Posts Tagged ‘Delusions’

Freud’s Fellow Kooks

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Following up on Freudian Psychology is Horsesh*t - Lost Wanderer, I ran across this Discover Magazine article, The Borderline Whack-Jobs Who Pioneered Psychoanalysis  by Dean Christopher, who reviewed the book, Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis by George Makari. 

As I might have expected, considering what a charlatan Freud was, many of Freud’s followers were also fairly unusual.  Felix Salten, who wrote Bambi, also wrote pornography.  Otto Weininger recommended completely giving up sex for all purposes, and then shortly afterwards killed himself.  Some followers believed that masturbation caused madness, while others believed it cured it.  One got the label the “Pied Piper of carnality.”  Another had to flee his homeland partly as a result of repeated accusations of child molestation, and still another died in jail.  We learn from these deep thinkers that blacks are inherently uncivilizable, syphilis is the co-traveler of Christianity, women are destined for hysteria, Jews are disproportionately degenerate, and the solution for the Jew’s problem was to practice gymnastics. 

In the end, Freudianism serves as a reminder of how insane ideas can foster a cult of fashionable nonsense given the right circumstances.

Freudian Psychology is Horsesh*t

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Freud was a charlatan, a liar, a manipulator, unscrupulous, callous, and unrepentant of having ruined the lives of desperate and vulnerable patients.  He was also a ruthlessly ambitious man, who was desperate for glory, and engaged in an endless quest of self-promotion.  The sum total of his ideas constitutes a pseudoscientific cargo cult, which might be compared to the Flat Earth Society, but for the fact that this might be a bit unfair to them.  His theories were popular with the literary crowd, (probably a group similar to those who practice deconstructionism) but largely not with the scientific community.  Early on in his career he set up his institutes outside mainstream scientific circles, which partially explains how his theories survived, since they can’t withstand any sort of close examination.  (The lack of openness to other investigators is a classic sign of quack science.)

Eysenck put it bluntly in his book, The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, saying that (to the very limited extent that his theories are testable) anything Freud said that was true wasn’t original, and anything he said that was original wasn’t true.  In short, he didn’t make one single contribution to the advancement of psychology.  But, one thing he did do was to get credit for other’s ideas.  For example, he didn’t discover the concept of the unconscious, but merely appropriated the idea from others; also people had studied dreams before Freud.  When discussing those correct ideas he is currently given credit for, instead of talking about, “Freud’s theory of X,” we should be talking about, “John Doe’s theory of X,” and simply leaving Freud completely out of the story.

Over the years scholars who have examined his clinical notes have concluded that he fabricated data, failed to consider counter examples, and dreamed up many of his theories out of thin air while he was sometimes bombed out on cocaine.  He came up with his Oedipus theory through a breathtaking overgeneralization by recalling, a possibly false memory of his, about once seeing his mother naked when he was two, and having sexual feelings for her.  He then concluded this was a universal experience of humanity, and that it was one key to the understanding of neurosis.

In general, he postulated a number of crucial early childhood experiences, which in all likelihood for most people never took place, and then never gave any evidence of causation between these supposed early childhood experiences and the later problems his patients had.  (Also, his early ideas were influenced by numerology, and he slept with his wife’s sister, but perhaps it’s best not to get sidetracked by such details.)

Let’s move on, and focus in on the core problem with his theories.  The basic problem is that, for almost all practical purposes, they aren’t falsifiable.  (As I mentioned above, when they are falsifiable they are wrong.)  That is, they don’t produce specific predictions that are testable.  What this means is that absolutely any evidence, or for that matter its opposite, is consistent with whatever the analyst has to say.  Freud’s general methodology was to listen to a patient’s report of his/her dreams, pick and choose what he thought was important, and make a diagnosis.  Patients would often later incorporate his suggestions into their thinking, which would confirm his diagnosis.  In a circular fashion then, his theory created the facts, which in turn supported the theory.

Once the diagnosis was made, the therapist’s job was to lead, or if necessary browbeat, the patient to see the truth.  If someone were to disagree with him, this was simply taken as evidence that the patient was resisting because of his/her psychological problems, and therefore constituted further evidence that the diagnosis was correct!  In short, whatever evidence existed would be twisted to fit the diagnosis.  Anyone who disagreed, “No, I’m quite sure that I didn’t have sex with any three legged dog when I was a child.” was dismissed as crazy.  The only “sane” patients were those who bought into Freud’s delusions, agreeing with him.  (The same sort of treatment could be used to dismiss critics, since they were no doubt in denial also.)

Even in cases that were obviously misdiagnosed, Freud could do no wrong.  One patient who complained of stomach pains was cured of hysteria by him.  She then proceeded to inconsiderately die of cancer 2 months later. Freud responded by saying that he had cured the hysteria that had been caused by the lymphoma!

His theories are endlessly protean, and are built around confirmation bias, with practitioners only looking for supporting evidence of their truth.  They can be made to “explain” anything in a person’s life.  Freud once did a vast analysis supposedly explaining the genius of Leonardo da Vinci from a dream da Vinci had written about.  The only problem is that his entire analysis was based on a mistranslation of the original text, and therefore completely misguided.  His theories then constitute the equivalent of a Tinker Toy set that can be used, after the fact, to curve fit any results.  But, such theories can do no better than common sense in predicting facts ahead of time. (1)  The “science” he founded has never made any real progress, which is another of the hallmarks of a pseudoscience.

Given Freud’s penchant for analyzing others in condescending and bizarre ways, it is tempting to turn the tools of his craft back on him in an attempt to understand what might have led him down the path he took.  Besides Freud’s vile personality, some have speculated that he might have harbored considerable animosity towards, what he would have seen as, the bigoted Viennese culture of his time.  He was Jewish, and would have no doubt suffered from discrimination.  One way of safely striking back would have been to accuse people of having shocking sexually perverse desires, but doing so under the protective cloak of what was purported to be neutral science.

If I were to do what Freud did, I would go out and get high on drugs.  While on them, I would make up some completely insane psychological theory that insulted a culture I resented.  To make sure I couldn’t be proven wrong, the theory would be largely non-falsifiable.  Next, I would set up a set of independent institutes practicing my bogus therapy, and thereby, being outside the university system, be somewhat insulated from academic criticisms.  If anyone did criticize me, I would, in an act of breathtaking chutzpah, project onto them what I was in fact guilty of, and label them as crazy.  (I feel the need to point out that this scenario strikes me as very reminiscent of how religious cults operate.)

Freud got away with his quackery largely through wily public relations.  He claimed to have corroborating evidence for his theories that, in fact, didn’t exist.   He was an expert narrator and myth maker.  He was also a master of the rhetoric of science, which gave his theories the appearance of rigor.   His language was technical and difficult to decipher, making criticism difficult.  He presented himself as a searcher after truth, a humble empiricist, a man with incredible integrity, and one who was virtually incapable of self-deception.  Freud cast himself as a truth teller in a world of repressed hypocrites.  He would use striking but irrelevant examples, and when challenged, suggest that proofs were given somewhere else.  Finally, he also had helpers, since the early mystical roots of his thinking were kept hidden by his disciples for many years, and the fiction of a large number of clinical supporting cases was maintained by recycling a small number of actual cases.

In the end, Freud’s work is simply another case of a snake oil conman peddling imposter science, similar to Marxism, which is characterized by elaborate theorizing, which presents the appearance of being a science, but on examination actually turns out to be a manipulative and malicious fantasy that either can’t be tested or is simply wrong in its predictions.

(1) Psychology might have a particular tendency to generate such nonsense.  Noam Chomsky made, in essence, the same charge against B. F. Skinner. (The Case Against B. F. Skinner)

(For a non-Freudian recent attempt that might explain a sub-class of delusions, see: Delusions as Strategic Deception)

(For further reading, see: The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason by Gellner, Freudian Fraud by Torrey,  Madness on the Couch by Dolnick, Unauthorized Freud by Crews, Why Freud was Wrong by Webster, Killing Freud by Dufresne, Against Freud by Dufresne, Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience by Cioffi, Freud Evaluated by Macmillan, House of Cards by Dawes, Seductive Mirage by Esterson, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis by  Grunbaum, Follies of the Wise by Crews, Psychoanalysis or the Freudian Philosophy by Robinson, Was Sigmund Freud a Quack – The Straight Dope, The Assault on Truth by Masson, The Memory Wars by Crews, Burying Freud by Tallis, The Assault on Freud- Gray, et al., Father Knows Best by Lakoff, Freud Bashers’ Greatest Hits by Prose)

Ergot Poisoning, the Likely Cause of the Salem Witch Trials

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

I find natural explanations for historical mysteries and legends fascinating.  I first heard about the ergot theory of the Salem witch trials about 20 years ago, and PBS did a nice review of it (Ergot Poisoning - the cause of the Salem Witch Trials) on a Secrets of the Dead episode (The Witches Curse) back in 2002.  When Linnda Caporael was a senior in college she was writing a paper on the play, The Crucible (which is about the trials).  While reading a book about the play, she noted that the author said he couldn’t explain the hallucinations of the people in Salem.  As a child, she had read about a possible case of mass ergot poisoning in France, and was able to make the connection. 

The most interesting thing about this theory is that seems to explain, not only the Salem case, but many of the instances of witch hysteria in European history.  What some scholars think happened is that an early case of mass ergot poisoning occurred, and it was diagnosed by authorities as witchcraft.  This became the paradigm, and so from then on everyone knew what witchcraft was, and how to recognize it.  If you look throughout European history, and correlate the incidences of witch hysteria with the weather, you find that those cases frequently occurred when the weather was ideal for the ergot infection of rye. 

In addition to its immediate effects, ergot also suppresses the immune system, making people more vulnerable to disease, and the symptoms of plague, a disease that was common at that time, are similar to those of ergot poisoning.  So, the sequence that might have frequently occurred is they first had good weather for an ergot blight.  Then people got poisoned, and therefore had hallucinations and weakened immune systems.  Finally they had a major plague outbreak.  No wonder they thought they were cursed.  (Rye Ergot and Witches, Ergot, See also Witch-hunt -Wikipedia for a sociological perspective on witch hunts.)

The Myth of Creative Genius

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I had a class in cognitive psychology in which we studied theories of how people go about thinking through problems.  One of the most interesting things we covered in the course of the class was that the way most people think about creativity is fundamentally confused. 

People typically think about creativity as being what is called a psychometric trait, similar to the way they think about math ability.  A trait exists when people have a fairly stable characteristic way of responding, performing, or being that consistently accounts for differences between them.  Introversion, IQ, and height are all examples of traits.  A problem with the view that creativity is a trait is that, unlike math, researchers have never been able to construct a reliable and valid test for it.  If a test isn’t reliable this means that when a given subject takes the same exact test twice over a period of time he/she will score inconsistently.  For example, they might score high the first time and then low the second; and this is what often happens with tests of creativity.  If a test isn’t valid then it isn’t measuring what it’s supposed to.  An extreme example of this would be if someone was mistakenly attempting to measure a person’s blood pressure using a glucose monitor.  The number they would get wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to know, because you had measured the wrong thing.  This is also what happens with creativity tests.  When researchers gave a select group of highly regarded creative architects a large battery of tests, trying to discover what made them so creative, it turned out that there was no difference between their scores and their average non-highly-creative peer’s scores.   What this implies is that whatever it was that was making them creative wasn’t being captured by any of the tests the researchers had used.  

Partly as an outgrowth of these results, there has emerged a different view of what creativity involves.  This view holds that what people are seeing as the creative output of a genius is actually a kind of natural illusion.  That it is sort of like a mirage, and, just as with a mirage, there are a number of conditions which make this illusion likely to occur.  Creativity is typically associated with a person who is in a field that requires a fair bit of esoteric knowledge, or skills, or both.  The person has studied for many years.  They are gifted at that set of abilities that is relevant to the tasks of their field.  They are passionate about it, and hardworking at it.  When all these elements come together a person might produce a breakthrough of some sort: the theory of evolution, the periodic table, Mendel’s genetics of garden peas, Calder’s mobile, etc.  What follows next explains the illusion.  There is a crucial difference in how the peers of that person react and the public reacts.  The person’s peers, knowing the field as he/she does, often regard the breakthrough as a very clever piece of work, but one that is understandable.  A typical reaction might be, “Darn, I was so close!”  From the point of view of an uninformed audience member the view is very different.  What they see is a miracle.  “How could anyone ever have thought of that?  That person must have something extra, akin to a magical ability that I know I certainly don’t have.”  And this is how the theory of creativity was born. 

If we look briefly at what Calder had been exposed to before he came up with the mobile its creation seems, perhaps unfairly, almost inevitable.  He had seen mechanical self-animated toys, and applied the principles to creating his own miniature mechanical circus.  He had also been exposed to abstract shapes of Piet Mondrian.  Initially he put these two lines of artistic expression together, and created mechanical moving sculptures.  Finally, he eliminated the mechanical parts, and let the wind do the work of moving the shapes around.  Once you see all the precursing elements, the act of creation looks far less magical.  Although, to be fair, obviously when coming up with a new idea, it’s not nearly as obvious as it looks after the fact.

An analogy to a magic trick isn’t a bad one.  If you had an audience totally unfamiliar with stage magic, and a performer then proceeded to cut several women in half and levitate them, what would they think?  They might naturally conclude that this person had some special magical ability.  But, if now you were to take them up on stage and show them how the illusion worked, they would change their minds and say, “This is very clever, but it isn’t magic.  So, in the end the more you understand about a field, the less it looks like magic.  The more it looks like just clever and insightful problem solving, and not some sort of creative leap of imagination coming from some sort of special place that separates these people from the rest of humanity.

For further reading try: Creativity: Genius and other Myths, Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, and Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts, all by Robert W. Weisberg

Delusions as Strategic Deception

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

I ran across this article by Edward H. Hagen, “Non-bizarre Delusions as Strategic Deception” which looks at 5 classes of delusions that he argues are the outcome of evolutionary selection for status enhancement of very low ranking individuals in a community.  The 5 delusions are: paranoiac, grandiose, erotomanic, somatic, and jealous.  What makes these “non-bizarre” delusions is that for a given individual a belief falling into each of these classes could in fact be true.  Someone might really be after you.  You might have special knowledge.  An important person might be in love with you.  You could really be blind or lame.  Your mate might be unfaithful.  But, given the particulars of the specific individual’s case, their beliefs are clearly wrong.  

Hagen argues that what all these classes of delusion have in common is that they would have been likely to have garnered aid from others in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), and that very low ranking individuals who developed these conditions would have preferentially survived.  Over time his would have led to those genes that coded for such delusions to have been selected for.  And it turns out that given the right conditions about 50% of people will develop such delusions.  Such persons are very resistant to treatment because this isn’t a case of the brain doing something it wasn’t designed to do, but the brain actually working correctly. 

It turns out that there is one thing that will cure the person.   They will inevitably recover if their status is significantly raised.  It makes sense, because this is what the mechanisms are designed to accomplish, and if they accomplish their task then there is no reason for the delusion to persist.

I’ve known two people who developed paranoiac delusions, both of whom were failing badly in life at the time of the development of their conditions.  The best liar is someone who doesn’t know he is lying.  What makes it clear that the people are sincere in their beliefs, and that this is an involuntary process, is that, while the mechanisms at work might have been adaptive overall in the EEA, in today’s world they just make the individual’s situation worse, and yet the person persists in really believing in them.

Controversies in Feminism by James P. Sterba

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

I found this book online, and ended up at chapter 14, Maritime Policy for a Flat Earth by Michael Levin.  He doesn’t pull his punches when he takes the position that feminism’s denial of gender dimorphism (mostly focused on the denial of genetically based psychological differences between men and women) puts feminism on the “wrong side of every issue.”   He argues that evidence of such differences is rejected by feminists out of hand, differences stemming from different environments aren’t necessarily unjust, and the adoption of feminist policies has led to a great deal of unhappiness for many people of both genders.