In an earlier posting, I set up a general attack on fields of study with an aim to being able to claim that they are “discredited” [stderr] – so that, at some point, we can say “phrenology is bunk” without having to endure a cascade of phreno-apologetics in response.
In my opinion, when a field has been shown to be consistently peddling pseudo-science for decades, there comes a point when its practitioners ought to stop trying to repair it, skulk away, change its name, and come back re-invigorated with the addition of new science. For example, some chiropractors were legitimately trying to help their patients (even though the patients were lured in under false pretexts) and sidled away from talking about “subluxations” and began figuring out massage and stretching techniques that may have actually been beneficial – lifting ideas from yoga and sports medicine and taking advantage of the placebo effect – eventually, the old roots of a complete pseudo-science are ripped out and new shoots of evidence-based interventions can begin to appear.
Those pseudo-scientific roots are problems, though, because the field now has to deprecate or even deny them: go ahead and ask a chiropractor about detecting subluxations – most current practitioners, in the harsh light of an era that has CT scans, prefer to talk about “mis-alignment”; what we’re witnessing is a pseudo-science trying to evolve and survive by swapping out its underlying epistemology for one that works. Imagine if the phrenologists had discovered E-meters before the scientologists did, and subtly started replacing “bumps and dents on the skull” with galvanic skin response. We’d probably still have phrenology studios next to Whole Foods in some markets, and shallow-minded movie starts with marketing tie-ins would be pushing them on TV. Usually in pseudo-science, the field just crawls off and dies quietly and its proponents take up some new pseudo-science that hasn’t been debunked, yet: the phrenologists start doing Reiki and magnetic bands and life goes on. Then, we have to attack the underlying epistemology of magnetic bands, and life goes on.What keeps a pseudo-science from swapping out their underlying epistemology and springing forth like some kind of horrible new caterpillar of bullshit that has metamorphosed into a great big bullshit-fly? The only thing that prevents it is skeptical analysis applied to the field as a whole. So, when that Hollywood star starts pushing E-meters, we can dismiss them entirely as being the branch of a toxic tree. The way to do skeptical analysis of a field as a whole is to look at its evolution, and the way its underlying epistemology has changed, and point out that it’s been bullshit since its inception.
To be fair, there are always practitioners that are sincere, and who are critiquing their field, trying to improve it – these are the “true believers”, and I’m not sure whether they’re a net benefit, or not. Imagine if there was a brilliant phrenologist, who also invented a form of IQ testing and promoted it as linked to phrenology somehow. As we can see, IQ testing still has its proponents, it has staying-power and we’d probably have phrenology studios all over the country, and an organization called “MENSA” that required certain bumps and dents on one’s head in order to join their breeding-pool. The danger, in other words, is when you’ve got a field that is horribly and consistently wrong, engages in multi-generational pseudo-scientific behavior, abuses patients’ trust and is responsible for horrible unethical studies on unaware patients, then – when it should be dying from neglect – gloms on to some actual science and manages to survive.
I’m referring, of course, to psychology.
Now, I’ve been accused before of “hating psychology.” I don’t. Dismissing chiropractic as pseudo-science doesn’t mean I hate any individual chiropractor – I’m just on to their game and I’m pointing out flaws in their field. It’s not my fault that their epistemology is broken, it’s their fault that they haven’t put it down and walked on. One thing that often comes up when I talk about psychology is “yeah, sure the field has made some mistakes…” followed by “… but people nowadays are doing good work.” Yep, absolutely. It is impossible to deny that; in fact we should celebrate it. It’s also impossible to deny that psychology has a long and rich history of being a pseudo-science until relatively recently.
Since the 1980s psychology has glommed on to neuroscience and has produced some favorable outcomes in the form of psychopharmacology – unquestionably allowing some people to have better lives than they otherwise would. I don’t even complain about the massive amount of human experimentation that’s been going on, because it’s necessary to experience the outcomes of psychopharmacological interventions, in order to report on them. There are still serious issues regarding consent, if the premise is that a psychopharmacological intervention is being performed on someone who is non compos mentis (can’t consent) with the premise of helping them compos their mentis. Medicine always has experimented on human subjects [stderr] and there have always been abuses and unethical studies. If you read something like Siddartha Muhkerjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies [recommended reading] it is impossible to avoid the realization that a great deal of medicine has been in the form of desperate experimentation on the basis that “doing nothing is worse.” But it’s important for you to understand that psychology has only recently gotten to that point: for most of its history, some old guy would ask a patient to look at some rorschach blots, or something, and would then commit them to a cell and bondage, or a lobotomy, or whatever pseudo-science was the vogue at that time, based on extremely tenuous theories of mechanism.
I am, seriously, amazed that psychologists didn’t come up with a new branding for their field, and dismiss the old one entirely. It would have been easier. You need to understand that during the 1970s Janov’s “primal scream therapy” was a therapeutic modality of psychology that was part of the mainstream. What’s it based on? Nothing. It’s based on some stuff that Janov pulled out of his ass one fine day.
Psychology’s mainstream started with Freud asserting a bunch of stuff, which is still part of the popular language (“ego”, “id”, etc) – people today talk about psychological states using a vocabulary that rests on terms that have been conclusively debunked, unless there’s still a Freudian in the room who wants to take up the clubs for Freud’s epistemology. It’s easy to dismiss stuff like Janov as “pop psychology” but before you do that, you need to acknowledge that it’s all “pop psychology” until neuroscience came along. The entire mainstream of psychology was pop psychology.
There have always been strong internal critiques of the social sciences, and – to me – they are devastating. Some of them are entirely self-inflicted (I don’t think Zimbardo was trying to debunk his entire field but he did it for me) but others, unfortunately, suffered from the epistemological problem that critiquing psychology is done using the language of psychology, and also comes out sounding a bit mush-brained. R.D. Laing, for example, [wikipedia] made a powerful critique of psychology as a field, but he immediately got demonized as “anti-psychology” and his critique was absorbed. [antipsychology] Wikipedia summarizes it fairly:
He also challenged psychiatric diagnosis itself, arguing that diagnosis of a mental disorder contradicted accepted medical procedure: diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour or conduct, and examination and ancillary tests that traditionally precede the diagnosis of viable pathologies (like broken bones or pneumonia) occurred after the diagnosis of mental disorder (if at all). Hence, according to Laing, psychiatry was founded on a false epistemology: illness diagnosed by conduct, but treated biologically.
Laing’s problem was that he was not content to destroy psychology’s epistemology, he tried to fill the vacuum with his own load of assertions pulled out of his nether-regions. From where I sit, the history of psychology looks like an endless repeat of that cycle: Jung demolishes Freud and then everyone is doing Jungian analysis. Then Maslow comes along and everyone is trying to self-actualize. Skinner tries to correct the skid, and we have a brief period in which psychology tries to science with Piaget, Lorenz, and Tinbergen – hey, maybe we should observe actual patients before we hypothesize. But it turns out that scientific epistomology is so limiting and it’s easier to just pull stuff from your butt and then there’s the deluge of pop psychology of the “feel normal” 60s and 70s where it became a gold-rush of crazy theories and drugs. Don’t forget the drugs.
Right now, psychology has a big problem (aka: “the replication crisis”) which you’ve probably heard of. In a nutshell, it turns out that a tremendous amount of the studies that social sciences depend on – are bunk. It ought to have been obvious to everyone (it was obvious to me as an undergrad in 1985) that you’re not measuring anything you can generalize from about humans, when you give college undergrads a survey and ask them to fill it out while they’re walking across the quad. I used to amuse myself by asking my professors questions like “how do you know we can generalize from rat-behaviors onto human behaviors?” and “aren’t ivy league university undergrads an inherently biased sample?” I got a bad grade from the TA that I asked “how is self-actualization different from just being happy?”
One of the central goals in any scientific endeavor is to understand causality. Experiments that seek to demonstrate a cause/effect relation most often manipulate the postulated causal factor. Aarts et al. describe the replication of 100 experiments reported in papers published in 2008 in three high-ranking psychology journals. Assessing whether the replication and the original experiment yielded the same result according to several criteria, they find that about one-third to one-half of the original findings were also observed in the replication study. [science]
I think that most of it’s not scientific misconduct; it’s just people fooling themselves when their results match their expectations. (“confirmation bias”) But it’s important, because our vocabulary has become infested with terms drawn from studies (“cognitive dissonance”, “ego depletion”…) and we don’t understand that the epistemological underpinnings of those words have been nullified. For example, “ego depletion” was one study that was not successfully replicated, and besides, “ego” is some word Freud pulled out of his ass to describe something that we don’t even understand. Some of these things may be real, some of them may not: but there’s this vast tangled thicket of concepts that really, really, need a weeding.
This isn’t a general call for people to reject psychology; it’s not going to happen anyway. But I often see people in the atheoskeptical world trying to support their arguments with social science papers – as if they are some kind of magic talisman that confers truth – when the whole field of psychology is on such shaky ground that rational people ought to avoid referencing it, entirely. But psychology is a fast-mutating freight train of ideas, and it’s going to go somewhere, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. If you find yourself (as I do) scratching your head over evolutionary psychology’s “just so stories” you need to remember that that’s just the current evolution of a crooked tree of “just so stories” going back to Freud. They’re just trying to justify their assumptions based on as-yet unmeasured evolutionary influences, instead of other as-yet unmeasured influences like head bumps or subluxations. I don’t expect you to reject it, just – please – be a bit more cautious about it. If someone is quoting studies at you, look for the sampling bias and whether it’s self-selected or self-reported subjective states.
Inevitably, when I take a poke a psychology, someone will come along and say “but it saves people!” Yes, that’s why I carefully carved psychopharmacology out of the mix, early on. There is some solid evidence that some psychopharmacological interventions improve people’s lives. I’m completely in favor of that. I believe we should continue experimenting on humans as necessary, because it’s going to be an important part of figuring out how humans work. Having witnessed people who’ve been in subject to psychopharmacological interventions, I’m of the opinion that the experimentation is mostly trial-and-error and there’s nothing wrong with that (after all, that’s how all of modern medicine appears to work) – I do, however, think we are going a bit far in terms of indemnifying doctors that prescribe drugs. The big reality check, for me, in that respect was when a friend of mine was put on SSRIs for a while, and taken off, and experienced a huge upsurge in suicidal ideation. Apparently, that’s fairly common but the doctor prescribing them didn’t seem to feel it was necessary to mention that to the patient or family – you know, “be on the lookout…” kind of stuff. Unfortunately, because of my historical perspective on psychology as a field, I see that as part of a long-term trend of irresponsible practice of medicine. I hope psychology grows up and gets its act together soon, because the population that is experiencing psychopharmacological interventions is at an all-time high and the epistemology of psychology hasn’t really advanced far past the rorschach blots of the victorians.
There’s a good list (in an online psychology course) of “the 25 most influential psychology studies” [guide] It’s unintended irony, but those are a bunch of really really horrible experiments – and for some reason they included the murder of Kitty Genovese as a data-point. OMG, psychology!
Regarding my clip of Janov: I am not trying to say that “because Janov is full of shit, all of psychology is full of shit.” He’s just one example of many of the kind of pseudo-scientific claptrap that psychologists have been spouting since Freud. I could probably find video of any given major proponent of psychology spouting some utterly absurd nonsense that was essential to their theory but then this posting would be huge. Don’t believe me? Here’s Maslow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DOKZzbuJQA Remember: Maslow was main-stream psychology in the 60s and 70s and the whole “I’m OK you’re OK” nonsense came from his theory of “self-actualization” and that morphed eventually into the theory of self-image by picking up some nonsense from Sartre, and a bit of B.S. from Ayn Rand. Don’t believe me? Do the research.
I should mention, again – not as an appeal to authority, but to forestall anyone saying “what do you know about psychology?” I do have a BA in psychology from Johns Hopkins University, 1985. It doesn’t get much more ivy-covered than that when you’re talking medicine (which psychology purports to be sort of part of). I welcome people arguing “you’re wrong about this” or that, but I’m not going to accept “you’re ignorant about psychology” unless it’s from my undergraduate advisor, Professor Olton [rip], who, unfortunately can no longer rule on my qualities as a student. Yes, he was a neuroscientist: everyone who went through the psych program at JHU got a lot of neuroscience because of the connection to the medical school and hospital.
A little bit more on Laing’s argument: people often say that “psychology is not trying to do medicine, so it cannot be held to the epistemological standards of medical diagnosis.” The problem with that line of reasoning is that psychology is doing medicine – giving someone pills, or a lobotomy, or any other intervention is medicine – unless the presupposition is that it’s not actually doing anything. In which case it’s a placebo. In my opinion, Laing’s argument ought to have destroyed the field of psychology, paved it over, and turned it into a parking lot for the neuroscientists to park their cars.