2 jun. 2011

Bullshit Fields (4)

My fourth bullshit field, as you might expect, is psychoanalysis. An easy target. Nobody, not even defenders of the field, really thinks that the human mind is divided into id, ego, and superego. Historians, philosophers, and biographers have pretty much demolished the Freudian edifice, piece by piece, showing how Freud basically made up the entire thing out of bogus case studies. Does anyone really think, any longer, that neuroses are caused by the repression of childhood sexual traumas? As therapy, psychoanalysis is endlessly repetitive. The kind of cures that Freud claimed to have effected don't really happen in real life, I suspect. They probably didn't happen for Freud either.

One characteristic of a bullshit field is that is cannot protect itself against confirmation bias, in other words, the tendency to find what you want to find. Freudianism is rife with such bias, since a Freudian will find Freudian motifs wherever he looks, and any objection to this is termed "resistance." If you don't agree with a Freudian, that just confirms the validity of the insight! The system is immune from falsification, as Popper argued. Freud was particularly prone to confirmation bias because he thought he was immune from it. He even, famously, claimed to have analyzed himself! He was very smart, but extremely arrogant in this regard. (Confirmation bias, briefly, is favoring information that confirms a pre-existent view of things. Suppose we wanted to prove that television violence fosters violent behavior. Suppose then we videotape kids after they've watched tv and watch the videos. We would want to make sure that the people watching and scoring the videos did not know which children were in the control group and which had just watched violent images. Why because the bias of the research itself is to find causation. [That's another bullshit field, by the way.] If you think about it, Freud's method was the opposite, designed expressly to magnify this kind of bias rather than control for it. Suppose you wanted to design an experimental method in which the researcher's views are always confirmed? If I wanted to design something like that I would come up with something like psychoanalysis. An authority figure doctor in a room with the patient for an hour trying to confirm his theory through conversation.)

At one time, Freud's ideas had a huge impact on elite and popular culture. Now, not so much. I think only film studies still uses psychoanalysis, which is understandable given the historical origins of this field. Remember when every Hitchcock film hinged on a psychoanalytic conceit?

(Obviously, psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy "work" for some people. And I'll concede that Freud was a great "genius" too, since apparently that's what you have to say. I'm not in favor of replacing talk therapy with mere pills, or debating the relative merits of different therapies in detail. The intellectual edifice standing behind the practice of analysis is just not there any more, in any significant sense. See Crews, ed. Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, 1999, as well as his ealier The Memory Wars. If you read these books and still think highly of the edifice, there's probably nothing I could say to convince you. If you haven't been exposed to this historical evidence, then you really don't know enough to make up your mind. I, too, grew up assuming Freud was as solid as anything. The problem is that there is no evidence for it outside of the self-confirming clinical practice.)

14 comentarios:

Clarissa dijo...

"Does anyone really think, any longer, that neuroses are caused by the repression of childhood sexual traumas?"

-Does anybody really not know this?

"As therapy, psychoanalysis is endlessly repetitive."

-Not in my experience. I'm not even sure what you mean by that. I only needed about 11 weeks, one session a week. That's hardly endless.

"The kind of cures that Freud claimed to have effected don't really happen in real life, I suspect"

-Yes, they do. How about people who survive for many years after they have been diagnosed with terminal cancer and told by doctors they have a few months at most left to live?

Andrew Shields dijo...

I was going to mention "falsification" as something that "bullshit fields" can't quite deal with.

In German, literary criticism is called "Literaturwissenschaft" (literature-science), and I've never bought the idea that's a science, in part because it's hard to falsify anything. Or in a sense, all too easy, as any generalization about "the novel" or "poetry" is subject to counter-examples that are never hard to find.

Whimsy dijo...

As much as I am enjoying Jonathan's BSF list, and the quite excellent comments to date, the exercise *does* a bit remind me of a kind of superior attitude I've noticed over the years by colleagues of mine in science and engineering. In certain circles, most of the arts and humanities disciplines, and all of the social science disciplines are regarded as "soft", in a tone that often makes it sound like a synonym for impotent.

In my lifetime of reading and decade-plus of poetry writing, I feel like I have overcome this particular viewpoint, but it's still prevalent in math/science circles, where even economics is thought to be on a shaky foundation.

Jonathan dijo...

What do you mean "even economics." I think that field gets it from every side.

The softness of certain social science is a real problem, not a made up one. That doesn't mean there aren't also problems with science, which I hope to address also.

Whimsy dijo...

I say "even economics", because there are a lot of economists who regularly test their hypotheses against historical data (including those from recent history). I went to school with a couple of mathematical economists, who were sharp as tacks and every bit what I would normal call a "scientist". I also have good feelings about economics, because it really is often where math and models have to be reconciled with human behavior, something that pure math/science types seldom think much about.

On the other hand, there are lots of economists who have sold out to achieve glory and fortune, and certainly enough discredited theories out there (Laffer being near the top).

I'm really enjoying your longer posts these days, Jonathan.

Professor Zero dijo...

"Does anyone really think, any longer, that neuroses are caused by the repression of childhood sexual traumas?"

I am convinced that some are.

"As therapy, psychoanalysis is endlessly repetitive."

This is actually my complaint about more contemporary forms of therapy. Superficial and repetitive, and designed either to prescribe pills or a self confirming formula, and send you on your way, or else to get you coming back and back and yet moving nowhere. At least Freud was an intellectual, and had an education, and was trying to do something serious.

Clarissa dijo...

"Superficial and repetitive, and designed either to prescribe pills or a self confirming formula, and send you on your way, or else to get you coming back and back and yet moving nowhere."

-That is very true. This is what makes psychoanalysis so good: it doesn't do any of this.

Bob Basil dijo...

I am not sure why you lump in talk therapy and psychotherapy with psychoanalysis. Talk therapy and psychotherapy comprise a wide range of approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy (which made me a happy person).

Jonathan dijo...

Was there any talk therapy at all before psychoanalysis? I thought of it as the daddy of all therapies that involve a doctor talking to a patient.

Bob Basil dijo...

You are right: psychoanalysis started talk therapy. Other forms of talk therapy started shortly thereafter: AA being the main one, with its own dogma, helpful or not. PTSD folk need talk therapy, for example. Drugs don't change the past.

Professor Zero dijo...

What is AA?

I'm glad CBT works for some but I think one of the big problems in the therapy industry is this and other kinds of behaviorisms which (to me) seem really superficial, condescending and beside the point.

If you're already an optimistic and positive person with good habits, and you're already rational / able to see things in perspective, then all this additional emphasis on managing yourself in the CBT style is just sort of pointless.

I've got, or have had PTSD and just talking never worked, although reading and thinking and observing myself gave me a lot of insight. It was deeper kinds of therapeutic experiences, more akin to psychoanalysis, that shook it loose, and the right drug did in fact keep panic attacks at bay and help me really live.

Bob Basil dijo...

AA = Alcoholics Anonymous. This, like other "peer support therapies," has a big "talk therapy" component to it.

Bob Basil dijo...

Professor Dijo, Thank you for sharing that insight. -- Bob

Professor Zero dijo...

Aha. AA as next big wave after psychoanalysis, that is kind of interesting for chronology building.