Feeling Insane within Orthodox Psychology

iStock_000002226176XSmallIt is hard navigating in this world when you think differently than most people. This is equally true when you feel that way within your own academic profession. After all, any scientific field or program of study, including psychology, should represent a general agreement about the scientific methods or tools for doing work within the field, a general consensus regarding a collective body of accumulated knowledge, basic facts, or scientific discoveries, and a unified way of thinking that provides peer support and a sense of belonging. Yet I continually find myself at odds with many of my colleagues – academic researchers and clinical psychologists who seem so confident, so sure, about the ideas that they hold about what it is to be human.

More and more, I feel less capable of professionally conversing with colleagues holding orthodox understandings regarding human psychology. Our views are so different. Discussions do not go far and both parties become frustrated. I typically find myself accused of being ignorant or unappreciative of this or that study, of this or that literature, this or that ‘fact,’ and of being generally unaware of some of the most foundational scientific advances within our field. But it is not that I do not know that their cherished research literature exists, or that I have not taken the time to read much of it – it is that we seem to disagree about what it is worth: in short, whether the arguments are valid, the reasoning sound, and the conclusions justified. Most psychologists, in my estimation, do not see the importance of deductive reasoning – they act as though our science is every bit as objective as biology, physics, and chemistry. I have argued elsewhere why this is not the case (a very good discussion can also be found here: Why Psychology Ain’t Science), though based on their actions and the confidence with which they accept their findings, most psychologists fail to understand this important issue – in short, it is my contention that they do not understand how their precious ‘science’ actually works in practice.

Still, I have at times taken these accusations seriously, and in good faith have made sincere efforts to cure myself of my alleged ignorance. I have tried to learn from educated colleagues, who not lacking confidence in their ideas, are perhaps wiser than myself. However like Socrates, I typically find that the overwhelming majority are undeserving of the assuredness they exude. For example, if they can tolerate my questioning without changing topics or becoming indignant, it often turns out, as far as I can tell, that they did not know what it was that they thought they knew. This is what Socrates meant by true wisdom: not claiming to know what it is that one does not know, or alternatively, being aware of one’s own ignorance.

On a related note, I was always fond of the following quote by Aristotle, though it seems few are capable of living by it:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to [seriously] entertain a thought without [necessarily] accepting it.”

It also goes without saying that this kind of Socratic approach takes an almost superhuman amount of patience on both sides – in reality, most are unable to seriously entertain the possibility that they could be wrong. They instead secure themselves and their precious ideas behind an almost impenetrable wall that they will defend at almost any cost.

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And so, like those confronted by orthodox religious adherents, I find myself more often than not lectured by colleagues who disagree with me – about scientific evidence pointing to some set of human universals that served evolutionary adaptive functions during a Pleistocene age; about how 50% of our personality is attributed to genes; about how neuroimaging techniques offer an objective way of studying the human mind, and that such studies reveal the biological causes of many human experiences, including love and religiosity; about scientific studies demonstrating that free-will is nothing more than an adaptive illusion; about research, statistics, and neuroscientific evidence supporting the idea that mental illnesses are physiological diseases, and moreover, that research proves that ‘evidence based therapies’ and psychotropic drugs, are the best approach to treating such illnesses; and on and on it goes.

Where do I start? How can we find common ground with regard to the ‘evidence’ when we cannot even seem to agree with how science works? Does anyone stop to think about the fact that theory is created not by objective evidence, as is often believed, but by human reasoning, and that many of our theories could be based on faulty logic that will naturally throw into question all of the ‘evidence’ gathered within a given paradigm? Put differently, and drawing from the philosophy of psychology, is it not more accurate to say that our ontological and scientific claims are often based on some rather tenuous epistemological assumptions and commitments? If my colleagues would agree with this position, I wonder how often they would care to remember that fact.

So what about some of the above positions? Well, what about the fact that genetic evidence established by twin studies are in turn based on philosophical and methodological assumptions, such as the dubious Equal Environment Assumption, which may throw into question all of that ‘objective science’ that we read about in introductory textbooks about genes contributing to 50% of our personality? And how could neuroimaging offer an objective measure of the human mind, unless you assume that neuronal activity within the brain is the mind, or something similar? Are you aware of the philosophical problems that go along with such assumptions? Can you appreciate how logical errors will throw into question your practice of reducing the human being, and man-made values and beliefs, to a deterministic neurophysiology? And how do neurophysiological studies support the notion of Free Will being an illusion when your studies seem to reduce the human being and their free ‘choices’ to simple movements that do not require human reasons – arguably the main ingredient that gives us some degree of freedom? Should we be at all surprised, when you effectively reduce the person to a mindless object reflexively responding to trivial stimuli, that you should find just that? And how are mental illnesses diseases, when every 5-10 years they are subjectively voted in (or out) by a panel of professional ‘experts?’ Real physical diseases like cancer and herpes are discovered, not invented. And if Major Depressive Disorder is a disease, why have there not been objective blood tests or brain scans capable of differentiating between the physically healthy and a purportedly ‘diseased’ nervous system? Each one of these items could be a whole blog post on its own, but I just want to illustrate where I seem to be at odds with my colleagues – not all mind you, but I would say a great many.

The irony, from my perspective at least, is that I am the one labelled as the unscientific quack. I am sometimes accused of basing my positions on nothing but groundless opinions (versus objective data)… which again tells me that many of my colleagues cannot tell the difference between an opinion (a gut feeling or assertion) and a reason (based on deductive logic). I suppose that my main concern, and it is one that feels more like complaining as I write this, is that it leaves a person feeling hopelessly estranged from one’s own profession. In my most cynical moments, I ask myself: “Is our profession nothing but a competing series of religions? Is most of it just junk science?” Sometimes I think it is. And when I continually find myself on the outside, and it seems more often than not questioning the status quo, and not finding acceptable answers from my peers, I reach a place where I start to doubt my own sanity. I cannot help but ask myself the questions: “Are they right? Is it me? Am I the one who is deluded?” I think this self-doubt is probably healthy, but I think it also gets in the way of me challenging some scientific dogma when it deserves to be challenged. Then again, maybe that’s just the way it is with trying to stay sane in an insane world – just another tightrope to walk.

7 Responses to “Feeling Insane within Orthodox Psychology”

  1. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    Buck-Up Brad. You don’t have any choice. Of course “it’s you”. There are too many things about orthodoxy that just don’t smell right to you, don’t sit well on the shelf, like they do to most other people. Sure, being like that is a pain in the ass socially and professionally, but, as I said, you don’t have a choice. Trust me on this Brad, Mrs. N. knows fully well of what she speaks.

    Don’t waste your time doubting your own sanity. We are all in little boats, alone, far out at sea. The overpowering drive is to hang on to something, to anchor yourself. Most people hang on to anything someone else is hanging on to. Orthodoxy, dogma, the popular trend, or view. Some of us Brad are destined to spend our lives floating alone and knitting an anchor chain out of our own guts, one painful link at a time. It doesn’t make us crazy, it makes us who we are, finding our own happiness the only way we know how. Embrace the happiness you feel when you fit something together in your head, when something clicks for you. FEED THAT FIRE, don’t hide it, or, be embarrassed for not being a clone and thinking and acting like the rest of the ninnies who live just to line up like good little soldiers. Any way… you don’t have a choice, so, even if you are loopy, you are stuck with it so you might as well enjoy the ride.

    If you want my opinion, for what it’s worth, you are a shining light in the head shrinking business Brad, and reading your writing has made a positive difference in my life. You helped me learn things I never would have known and look at things from a different perspective. That’s like giving me gold Brad. (Read that again so I can be sure you get it)
    I’m almost done with “Aping Mankind” and what an eye opener that has been. Hopefully, perhaps I have given you a few chuckles in return payment.

    An old mentor of mine used to say that life is a can of mixed nuts. The more the can is shaken the greater the tendency is for the biggest nuts to rise to the top. I think you are well on your way Brad, so, laugh more and keep shaking your can… all right?

    Respectfully yours
    Mrs. N.

    Brad Reply:

    Wow. Well said. And yes, I suspect you know an awful lot about these matters, living where you do, and being as you are. I appreciate your very kind words, the much needed pep talk (and very much on target), and for those insightful nuggets of wisdom.

    Some of us Brad are destined to spend our lives floating alone and knitting an anchor chain out of our own guts, one painful link at a time.” That’s poetic truth if there ever was such a thing. And you’ve given me much more than a few chuckles Mrs. N. … I am very happy we’ve crossed intellectual paths.

    All the best.

  2. Alicia Says:

    As an add-on to what Mrs.N said, I wouldn’t have been aware of the weaknesses of psychological theories such as evolutionary psychology, and arguably MOST importantly, you have opened my eyes to existentialism and the sbsurd condition of human existance. The absurdity stuff on this website and other stuff on here, as well as what I have learned in your PSYC 4434 Personality class is some of the most important stuff I have ever learned in my whole psychology undergrad degree. In fact, I think your class is probably more important than some of the 1st year classes offered at SMU because it makes you THINK and use CRITICAL THINKING and teaches you to WEIGH the different THEORIES and ultimately, no one theory is sufficient on its own to explain why we do what we do.

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks Alicia. I am glad that you appreciated what I was trying to do with the class and that you have been enjoying the web-posts – it is very nice to know.

    Take care

    Alicia Reply:

    You’re welcome!

  3. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    The New York TIMES has something for you this morning Brad. It appears that our old nemesis the “chemical imbalance” has struck again and the APA has decided to send more troops to the front.

    …”And even more teenagers are likely to be prescribed medication in the near future because the American Psychological Association plans to change the definition of A.D.H.D. to allow more people to receive the diagnosis and treatment.”…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/health/more-diagnoses-of-hyperactivity-causing-concern.html?hp

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks for thinking of me Mrs. N. – I’ll have to give it a read. I’ve been putting off tackling that ‘chemical imbalance’ monster, but it is definitely in the books.

    I do not doubt that something like ADHD exists, or that some people struggle socially and academically with those things that make them different. I did my graduate training at a school known for its strong neuropsychology program – part of our assessment training was properly identifying cases of ‘ADHD’ using objective neuropsychological instruments that are sensitive to detecting executive functioning deficits. My main grievance, and it is one that is not at all controversial, is that 99% of the time ADHD is assessed by family physicians or psychologists who give parents and teachers behavioral checklists… in short, a child is diagnosed by the subjective opinion of parents and teachers. Based on this, and sometimes much less, children are put on medication. The ones that have behavioral issues are not uncommonly given anti-psychotics like Risperidone and Seroquel which are not official approved and tested for use on children, though they are prescribed as ‘off-label’ use. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see what some children have to go through by the hands of modern psychology/psychiatry.