psychopharmacology has helped a lot of people – unquestionably. I, personally, would credit that more to neuroscience than psychology, though of course the psychologists have eagerly latched onto neuroscience discoveries – and for good reason: it works. As far as the good stuff psychology is doing in cognitive therapies: it has been a known fact that talking things through with someone helps. Humans have known that for a very long time. I would argue that most of the cognitive therapies that psychology came along with once they threw off the Freud/Maslow/Jung garbage is talk therapy, which most humans appear to have used since ancient times. The great big frameworks that psychology attempted to erect in order to explain all that? That’s all B.S.

    I don’t even want to go into psychology’s lamentable support for and development of eugenics. The IQ testing and measurement techniques psychology was developing were in service of that disaster, too. (Just as psychologists have been involved in developing the US Government’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques and prisoner management techniques… Another topic I do not want to go into because I don’t want to vomit into my keyboard.)

    So when you suggest that psychology has done more harm than good, when you put them on the same level as 50 shades and Milo Yiannopoulos, yeah, that’s a pretty fucking toxic and ignorant thing to say.

    As you can see, I can argue that it is not an ignorant thing to say, at all. Psychology has pushed far more ignorance, self-hatred, racism, homophobia, and misogyny than Milo Yiannopolous ever can. Whether you want to label my observations as “toxic” is up to you – I’d say I’m trading in “unpleasant truths” not toxic lies.

    You gotta take the bad with the good and psychology’s got a lot to answer for.

    With respect to psychopharmacology: I absolutely support neuroscientists’ efforts to understand human brains and to try to help people where possible with psychopharmacology. I am less supportive of psychologists (Freud, for example, tried to promote cocaine for psychological wellness, and the nazi regime pretty much ran on psychologists’ other contribution: amphetamines) that prescribe psychoactive drugs based on what can only be described as “fads” – there are a lot of people who were badly damaged during the early days of the psychology industry’s experiments with psychoactives: all the people who experienced paranoid/schizophrenic breaks as a result of “diet pills” and “go pills”: thank psychology.

    That we have gotten to where we are today with psychopharmacology is because of what amounts to several decades of experimentation on human subjects. At least it was done carefully, and now – finally – it’s bearing some fruit.

    But pointing at psychology’s atrocious history as a field, and then observing that the neuroscientists are doing good work, that’s like saying:
    “Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

  28. says

    TL;DR form:
    I think psychology has managed to accomplish some important things since the 1980s.
    Virtually all of that is a result of neuroscience.

    I, for one, look forward to neuroscience taking over psychology, and for psychology to crawl off into the tall grass and die quietly where the smell won’t linger.

  29. says

    Since I’m going on about it, I will say I am deeply concerned that even psychopharmacology is engaging in dangerous practices that are typical of historical psychology. Since the actual mechanisms of some “disorders” are not understood, but their symptoms are (e.g.: serotonin levels) psychopharmacologists have discovered that they can intervene on the symptoms to give patients better outcomes than if they were left untreated. I think that’s OK, and humanity will learn a great deal from those interventions – but those interventions amount to experimentation on human subjects, and rely on patient-reported assessments of their outcomes. Experiments like that need to be performed very very carefully. Given psychology’s history of “leap, then look” I think we should all be very skeptical about what they are doing. I understand that a great many people are experiencing improved quality of life as a result of psychopharmacological interventions. Obviously, that’s a good thing. There are still many many red flags that should be waved.

    The whole notion of “disorder” leading to psychopharmacological intervention is really sketchy once you get past the patient’s experience: “I take this, it makes me feel better.” Well, that can be said of a lot of things, including cocaine (per Freud, who thought it was a wonder-drug and prescribed it to many patients) I think that where we are today, psychologists (thanks to neuroscience) are learning some useful stuff, and it should therefore be used, but I bet that if we could zoom 200 years into the future, the history of psychology in this time would read about like today’s history of “leeching” – “they what!?!

    I’m not saying “don’t do it.” And I’m not being disrespectful of the many people who believe their lives would be worse without it.

    I am saying “I don’t trust psychology” because it’s a field with a horrible history and I don’t want to pat them on the back and say “oh, right, you’ve got it all nailed, then, off you go!”

  30. says

    Andrew Molitor@#27:
    There has been a certain amount of research into the efficacy of therapy animals as compared to therapy and pharmaceutical interventions.

    Now is probably the time to bring up the replication problem with the social “sciences” …

    There is a tremendous amount of what, in any other science, would be considered “cheating” in psychology research. I don’t think we should bin it all, but I’m really suspicious of a lot of it. If we threw out all the research that used captive-audience college undergrads as subjects, and recorded self-reported results, the portfolio gets a lot thinner.

  31. says

    Marcus

    You didn’t address me directly in the previous, but consider that done. Your above positions strike me as reasonable and free of the bigotry I’d worried about. I am happy to be proven wrong.

  32. says

    abbeycadabra@#34:
    You didn’t address me directly in the previous, but consider that done. Your above positions strike me as reasonable and free of the bigotry I’d worried about. I am happy to be proven wrong.

    Thanks for that.

    I’m not sure if my positions are reasonable, because I am really pissed about psychology and the many horrible things it has promoted. Without the “chapter and verse” rant about why I hate psychology, as a field, I understand that it’s pretty easy to come off looking unsympathetic toward sufferers, or possibly come across as an ideologue like a scientologist. Actually, that’s one thing that I really despise about scientologists: many of their objections to psychopharmacology are similar to my concerns. The difference is they say “don’t take antidepressants!” whereas I say “don’t trust everything a psychologist tells you!”

    We never should forget that psychology (via Freud and his acolyte Fleischl) supported tranquilizing and addicting two generations of women using laudanum to cure their “hysteria”… “Hysteria” is a prime example of psychology’s fondness for creating a ‘disorder’ by establishing a list of symptoms, then treating the ‘disorder’ based on no understanding of a root cause. To be fair, taking laudanum does make one feel a lot better. I worry that some day people will look back on what’s happening now with psychopharmacology with the same horror that we hopefully feel today when we see that the fathers of psychology recommended getting smashed on opiates as a cure for emotional upset.

    Edit: Freud and Flieschl also had a behavioral theory that the shape of a person’s nose affected their moods. Based on that, Freud performed a surgical intervention on a young woman, that disfigured and nearly killed her. Freud felt more experimentation was necessary… And that is psychology in a nutshell.

    Edit2: Psychologists did experiments in the 60s regarding adrenaline and memory; it turns out that adrenaline affects memory (things that happen when you’re scared are memorable: makes sense) then they experimented and discovered that amphetamines also boost memory (things that happen when you have unusually high norepinephrine levels are memorable: makes sense) So: send soldiers “go pills” that are amphetamines for combat use in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, psychologists. What do you get? A spike in Post-traumatic stress disorder (which appears to have a lot to do with memory).

  33. mythogen says

    Marcus Ranum

    I agree with abbeycadabra that the attitude about psychology presented here is troubling. I don’t agree with them that your explanations provide relief.

    Yes, psychology has a horrifying and unethical history. So does fire, the knife, and agriculture, though; if we’re grading things the way you’re grading psychology, you have to count the aggregate death and destruction of fire and weaponry, the millennia of peonage and chattel slavery in agriculture, and so on.

    As a sufferer of various mental illnesses who believed for most of his life that there was no real science or understanding behind mental health interventions, I see you perpetuating the same intellectual environment that gave me that false impression. Yeah, just like you say, I knew people sometimes were helped by pharmaceuticals or therapy. But it was all a crapshoot, none of it was scientific, it didn’t work for some people… so fuck it. There’s no point in trying any of it. It’s the same muddled intellectual chaos that Trump et al work to create about journalism and policy and everything else; nobody can tell who’s right, so fuck it.

    When I met someone who knows what they’re doing in mental health, I figured out how wrong I was. Since then I’ve made unimaginable strides to a better life. And seeing people I respect, like you, trash talk psychology in this way, I know some 18 year old kid with undiagnosed major depression is making choices based on what you write that will lead to them avoiding getting that diagnosis for another decade or so. I know that because early in this blog network’s life I was the 18 year old reading that junk here and making those choices that wouldn’t get turned around except by pure chance.

    I don’t care what label you slap on it, or if you slap a label at all; what you write about psychology unfairly stigmatizes treatment options in a way that is particularly harmful for inexperienced atheist/freethinker youth with mental illness. General society is already a stew of bullshit folk mythologies about mental health. Having them reinforced by smart, eloquent, freethinking people like yourself is, in my actual personal experience, enough to drive people in need away from help for a long time.

    If the history of our tools indicts their usefulness in the here and now, we have way bigger problems than psychology that you seem to ignore. And if not, then psychology is helping a lot of people right now and that really should be front and center, just like you focus on the upsides of other technology rather than the downsides in this piece.

  34. Holms says

    I think this discussion would be aided by a more clear delineation from Marcus between psychology and psychiatry. The impression I get from here and from previous comments is that most of his ire is directed at the much less clinical psychology side.

  35. mythogen says

    Holms@#37
    I do agree that clarification would be excellent, but I disagree with the implicit assumption you make that psychology and psychiatry are two monolithic entities, and psychiatry the more “clinical” of them. Marcus is fusing everything related to mind research into an even bigger monolithic block, and there are many problems with this and some of his other conclusions (including a pet peace of mine, that neuroscience is all we need; might as well eliminate chemistry too since that’s just applied quantum electrodynamics). But you do not go nearly far enough in nuance, and I’m not sure I understand how you are using “clinical”, which typically means, in the mental health field, pertaining to direct intervention on an individual or small group (couples, families) scale. Both practicing clinical psychologists and practicing psychiatrists, in addition to practicing licensed professional counselors and practicing licensed clinical social workers, are just as “clinical” as each other, treating the same problem clusters from different perspectives, often in conjunction with one another.

    And “clinical” is actually in contrast to “research”, which may describe any of the aforementioned professionals doing Science instead of seeing patients; Marcus seems to be fine with the clinical practice of mental health intervention, but to be severely antagonistic toward the research side. That is a distinction with some complexity, because they feed each other, but they are not the same thing. Nor is social work the same as psychology, in research or clinical form, but it does draw some of its techniques from psychology research and practice. If you talk to an LCSW, though, you may find an opinion that is just as scathing of the specific problematic components of psychology as a research field that Marcus objects to, without also discarding the idea that there is no redeeming value in it.

    Tldr: nuance plz

  36. says

    There are several things going on here which need to be combed out if this ridiculous discussion is to continue without becoming even more hopelessly muddled.

    Marcus originally started out stating that psychology has had less impact that some other things. This isn’t even in question, and nobody is debating about it, but it keeps getting muddled in with the rest, and it DOES have tangential relevance.

    What you guys are complaining about is some imagined slight against psychology’s ability to produce useful therapies, on basically personal grounds. Absolutely anything, no matter how weird and wrongheaded, can produce useful therapies as long as a) it provides a large stream of candidates and b) you test those candidates using Science. Well, there are exceptions like homeopathy, in which the therapies are pre-selected to not work, but you get the idea.

    This plays in to the measure of the impact of psychology in the following way: Is it really psychology that is behind the useful therapies, or something else? Do we need the “science” of psychology, or would almost anything that said “maybe we should measure the effects of talking” have worked? And if so, does psychology get to claim that therapy as one of its impacts or not? So it does, after a fashion, circle around to Marcus’s original point, but in a sort of petty way. He’s clearly talking in extremely broad strokes, and obviously the icons on his chart can move around a little bit without losing the point, so why, one might reasonably ask, would anyone spend a millisecond arguing that the cat should be 3mm lower and the knife 0.1mm to the left? Well, I don’t know, but I have some very unflattering theories.

    Wishing that psychology was a firm science because it makes you feel better about the therapies that have worked for you is perfectly understandable. But it doesn’t magically make psychology a firm science. It’s the science of clinical trials that is pretty firm. So, feel good, there IS science lying around, it just doesn’t happen to belong to the psychologists.

  37. says

    Also, while I realize that Marcus has written many many words and that reading all of them is a terrible lot of work, I am noticing that, as is typical on the internet, we’re seeing a fair number of replies from people who haven’t bothered.

    Skimming, pulling out keywords, building a model of what the other guy said, and then responding to THAT is much easier than actually struggling with all the words, but it’s a lot more reliable.

  38. says

    mythogen@#36:
    I’ve taken a couple runs at responding to your comment; I don’t want to come off as flippant or unsympathetic, and I really do understand where you’re coming from and why. All that said: “…. but!”

    Yes, psychology has a horrifying and unethical history. So does fire, the knife, and agriculture, though; if we’re grading things the way you’re grading psychology, you have to count the aggregate death and destruction of fire and weaponry, the millennia of peonage and chattel slavery in agriculture, and so on.

    True enough. That’s fair.

    If I were actually trying to present the singularity non-snarkily, I wouldn’t have published the piece at all – I am and was being deliberately unfair and a bit silly. I also hope it’s fairly clear that I did not intend my posting to become a general referendum on psychology – though it did. We could have similar discussions about the long-term benefit/detriment of every single item on that chart except for the cats, of course.

    As a sufferer of various mental illnesses who believed for most of his life that there was no real science or understanding behind mental health interventions, I see you perpetuating the same intellectual environment that gave me that false impression.

    I’ll observe that it’s psychology’s own history that gave you that impression; I’m perpetuating it to the extent that I’m continuing a common critique of the field since the 60s, spearheaded by skeptics like R. D. Laing and David Rosenhan. As an undergrad in the psych program I encountered Laing and Rosenhan, and – like many – (including you, it seems) wrote the field off as a disaster. Because, it was, and largely is.

    In my initial responses I was fairly careful to try to carve psychopharmacology and cognitive behavioral therapies off from the rest of the rotting corpse. I probably should have highlit my comments in big bright green letters or something, except wordpress doesn’t do complex formatting in comments easily.

    Back in the 80s we were starting to see the early steps away from the old psychology of the 50s and 60s and toward neuroscience. My neuroscience professor said something that stuck with me even then, namely that psychology would do well to change its name to “neuroscience” and pretend that Freud and Jung and all those charlatans and pseudoscience had never happened. Clearly, I still agree with that view – and I have been careful to clarify, with facts, what aspects of psychology are the rotting corpse and what aspects are worth continuing to research.

    As a sufferer of various mental illnesses who believed for most of his life that there was no real science or understanding behind mental health interventions, I see you perpetuating the same intellectual environment that gave me that false impression.

    It’s unfortunate that you formed a false impression – and I have been careful to acknowledge that it is a false impression – but that “intellectual environment” that I am perpetuating is a bunch of facts. I think you’d have plenty of reason to criticize me if I was saying “steer clear of psychopharmacology” (as a scientologist would) – which I have explicitly not been saying. I think it would be reasonable for your to criticize me if I were making any recommendation at all, but I’m not doing that, either. I suppose “learn more about the history of psychology” is embedded in my critique – and if it is, yes, I stand by it.

    I will not accept blame for your forming a false impression years before I posted my comment. If you or anyone else forms a false impression from my comments, then we have a problem.

    When I met someone who knows what they’re doing in mental health, I figured out how wrong I was.

    There are lots of fields that have had similar trajectories to psychology. For example: cancer therapy. Siddartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies” (on my recommended reading list) describes in exquisite detail how various cancer therapies have succeeded or failed and the cost to the sufferers. As you read it, you learn that there are many therapies that were done with the best of intentions but were basically needless suffering. OK, that thumbnail sketch that I just gave of mankind’s interaction with cancer is not a recommendation to avoid therapy any more than my ruthlessly pointing out psychology’s many flaws is a recommendation to avoid therapy. And it is not my responsibility to help clear the miasma hanging over psychology – I think it will do that on its own, eventually – but (per my earlier comment) it may take a hundred years.

    I know many people who are living better and happier lives thanks to psychopharmacology, and I am glad you found someone who was able to help you.

    And seeing people I respect, like you, trash talk psychology in this way, I know some 18 year old kid with undiagnosed major depression is making choices based on what you write that will lead to them avoiding getting that diagnosis for another decade or so.

    I didn’t make your mistake, nor did I help perpetuate it. You’re saying that my comments are tantamount to encouraging unknown and unnamed others to make the same mistake.

    I’m not going to accept that.

    what you write about psychology unfairly stigmatizes treatment options

    No, it does not. What I don’t notice is you arguing that any of the statements I made about psychology are untrue. (I could easily argue I’m being generous!) If I were unfairly stigmatizing psychology I’d be saying things like “stay away from psychopharmaceuticals!” like a scientologist does. I’d have expended no effort at all to separate cognitive behavioral therapies and psychopharmaceuticals from the rest of pop psychology and the pseudoscience framework erected by Freud. For me to be being unfair I’d have to be lying or manipulating my readers by omission, yet instead I have been being careful to be fair, and accurate.

    I believe that anyone who reads this comment thread ought to be able to come away with the impression that psychology, as a field, has problems and a checkered past, and that progress is being made but there are justifiable critiques of some of its practices. What about that is unfair?

    I don’t think you are saying that “any critique of psychology is unfair” or that nobody should make negative comments about X for all X, where someone might mistakenly choose to avoid X as a result of the overall impression formed surrounding X.

    General society is already a stew of bullshit folk mythologies about mental health

    I see you agreeing with my general critique of psychology. Those “folk mythologies”? They are largely propagated by psychologists. Not me.

    Having them reinforced by smart, eloquent, freethinking people like yourself is, in my actual personal experience, enough to drive people in need away from help for a long time.

    Anyone who is reading this: go back and re-read it and if you think you need help with your mental health: GET IT.

    If the history of our tools indicts their usefulness in the here and now

    That’s your interpretation of what I am saying, which I disagree with. Critiquing Freud as pseudoscience does not imply that we should reject psychopharmacology and neuroscience, any more than saying that “radical excision” cancer therapies were ineffective (because metastasis was not understood) therefore people should forgo combination radio/chemo therapy.

    I think you are granting my words entirely too much power. I thank you for that, but I don’t agree with you at all.

  39. invivoMark says

    Marcus@26, Yes, and I’m sure before psychology, gay people were treated like royalty. And before psychology, there was no eugenics… wait, what? You’re blaming eugenics on psychology? Why not blame it on biology? You know, the parent field of neurology and medicine? I mean, biology is where we got the Tuskegee syphilis study, so shouldn’t you be saying that biology is just as bad as Milo Yiannopoulos?

    Bah, I abhor speaking in generalities, and it’s even worse trying to critique someone else’s generalities. The vibe I’m getting is that you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when it comes to mental health, so all I can really do is hope that you avoid this subject in the future.

    Without the “chapter and verse” rant about why I hate psychology, as a field, I understand that it’s pretty easy to come off looking unsympathetic toward sufferers, or possibly come across as an ideologue like a scientologist.

    Indeed. And that’s why you’ve got people with mental health issues telling you you’ve got a blind spot.

  40. mythogen says

    Assuming that “psychology”, whatever you mean by that, is NOT on firm scientific ground because there are both horrific ethical lapses that can be labeled “psychology” and egregious methodological failings that can be so labeled is no better than what you accuse your interlocutors (presumably including me) of. My belief that there is firm scientific grounding (including clinical trials! Randomized and double blinded even!) to psychology comes from studying it in a university social work program. On the other hand, the only reason why I care that Marcus not smear psychology (which goes WAY past this one post, and yes I am arguing against more than the specific point in the OP) is that I have personal experience with being misled for a long and painful period of my life by the extensive stigmatization of mental health interventions that exists both in broader society and in this specific atheoskeptical freethinking subculture that FTB is immersed in.

    That stigma is both wrong and harmful but I’m focusing on the latter concern.

  41. says

    Holms@#37:
    I think this discussion would be aided by a more clear delineation from Marcus between psychology and psychiatry. The impression I get from here and from previous comments is that most of his ire is directed at the much less clinical psychology side.

    Yes, of course.

    My ire is directed at the historical side. That ought to be immediately clear to anyone, because of the examples I gave. It ought to be obvious that complaining about Freud’s fondness for nose-knifing doesn’t equate to a complaint against modern antidepressants! If I were making complaints about modern psychopharmacology, I would be making complaints about modern psychopharmacology.

    Clinical psychology needs to come in for its share of beatings, though. Part of psychology’s problem is that – until the early 1990s or so – it didn’t really separate where its bad ideas came from, from where its bad implementations of those bad ideas happened. When I was an undergraduate they were still teaching Freud and they were still teaching DSM and that homosexuality (for one example) was a disorder. The blame for clinical “homosexual cures” can be laid squarely at the feet of the theoretical side.

    To clarify: the reason I initially called out:

    What benefits it does provide, are fine. I am glad the people who are benefitting from it are doing so.
    Are you referring to psychopharmacology, or to cognitive therapies?

    is because those do work (otherwise I would have indicated in my comments that I believe the “benefits” are questionable)

    By all means, anyone who thinks they need help with their mental health should get help. I wouldn’t recommend they get help from a Freudian, Jungian, Taoist, Acupuncturist, Chiropractor or any of a long list of quacks.

    Hmm, perhaps an analogous situation can be found: there are sports medicine practitioners that use the language of chiropractic while downplaying the more obviously quackish aspects of subluxations and whatnot. It seems that their treatment has some value for the patients, as well. I am not going to refuse to critique chiropractic out of fear that someone who needs sports medicine will avoid those practitioners. I think that anyone who looks at the history of medicine as a field has to accept some responsibility for recognizing that it’s a field with a history of quackdom and they need to engage their brains a bit. I see this discussion as part of that process of engagement.

  42. says

    InvivoMark@#42:
    Marcus@26, Yes, and I’m sure before psychology, gay people were treated like royalty. And before psychology, there was no eugenics… wait, what? You’re blaming eugenics on psychology? Why not blame it on biology?

    I said “support for and development of” – I chose my words carefully.

    Nor did I blame homophobia on psychology – but it is impossible to deny that psychology helped formalize the stigmatization of gays. It also helped formalize the many ridiculous psychometrics that were used by the eugenicists. I don’t think the words “support for and development of” are incorrect.

    You know, the parent field of neurology and medicine? I mean, biology is where we got the Tuskegee syphilis study, so shouldn’t you be saying that biology is just as bad as Milo Yiannopoulos?

    Please stop being ridiculous. Seriously, if you’ve got to resort to grossly distorting my position, you’re just wasting both our time.

    The vibe I’m getting is that you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when it comes to mental health, so all I can really do is hope that you avoid this subject in the future.

    The “vibe you get” is wrong. You are attempting to read beyond what I say, and are blaming me for your reading. I can’t stop that, but I don’t appreciate it either.

  43. mythogen says

    Marcus

    I can see that we are very close to being in agreement. There are huge problems with the history of psychology, and Freud and his ilk are no more science than astrology, is to me. Unfortunately some modern day practitioners still rely, to varying extents, on those works. I believe that is one of the biggest problems with finding a useful therapist, that there is too little stigmatization of Freud, Jung, and other historical therapy modalities and so it’s entirely possible to run across one without knowing it’s all bullshit. However, those practitioners are a minority, a shrinking one, and the modern research field of psychology pays them no mind. You seem to conflate psychology research as it existed in the 1980s with it as it exists today, and use your justifiable disgust at frauds like Freud to discard the entire field a century later. I note that you mention CBT on occasion, but typically drop it in later references to your idea of what works (almost exclusively psychopharmacology based on neuroscience, as I understand you). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of CBT, and neglects to mention that CBT is the basis for a majority of contemporary research (and clinical practice) as well as the gold standard against which new modalities are compared (in randomized trials).

    Even now there are certainly problems with basic research (replication crisis, e.g. willpower depletion) and with poor implementations of sound therapies like CBT. You are not wrong about, as you say, the facts; merely misleadingly presenting an incomplete set of them. I’m glad I’m your response at #41 that the correct response to feeling in need of help is to get it, but my fundamental critique of harm here is that before that comment I strongly suspected that you would say otherwise. I haven’t read everything on stderr but I have read a lot (multiple weekly visits; I love your infosec stuff and critiques of military spending particularly), and I have never received the sense that you thought there was even pragmatic value in psychology until now.

    Obviously you aren’t at fault for my past choices or those of a putative 18-yo reading you today. But you are contributing to the environment in which respected writers of all stripes dish on psychology without giving the upside as much attention as it deserves. I don’t disagree with most of your critiques but they are not the whole field. And I present my experience simply to illustrate the impact that the environment you are helping create can have. In theory I and others should be able to see past your critiques and those of everyone else and take the steps we need to get help. In practice, I didn’t and many don’t, for a long time. In practice, an unbalanced environment in which legitimate critiques, personal hostility, and bullshit outmass balanced perspectives leads to fewer people seeking help.

  44. mythogen says

    (Note that I believe you are presenting legit critique and personal hostility; the bullshit isn’t your fault but it’s out there and your unbalanced presentation makes the bullshit seem less smelly IMO)

  45. mythogen says

    Additionally, I find it surprising that a computer scientist believes we can learn all we need to know about the mind by studying the brain’s structure; you surely wouldn’t say analogously that we can learn all we need to know about software by studying CPUs.

  46. says

    mythogen@#43:
    Assuming that “psychology”, whatever you mean by that, is NOT on firm scientific ground because there are both horrific ethical lapses that can be labeled “psychology”

    I think the problem here is that, as Holms points out, “psychology” is not a unitary thing. That there have been horrific lapses (scientific as well as ethical) in one part of psychology doesn’t mean that all of psychology is wrong. That’s why I called out psychopharmacology and cognitive behavioral therapies early on: there’s science being done there and there are beneficial results.

    I think it is great that psychopharmacology is able to benefit people, and I think that cognitive behavioral therapy is great, too.

    Here’s the problem: because I put the word “psychology” on a chart, our discussion treats “psychology” like it’s a single thing. It’s obvious to everyone involved in this discussion that there is no single “psychology” to reject – or promote. There’s historical psychology, various theories of psychology, psychopharmacology, even evolutionary psychology. There is a lot of “psychology” to talk about and I certainly regret not putting a clear listing of what parts of psychology I dismiss and which I do not on my poor little powerpoint chart! If I had been planning on engaging in a discussion of which parts of psychology are necrotic with pseudoscience, and when, and where, I probably would have occupied a couple of slides with just that topic (I have listed a few places where I think psychology has been largely a disaster, in this thread) – but because I used just the simple word “psychology” and then proceeded to trash rather a lot of things psychologists have gotten and done wrong, I guess someone can infer that I don’t like psychology – in spite of my attempting to call out a few parts of psychology that I think do work and that I do like.

    In terms of the “stigma” – I think we’re all overgeneralizing a bit much, and since this is my thread I’ll take the lion’s share of the responsibility for doing that. I promise that in the future if I am going to criticize psychology I will stick to criticizing specific facts about specific aspects of psychology. That way I won’t have anyone wailing “but what about the phrenologists!!?!? You threw the phrenologists under the bus by implication when you dismissed psychometry in general!!!”

    This is a quagmire of my own making because I tried to fit the entire field of “psychology” into a single word on a chart. That was definitely a blunder.

    I care that Marcus not smear psychology

    Next time I mention psychology, I will keep things very precise and focused on specifics.

    See, I dodged a bullet by specifically poking at iTunes on my chart rather than “social media” but I am waiting for someone to begin complaining that I unfairly stigmatized “talk radio” and that it’s not all bad, and some of it is actually pretty good, etc. Yadda yadda.

  47. says

    This sort of nitpicking ideological cleansing, admittedly carried out with guns rather than keyboards, handed Spain to the fascists for almost four decades.

    It contributed to giving the USA to an orange maniac for four years. That smug idiot Clinton was counting coup in the debates in precisely the manner you are here, just as a specific instance. Unfortunately Marcus wasn’t there to sort her out.

    To say that I disdain you people is to severely under state the case.

  48. says

    mythogen@#46:
    There are huge problems with the history of psychology, and Freud and his ilk are no more science than astrology, is to me. Unfortunately some modern day practitioners still rely, to varying extents, on those works. I believe that is one of the biggest problems with finding a useful therapist, that there is too little stigmatization of Freud, Jung, and other historical therapy modalities and so it’s entirely possible to run across one without knowing it’s all bullshit.

    When I was an undergrad, we did semesters on Freud, Jung, Maslow, etc. There was no discussion about that it was complete bullshit. There was even mild suppression of the embarrassing aspects of Freud’s human experiments. It was interesting because the first real scientific reasoning I encountered was Skinner who (rightly, I think!) argued that you cannot make inferences about the cognition an animal is doing – you can only measure the behavior. Then, the professor went on to complain about how limiting that was, because it’s really hard to make any inferences about what’s going on in a creature’s head based on just behavior. Ouch! My head nearly exploded … but I was already locked in so I couldn’t switch majors and still graduate on time. I think if that material had been presented as part of a brief discussion of the history of the field, that would have been fine. But I noticed that my introductory physics classes didn’t waste months on Epicurus’ cosmology – there was a serious disconnect there.

    I’ve had conversations with recent psych grads and I understand that those professors and that teaching have mostly died off and out. That’s a relief!

    You seem to conflate psychology research as it existed in the 1980s with it as it exists today, and use your justifiable disgust at frauds like Freud to discard the entire field a century later.

    Well, I discarded the entire field by compressing it into a single label for a chart. This was not intended to be a substantive debate about the merits of the entire field or I would have been more careful to frame things better. I could have dropped the discussion at #23 when I said:

    Because I am unimpressed with psychology doesn’t mean I have anything against people who benefit from it. Depending on what branch of psychology you’re talking about, though, it may be a question of why and to what degree.

    “Depending on what branch” is the clue. And I don’t think that my responses amount to discarding the entire field. I’m willing to slag off evolutionary psychology but not neuropsychology, for example. But isn’t everyone? (FEEBLE ATTEMPT AT HUMOR)

    I note that you mention CBT on occasion, but typically drop it in later references to your idea of what works

    For two reasons: 1) nobody was arguing about it and 2) CBT is a group of different therapies that I was lumping together and nobody (including me!) seemed to want to pick that apart. There are some CBT that are based on what I would probably characterize as bogus, yet they get results. Unlike psychopharmacological interventions, it’s really hard to double-blind CBT (impossible?) and there’s what I’d say is a pretty good chance that some amount of CBT is just an effect (as I implied earlier) that talking to other people about one’s problems sometimes helps (as we have known since ancient times) I strongly favor CBT because it does work even though I don’t think we can say we know why it works or how much. I will repeat for the record to anyone reading this: it works and if you need help with your mental health, you should try it.

    It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of CBT

    Let me ringingly endorse CBT: I have worked CBT exercises myself and with other people. Even people who do not feel they need help with their mental health may benefit from some CBT exercises. The Great Courses have a course that I recommend to anyone who is interested.

    Even now there are certainly problems with basic research (replication crisis, e.g. willpower depletion) and with poor implementations of sound therapies like CBT. You are not wrong about, as you say, the facts; merely misleadingly presenting an incomplete set of them.

    OK, now that’s a hit I will definitely acknowledge. I threw out a lot of facts about psychology, which were definitely an incomplete set. That could mislead someone. I should have been clear that “this is not all I think about psychology” but rather that I was listing “this is a lot of the stuff that I loathe about psychology.” I should have been clearer about that.

    The way I see it: the basic attack against psychology, historically, is devastating. The field should have renamed itself “neuropsychology” and CBT and disclaimed any involvement with the old edifice. And then we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all because I’d be a strong proponent of carefully implemented neuropsychology and CBT and we’d all be throwing mental rocks at the “psychologists” (which bucket would evolutionary psychology go in…?)

    I acknowledge that by launching the strongest attack against historical psychology, I conveyed an unbalanced view.
    In my defense: this was all in the context of comparing the benefits of entire fields of human endeavor and initially I was trying to be a bit funny. I failed at that.

    But you are contributing to the environment in which respected writers of all stripes dish on psychology without giving the upside as much attention as it deserves.

    I accept that and I will be more careful in the future.

    By the way, I also get pissed off when someone slags off all of philosophy, as some of my “science heroes” have done. Because, of course, not all philosophers are pyrrhonians, etc. So, I understand where you’re coming from there and I accept your criticism as valid: I radically overstated my position, and should have been clearer about where I think good work is being done.

  49. says

    mythogen@#48:
    Additionally, I find it surprising that a computer scientist believes we can learn all we need to know about the mind by studying the brain’s structure; you surely wouldn’t say analogously that we can learn all we need to know about software by studying CPUs.

    I don’t think I said that!!
    I think we can learn some things about the mind by studying the brain’s structure, but I think it’s way early days, yet.

    For example, there are definitely cognitive effects that result from neurotransmitter levels. I think we can agree that is a fact. And you can manipulate them and the manipulations also have effects. So, we can say that there is a cause/effect relationship and there’s some predictive power to the manipulations and that’s about as good as it gets for science.
    On the other hand, there is the huge debate around what behaviors are learned and what behaviors come from somewhere else – I’m reluctant to even say “are genetic…” because I don’t think we even know enough to make strong statements there: things like serotonin levels are changed presumably because of some genetic predispositions but they also appear to be behavioral (and that’s without getting into whether taking a hit of ecstacy is “behavioral” or what…) And it certainly seems that a great amount – the vast majority ? – of our behaviors are learned, which means they’re a result of our genetic predispositions to learn and how our learning experiences are embodied in the linkages and activation levels of our nerves. That’s bumping up against the limits of my knowledge, there, so I hope I decorated that with enough waffle.

    I hate it because I know it reduces accuracy but I do tend to analogize things in terms of what I am familiar with: computer architectures. I’m not going to argue by analogy because I think it tends to obscure more than it clarifies but there are some things that are part of the underlying architecture and some things that are part of the mutable “software” layer and we can probably learn some things about the architecture through observing it, while learning about the mutable “software” layer is a whole different problem. I think PZ’s posts regarding the unfeasability of “downloading” pretty accurately capture my view. And I’m happy about that, because if I found my impression disagreeing with PZ’s in that area, I’d want to reassess my facts in light of his, because I’d probably made a mistake.

    So, to the topic of psychology: I have a specific problem with the root cause analysis of some problems. Because they have to, neuropsychologists may say something like that there is a relationship between serotonin levels and patient experience of what we call depression. We need a word for that, so we call it depression: it’s the term for an experience and it becomes a set of attributes that the patient can measure against. Where I get lost is when we move beyond the set of attributes to an underlying “disorder” – psychology, historically, has been fond of defining “disorders” but really, to me, it seems they are often listing behaviors. That’s necessary because of the problem between what is behavioral and what is, uh, everything else. So I think it’s necessary to have a word like “depression” in order to talk about this thing that clearly is a thing, but I’m uncomfortable that there’s not a root cause analysis, yet. Neuroscientists are getting there, and I wish them all the success. What would make me happy is if there was a test for “depression” – I know that’s a pipe dream (for now) This is a place where I get lost in language nihilism. That doesn’t mean I am saying there is no such thing as depression. There definitely is – I’d sooner say “there’s no such thing as ‘red’!” I just wish we could define some of this stuff a bit tighter because we are diagnosing people as having disorders when I don’t really know what the disorder is. That’s why I’m fairly careful to avoid talking about “disorders” and it’s one of my complaints about historical psychology (and a fair bit of pop psychology) – people throw around terms like “narcissistic personality disorder” and I want a test not a laundry list of observed behaviors. Because I can’t tell the difference from someone who has “narcissistic personality disorder” and an actor.

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