When is a Field Discredited? (2)


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.

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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.

“regarding psychology’s assumptions” – Marcus Ranum 2017. Ultraviolet “invisible” ink and sharpie, ultraviolet flashlight.

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.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The problem sidestepped here is the functional need for models of what goes on in other peoples’ heads.

    Except for the pre-Friday Robinson Crusoe, we all require one – and will eagerly grab whatever we can from the first/next person who gives us an “aha!” rush.

  2. Hj Hornbeck says

    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.

    Hooold up, poor sample choice has nothing to do with the replication crisis. It’s precisely what it says on the tin: published studies have a poor track record of being replicated by other researchers. If your bullshit questionnaire shows consistent patterns, other researchers should be able to find consistent patterns too. If it doesn’t, the statistics used by science should flag that and social norms will prevent it from being posted.

    That ain’t happening. Why that’s the case is somewhat up for debate, but it’s probably some combination of publication bias and systematic statistical bias with a light sprinkling of fraud.

    Also, this isn’t exclusive to psychology. Nature did a survey of 1,576 researchers, and one of the questions was if they’d failed to replicate someone else’s published findings. The worst field was… chemistry (roughly 85%!). Less extreme results were found in biology (~75%), physics (~70%), medicine and environmental (~65%), and “other” (~60%). That link also mentions two large-scale replication efforts; the one for psychology research had a 40% success rate, while the one for cancer drug research had a terrifying 11% success rate.

  3. says

    As we can see, IQ testing still has its proponents

    I once knew a guy who bragged about having an IQ score of 150, while also believing everything Alex Jones said and talking nonsense about vaccines causing autism, 9/11 being an inside job and the evils of water fluoridation. And I’m pretty certain he wasn’t telling lies about the IQ score. Apparently having a high score on an IQ test doesn’t protect you from sounding like a fool. Nor has it any other real life implications.

    I’m referring, of course, to psychology.

    It’s not just psychology. Philology is the same.

    Literary analysis is simply a joke. In university we once had to analyze Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” with a professor who offered his interpretation. Then a year later we had to analyze the same text with another professor who offered a totally different interpretation. That sure convinced me that we are doing something useful and scientific. By the way, I never figured out why people even bother doing literary analysis. It’s just pointless opinions about what you believe the author wanted to say.

    Linguistics isn’t much better. Consider this one. Human languages are too complicated for a kid to learn them (that’s called “poverty of the stimulus”), therefore: universal grammar. WTF? But, hey, Noam Chomsky came up with this bullshit, therefore it’s correct.

    It’s also impossible to deny that psychology has a long and rich history of being a pseudo-science until relatively recently.

    That’s also true about other sciences, for example, chemistry. Except that chemists figured out that alchemy is stupid, therefore they should better pick a new name and pretend alchemists never existed.

    Unfortunately psychology still talks about its stupid roots. At school I had a course, which was supposed to be introduction to psychology. We learned about Freud, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the four temperament types etc. Even my 16 years old self was skeptical about Freud, but I accepted the rest back then. A few years later I had a university course, which was supposed to be an introduction to psychology. Teacher tried to make it sound less stupid, but she hardly succeeded. We were learning about all sorts of theories, which were hardly any better than Maslov. And then came the worst part – a literature course, where the teacher was teaching us about Freud, and she actually believed that Freud was correct and his ideas should be used for analyzing literary texts. She became very angry when I dared to ask annoying questions and suggested that Freud was wrong. Fast forward a few more years and I had another literature course (in another university) where the teacher was talking about Freud. We were reading Sophocles “Oedipus” and talking about Freud’s “Oedipus complex”. The weird thing was that my classmates actually considered Freud’s theory reasonable. When I loudly asked “am I really the only person in this classroom who does not want to have sex with one of my parents”, none of my classmates answered. Go figure. After my vocal protests that what we are learning is stupid, my professor admitted that she does not agree with Freud’s theories and we are having this lesson for historical reasons. I asked, “If you also think this is silly, why are we learning this without any critical commentaries about Freud?” “This course was made by another professor, I’m just teaching it.” Oh well, at least she was honest. By the way, I’m 25. These examples aren’t historical, this is what is currently happening in schools and universities.

    I don’t dismiss all psychological experiments though. If it’s a questionnaire, then it can be dismissed. People suck at accurately evaluating themselves. And psychology suffers from sampling bias and poor understanding of statistics and the rest of issues that always pop up everywhere.

    But some experiments, which observe actual human behavior, seem plausible for me. Let’s assume you have a hypothesis that people eat more food when given larger bowls and larger spoons. You get two groups of participants, one group gets big bowls and big spoons and the other group gets smaller bowls and smaller spoons. The experiment takes place in what looks like a normal restaurant and the researchers carefully weight how much food each person eats. Results show that statistically people really eat more when given bigger spoons and bigger bowls and every time you do a trial, the result is always the same. You conclude that people should be encouraged to eat from smaller bowls (unless they want to gain weight). By the way, this is Brian Wansink’s research. I don’t see what’s wrong with such experiments.

    I got a bad grade from the TA that I asked “how is self-actualization different from just being happy?”

    Yeah, I also have gotten plenty of bad grades, because I dared to argue with my professors. Theoretically science is supposed to be “whoever has the best arguments is right”. Yet somehow part of professors believe that “whoever is older and has more diplomas is right”. And the punishment for disagreeing is bad grades. It’s almost a miracle they didn’t kick me out of the university altogether.

    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.

    I have done that too. Last time I remember was when I was making an argument that people have a tendency to do whatever others around them are doing, and I supported my claim with a reference of Asch conformity experiments. I understand there are a lot of problems with psychology research. And sometimes different studies get results, which support the exact opposite claims. (Try searching for studies, which deal with cognitive differences between men and women!) But not listing any references to social science papers, which support my claims, isn’t any better. If I did that, I would be making claims out of thin air.

    Of course one solution would be to not talk about topics, which require social science papers to support your claims. But I doubt that can be done. Earlier in this comment I made a claim that “people suck at accurately evaluating themselves.” How do I know that? In my life I have witnessed a couple of instances, where somebody utterly failed at evaluating themselves. But that’s a ridiculously lousy reason for concluding that “people suck at accurately evaluating themselves.” What I saw were a couple of instances and that’s a really tiny sample. Alternatively I could reference at social sciences paper where researchers told people to do something and then asked them to evaluate how well they performed. In contrast with my observation (a tiny sample) those researchers at least had more test subjects.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:
    The problem sidestepped here is the functional need for models of what goes on in other peoples’ heads.

    A fair point.

    I believe that many of the things that we have tried to do in the field of psychology, have been attempted because they would be useful and important if they worked. I hope my observations don’t contradict any of that – I welcome attempts to understand people’s minds, and I very strongly believe that it should be done using scientific methods where possible, and the methods of science should be developed and expanded where it’s not. That’s why I am supportive of neuroscience to the point where I believe psychology should be temporarily dropped for a couple decades, while neuroscience continues to help figure out what’s actually going on in people’s heads. Then we can start building cognitive models and behavioral models on top of that.

    My main – or only, really, beef with psychology is the stereotypical psychology theorist who has a few ideas about one of their friends, and announces some castle-in-the-sky framework that has no epistemological basis at all. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all of psychology until Skinner, Tinbergen, Piaget, and Lorenz began actually trying to understand actual behaviors in actual animals. One of the reasons I always add Tinbergen and Lorenz to the list is because they implicitly pointed out that other animals have “psychology” too and it’s different yet similar to humans. I believe that the dawning awareness that all thinking animals with brains are built out of the same stuff, organized differently, and that the organization and quantity appear to be key to behavior. That’s a somewhat academic argument but since a Gorilla (for example) is made of the same stuff as a human, albeit organized differently, and has similar experiences with regard to having parents as a human, Freud’s fanciful nonsense projecting his personal “issues” with his sexuality and parenting can’t be used for a model for humans or gorillas without explaining the difference in organization and experience and how they affect the mind. Obviously, that’s a very high bar for psychology to meet, but I think eventually it will. It will have to.

  5. says

    HJ Hornbeck@#2:
    Hooold up, poor sample choice has nothing to do with the replication crisis. It’s precisely what it says on the tin: published studies have a poor track record of being replicated by other researchers. If your bullshit questionnaire shows consistent patterns, other researchers should be able to find consistent patterns too. If it doesn’t, the statistics used by science should flag that and social norms will prevent it from being posted.

    Fair enough, I didn’t fully explore the whys of the replication crisis, and conflated it to a point regarding problems with sampling. There’s a lot more than that going on. Sampling bias is a problem, in general, and it’s one of the things that leads to non-replication. There’s a broader problem, which is what I alluded to, that papers are published that purport to measure something about humans in general, but which are actually measuring something about university undergraduates in particular. That’s an error that, even in psych 101, we were taught about – and taught to wish it away a few semesters later.

    Yeah, I also have gotten plenty of bad grades, because I dared to argue with my professors.

    To be fair, that wasn’t a problem with psychology. That was a problem with “snotty sophomores” and perhaps stodgy professors. I am quite sure that my tone of voice when asking those questions, would have set just about anyone on edge. Of course, it would have been an easy question for the professor to dismiss, if they had anything in their arsenal of arguments except to attempt a long circular argument to define ‘self actualization’ without using any of the language of ‘happiness’ — by the way, that’s a tremendously painful project. Professor Maury Silver ran a full semester class on cognition and language, in which we tried to define things without falling into circular definitions. It’s devilishly difficult.

    Also, this isn’t exclusive to psychology. Nature did a survey of 1,576 researchers, and one of the questions was if they’d failed to replicate someone else’s published findings. The worst field was… chemistry (roughly 85%!). Less extreme results were found in biology (~75%), physics (~70%), medicine and environmental (~65%), and “other” (~60%). That link also mentions two large-scale replication efforts; the one for psychology research had a 40% success rate, while the one for cancer drug research had a terrifying 11% success rate.

    Yes, a good point. I should have been careful to point out that the replication crisis has been a big problem in many fields.

    It just seems particularly devastating, to me, in the social sciences, because of their tendency to rely on self-reported states. That’s inherently problematic. Also: neutrons or acids don’t grow up influenced by cultural attitudes or different social classes. Imagine if physicists had to worry whether they were measuring the behavior of a representative sample of electrons across the social class of electrons, because electrons that grep up wealthy tend to like to spin right, or whatever. And, worse, the electrons have an incentive to lie about that…

    Hopefully, I haven’t been as ferociously critical of the many good faith attempts to learn something about groups of subjects’ behaviors, which have been attempted using the tools of science. I think a lot of them as sketchy but at least they are trying. The main axis of my contempt for psychology is aimed at practitioners of the “sit in your armchair and assert some grandiose framework” version: Freud, Jung, Maslow, Janov, and many more. When I was an undergrad one of my teachers broke psychology down into “before Skinner and after” and then proceeded to complain about how Skinner had damn near stopped the train rolling. “Well, yes, what a spoilsport,” I thought. Skinner was the foremost proponent of, you know, measuring what organisms did in certain situations, i.e.: science. It’s damn awkward stuff.

  6. jrkrideau says

    Right now, psychology has a big problem (aka: “the replication crisis”)

    It might be more accurate to say that many areas of science have a replication crisis but psychology has actually begun to address the issue. Have a look at the problems in drug development. The same issues are found there, they just have not gotten the publicity. See Hj Hornbeck @ 2 for a further discussion.

    Psychology’s mainstream started with Freud

    No. Freud was never a psychologist. God knows what he was but he was not a psychologist. You are conflating psychotherapy and psychology. I don’t know much about Jung except he seems nuttier than a fruitcake but he was not a psychologist either as far as I can see.

    Wilhelm Wundt was probably the first academic psychologist. He opened first experimental laboratory in psychology at the University of Leipzig in 1879.

    Skinner was a psychologist who essentially founded the field of the experimental analysis of behaviour. He did not stop any skid, he simply advanced behavioural science in some specific areas.

    Let’s see, I know the name R. D. Laing but I have never read anything by him. If I can trust the Wiki on him, he was not a psychologist but a psychiatrist.

    I don’t know if you noticed but even your quote points that out: “He also challenged psychiatric diagnosis itself”.

    Again, you are conflating the fields. They are not the same, though I will concede that some clinical psychology (a small distinct sub-field in psychology) share some of the same assumptions (and neuroses?).

    Admittedly Maslow and his damned “hierarchy of needs” is a continuing embarrassment but it has great “face validity” and probably for the last 30-40 years has been more popular with novelists and the “self-actualizing” crowd than any psychologist. I’ll have to look at a couple of undergrad intro texts and see if it is still mentioned.

    When the whole field of psychology is on such shaky ground

    Well, no. Many parts of psychology are on quite sound ground and even where some of it is shaky it is more likely that, not the entire area is shaky but that there are some shonky research threads.

    Parts of social psychology due to what appears to be bad theory and poor research practices is very dicey and much of the “the replication crisis” worry seems to be coming from that area.

    One of the enduring problems in human psychological research has been under-powered studies. As Andrew Gelman the statistician and political scientist pointed out in blog post a few months ago people (including him if I read it correctly) is that we did not realize the drastic problems that came with low power.

    Gelman argues that Null hypothesis significance testing or “NHST” is not the appropriate tool to use in most cases when analyzing data. He argues that Bayesian approaches are more appropriate in many instances.

    Inevitably, when I take a poke a psychology, someone will come along and say “but it saves people!”

    What the hell does that have to do with psychology? Again you are conflating psychiatry and psychology. Oh, there are some research areas where the resulting knowledge hopefully will directly help people: Developmental language research into language disabilities comes to mind. But it does not save people!”.

    Elizabeth Loftus’ work in the area of false memory may have “saved” people by keeping them out of prison.

    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.

    Not my area but AFAIK there are not a lot of psychologists doing psycho-pharmacological research. Again, I think you are conflating psychiatry and psychology.

    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.

    This has nothing at all to do with psychology. It is medical doctors who prescribe these drugs.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Ieva Skrebele
    Where and when did you go to university? Clearly sometime in the 1930’s but was it in North America?

    We,reportedly, had one lecture in intro psych about Freud for historical reasons but I missed it and we never heard about all that nonsense from then on.

  8. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#3:
    once knew a guy who bragged about having an IQ score of 150, while also believing everything Alex Jones said and talking nonsense about vaccines causing autism, 9/11 being an inside job and the evils of water fluoridation. And I’m pretty certain he wasn’t telling lies about the IQ score. Apparently having a high score on an IQ test doesn’t protect you from sounding like a fool. Nor has it any other real life implications.

    Well, I’ve got to disagree with you there. It does have real life implications: it measures how well you are likely to do on IQ tests. As you say, anything else? Nope. But, like most tests, it does a good job of predicting how well you will do on the test.

    In university we once had to analyze Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” with a professor who offered his interpretation. Then a year later we had to analyze the same text with another professor who offered a totally different interpretation. That sure convinced me that we are doing something useful and scientific. By the way, I never figured out why people even bother doing literary analysis. It’s just pointless opinions about what you believe the author wanted to say.

    I never paid that much attention to interpretive analysis; I did one class on modern poetry/analysis in my freshman year and it was the same sort of thing you describe: you could trot out a complete line of bullshit and as long as it sounded like you’d put some work into it, you’d get an A.

    It would be fun to go back and ask my TA whether, “if there is any empirical basis behind this sort of analysis, wouldn’t everyone analyzing a particular poem reach similar conclusions?” It’s sort of the same argument that Penn and Teller did in the Bullshit! show, with the acupuncturists: they had a number of acupuncturists perform an assessment and recommend a cure and – of course – they each came up with something different. The only commonality was they all involved needles and charged by the hour. I’m not sure whether that equates to a high quality refutation of their underlying epistemology, or not, but if it is it’d also refute most of psychoanalysis.

    That’s also true about other sciences, for example, chemistry. Except that chemists figured out that alchemy is stupid, therefore they should better pick a new name and pretend alchemists never existed.

    Exactly my recommendation to psychologists: get off the bus, start doing science, and call yourselves “cognitive scientists” or something, then pretend all that old stuff never happened. Talking about “ego” and “id” and various personality disorders has exactly the same epistemological problem as talking about being a “scorpio” or an “ENTP” Oh, shit, now I’ve done it — I mentioned Myers-Briggs. Normally, I would go on a 4-5 page-long screed about what a horrible travesty that is, but in the context of psychology as a whole, it’s not really any worse than IQ tests, Jungian psychoanalysis or dream analysis, or astrology.

    Unfortunately psychology still talks about its stupid roots. At school I had a course, which was supposed to be introduction to psychology. We learned about Freud, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the four temperament types etc. Even my 16 years old self was skeptical about Freud, but I accepted the rest back then. A few years later I had a university course, which was supposed to be an introduction to psychology. Teacher tried to make it sound less stupid, but she hardly succeeded. We were learning about all sorts of theories, which were hardly any better than Maslov. And then came the worst part – a literature course, where the teacher was teaching us about Freud, and she actually believed that Freud was correct and his ideas should be used for analyzing literary texts.

    Yes, that’s an important point: even when psychology has tried to rein back some of its worst excesses of bullshit, the terminology has seeped into our vocabulary. As I mentioned in the OP, it’s difficult to even critique psychology without using its own terms, because they are so pervasive. If you start thinking about some of the words we have adopted into our vocabulary, three of the greatest sources of ‘memes’ are: Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and psychology. I think the one of those that is most defensible is Shakespeare because he was doing art and writing poetry and putting language together in interesting ways is what you do. Nietzsche did a fair bit of that as well.

    Psychology has a huge epistemological problem that’s tied up with diagnosis, and that was R. D. Laing’s point. Laing wasn’t the first psychologist to say that, but the field just tends to absorb that sort of critique and roll on! There’s money to be made and patients to do things to, I suppose.

    I asked, “If you also think this is silly, why are we learning this without any critical commentaries about Freud?” “This course was made by another professor, I’m just teaching it.” Oh well, at least she was honest. By the way, I’m 25. These examples aren’t historical, this is what is currently happening in schools and universities.

    Yes. They were talking about Freud and Maslow and Jung when I was an undergrad in the early 1980s – yet, when someone like myself criticizes the entire field of psychology, there is often someone who’ll come along and say “we don’t teach that stuff, anymore.” Yeah, right.

    In other sciences, say, physics, they mention Blondlot and his N-rays as a cautionary tale while explaining experimental design. Psychology spends a semester on all these crackpot theories of the mind and seldom mentions that they’re just some stuff some old guy pulled out of his pie-hole one day. There doesn’t need to be critical analysis of Freud: it needs to be mentioned and dismissed as a cautionary tale.

    But some experiments, which observe actual human behavior, seem plausible for me. Let’s assume you have a hypothesis that people eat more food when given larger bowls and larger spoons. You get two groups of participants, one group gets big bowls and big spoons and the other group gets smaller bowls and smaller spoons. The experiment takes place in what looks like a normal restaurant and the researchers carefully weight how much food each person eats. Results show that statistically people really eat more when given bigger spoons and bigger bowls and every time you do a trial, the result is always the same. You conclude that people should be encouraged to eat from smaller bowls (unless they want to gain weight). By the way, this is Brian Wansink’s research. I don’t see what’s wrong with such experiments.

    Which people do you measure? And, if you’re trying to generalize the results of the experiment into an intervention, (smaller bowls to lose weight) then it would make more sense to skip the intermediate step – which is an assumption – see if smaller bowls or larger bowls affect people’s weight gain or loss. But then there’s another problem, which is that the subjects may be from a civilization that is concerned with weight, or that has experienced famine. I think that experiment may measure something but there are going to be cultural factors that may be impossible to eliminate. (by the way, having grandparents that grew up in the great depression and faced starvation, some of your subjects may have been raised that you always clear your plate – it may have nothing to do with plate size and everything to do with their grandparents’ historical experience. I mention that because I was raised that you always clear your plate no matter what. So I’d skew that test.)

    But not listing any references to social science papers, which support my claims, isn’t any better. If I did that, I would be making claims out of thin air

    It’s not necessarily out of thin air: you’ve got to try to support your position with facts and argument. In that sense, social science papers are a sort of democratizing opinions. A study basically says “99 out of 100 people agree with me! HA!” Yeah, so?

    In contrast with my observation (a tiny sample) those researchers at least had more test subjects.

    But the question remains, “Yeah, so?” I mean, does the social science paper allow you to probabalistically predict some strangers’ attitude? If it does, it might be interesting, but there’s still the question of how representative that stranger is.

    I think there’s substance to social science papers, but – clearly – I’m very skeptical of all of them, since I don’t see any underlying theoretical framework that gives them predictive power. I understand that ultimately it’s all probability, but if I start citing papers to someone saying “99.999% of people are not assholes” I could still be talking to the .001%. I think exploring cognitive biases statistically is interesting, and it does work when you get to simple questions and large sample sizes. But even those are a moving target. There, I am referring to things like actuarial statistics: it is a fact that, given a certain definition of “accident” and “fault” more unmarried males age 18-25 are at fault in accidents than married males age 40-60. That’s a good enough data set that you can make a lot of money selling insurance based on it, and then you don’t even have to factor out what “married” means and why it changes the numbers. There is a ‘law of large numbers’, but social science papers generally aren’t dealing with sample sizes that large. (in the case of insurance, all they care is whether they are profitable or not, so it works for them and doesn’t matter if the underlying epistemology is defensible)

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Ieva Skrebele

    As we can see, IQ testing still has its proponents

    IQ testing has its uses in the hands of an expert. It can be a very useful but limited tool. The problem is the layperson does not understand what an IQ test is for, how to interpret it, and when it is useful/useless.

    It’s a bit like my pet bugbear, the polygraph, aka the lie detector. The general population in North America, and worse the US Government seems to think they work because they do not have the expertise and knowledge to evaluate them. There is no scientifically acceptable evidence that the polygraph is more than a fancy prop.

    I once knew a guy who bragged about having an IQ score of 150, while also believing everything Alex Jones said…

    A high IQ does not imply one has any critical thinking ability at all, I am sure there are many outstanding fools with high IQ’s—in fact boasting of one’s high IQ is prima facie evidence of a fool.

  10. says

    To jrkrideau

    Looks like you have been luckier than I was.

    The first time I had to learn about Freud was around 2009, and that was at school. But, fine, I suppose we can dismiss public schools. They teach all sort of bullshit at public schools. In USA they teach biblical creationism, here (in Latvia) they teach Freud’s stupid ideas.

    The second time was at University of Latvia. That was 2012. I was studying for a bachelor degree in German philology. We had a course about interpreting literary texts and our professor believed that Freud’s ideas should be used for text interpretation. The professor was rather old (over 60), so probably nobody had told her that Freud’s ideas are no longer fashionable.

    The third time was at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (that’s in Germany). That was 2015. I was studying for a master degree in philology. The course was about interpreting literary texts. For the particular lesson we had to read Sophocles “Oedipus” and a chapter from Freud’s book. The lesson started with Freud’s ideas being seriously discussed as if they were real and my classmates swallowed them. That is until I started disrupting the lesson and loudly protesting that this is bullshit. My questions and protests finally prompted the professor to admit that she herself didn’t take Freud seriously and this simply was part of what another professor had come up with for the course program.

    IQ testing has its uses in the hands of an expert. It can be a very useful but limited tool.

    Yeah, except that one can get whatever result they want in an IQ test. And that renders the test useless.

    I have a fondness for solving logical puzzles. It’s what I often do to entertain myself. I once spent a few days amusing myself with IQ tests. I would try taking an IQ test and after the time limit was over, I checked the answers of every question I couldn’t solve within the time limit. Knowing the answers, I reverse engineered methods how to solve these questions. IQ test questions are usually similar, once you have cracked methods how to solve these questions, it becomes really easy. After practicing for a few days, I could get scores, which were about 30 points higher than what I got on my first few attempts. The first time I tried taking an IQ test I would not have qualified for Mensa, but after I practiced with the tasks I could easily get way past Mensa threshold.

    This leaves two possibilities. Either I’m a genius or IQ tests suck. And I don’t think that I’m a genius.

    Solving IQ test questions is a learned skill just like solving mathematics tasks or playing chess. The more you practice, the better you get. And anyone can learn to significantly improve their scores with some practice. The only thing IQ tests measure is whether the person taking the test has bothered to practice solving similar tasks before.

    Another problem is that IQ tests do not measure any skills people need in real life. But that should be obvious once you look at the tasks.

  11. says

    Another question might be “how do I neutralize the threat posed by a field of research?”. Question allows for death by neglect if someone founds a new field with rules of processes (and other rules) that solve the problem.

    Otherwise I’m not a person to critisize the lobbing of bombs. I have my own issues with brain science and bias but they affect more than psychology.

    Also #notallpsychology, I’ve my share of very useful findings. I don’t care if the research people change hats.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @ 10 Ieva Skrebele

    Well I’m too old to have taken psych in public schools in Canada but as far as I am aware there was not a university psychology department in Canada even 40 years ago that did more than recognize that Freud existed. He just had almost nothing to do with real psychology though there were probably a few Freudian therapists still kicking around.

    Someone needs to talk to the Latvian Ministry of Education about bringing their psychology curriculum up to at least 1975.

    That is not to say that Freud may not have still have influence in some psychiatric departments but as I keep pointing out to Marcus, psychology departments and psychiatry departments are totally different things. In fact, psychological friends of mine who knew something about psychiatry were always amazed how little psychology a psychiatrist was required to study. They are great on handing out pills!

    The second time was at University of Latvia. That was 2012. I was studying for a bachelor degree in German philology. We had a course about interpreting literary texts and our professor believed that Freud’s ideas should be used for text interpretation

    This type of thing does not surprise me. I was talking to a young graduate student in history a couple of years ago and she was planning on using Freudian theory in her analysis. ARGH! I mentioned that it was a totally discredited theory and she agreed but was still going to use it! Both your professor and my graduate student just do not understand what they are doing or don’t care.

    And the same applies for Johannes Gutenberg University. None of the profs, etc., are psychologists. If they were, I’d consider them terminally incompetent though perhaps for the course there was some twisted but valid rationale that I cannot imagine.

    I would try taking an IQ test and after the time limit was over, I checked the answers of every question I couldn’t solve within the time limit. Knowing the answers, I reverse engineered methods how to solve these questions.

    After practicing for a few days, I could get scores, which were about 30 points higher than what I got on my first few attempts.

    I’m not surprised. It is common knowledge in the business that IQ tests are subject to a practice effect. That is why one does not give the same one to a person repeatedly.

    It also is a major reason good IQ tests have a tightly controlled distribution. In many cases a major use of IQ tests would be with children who hopefully had not gotten their hands on the test and practiced for a week or two. It tends to invalidate the test score.

    This leaves two possibilities. Either I’m a genius or IQ tests suck.

    Or three: You are using an IQ test in a totally inappropriate manner?

    If you have a top-of-the-line racing bicycle and you do your repairs with a hammer, complaining about the poor durability of the bicycle is a bit unreasonable.

    Another problem is that IQ tests do not measure any skills people need in real life. But that should be obvious once you look at the tasks.

    At one level, they do but if you are talking about direct skills needed, no they are not intended to. If you need direct skill testing for something specific, there are either other fairly good tests or completely different ways to do this. As I said, an IQ test can be a very useful but limited tool. The key is knowing when it is likely to be of some use and when it should be tossed in favour of something more appropriate. A hammer is a very useful tool, it just is not very good for a bicycle.

  13. says

    WMDKitty — Survivor@#13:
    I don’t know what the scientologists’ critique of psychology is, but I believe their objection is to mind-altering drugs, which is exactly the one part of psychology that I’m not objecting to. So, you’ve really missed the point I was trying to make.

  14. says

    WMDKitty — Survivor@#13:
    A bit of reading around indicates that the scientologists’ problem with psychology is similar to mine, namely: a horrific past of bullshit and experimentation on patients, torturing of mentally ill patients, malpractice, and reckless experimentation on human subjects. So, to that extent, I guess I agree with them.

    I thought their complaint was to do with psychotherapy being, basically, competition for their own particular brand of bullshit. As competitive bullshit-mongers, I don’t see scientology as better or worse than psychology. (in that field)

    As I have said repeatedly: Neuropharmacology has value for many patients and they are trying very hard to put it on an evidentiary basis.

    So net/net I am mostly not in the sack with the scientologists; the parts of their critique that I think are on a sound basis were mostly already made by psychologists like Laing and others, so if you’re going to put me in a sack, put me in a sack with Laing, instead, please.

  15. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    Psychiatry and psychology are not the same field.

    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.

    Everything you list here was the province of medical doctors – psychiatrists. Neither surgeries nor pharmaceutical prescribing were done by psychologists in any of the treatment-establishing studies. Today the same is still true, save for prescribing a small number of medications in a small number of jurisdictions that have rather exceptional ideas of the competences of psychologists.

    Go ahead and critique psychology. It certainly deserves lots and lots of critique. And go ahead and critique medicine, it also deserves lots and lots of critique. But if you’re going to have your critique be well received, you should at least know the difference between the two fields.

  16. Enkidum says

    In standard histories of experimental psychology, Freud is barely mentioned. This is because he had virtually no influence on the field. Pyschotherapy and psychiatry are not psychology. Of course there has always been a fair bit of crossover between the fields, but it’s worth noting that most of the people you bring up as the embarrassments were not psychologists, nor are they taught in psychology departments today (and I’m not sure they ever were). There was plenty of cult thinking in experimental psychology for much of the twentieth century (in particular the intuitionists and then the behaviourists), but it’s not the kind of stuff you’re talking about (and in both cases that I mention, there was a great deal of good work done by the cult members).

    I have to admit I’m fairly ignorant of clinical psychology, but experimental psychology has its roots in people like Helmholtz, who I’d imagine you’re not going to object to, the Gestalt psychologists, and other careful scientists. There are entire bodies of well-replicated research that you appear to be entirely ignorant of. This is, frankly, a pretty awful post, and you should educate yourself before spouting more of this in the future.

  17. John Morales says

    Marcus,

    A bit of reading around indicates that the scientologists’ problem with psychology is similar to mine, namely: a horrific past of bullshit and experimentation on patients, torturing of mentally ill patients, malpractice, and reckless experimentation on human subjects. So, to that extent, I guess I agree with them.

    As Crip Dyke notes, psychiatry and psychology are not the same field. The former purports to treat psychological disorders (often but not exclusively employing pharmacology) whilst the latter is the study of how people tend to think.

    (Advertising is applied psychology, no?)

    BTW, Scientology is infamous for its Purification Rundown.

  18. Enkidum says

    Also, in response to one of your replies upthread: Laing wasn’t a psychologist, he wasn’t critiquing psychology, and while he was correct that existing treatments of schizophrenia were not great (they still aren’t), his suggested alternatives were by and large garbage and have done a great deal of harm to people over the years. Schizophrenia is a horrible disease that we are only now beginning to understand, and our understanding has nothing to do with his work, it has do with understanding neurotransmitters.

  19. springa73 says

    Well, if past use of pseudoscientific theories or unethical experimentation makes an entire field invalid, you would probably have to throw out all of both science and medicine.

    As far as I can tell, psychology and psychiatry both, for a long time, had a huge limitation. How do you know what is going on in a person’s brain? Well, until recent imaging technology came along, you either had to ask the person or look at the person’s behavior and draw conclusions from that. Both of these approaches are very subjective. Modern imaging technology, which will probably seem very crude to people in the future, has its own limits. I’m inclined to cut both psychologists and psychiatrists a lot of slack because it is exceptionally difficult to study the human brain in a scienfitic manner.

  20. snuffcurry says

    Also: neutrons or acids don’t grow up influenced by cultural attitudes or different social classes.

    People do, so what is the point of this non-sequitur? That people are a hard nut to crack because they’re not neutrons is not a compelling argument for anything.

    Imagine if physicists had to worry whether they were measuring the behavior of a representative sample of electrons across the social class of electrons, because electrons that grep up wealthy tend to like to spin right, or whatever. And, worse, the electrons have an incentive to lie about that…

    I mean, explanations for physical phenomena were once a mystery and then they were sort of figured out, re-hashed, re-tooled, abandoned as heretical, taken up again, popularized, critiqued, rendered obsolete, re-visisted, abandoned as too hard, re-discovered, refined to excise the less obvious but still quite wrong bits, and then canonized. Yep. Physical sciences are hard and never linear. Why other fields would or ought to be any different, I’ve no idea. For some reason you seem to believe that if psychology gets something spectacularly wrong the first go, it’ll never get it right or get closer to something substantive and useful. Can you explain why you think is so without invoking absurd analogies? Consistently mistaking psychiatry for psychology here does not help to clarify things…

  21. says

    It would be fun to go back and ask my TA whether, “if there is any empirical basis behind this sort of analysis, wouldn’t everyone analyzing a particular poem reach similar conclusions?”

    If you analyze a poem and conclude that the poem is written in trochee with a specific rhyme scheme, then, yes, everybody would conclude the same. What bothered me was when teachers asked us to go beyond the obvious and invent bullshit about what the author wanted to say.

    If you start thinking about some of the words we have adopted into our vocabulary, three of the greatest sources of ‘memes’ are: Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and psychology. I think the one of those that is most defensible is Shakespeare because he was doing art and writing poetry and putting language together in interesting ways is what you do. Nietzsche did a fair bit of that as well.

    Yes, I agree, only the language as art part is defensible here.

    I never liked Shakespeare. It’s not that I find his plays/poems bad; it’s just that I like many other writers better. As for Nietzsche, he’s definitely among my favorite poets.

    I wrote my master’s thesis about Nietzsche. And, no, I wasn’t crazy enough to even mention any of his ideas. It was in comparative literature. My research was about the influence of German literature on Latvian literature. Nietzsche’s texts have some very interesting literary forms and some Latvian writers pretty much copied Nietzsche’s writing style. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a mix between poetry and prose, and it has all sorts of unusual style elements (for example, alliterations in a prose text). And I compared this with some Latvian literary texts and found out that there have been plenty of Nietzsche fans among Latvian writers at the beginning of 20th century.

    I really love Nietzsche’s writing style. His language is very beautiful. One of my favorite poems is Nietzsche’s “Vereinsamt”. Here’s a quite decent translation http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=60018 I definitely like German version a lot better, but poetry is inherently difficult to translate, so I’m not criticizing the translator.

    Which people do you measure? And, if you’re trying to generalize the results of the experiment into an intervention, (smaller bowls to lose weight) then it would make more sense to skip the intermediate step – which is an assumption – see if smaller bowls or larger bowls affect people’s weight gain or loss. But then there’s another problem, which is that the subjects may be from a civilization that is concerned with weight, or that has experienced famine. I think that experiment may measure something but there are going to be cultural factors that may be impossible to eliminate. (by the way, having grandparents that grew up in the great depression and faced starvation, some of your subjects may have been raised that you always clear your plate – it may have nothing to do with plate size and everything to do with their grandparents’ historical experience. I mention that because I was raised that you always clear your plate no matter what. So I’d skew that test.)

    OK, I’ll accept this as valid criticism.

    But this leaves a problem – how do we learn anything about human behavior? Regardless of what experiment scientists come up with, there are always going to be similar problems.

    It’s not necessarily out of thin air: you’ve got to try to support your position with facts and argument. In that sense, social science papers are a sort of democratizing opinions. A study basically says “99 out of 100 people agree with me! HA!” Yeah, so?

    My own facts and arguments? My fact would be “I encountered two people who behaved in whatever way”, therefore I now conclude that people tend to behave in whatever way. Seriously? Making conclusions like this is problematic. I once had a graphic design teacher who believed that women are better at multitasking than men. His reasoning? He knew one woman who was exceptionally skilled at multitasking. That was enough for him to conclude that women in general are better at multitasking compared to men. This is a perfect example of how I don’t want to make opinions. As a single human being I am biased, because I have to deal with 1) tiny sample sizes, 2) selective memory, 3) tendency not to notice things around me, 4) being prone to assume that other people are like me, 5) confirmation bias etc. biases. This is why I don’t want to make any conclusions/beliefs about human behavior. If I wanted to find out whether women are better at multitasking, I would look up some scientific studies, which have tested this hypothesis. Sure, the research is far from perfect, but it is better than anything I could observe as a single person. A study, which basically says “99 out of 100 people agree with me” is useless. A study, which says “99 out of 100 people behave in a particular way” is a lot better than my knowledge that “I know two people who behave in a particular way”.

    If I had to completely give up on social sciences studies, I would end up in a situation, where I had to accept that I know absolutely nothing about human behavior, because my own observation skills are ridiculously limited. OK, in many situations starting out with an assumption that I know absolutely nothing about human behavior is a very useful idea. When I meet a new person I really know nothing about her, and statistics about how majority of other people tend to behave is useless. I still know nothing about the person I just met. Besides, having an opinion about whether women on average are better at multitasking is useless, since it says nothing about any individual woman.

    But statistics are useful for policy decisions when you are trying to figure out, which intervention would lead to better outcomes. How should we treat criminals if we want to reintegrate them back into society? Should we have guaranteed minimum income? I could answer such questions purely with philosophical arguments by claiming that one option is somehow more right than others. But my claim becomes a lot more convincing if I can also support it with real world data – some social sciences research, where they concluded that on average X% of impoverished people tend to do whatever in such and such circumstances. That’s better than saying “I know one poor person who did that”.

    By the way, what do you think about Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”?

    I understand that ultimately it’s all probability, but if I start citing papers to someone saying “99.9999% of people are not assholes” I could still be talking to the .001%

    I prefer to accept such chances and probabilities. When I go to visit somebody at their home or get in somebody’s car, I know that there’s a 99.9999% chance that this person isn’t an asshole and won’t rape and murder me. That’s a big enough chance and I’m willing to risk. What if I end up being with the unlucky 0.001%? Well, shit happens. I’ll just die and I won’t care once I’m dead.

  22. says

    To jrkrideau @ 12

    OK, I’ll accept your claim that psychology professors understand their field better than literature professors and don’t teach their students all that nonsense my literature professors forced me to learn.

    I’m not surprised. It is common knowledge in the business that IQ tests are subject to a practice effect. That is why one does not give the same one to a person repeatedly. It also is a major reason good IQ tests have a tightly controlled distribution.

    If I tried doing one and the same IQ test several times, after a few attempts I would solve every single task and get an absolutely perfect score. That would get boring almost instantly. And that’s not what I did. I practiced with lots of different tests and different tasks (all English, found online). Practicing like this for a couple of days significantly bumped up the score I had gotten on my first attempt. Then a few months later I had to take an IQ test at school. That test was in my native language (Latvian), the test was also obviously made by a different person than any of the tasks I had encountered before (I knew that the test author was another person, because the task formulations differed). And I easily got a ridiculously high score on that new test only because in past I had practiced with other IQ tests.

    If I knew that I will have a mathematics exam after a few days, I would practice solving mathematics tasks. If it was a foreign language exam, I would practice grammar tasks for that language. None of that is considered cheating. But having in past taken a different IQ test is cheating, because I already have, gasp, become familiar with the types of tasks one encounters in IQ tests? Seriously? That means every single adult taking an IQ test is cheating to some degree. And that renders IQ tests useless (it is impossible not to cheat in an IQ test, because nowadays every single human on this planet has been exposed to them already).

    It also is a major reason good IQ tests have a tightly controlled distribution.

    This does not solve the problem that in past some people have bothered to solve other IQ tests. All IQ test questions follow similar patterns and being familiar with these patterns is enough to improve your score.

    In many cases a major use of IQ tests would be with children who hopefully had not gotten their hands on the test and practiced for a week or two.

    Even little kids aren’t “pure”. When I was 6 I faced an admission exam for a school (school admission exams were legal back then, they are illegal now). My mother was worried that having a teacher give me a test sheet could make me nervous, so she made me practice solving abstract logical tasks. She hoped that such practice would reduce my anxiety during a new situation (the big test). But this practice had a totally different result. I had been previously accustomed to solving abstract logical tasks (mother made me practice a lot), I was already familiar with such types of tasks, so my performance during the school’s admission exam ended up being ridiculously high. And not because of being a child genius, I was simply familiar with the type of tasks and already knew how to approach and solve them. Of course every single question I faced during the admission exam was new for me, but simply being familiar with this type of tasks was enough to improve my performance.

  23. Enkidum says

    Having just checked in one of my old textbooks (The First Century of Experimental Psychology, by Hearst) from the grad-level history of psych course I took, I’ll have to walk back my claim that Freud is barely mentioned and had no influence on the field. Looking in the index, he appears on as many pages as pretty much anyone else.

    So I owe you an apology for overstating my case. However I will say that outside that history course, his name was not mentioned, so far as I can recall, in a single one of the classes I took during my (psychology) PhD, and the only times I remember him being mentioned outside of class were as a joke or a discussion of pseudoscience. He simply isn’t a factor in the field as I understand it, from the inside. (I currently work in a neuroscience lab in a biology department, but as I noted above my PhD is in psychology, I publish primarily in psychology journals, and there are hundreds of people in psych departments doing the kind of work I do – the boundaries of our field are extremely porous, as they should be.)

    Here’s an example of the historical development of experimental psychology that I happen to know a fair bit about. Helmholtz (arguably the first experimental psychologist) did studies putting subjects in a dark room and asking them to detect a single flash of light. I can’t remember the details off the top of my head, but essentially he showed that when he had them attend to a specific region of space (or possibly a time window? either one would work), and the flash appeared in that region (time window?), they were faster at reacting. This is the first empirical quantification of the effects of attention. Since then, there have been literally millions of pages produced on the subject. Most of them are bullshit, because that is how science works. But especially starting in the 60’s with Broadbent and some other names I’ve forgotten, the basic phenomena of attention starts being intensively researched in all sorts of cool ways, and good bodies of data and theory start being built up. (It couldn’t happen before the 60’s, because attention is by definition an internal process and the behaviourists had too much political power in the field until Chomsky beat them up.) Probably the modern giant of attention is Posner, who develops what is now known as the Posner cueing task in the 80’s, and begins the work of investigating attention as a neural phenomenon. (Others would argue that Treisman was a bigger giant, it’s not terribly important.) And now we understand a great deal about the neural mechanisms involved, and the effects of attention in different contexts. We’re still a long way away from a complete theory of attention, but we’re getting there, slowly, because this shit is complicated.

    That story is replicated dozens of times across the field. Take the Gestalt psychologists explanations of how visual grouping works, and look at how that has been studied in the 140 years since. Show me something from phrenology that corresponds to this.

  24. says

    Enkidum@#24:
    I’ll have to walk back my claim that Freud is barely mentioned and had no influence on the field. Looking in the index, he appears on as many pages as pretty much anyone else.

    Thanks for checking!

    Freud is particularly problematic because he sat across the entire problem: he was part of psychology’s epistemology, and – if someone wants to say psychiatry is the practical, medicalization of intervening in patients’ mental health, he was deeply involved in that, as well. For example, Freud tried to change a woman’s emotions by performing surgical alterations on her nose, because of a theory he and Wilhelm Fliess cooked up, that the shape of your nose affected your mood. The woman was disfigured.

    He simply isn’t a factor in the field as I understand it, from the inside. (I currently work in a neuroscience lab in a biology department, but as I noted above my PhD is in psychology, I publish primarily in psychology journals, and there are hundreds of people in psych departments doing the kind of work I do – the boundaries of our field are extremely porous, as they should be.)

    I’m super happy to hear that; as I’ve said elsewhere, my experience as a psych undergrad in 1981-5 was very different. At that time it was made clear that Freud had blazed the trail that others followed – which is a scary thought, indeed. It certainly has affected my perception of the field (as, I think, in its historical context, it should).

    Helmholtz (arguably the first experimental psychologist) did studies putting subjects in a dark room and asking them to detect a single flash of light. I can’t remember the details off the top of my head, but essentially he showed that when he had them attend to a specific region of space (or possibly a time window? either one would work), and the flash appeared in that region (time window?), they were faster at reacting. This is the first empirical quantification of the effects of attention. Since then, there have been literally millions of pages produced on the subject.

    See, I have no problem with that, at all: a scientist identifies an effect, tries to isolate it experimentally, and then figures out what they can about it through observation and varying the experiment.

    That is how a field puts an epistemology in place; hypothesize that there is something we call “attention” then experiment to try to quantify it. Once we do that, we can talk about “attention” because there is a measure of it. Then, when neuroscience gives tools that also help measure it, and align with our original model, we can say with more certainty that there’s something there, that we can measure and eventually we hope to say what it is. I am strongly in favor of that.

    Where I think I’ve lost many of you is that I don’t see a distinction between “pop psychology” and “real psychology” (and, for those saying “psychiatry is a different field” yes, I know that, but there’s a lot of overlap and psychiatry has the same epistemological problems as psychology in the cases I’m talking about, so I’m lumping them together; they are the same idea) I don’t think we should allow a field to simply disown the bad actors with some kind of “no true scotsman” argument, especially not when they had a huge impact on forming the field.

    Take the Gestalt psychologists explanations of how visual grouping works, and look at how that has been studied in the 140 years since. Show me something from phrenology that corresponds to this.

    Fair enough. There are plenty of explanations that have worked, and plenty that haven’t. I’m not saying that phrenology is good!

  25. jrkrideau says

    @ 23 Ieva Skrebele

    And I easily got a ridiculously high score on that new test only because in past I had practiced with other IQ tests.

    Well, I should have said that practice with any similar IQ tests or equivalent materials—in some cases perhaps a logic test?—will give improved results.

    In fact, this type of thing is somewhat related to the Flynn Effect where he (I think) attributes rising IQ scores not to increased intelligence but the fact that more formal education is making us think better in the manner that most IQ tests measure.

    On the other hand, if you have been practicing on paper and pencil IQ tests and suddenly get hit with Raven’s Matrices or Koh’s Blocks, I’m not sure if the practice would transfer.

  26. jrkrideau says

    @ 15 Marcus

    A bit of reading around indicates that the scientologists’ problem with psychology is similar to mine

    I suspect the scientologists rationales are post hoc and the real reason is that Hubbard saw psychiatry (not psychology!) as a direct competitor. H. Ron did not like competition or other interferences in his business.

    ENTP? That’s the letters on your Myers-Brigg’s coffee cup? /sarc.

    It is a total travesty but it is amazing how many people believe in it, all non-psychologists as far as I can see, but its misuse has been staggering. Well, any use of it has to be considered misuse, except perhaps for lining the cat’s litter box.

    There was some book-length report by the US National Research Council 25–30 years ago that included it. I cannot even remember the overall subject matter but the chapter on the MBTI mentioned that it did not seem to do anything but people really liked it and remembered it.

  27. brucegee1962 says

    @3 Ieva Skrebele

    Literary analysis is simply a joke. In university we once had to analyze Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” with a professor who offered his interpretation. Then a year later we had to analyze the same text with another professor who offered a totally different interpretation. That sure convinced me that we are doing something useful and scientific. By the way, I never figured out why people even bother doing literary analysis. It’s just pointless opinions about what you believe the author wanted to say.

    OK, I teach literary analysis, so I feel obliged to respond.

    First of all, it isn’t scientific, and it isn’t empirical. Anyone who says it is is BSing you. If you want to think of it as “people telling stories about stories,” I wouldn’t say you were wrong. HOWEVER, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t useful.

    I get students like you all the time, who say “Why can’t we just enjoy this story or movie or TV show? Why do we have to analyze everything?” Or, the biggest one, if I’m talking about Disney, “It’s just a kids’ movie.” Here’s my response.

    Everyones’ minds are filled with a big tangle of opinions, attitudes, biases, assumptions, and prejudices. Where do those come from? Well, some of them come from our parents, but most of them come from that big, messy thing we call “culture.” We’re meme replication machines, and most of the time we’re doing it unconsciously.

    The purpose of literary criticism, (at least the way I teach it), is to move that meme replication from the unconscious to the conscious mind. I mostly focus on teaching students to ask questions about what they read — to be active readers, not passive. So if they watch a movie like “Sleeping Beauty,” my goal would be for one of my students to not just say “Cool movie,” but to ask questions like “What would a critic coming from a feminist perspective say about that move? Well, she’d say that the heroine lacked much agency — she had to have other people solve all her problems for her, particularly Prince Showing-up-late-in-the-movie. Is that really a good model for kids?” And then maybe that student, if she was watching that movie with her kids, might have a little talk about how Aurora could have solved her own problems instead of waiting for a prince to bail her out.

    Also, until we invent the ability to cast our minds into the minds of our ancestors, literature is probably the best way of knowing what it feels like to inhabit someone else’s brain, or live in another time period. I doubt there will ever be a better way of feeling what it’s like to live in Victorian England than reading Dickens. It’s reasonable to suppose that he was influenced by many things as he wrote — a conscious desire to advance particular social issues, unconscious legacies from his own upbringing, reaction to social pressures and forces of the day, etc. Figuring out what those conscious and unconscious biases and motivations may have been is a good way to assist in the process of letting him influence our own attitudes.

  28. says

    To brucegee1962 @28

    Your comment misses the point, because I agree with you. Apparently I failed to clearly state the problem I have with attempts of literary analysis, so I’ll elaborate.

    I have nothing against people talking about how they perceived some artwork. And it’s normal that these perceptions are subjective and differ. In fact, whenever I tell a friend that some book/movie is really good, I don’t just say “It’s cool, you should read it”, I give very specific reasons about how I saw it, what I liked etc. And I’m fine with every example you mentioned, like analyzing the portrayal of female characters in some story.

    In some rare circumstances I even have nothing against people talking about what the author wanted to say with her work. If you read Bertold Brecht “If Sharks Were Men”, it’s pretty obvious what the author wanted to say with his text (but didn’t state it directly).

    I don’t protest when literature professors look at authors’ biographies and analyze how authors’ experiences influenced what they wrote.

    I become irritated when literature professors start pulling unreasonable claims out of thin air. They take a poem about a pretty meadow of flowers and start making claims about what the author really wanted to say with this poem, and how it has some deep hidden meaning. How do they know that? They don’t, maybe the author really just thought that flowers are pretty. Consider something like Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law”. Nobody except the author knows what he really meant with this text, therefore literature professors might as well stop making things up.

    It gets even uglier when literature professors grab Freud’s theories and start diagnosing authors with mental disorders using their texts as “evidence”. A poet writes a poem about a grey city in a rainy day? She must be lonely, depressed and suffering from blah blah blah. How do they know it? They don’t, they just made it up. Some years ago I drew http://avestra.deviantart.com/art/A-Heart-That-Used-To-Be-Frozen-127350435 I had a literature professor who loved diagnosing writers, poets and artists with mental problems just by looking at their work. She would have loved to analyze this work of mine. She would conclude that I must be depressed, lonely, yearning for a change, blah blah blah. Incidentally, she would have been wrong: I drew that picture, because I thought that ice looks cool.

    Also, until we invent the ability to cast our minds into the minds of our ancestors, literature is probably the best way of knowing what it feels like to inhabit someone else’s brain, or live in another time period. I doubt there will ever be a better way of feeling what it’s like to live in Victorian England than reading Dickens. It’s reasonable to suppose that he was influenced by many things as he wrote — a conscious desire to advance particular social issues, unconscious legacies from his own upbringing, reaction to social pressures and forces of the day, etc. Figuring out what those conscious and unconscious biases and motivations may have been is a good way to assist in the process of letting him influence our own attitudes.

    Yes, sure. I decided to get a master’s degree in philology exactly because I like literature. You don’t have to convince me that “literature is probably the best way of knowing what it feels like to inhabit someone else’s brain”. I agree, and I wouldn’t be reading literature if I didn’t like doing that.

    As for your Dickens example. As long as you stick to actual facts and keep your conclusions obvious (namely, it is obvious enough that nobody else could disagree with your analysis), I’m fine with this. But you must be careful not to start pulling grandiose theories out of thin air.

  29. Enkidum says

    @Marcus

    So I guess my issue now is, you’ve got hundreds of years of perfectly good scientific theorizing and experimentation about the mind, broadly grouped under the heading “psychology”. You’ve got some cranks during that entire time period as well. You seem to think the latter outweigh the former for some reason, but why? Does Newton’s alchemy invalidate the Principia? Does Descartes’ dualism invalidate his advances in understanding how sensory processing works? Does Deepak Chopra babbling about quantum whatever undermine the Copenhagen consensus? Assuming the answer to all those questions is “no”, what’s special about psychology?

  30. says

    Enkidum@#30:
    Assuming the answer to all those questions is “no”, what’s special about psychology?

    I’d probably be down on physics if they had been experimenting by ruthlessly smashing people’s minds, instead of smashing particles together. I’d probably be more down on Chopra (I’m not a fan, however) if he had managed to convince entire generations that they were not “normal” and needed to change their lives dramatically and measure themselves against his arbitrary standards (he has convinced a relatively small number). I’d be more contemptuous of Descartes if his philosophy had been racist from its inception, and had been an intentional (or otherwise) support for eugenics and segregation. Of course Newton’s alchemy doesn’t invalidate his Principia – any more than, as I have said repeatedly, psychology’s litany of errors invalidates psychopharmacology or psychiatry’s horrible human experiments invalidate the good bits of work they’ve been doing in the last few generations.

    At the very least I think it’s reasonable to identify that some fields have a history of screwing up with human subjects and to apply a bit more skepticism regarding their output. That applies to medicine in general to some degree, psychiatry to a large degree, and psychology to a large degree. Unlike Deepak Chopra, psychology has promulgated a lot of crap that has had a high impact; if Chopra had as high an impact on popular culture as psychology does, we’d all be talking like woo-woos all the time.

    Of course I am overstating my case somewhat; that’s part of how editorializing is done. But I’d like to note that aside from “no true scotsman” arguments, or finger-pointing between psychology and psychiatry (as if there isn’t a huge amount of back-and-forth in those fields) we mostly seem to be in agreement that there has been a problem, and (to a lesser degree) that the problem continues. If my position here is radical, the only thing radical about it is that I’m not willing to simply brush off things like MBTI, IQ testing, etc, as “pop psychology” because they are psychology and “pop” means “mainstream.” Perhaps that’s our main disagreement.

    Because psychology (and psychiatry) have had some notable successes, we shouldn’t sweep the gigantic mountain of BS under the carpet. Especially because I suspect that in another 100 years, when we understand neurology better and have a better handle on what parts of behavior are more influenced by experience or genetics, scientists will look back at this time with more or less the same horror that we look back on psychiatry of the 1920s, medicine of the 1850s, and psychology of the 1970s.

    I can see that my views aren’t getting a whole lot of traction with the commentariat; perhaps I’m mostly wrong. I’m aware that there are other fields that have strong internal critiques going on (e.g.: Smolin’s critique of string theory and his opinion that physics is getting a bit far afield) I also know I’m not the only person who feels this way, for what that’s worth, but I prefer to present my own opinions as such rather than linkspamming a bunch of “oh, here’s an authority figure who thinks like I do!” I don’t think that my observations are particularly special; you can read the same kind of stuff in Psychology Today and I probably began forming the impression I have from reading internal critiques when I was an undergrad. That stuff has helped drive the field forward and improve it. As we can see from jrkrideau’s comments, there are psychologists who feel that these sorts of critiques have been dealt with by all the ‘true scotsmen’ and that’s good, because that’s where the practice is going and hopefully it will continue to improve.

  31. Enkidum says

    Sounds sensible. For what it’s worth, I can’t think of anything that I learned about in grad school or have studied in my own work that was generated by doing anything nasty to people. (Other animals, that’s a very different matter.) Mostly, it’s been generated by people sitting in front of computers and pressing buttons. But I don’t do anything directly related to mental illness, and don’t know that much about it.

  32. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Enkidum:

    Though you have far more expertise in the field and its history than I, I do remember quite a number of unpleasant things being done by, say, Skinner, Zimbardo & Milgram.

    We can credit Zimbardo for halting the prison experiment, but holy fuck, it’s not like that was the only or best option. Even if canceling or proceeding were the only two options, it’s not like the fact that cancelling happened an excuse for permitting the experiment to go on as long as it did. One “guard” in particular was far more horrible than anyone else. Why tolerate the abusive aberration for as long as Zimbardo did? Why cancel the study as a whole instead of kicking out the one outlier in violence, abuse and aggression? Would other abusive behaviors have been continued if that one sadistic jerk was reported to the police? What possible reason could Zimbardo have for excusing actual crimes merely because they occurred simultaneously with a psychology study?

    There are reasons to keep psychology and psychiatry distinct, but one of those reasons is not that a few psychiatrists digging in brains with scalpels caused harm while psychologists never harmed their subjects.

    =====

    I personally believe that because the discussion of Zimbardo, et al. was framed in terms of cancellation and did not take sufficiently seriously the idea of individual accountability, the decision to act to end abuse is quite likely to have taken longer than if other options were considered. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my impression from the accounts I’ve read.

  33. Enkidum says

    Most of the supposedly awful acts done by Skinner are total myths. E.g., if you’ve heard how awful he was to his kids, treating them as a science experiment, etc – it’s complete bullshit. Both of them are still alive today, and had what I believe was a pretty comfortable relationship with their father (I think one of them is an experimental psychologist, actually). The so-called “Skinner box” was essentially a custom crib he built, with things like mobiles and the like to stimulate the kids. He may have had dubious political ideals (although it’s worth noting he was essentially a radical socialist), and the core of his psychology was bullshit, but there’s no evidence I’m aware of that he was a cruel man. Part of the problem is that he gets conflated with Watson, the other father of behaviourism, who was by all accounts pathologically incapable of emotion, and I believe his child committed suicide (though I’m too lazy to check).

    Zimbardo is a fucking hack who should have been fired, and it’s appalling that he’s still taught, especially given that his supposedly shocking conclusions have been repeatedly shown to be false. I think he’s set the field back decades. To be fair, I should have noted people like him above, but I suppose I was telling the truth according to the letter of the law as I never took a social psychology course other than as a TA (and a good chunk of that course was explaining in great detail just why Zimbardo is a fucking anti-scientific hack). He’s two steps above Chopra in terms of bullshit, and Chopra isn’t running experiments on people.

    So yeah, ok, I’ll accept that there are some pretty appalling people in the field, although I think most of us view Zimbardo and the like as cautionary tales. That being said, there’s a lot of good work being done as well. I think there’s no fundamental difference between where psychology is now and where physics was 150 years ago or so in terms of percentage of cranks and bullshit artists, it’s just that the opinions of physicists don’t tend to lead directly to awful things happening in mental hospitals (which, as I said, I know relatively little about).

    So I suppose I should be more accepting of Marcus’ criticism. But I think calling the whole field discredited is throwing an awful lot of very healthy babies out with relatively little bathwater.

  34. jrkrideau says

    @ 29 Ieva Skrebele

    They take a poem about a pretty meadow of flowers and start making claims about what the author really wanted to say with this poem, and how it has some deep hidden meaning.

    I have not taken a literature course since I escaped high school but I can remember the question, “Why did the author write this story?” My immediate response was that he had to pay the gas bill.

    Many years ago, when reading some autobiographical notes of a famous science fiction writer I felt vindicated when the author mentioned that his father paid all his university costs but if he wanted extra money he had to earn it himself so he took up writing science fiction to buy a car.

    Clearly I am being overly cynical but one does get the idea that all to often people are telling the author why he or she wrote what they wrote.

    And yes, clearly that drawing shows that you were in the depths of severe depression. :)

  35. says

    Enkidum@#34:
    Most of the supposedly awful acts done by Skinner are total myths. E.g., if you’ve heard how awful he was to his kids, treating them as a science experiment, etc – it’s complete bullshit

    Agreed. Skinner caught a bad rap. Why? Other psychologists! He was making them look bad, with his focus on observing behaviors rather than causing them. The social psychologists who were steaming full speed ahead producing bullshit felt that Skinner was holding the science back. Skinner boxes were seen as more restrictive than observation of behaviors in nature, which is why Lorenz and Tinbergen were put forward as counterposing Skinner.

    By the way, I agree with that observation: it’s absurd to assume that a chimpanzee or even a pigeon in a box is going to behave like a pigeon would in nature. So, then, what can you generalize from the behaviors of a boxed pigeon other than “a pigeon in a box may do X”?

    Skinner’s experiments on children were roughly on par with Piaget’s – though Piaget observed (sort of!) infant behaviors “in the wild” (though it’s important to note that human infants are not ever free of socializing behavioral modification) I think Skinner got a bad rap.

    Zimbardo is a fucking hack who should have been fired, and it’s appalling that he’s still taught, especially given that his supposedly shocking conclusions have been repeatedly shown to be false.

    That’s the kind of thing I am talking about. Zimbardo’s experiments were so contrived that all you could conclude from them is, maybe, “Zimbardo is an asshole.” Or perhaps, “psychology is really a load of bollocks” as I did. That he’s taught at all is bad, but he’s not even taught in the context of “this is why we now have human studies ethics panels.” Zimbardo could be taught as a fail-case of experimental design, but no social psychologists teach about Zimbardo’s experiments because they still think it was kinda cool. They haven’t got the memo, yet.

    So yeah, ok, I’ll accept that there are some pretty appalling people in the field, although I think most of us view Zimbardo and the like as cautionary tales.

    That would be OK if they were taught as cautionary tales.

    I’m not just pointing at Zimbardo (actually, I was trying to avoid putting out a list of some of the worst excesses of psychologists) there are many many more – not just a few. For example, there’s Milgram’s subway experiment, and of course his simulated torture experiment. Are you familiar with the Robber’s Cave experiment? That fewmet of pseudoscience is still held up as one of the underpinnings of “Realistic Conflict Theory” – Bondura’s bobo doll experiments still inform theories of aggressiveness priming via media that influence legislation on computer game reviews! Jane Elliot’s divided class experiment is still presented as though it speaks to something about inherent behaviors in human children. I could go on probably 15 pages just rattling through experiments that were completely pointless, discovered nothing, and had horrible methodological errors – yet are still part of the corpus of psychology. Again, apologists for psychology will “no true scotsman” those experiments but this is not “pop” psychology – it’s mainstream psychology; that’s why it’s “pop.”

    And that stuff continues today, all over the place. Maybe I’m just hyper-critical, but this is the kind of stuff that psychology continues to foist on the public, disguised as science. [cnn] “Her team tested 133 children from schools that met very specific economic and demographic requirements.” – i.e.: a cooked sample revealed exactly what the cooked sample was expected to reveal. (Not that I disagree with the results, but I question the methodology)

    It’s also facile (and frequent) that supporters of psychology will excuse bad reporting about the field as just the media screwing up (as they do) but it’s never corrected and all too often it becomes absorbed into the wider gestalt. I know I’m being hardcore about this but someone’s gotta be: psychology cannot continue to simply dismiss mis-reporting and pseudoscience as “pop” psychology. Psychology owns it and it’s part of the public epistemology. After spending years talking to the media about “ego depletion” psychology can’t just walk off mumbling and say the media got it wrong; no, they didn’t. And this stuff matters: consider Ekman’s generalization of underlying facial recognition (which turns out to be fatally flawed when you use a blinded sample on non/white non/americans) that’s the bullshit that underlies all the stuff the FBI is doing with facial recognition. Ekman is still well-respected in the field of bullshit, and there is a huge amount of money being spent and people are going to be needlessly harrassed using Ekman’s work as an excuse, and Ekman’s work is bullshit. Or what about “learned helplessness”? People use learned helplessness as a model for talking about all kinds of important issues of social equality, but those experiments were ridiculous – if a dog is helpless, it will act helpless, oh, great. My dogs would have looked to me for permission and, when they got it, killed someone who shocked them. Etc. Shit, I just now remembered the “little albert” experiment, performed at my own alma mater… how about that? The litany goes on and on and on and on — psychology has promoted itself to the public over and over as having discovered generalizable things about human behavior; it grabs the headlines when it can, but when it’s caught lying (as it so often is) it’s nowhere to be found and the lies continue getting repeated.

    So I suppose I should be more accepting of Marcus’ criticism. But I think calling the whole field discredited is throwing an awful lot of very healthy babies out with relatively little bathwater.

    I agree with you, there are healthy babies in that bathwater.

    To stick with your analogy, the best way to tell the healthy babies from the bathwater is to dump the whole lot and sort through it. But you don’t keep the bathwater sitting around getting rank and foul.

  36. says

    PS – and I know the damn difference between Psychology and Psychiatry. The points in this discussion where I have touched on psychiatry have been points where the epistemology of psychiatry is drawn from psychology. Nobody who knows anything about either field can honestly deny that psychology’s models inform psychiatry and have often served as the basis for psychiatric interventions. So let’s not pretend that the fields are entirely separate.

    R.D. Laing’s complaint regarding diagnosis of ‘disorders’ in the absence of a physically determinable cause is a direct attack on the diagnostic process that psychiatry inherited from psychology: you talk to the patient, you ask questions, you collect anecdotes then call them evidence and proceed to a diagnosis. That’s a technique that is Freudian psychoanalysis; it’s just been re-re-re-retreaded a whole lot. But the Jungians and the Freudians set that ball rolling where they’d diagnose a patient conversationally and turn them over to the psychiatrists to do horrible things to, based on that diagnosis. It is undeniable by anyone who is being honest about the history of psychiatry that victorian and post-victorian psychiatry owed a gigantic intellectual debt to Freudian psychology, and the psychological method of establishing a theory then diagnosing patients in accordance with the theory (rather than a measurable physical disorder)

    It’d be as though statisticians insisted that “statistics has nothing to do with math!” Or vice versa.

    Psychology’s a mess but psychiatry is worse. This is not intended to be a discussion of that field’s horrible history. They’re doing much much better lately (though they have a huge amount of shit to live down)

    Major edit: OK, I’m now officially surprised. There appear to have been some dramatic re-partitioning of the landscapes between Psychology and Psychoanalysis, at least according to the editors of Wikipedia. I’ve been reading the entries on history of psych and am pleased to see that Freud has been thrown out of the pantheon, though I see Dewey (whose theories of social learning were typically Freudian, i.e.: pulled out of his butt) is still a Psychologist, while all the horrible wreckage like Maslow and Jung and Freud have been given to Psychiatry instead. It does appear from Wikipedia that Psychology has not utterly disowned psychoanalysis, which is foundational bullshit.

    By the end of 20th century, psychology departments in American universities mostly marginalized Freudian theory, dismissing it as a “desiccated and dead” historical artifact.[96] However, researchers in the emerging field of neuro-psychoanalysis today defend some of Freud’s ideas on scientific grounds,[97] while scholars of the humanities maintain that Freud was not a “scientist at all, but … an interpreter”.[96]

    Yeah, that’s a nice way of putting it. OK, so psychology has shovelled all its shit over to psychiatry and now are saying “no true scotsman” regarding all the bullshit and abuses up until, oh, last week.

    OK, can I say “psychology is bullshit up until 2001”?

  37. Enkidum says

    ” Zimbardo could be taught as a fail-case of experimental design, but no social psychologists teach about Zimbardo’s experiments because they still think it was kinda cool. They haven’t got the memo, yet. […] That would be OK if they were taught as cautionary tales.”

    That is literally how he was taught in the social psych course I TAed. I don’t know enough social psychologists to be sure, but it’s my impression he’s at best regarded as kind of embarrassing, and at worse is regarded as I described him above.

    “So, then, what can you generalize from the behaviors of a boxed pigeon other than “a pigeon in a box may do X”?”

    Among other things, that their brains are capable of supporting X.

    The problem with Skinner is he and his acolytes ignored the brain. Which is just embarrassing. Chomsky rightly eviscerated him, and the field finally grew up.

    Why doesn’t everything you’ve said apply to chemistry and phlogiston, or physics and the aether? Most of all early sciences are crap. That’s just the way life is.

  38. says

    Enkidum@#38:
    Why doesn’t everything you’ve said apply to chemistry and phlogiston, or physics and the aether?

    Two things: (in order)
    1) Aether and phlogiston were not results from experiments on living beings and did not influence therapies used on living beings
    2) Physicist and chemists worked to get their mistakes replaced with better knowledge

    Most of all early sciences are crap. That’s just the way life is.

    Eh, nazis prison camp experiments were OK, too. That’s just the way life is, amirite? Don’t be so hard on them, you know. (Edit: that’s a commentary on why we need human factors control boards in medicine, as we needed for most of the history of both medicine and psychology, but not physics or chemistry)

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