It 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.
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.