If psychology had high validity, people versed in its mysteries would be able to predict behavior and control it some extent. They’d be scary: they could understand things that the man on the street couldn’t, manipulate people in ways that Alcibiades never dreamed of. They’d beat you at poker, and steal your girl. There would be psychological equivalents of the experiment where you place a tennis ball on top of a basketball, and a ping-pong ball on top of the tennis ball: when you drop the assembly, the ping-pong ball ends up on your roof – an anti-intuitive and dramatic result.
Once upon a time, psychologists were scary, at least in science fiction. Preem Palver was more frightening than the Mule, if you ask me. Today, psychologists don’t get much respect. What went wrong? Or, considering the risk of domination by our very own Second Foundation, what went right? I think we need to look at the history of psychology in the 20th century.
The better sort of psychologist, circa 1930, would have said that mental illness often ran in families, which it does (Kraepelin). Some cases were caused by tertiary syphilis, cause understood, and some progress had been made on treatment (salvarsan and Wagner-Jauregg’s malariotherapy). Sometimes a brain tumor was the cause, and once in a while it was benign and easy to get at (meningiomas) Our hypothetical old-time psychologist also would say that there was a strong suspicion that most cases of mental illness had some kind of biological cause, exact nature unknown. They had a few drugs that were occasionally useful, like bromides. These guys didn’t have all the answers, but they were making progress, and they weren’t crazy.
In the US, such men were largely replaced by Freudian types, for something like 40 years: 1935-1975. They were nuts. I could go on and on about just how nuts they were – Medawar called psychoanalytic theory “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century” – but there’s not much point in a detailed analysis of a load of crap.
Anyhow, the rise of psychoanalysis surely got in the way of real progress in understanding the human mind. To be fair, its decline doesn’t seem to have generated fantastic progress, at least not yet. Evolutionary psychology has promise, but I have to say that a lot of the work there looks silly to me – not because it has to be, not because there’s something wrong with the idea that evolution has shaped human behavior, more that it attracts the wrong sort of people, a general problem in the social sciences.
One of the nice things about reading literature from before 1880 is that you never, ever hear a single Freudian concept referenced. It’s wonderful, like breathing fresh mountain air.
Psychoanalysis does have one practical payoff, however – it serves as a sensitive detector of a hunger for nonsense. Think about all the people who were significantly inspired or influenced by Freud’s ideas. They were loons. Are loons. It’s not just that they made a mistake – they’re the kind of people who make such mistakes, and they’ll do it again, first chance they get.
There is a a straightforward implication : if the human race is ever to get anywhere, we need a better way of hiring intellectuals.