Psychology As Pseudoscience

Psychology is to neuroscience
as astrology is to astronomy
and alchemy is to chemistry

I’ve been referring to psychology as pseudoscience for years. I’ve even written about it. This evening, the leading pull quote came to me, so I Googled it and was not disappointed. Confirmation bias? Indeed.

I’m glad others have already broken ground here. It saves me from getting lost down another unpopular rabbit hole.

Neuropath book cover and passage by E. Scott Bakker, MacMillan, 2009

Why should I even care?

On one hand, it disturbs me that this discipline not only gets elevated well above its station, it also affects lives because, as astrology before it, but it also affects people’s lives whether they believe it or not. Psychology creates arbitrary categories, asserts specious definitions, and the weak-minded accept it as gospel. Sadly, intelligent people haven’t yet seen behind the curtain in a manner reminiscent of the countless hours Issac Newton wasted on alchemy or Descartes spent trying to prove God.

It feels that most people have finally abandoned alchemy, though I don’t dare look. But many people still believe in astrology, zodiac, and horoscopes.

The core of psychology is based on metaphysical claims of the mind. The physical aspects lie in the realm of neuroscience.

Not so fast

To be fair, neuroscience is still in its infancy, and there are still more things they don’t know than they do. Where astronomy is able to look at the universe through the James Webb Space Telescope, neurology is peering through binoculars—or perhaps only the hollow core of a paper towel roll.

Although fMRIs and such look to us as advanced as, say, the Janes Webb Space telescope as seen in the image below.

James Webb Space Telescope as metaphor for possibilities

The fidelity might be better conveyed by this star-gazing implement.

Peering through paper towel roll as analogue to available neuroscience implements

Moreover, the base understanding of processes and mechanisms is lacking.

Even so, it beats this analogy to psychology.

Reading Tea Leaves analogue to psychology

This image of Carina Nebula’s so-called Cosmic Cliffs demonstrated the resolution and clarity we might expect from neuroscience in future.

NASA

This image represents where neuroscience is today.

NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

So now I’ve said it. I feel better.

Cover Image Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

Intuition Showdown

Two different colleagues have independently recommended The Matter With Things by Dr Iain McGilchrist, who is also known for The Master and His Emissary, published in 2009.

As a result of these recommendations, I’ve watched some 6 or more hours of video interviews with Iain, some of which are hosted on his own site, Channel McGilchrist, including this one. Before I get to the topic promised by the title of this post, I’ll say that I like Iain. I respect his intellect, his demeanour, and his approach. If you are a credentialist, his an Oxford-educated psychiatrist—so he’s no slouch.

Iain’s positions are well researched, informed, and articulated. I could listen to him for hours. In fact, I have. And yet I disagree with a fundamental position he takes on intuition. Allow me to build up to that.

My first recommendation was due to a reaction I shared that depicting left-right brain hemisphere as analytic-creative was overly reductionist and quaint. McGilchrist was recommended because he disagreed. But it turns out his disagreement was more in the way it was being portrayed. The answer was wrong because the question was wrong. In a nutshell, his contention is that we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing. I agree with this.

we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing

His point is that in cases where an experience (inputs) might be processed on one side versus another, the interpretation (outputs) would necessarily differ. To make a false analogy, the left brain might be performing an exponential function whilst the right brain might be performing an arithmetic function. So, if ƒ(left) = xx and ƒ(right) = x+x, then an input of 3 would yield 27 and 6, respectively. There is nothing wrong with either side, they just produce different results. In context, this difference might matter: How many feet across is that chasm I must leap. I say, ‘Oops’, as I am falling to my demise having underestimated the difference, having used the right rather than the left function.

False Analogy by the Numbers

So where is this showdown you are wittering on about? A little more setup.

Science is stereotypically an analytic function, which is the say it requires a lot of left hemisphere processing. Psychology—and keep in mind that I cast psychology as pseudoscience, or para-science when I am being more charitable—elevates the notion of intuition as not only having value but of being largely ignored by science.

Those who have been following me for a while, know that I am also critical of Scientistm™, the blind-faith devotion to the current state of science as being some infallible truth. But neither am I an advocate for metaphysical claims. This is what I feel Psychology™ is trying to do with intuition. It feels like they are not only trying to inject a metaphysical claim; they are simultaneously making a normative claim that you should have (and trust) intuition; further, they are staking out the territory to be able to say an absence of this acceptance is pathological, so this is a power play. We’ve got the tea leaf readers taking up arms against science.

Of course, I am being hyperbolic and polemic for effect, but this division exists. Iain is not the first to attempt to elevate intuition. A central idea that Jonathan Haidt tries to sell the reader on in his book, The Righteous Mind, is that we need to be more accepting and trusting of intuition. Even Malcolm Gladwell pushed this point in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

I do think that this will escalate. Even if it doesn’t materialise into a full-scale war, people will take sides—they already have—, and we’ll see more us versus them fingerpointing. Whilst I am not fully on the side of science, my propensity is to lean in that direction.

UPDATE: Even before I post this, I discover that I am behind the times with this prediction. In searching for a suitable image for this post, I find the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, which calls out pseudoscience presented as fact not only in the obvious realm of pop psychology but in the offices of practising psychologists. I have not read it, so I am not in a position to recommend it. I may get a copy for myself, if only just to have it on hand.

Before I end this, I also wish to anticipate a point of disagreement. I’ve encountered practitioners of ‘scientific psychology’ who vehemently defend their vocation as science. Without addressing this directly, let’s just raise the point that applying the scientific method and maths to a discipline doesn’t graduate it to become a science. I can apply this to Tarot or haruspicy. If fact, this is how, in general, social sciences became so-called soft sciences: ‘Look at me, mum. I’m using numbers’.

Where do you fall on the topic of intuition? Am I exaggerating and making mountains out of molehills?

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Jacques Lacan, anyone?

I’m wondering whether I should delve into Lacan. I am only vaguely aware of him and have never read any of his published essays or lectures. From what I’ve gleaned, I may end up down some rabbit hole. His interest in the function of language interests me, but his analogy of that to psychoanalysis is disconcerting.

The analogy is fine, but I have a problem with the entire field of psychoanalysis as I view it as pseudoscience. As with Freud and Jung, the speculation around the unconscious and their metaphors are fine storytelling, but that’s about it.

My interest is in his structural approach to language and the notion I share concerning the lack of specificity in language, but it seems to me that my time would be better spent reading Derrida.

Lacan is categorised as both a structuralist and a post-structuralist, which might be correct given the period in which he lived, but I am still trying to figure out how he might be considered to be a post-structuralist, as he seems to be concerned with a sense of order, which is somewhat antithetical to this worldview.

Story Time

One primary function of language is to convey stories. As Yuval Noah Harari notes in his Sapiens, one reason humans have evolved to be seemingly above other species is the ability to construct narratives—particularly narratives about some vision of the future as well as metanarratives about the past and how we got here. His other two factors were money and religion; rather, these are merely special instances of story-telling, and so it’s all about stories.

The human brain responds to narratives, but it does not seem so concerned with the truth element. We are often deceived. In fact, there are notions like cognitive dissonance and escalating commitment where we fabricate rationale around some implausible story or we entrench our thinking when counter-knowledge might otherwise alter our perspective.

MC Escher

In fact, truth is merely another narrative we’ve been fed—rhetorical legerdemain. But it’s just a story: cognitive dissonance envelopes the notion and we build some heuristic defences around it; escalating commitment kicks in when someone attacks the notion.

The concept of Truth underlies entire societies, governments, and legal systems. Idiomatically, we employ small-t truth to represent a sort of relative proximity to match our senses to some observation. If I am asked if a book is on a table when a book is on a table—ignoring semantics of what constitutes a book, a table, or the concept of on—, and I say that it is, this is considered to be a true statement. Of course, this statement is concerned with the correspondence of observation and some shared reality. But this is tautological or analytical. In the end, it’s petty.

Capital-T Truth is more universal (or multiversal), is so much as it would be inviolable. Besides, the Truth of Truth, there are the notions of Trust of Justice or Truth of Duty or Truth of Integrity. Truth of any archetypes, really. Yet these are unobtainable—because there are imaginary concepts.

Classically, archetypes are forms from which physical objects sort of spawn. A table to an instantiation of some archetypal table. Archetypes follow from Ancient Greek pathological notions of perfections—perfect forms, shapes, harmonies, relationships, virtues, gods, and on and on. The notion of perfect itself is an archetype in this sense.

But the causal relationship has been inverted. Empirical observations taken to imaginary extremes generate a notion of the archetype. Mother is an archetype—the perfect mother—, but it’s not that mothers are formed by some archetypical mould; it’s that the aggregation of mothers and how a perfect mother might be is the definitive. In Jungian psychology, all mothers are compared by their children against this archetypal form. In the Greek tradition, the virtuous mother would attempt to live up to this expectation.

Christian religion plays this up, too. Jesus and God are archetypes. Humans are fallible, but the virtuous strive to be like them; WWJD. Buddhists have their own archetypes of Buddha and Enlightenment, the realization of perfection in nirvana. Again, this is just a story.

Language itself is a human construct, and so anything within it is also constructed. It doesn’t matter whether language acquisition comes a priori or a posteriori. The language itself remains a fabrication.

Post Truth has been a popular topic recently. But what is post is the belief by many in the concept of truth. Although couched this way by detractors, no one is claiming that all truths are equally valid. The claim is rather that many truths are. To claim that women are equal to men and women are inferior to men cannot be evaluated because it would require a complete set of dimensions. Besides, even with this complete set of dimensions, a couple of dimensions are place and time, both of which are subject to change. Beauvoir pointed this out in Second Sex, where she noted that in hunter-gatherer societies physical size and strength may have made males ‘superior’ in matters of protection (a specific context), but that industrialization and automation have rendered this factor insignificant.

So why is any of this important? Well, it’s not. As I’ve said, evidently truth was not necessary to become evolved to this point. And since it’s a figment, there is little reason to believe that it will ever become necessary.  My point is merely to point out that the emperor of truth is wearing no clothes.

Talk About Choice, the Body & Consent

This post takes a different approach than the previous two videos. First, I am reversing the video content and my response, so the video content is quoted.

As I listened to the video, I was taken aback by how rife the content was with logical fallacies. In fact, this would be perfect fodder for an introductory Logic 101 class to evaluate for these fallacies. Although I do not call out these fallacies exhaustively, I do highlight some of them.

One common factor of prostitutes is the history of surviving emotional, physical or often sexual abuse and violence.

Given that these are undefined and unqualified, I am not sure that there is any woman who has never had any violence of some degree or another. I presume this should be further qualified that it is directed toward her. I’ll be perfectly frank: I have never dated a woman who has not been raped at least once in her lifetime, some had been several times, and several others had been molested as children. Only a couple of these had any connections to sex work of any form, so it is interesting that this a raised as a vector, first for the over-expansive domain and second without contrast to other women in a sort of control group fashion.

These previous aspects have been suggested to be even stronger than the factor of poverty.

Notice again the speaking in generalities. No facts are being asserted here. We are trapped in a telephone game, where hearsay and speculation dominate the held position. Somebody anonymous person somehow somewhere suggested that some relationship might exist. There is nothing there.

Some poor women will be prostitutes, and others will take underpaid or illegal jobs…

Duly noted. And some will graduate from college and become computer programmers. And so?

…but the ones opting for prostitution will have had a history of sexual violence.

Notice that no claim is being made that this violence is more or less frequent than the cohort not opting for prostitution.

That a middle-class girl may also find herself working as a prostitute because someone taught her that she was worthless.

Wow. So much to unpack here. The narrator, Elly, is asserting a parallel between prostitution and worthlessness. The implication is a person with worth would not choose this profession because she would choose a worthy profession. I wonder where and how this worth is determined.

…and the only thing of value she could do was to give sexual access to men.

So Elly, whether she admits it or not is deprecating women who choose this profession, but she tries to shroud it in language that she feels otherwise.

Now comes the psychobabble about trauma reenactment, as if it were a thing, and in a classic misdirect, she asserts that this is not even her own judgment; in fact, it is the analysis of these women who are clearly qualified to make a professional judgment of this nature in the realm of pseudoscience.

Anecodote: Women come to the conclusion that they’ve been abused their whole lives, so why not get paid for it.

Here is where I break to discuss post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy or anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is frequently misinterpreted via the availability heuristic, which leads to an overestimation of the prevalence of an occurrence. This is a well-documented logical fallacy. This fallacy is employed when the person arguing has no real data to support their position, so they opt for personal stories, hearsay, and anecdotes. Related to this is confirmation bias, which is the result of, having established a position, only seek out facts that support the position even if these facts are outnumbered by contrary facts by orders of magnitude.

Such thinking is the basis behind anti-vaccination groups and homoeopathy advocates. The best these people can do is to point to themselves or a friend or a friend of a friend who benefited (or was disadvantaged) by some therapy or other action.

Bald assertion: We have a rape and paedophilia culture.

What is the basis for this claim, and what is the scope?

Media culture promotes the message be pretty, be fuckable, or be invisible

Here, we are in full agreement. The technical fallacy here is that for every 10 girls subjected to these messages, 1 becomes a prostitute. Yet even by conservative statistics, at least 1 in 5 women have been raped, 1 in 4 have been sexually abused. So the cause and effect don’t add up. In the US, about 14% of people are officially considered to in poverty.

In statistics, there is a concept of signal and noise. The problem is that understanding statistics is not natural for humans. It involves the analytical System II, in Daniel Kahneman‘s parlance, rather than the heuristic, System I.  A cognitive problem plaguing people is apophenia, where they read patterns into data that simply are not there. A form of this, called pareidolia, is how people see Jesus’ face in toast.

No body can stand beign penetrated to 10 to 30 male strangers every single day.

So the 10 to 20 customers a night I commented was unrealistic has now morphed into 10 to 30. It is somehow important to note that these are strangers, presumably as a nod to acknowledge that 30 acquaintances would be just fine because there would be enthusiastic consent and mutual arousal. Beware stranger danger.

If indeed prostitution is just a job like any other job, like, say, flipping burgers, then I would wager you would have absolutely no issue switching jobs with a prostituted person for one day and let it be your anus that’s penetrated in the state of non-arousal by 15 men during one night.

O! Europa. Firstly, I wouldn’t trade my jobs to flip burgers let alone be a prostitute. Secondly, there are scores upon scores of ‘typical’ jobs I would have no interest in switching into. Nor would I presume that many others could actually do my job in any case. Why would someone presume that the punter wouldn’t notice the old switcharoo? And what’s with the anal penetration. Some prostitutes will ‘do’ anal for an up-charge, but many—perhaps even most—prostitutes won’t even accept anal at any price. This is about boundaries.

And someone seems pretty obsessed with the prospect of being penetrated by 15 men. I’d chalk this up to a power struggle, a foray into the world of penetration politics. Even gay men discriminate between top and bottom, so it’s rather a submission thing rather than a female thing.

Prostitution is incompatible with enthusiastic sexual consent

Elly runs through a bizarre strawman scenario that is too silly to even repeat here, and then she returns to some Disney Princess fantasy world of wooing and requited love.

She (sort of) acknowledges (without saying as much) that there is a distinction between economic and social spheres. I’d suggest reviewing the Isreali daycare study, where they learned that lesson the hard way. This does not mean that some people don’t blend the two spheres. It also doesn’t mean that a woman might not put out for a hamburger but might be persuaded by steak.

Anecdotally, I am aware of some women who say they would have sex with their favourite celebrity—if only he would ask.

In the end, this has become more and more disappointing. As so much of this material are vast generalisations and practically at the level of conspiracy theories, there is not even a debate to be had. There are so many technical flaws, I feel I need to pull a yellow card. There is nothing to push against except for the lack of structure or method. It’s all so nebulous. It’s all so quixotic, tilting at windmills.

To be honest, I don’t see how this would convert someone on the fence, let alone an opponent. This material is pretty much relegated to echo-chamber choir preaching.

I think I need to get back to the topic of subjectivism and out of the weeds of activist politics.

 

There Are No Accidents

There are no accidents, or so claimed Carl Jung in his work on synchronicity, positing that events may be connected causally or by meaning. Some people see this as the work of some karmic force whilst others use it to suggest that a person is being passive-aggressive.

Karma

In the karmic sense, this means that there is no escaping fate, and, as with Santa Claus, he is constantly watching you, like some personified panopticon. See the short post on karma, too.

I’m not sure if the bible story of Judas and Jesus is really a karmic anecdote, but under this paradigm, everything is a no-fault situation. Judas was fated to betray Jesus. And despite this lack of responsibility, Judas still committed suicide once he realised what he had done and despite it not being an accident.

Passive-Aggression

In the passive-aggressive sense, it is to say the event A may be caused by something in person B’s unconscious mind—and not by some collective consciousness or a Universal Overseer. So, secretly, if Person B accidentally backed into your parked car, it may not be by some conscious volition; rather, it’s because or some deep-seated anger or other ill-will harboured and directed for you.

The problem is that if you accept that there are no accidents, then you—intentionally or otherwise—parked your car in a place where it would necessarily be hit by someone—by anyone. It just happened to be this other person for whom there are also no accidents. So, both parties are blameless. But people love to blame, and they like to defer responsibility.

Verdict

The bottom line is that both of these concepts are a bit sketchy. In a world of no free will, the karma situation might be plausible, but this wreaks havoc on moral-ethical systems. I discuss that in most post on karma.