Psychology has failed?
May 19, 2003 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Psychology has failed. It's not often that an entire academic discipline collapses, but according to Peter Watson, author of A Terrible Beauty, that's what is happening to Psychology. " has failed technologically, philosophically and is already in an advanced stage of decomposition." [more inside]
posted by grahamwell (25 comments total)
The second part of the Times piece is here. A fuller .pdf of the original lecture is here. Provocative - certainly. True?
posted by grahamwell at 8:58 AM on May 19, 2003

Wow. The Internet is dead, psychology has failed, and we're discussing Kelly Clarkson's ass on MetaFilter. Maybe the end times really are nigh?
posted by vraxoin at 9:00 AM on May 19, 2003

Psychology was never a science. It was a methodology.
posted by four panels at 9:07 AM on May 19, 2003

The author seems to confuse Psychoanalysis with Psychology. Today, Freud is more respected in Media Studies than in mainstream Psychology. The examples listed are mostly from the psychoanalytic tradition and one in particular, the 'eat popcorn' subliminal advertising (popularized by Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders) was long dismissed as a myth. As for kid's taking Ritalin - that would normally be on the advice of a psychiatrist or GP, not a Psychologist. The whole argument is based on knocking down straw men that have already been largely rejected in Psychology. So, not a very convincing argument.
posted by jamespake at 9:09 AM on May 19, 2003

Can anyone point me to the Kelly Clarkson ass discussion?

Thank You.
posted by jeremias at 9:22 AM on May 19, 2003

Yeah, to expand on what jamespake said. Psychology started with Freud? What about the early experimental behaviorism of Pavlov, Watson, and James and the psychmetrics of Galton?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:27 AM on May 19, 2003

Yeah, the author seems confused about a lot of things. First off, the main premise - we have all these psych graduates, and people incessantly talking about 'psyhology,' but people are more unhappy than ever - is so logically flawed as to be comical. Second, he seems to be tacitly exhorting us to exhume B.F. Skinner's simplistic Black Box, calling Skinner "forgotten and unread." Uh, no, we haven't forgotten him, we just realized his concepts were extremely limited and stopped calling him the messiah.

That said, psychology does have a big Achilles heel in its dependence on the medical model - people with problems have one or another "disease" that needs to be matched with a "cure" - as was so well explained by James Hillman, back when he was doing vital work - before he became a parody of himself.
posted by soyjoy at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2003

Ditto to what everyone else is saying - the guy is attacking early psychology and psychoanalysis, not the diverse discipline in existence right now, and certainly not the more rigorous areas such as experimental psychology and cognitive psychology.

"The point is clear. Everywhere you turn, you find growing links between biology, or physics, and behaviour; more and more appears to be explained by physiology, biochemistry, genetics or neurology — and less and less by psychology."

Of course it does! Psychology is 'the scientific study of the behaviour of humans and animals.' Who said you can't use neuroscientific methods for psychology? Indeed, much of the cutting edge work done in, say, autism, involves a medley of techniques including genetic studies, brain imaging, molecular biology and of course good old behavioural studies.
posted by adrianhon at 9:36 AM on May 19, 2003

"the psychology of failure has failed. We must make it work again."
posted by blue_beetle at 9:37 AM on May 19, 2003

There are many areas of psychology that are thriving. Decision Theory, Cognitive Science, HCI... These are all either partially or entirely within psychology, and the work done in these fields is applied in the real world in specific ways that work, following behavioral laws that are rigorously tested. Comparing them with Rorschach tests and Freudian dream analysis is like saying science failed because of Pons and Fleishman.
posted by kfury at 9:38 AM on May 19, 2003

That sound you're hearing is the members of the Church of Scientology dancing in the street.
posted by Cerebus at 9:49 AM on May 19, 2003

What the article is suggesting is that psychology as a tool for society has failed, and I think most of us would accept this. He mostly is referred to psychoanalysis, which definitely failed. Current trends in psychiatry don't really have the longitudinal studies to back up efficacy, so the case is still out for them. But psychology as a tool for society clearly produced garbage for most of the 20th century.

Psychology as a scientific discipline hasn't had the results of biology or physics, but it is also much younger. Biology is roughly 300 year old, and physics 400. Psychology on the other hand is just over 100. So obviously, the results in its first 100 years are no going to be as impressive as those from biology or physics in the past century. Psychology as a scientific discipline is definitely here to stay.
posted by nads at 10:19 AM on May 19, 2003

nads - "Psychology on the other hand is just over 100."

Scientific psychology is even younger than that. Freud & company never had any kind of scientific basis. Later theorists, such as Skinner, at least made an honest effort to be scientific, but they hadn't found an effective experimental/theoretic paradigm that would allow them to generate any kind of useful results. The last few decades have produced some promising findings in cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, social psychology & other subdisciplines that actually make effective use of the scientific method. However, this as mostly basic research. Clinical psychology, on the other hand, is a totally different discipline - primarily an artform - one with mixed results. The researchers doing basic research have probably many decades to go before they produce reliable tools for the clinicians. (Psychopharmacology is the one area of research which the clinicians are taking advantage of, but that is still at a primitive level of development.) As nads suggests, we may have another couple of hundred years to go before we see results from psychology to rival those of the older sciences.
posted by tdismukes at 11:10 AM on May 19, 2003

Holy shit, it collapsed? Someone better tell all of those professors and the psychologists making a living off of it. They sure are going to be surprised!
posted by Hall at 11:26 AM on May 19, 2003

I'll join in the pile-on. When I was an undergrad, 15 years ago(damnit I'm getting old), I read Freud in my freshman English class and never heard a peep about him in my psych classes. In fact good old Tulane University didn't have a behavioral psychologist on their staff at all, they were all clinical psych.
posted by monkeyman at 12:36 PM on May 19, 2003

This report is also critical of "talk therapy," but it may give you a different perspective on the practical applications of psychology. It's from a national meeting of psychologists trying to figure out how to respond to 9-11:

"Mental Health and Mass Violence:
Evidence-Based Early Psychological Intervention for Victims/Survivors of Mass Violence.
A Workshop to Reach Consensus on Best Practices" (Available as a 123-page .pdf)

"Some interventions -- including mass education via media outlets -- although beneficial, have the potential for unintended harm ... Also, the report cites some evidence that early intervention in the form of a single one-to-one recital of events and discussion of emotions evoked by a traumatic event does not consistently reduce risk and may even put some survivors at heightened risk for later developing mental health problems."

Psychologists also provide a valuable service by preparing fact sheets with tips on how to deal with people who are not fully functional.
posted by sheauga at 1:13 PM on May 19, 2003

See also The End of Science and The End of History and about a million other attempts to get free publicity and have an excuse to raise one's speaking fees.
posted by LimePi at 1:48 PM on May 19, 2003

Also see Thomas Szasz, and his work on Antipsychiatry, drug usage and reconceptualizing concepts of normalcy/deviance.

"If you talk to God, you are praying;
If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.

If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist;
If God talks to you, you are a schizophrenic.

-Thomas S. Szasz, The Second Sin.
posted by Jairus at 10:23 PM on May 19, 2003

The little snippets I've read from Thomas Szasz I found intriguing, but can anyone point to some literature that comments on his ideas? As I find it appealing but radical, which makes me suspicious.
posted by Onanist at 5:26 AM on May 20, 2003

If psychiatry and psychology are so much chin music, but my meds keep on working anyway, I'll settle.
posted by alumshubby at 5:31 AM on May 20, 2003

I'm no fan of psychoanalysis but there are some flawed arguments in the article:
We sure know more about the mechanism of addiction today but there are still drug addicts in the streets.
We know more, chemically, about pollutants than they did in the 17th century but the world is more polluted today.
We know more about cancer today than a century ago, yet cancer is far more common now than it was then.
And isn't the "unprecedented epidemic of behavioural problems" more an artifact of peoples awareness of certain conditions?I mean wouldn't a child with learning disabilities or with ADD be simply classified as "dumb" a century ago, and not enter any statistics? Not to mention the debate as to whether ADD is really an affliction of such epidemic proportions, or whether a culture of overmedication is to blame for the Ritalin phenomenon.
Finally there is no question as to the advance of psychiatry, yet apparently the author doesn't include it when speaking of the failure of psychology. The neuron is as real as the gene.
posted by talos at 5:55 AM on May 20, 2003

The problem with psychology is that it's treated by some people as a branch of law enforcement, as a means of "corrections."

It is not nearly as bad as it was 40-50 years ago, but the Man still sends people to the nuthouse when he can't send them to the big house, dig?

What the world needs now is not psychology. The world needs Buddhism, which was the first true scientific study of psychology.
posted by son_of_minya at 3:17 PM on May 20, 2003

Psychology is trying to fill the hole of lost spirituality - it's a poor substitute and therefore is seen in a bad light.

That's what my subconscious thinks, anyway.
posted by SpaceCadet at 3:33 PM on May 20, 2003

Peter Watson is not a fool - if you read 'A Terrible Beauty' you'll agree. His piece however loses some good points in the wash of polemic. The .pdf is a better source. He has three basic points; nothing I see here refutes them.

The first is that psychology has declined markedly since it's glory days in the 1970s - in terms of students, academic activity, journal sales, publications etc. This is in marked contrast to any other scientific discipline.

The second is that psychological theory has not progressed as scientific theory might be expected to. He makes the contrast with biology or physics where discoveries are confirmed, deepened and strengthened by subsequent research. In contrast psychological 'discoveries' seem to involve tearing down all previous work and starting from a new base. The parallel here is with Philosophy rather than any science.

The third is that the status of 'psychological facts' is troubling, landmark studies from the '60s being called into question with great problems encountered in reproducing results which have for a long time been unchallenged. Without undisputable 'facts' it's hard to imagine the discipline making much progress.

Although there may well be progress in areas like HCI such progress is a poor return on the original promise of the subject.

I'll easily be persuaded otherwise however if someone can give me a list of the 5 Great Achievements of Psychology.
posted by grahamwell at 6:44 AM on May 21, 2003

Grahmwell: The glory of HCI is that you don't notice the 'great achievements'. Thank human factors for the ability to drive down a freeway at 80 mph with hundreds of others doing the same and not getting killed. Thank brand psychology for inflating the economy and upping the consumer satisfaction index, and making people feel better about the things they interact with every day. Thank gestalt theory and visual cognition studies for the windowed UI you're using to read this.

More to the point, don't thank any of them, because their greatest achievement is in bettering your life without making you realize they exist.
posted by kfury at 2:45 PM on May 22, 2003

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