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)