The Inexorable Progress of Science: Psychology

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.


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199 Responses to The Inexorable Progress of Science: Psychology

  1. JayMan says:

    Well on that, we have this strain of horseshit I recently had to debunk:

    IQ and Birth Order Effects: Real? No | JayMan’s Blog

    Of course, it wasn’t necessarily well received by certain people:

    “Social” effect… Seriously

    Of course, this is hardly the only thing in the BS-o-sphere that is modern psychology.

  2. Johnman says:

    I’ve been watching the TV show Scorpion, a show about a team of geniuses.(It’s not very good) All the geniuses have almost-cartoonish super-powers, one of them is a psychologist. There’s a similar guy in another show called Breakout Kings(less cartoonish) which I think Scorpion ripped off of. If there was anyone like that in the real world it’d be noticed because even a small group could wreck havoc at any number of institutions for their own benefit. That’s also an argument against the existence of actual psychic powers, mind readers would make poker games impossible. It’s also telling that the police never use psychologists to interrogate suspects.

  3. JayMan says:

    But then there’s other fine gems, like:

    *Homosexuality may help us bond | UoP News

    *Are Leftists More Emotion-Driven Than Rightists? The Interactive Influence of Ideology and Emotions on Support for Policies (sure, if they’re in Israel being subjected to questionable manipulation methods with results of questionable applicability to the real world).

    *Make that all of “priming” research.

    Every time I hear “behavior has multiple causes that we can’t pin down or some nonsense to that effect. What the heck happened to reductionism?

    Modern psychology is such a cesspool of nonsense that half of the work is just counteracting this garbage.

  4. MawBTS says:

    it attracts the wrong sort of people, a general problem in the social sciences.

    Which I suppose is people who are allergic to saying “I don’t know”, want every gap in their field’s understanding to be filled in ASAP, and don’t particularly care about a theory being right or wrong. Just so long as there’s a theory there.

    Many of them probably think they’re helping, because their theories explain stuff. But in science we don’t need “explanations” that are useless brain vomit. We need parsimonious, useful explanations that have predictive value.

    It reminds me of the Xena parody in a Simpsons episode, where someone asks her why her horse changed colour between scenes and she says “a wizard did it”.

    • IC says:

      “it attracts the wrong sort of people, a general problem in the social sciences.”

      Comparing to natural science, do you notice what is missing?

      My answer: Hard standard like physics. People with marginal mental ability can get in.

  5. Tolmides says:

    The problem with singling out the Freudians (whom most practicing psychologists are quite happy to castigate, because the Freudians were smarter than they are) is that it makes it sound like a problem of that past. Sure, lobotomies were crazy, but don’t criticize me for over-prescribing anti-psychotics!

    Here is Wikipedia on “Family Therapy.” Note that every school mentioned is broadly quackery:

    From the mid-1980s to the present, the field has been marked by a diversity of approaches that partly reflect the original schools, but which also draw on other theories and methods from individual psychotherapy and elsewhere – these approaches and sources include: brief therapy, structural therapy, constructivist approaches (e.g., Milan systems, post-Milan/collaborative/conversational, reflective), solution-focused therapy, narrative therapy, a range of cognitive and behavioral approaches, psychodynamic and object relations approaches, attachment and Emotionally Focused Therapy, intergenerational approaches, network therapy, and multisystemic therapy (MST).[8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15] Multicultural, intercultural, and integrative approaches are being developed.[16][17][18][19][20][21] Many practitioners claim to be “eclectic,” using techniques from several areas, depending upon their own inclinations and/or the needs of the client(s), and there is a growing movement toward a single “generic” family therapy that seeks to incorporate the best of the accumulated knowledge in the field and which can be adapted to many different contexts;[22] however, there are still a significant number of therapists who adhere more or less strictly to a particular, or limited number of, approach(es).[23]

  6. I have worked in an allied field for decades – and you are largely correct. Freudians and other ego-psychologists remain, though they go about in disguise as often as not. There are still pockets of extreme lunacy – multiple personality (real, but always therapist-induced), recovered memory. The influence from early to mid-20th C is still strongly felt.

    These things were believed because people wanted them. Freud’s actual writings are less sexualised than his followers’ beliefs, and Kinsey was lionised because people liked the idea that he said he was scientific, not because he actually was. They told folks what they had hoped might be true. Jung wrote things that were interesting to spout off about. What is truth worth in comparison with a chance to sound deep and wise? Some unscientific beliefs are considered socially acceptable – organic foods, anti-vaccine. Others are not: creationism is a fairly harmless eccentricity but it’s a cultural marker for yahoos, so it’s considered dangerous.

    There are valuable branches of psychology as regards therapy – they focus on developing skills to manage anxiety or depression with researched techniques that can gradually reduce not only subjective impressions of Bad Stuff, but measurables such as blood pressure or heart rate. Tools for symptoms, not cures for illnesses. Yet even there, there’s a lot of fluff. Psychology has under-delivered on a massive scale. Psychiatry has done better, at least over the last decades.

  7. robinhanson says:

    We have better ways to hire intellectuals. What we need is for patrons & sponsors to want to use those ways.

  8. Well, Greg we disussed this at HBES a couple of years back! I dont remember your response–was instein a loon?

  9. Whyvert says:

    The loons are still at large: sad to say that Freudo-Marxism is still going strong, led by fashionably obscurantist Zizek

  10. John Hostetler says:

    Greg, I have considerable respect for you, especially as someone with both a physics and a Darwinist presence. But I often think the physics side predominates. I sometimes suspect that, had you lived before Darwin, you would have been much like the way Dawkins seems to think of Hume – insufficiently impressed by the Argument from Design, not because of its logic, but because of insufficient sensitivity to the incredible designs themselves.

    It’s all about hubris. For example, you seem to feel that old age is a disease to be cured. I love the idea that life will always get the last laugh, and cannot be improved on anywhere near as much some like to believe. For instance, I agree with Scott Locklin that one should simply snort in derision at the word ‘nanotech’, and I go Scott one further – I wonder whether any of the physicists and engineers who go on about nanotech have every truly contemplated enzymes, and the fact they’ve been around for over a billion years.

    And writing as a physician, that is why I believe medicine is such a failure, an idea you and I share, but seemingly for different reasons. Your view is essentially technocratic – medicine has simply not got the right tools yet. My view is absolutist – all medicine can ever hope to do is tinker around the edges of life, while life gets the last laugh and resists most of the attempted ‘improvement.’

    The human brain is the most complex thing we know of. It should not reveal its secrets easily, and if there is one thing we have learned about it, it’s that it operates on multiple levels at once. Consciousness emerges from layer upon layer of less aware processes. With the subject matter so subtle and the potential rewards of stealing your girl and winning the ‘poker games’ of Madison Ave. so great, it should not surprise us if the greatest ‘psychologists’ are not explicit, rule-defining academics at all, but advertising executives and pick-up artists.

    It’s the internet after all, so 90% of the commenters over at Chateau Heartiste are probably lying. But I think 10% are not, and they seem to have figured out aspects of female evolutionary psychology that I doubt have appeared in any textbooks yet. I have been astonished at how well they work, even when applied by this timid, aging professional. And long before these guys were able to make some of this explicit, there were always womanizers who ‘knew’ this psychology in a way no theorist could.

    There are actually logical reasons to believe that stealing your girl may be the most rewarding purpose to which this most complex machine can be put. But even there, it’s called Pick-Up Artistry for a reason – it’s not a science and never will be. Life will never yield up all her secrets, and she will always get the last laugh.

    • Jim says:

      I’m a little confused? Is it Dawkins or Hume who is insufficiently impressed with the Argument From Design.

      • John Hostetler says:

        My recollection is that Dawkins feels Hume was insufficiently impressed with the complexity of life itself and its magnificent ‘meta-engineered’ solutions to design challenges.

        Logically, the argument from design can be attacked the same way all the other ontological arguments can: who or what designed the designer – how did the complex designer come to be? But that is different from insufficient appreciation of the design.

        Darwinism answers, to a degree, how complexity can arise. But both before and after Darwin, intellectual life has always been rife with those who believe it can all be reduced to a set of explicit rules. It seems Dawkins feels Hume tended in that direction. Whoever advised Nixon about his ‘war on cancer’ was certainly of that type – that such a war would be a suitable and achievable way to one-up his archrival Kennedy’s making good on the Apollo promise.

        Aspergy, over-systematic, little feeling for LIFE. Most cancer is simply disordered aging – beating it all is about as likely as beating aging and death – sheer hubris of the most fundamental kind: pretending we can be immortal, ie gods.

      • John Hostetler says:

        The girl-stealers, at any rate, are already flying. But as with the mind itself, they are not operating at a merely explicit level. They are practice, if you like, meta-psychology, not academic psychology. And they can certainly predict and control behavior to some extent.

    • melendwyr says:

      I sometimes go out of my way to tell people who are concerned about ‘Grey Goo’ that it already happened a long time ago, and it’s called ‘life’. Actual nanotech won’t be much more powerful than bacteria, and will have great difficulty incorporating raw materials into itself.

      Intelligent design may be able to take life into corridors that natural selection wouldn’t permit, but there will be an immense amount of hard work required even when that’s possible.

  11. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    I suspect that you misspelled Fraud.

  12. dave chamberlin says:

    This is a gem of a paper.

    It confirmed my worst fears about my college major at the time, Psychology. In this study Charles Truax took 168 clients in need of therapy and compared counseling services provided by trained professional counselors and…..wait for it…. applicants from the secretarial pool.

    Findings were that the greatest client improvement was when the secretaries did the counseling all by themselves.

    This is absolutely stunning and ridiculous. There is no other profession that I can think of where random people brought off the street can do a better job than the trained professionals. In fairness to this shamed profession Charles Truax did not select random people from the secretary pool he specifically chose women whom seemed empathetic.

    This is just one small study, it dates back forty years, but it points to a couple of things. When people are hurting and need someone to talk to genuine empathy trumps intellectual gobbledygook.

    • Wow. Thanks for posting this, Dave; I’d never have found it just by poking around. For other readers, it’s a 1970 paper:

      Truax, C. B., & Lister, J. L. (1970). “Effectiveness of counselors and counselor aides.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 17(4), 331.

      So maybe the field has improved after 34 years. (Or, hey, maybe it’s just gotten worse. Regression to the mean doesn’t do a lot for a field with such a low mean.)

    • dearieme says:

      Twenty years I suffered a slipped disc. It was diagnosed not by my GP – what a failure! – but by a secretary on our reception desk. “How do you know?” “Because you’re walking just like my uncle when he had one.”

      • In my late teens I had a girlfriend whose parents were Silesian Jews. They had fled Germany when Hitler came to power. One evening the mother was nagging the father about his health, something to do with his getting up in the night. “You may have a prostate problem.”
        “Don’t worry,” replied the father, “You’ll know when I have a prostate problem. You’ll see me walking like the Old President.”
        I had to have it explained to me. He meant Hindenburg, who was born in 1847. So close are we to the world of the past.
        (Though Wikipedia says Hindenburg died from lung cancer.)

    • Weltanschauung says:

      No other profession? I remember a story about an outdoor sculpture exhibition at a university. The janitors decided to contribute their own pile of scraps, and of course you can imagine the consternation and the glee when it was realized that one of the exhibits was not by a qualified Artist, and that the public couldn’t tell which one.

    • Jim says:

      I recall reading a long time ago reading of a study in which different groups of people were given records of delinquents and asked to predict recidivism. There were I think 3 groups – one consisting of high school seniors chosen randomly except that anybody who had take a psychology course was excluded and the other two groups academic or clinical psychologists meeting certain professional criteria. The predictions of the three groups were later compared with actual outcomes. Of course the high school students untainted by any academic psychology courses made the more accurate predictions.

    • Dale says:

      You write, “There is no other profession that I can think of where random people brought off the street can do a better job than the trained professionals. In fairness to this shamed profession Charles Truax did not select random people from the secretary pool he specifically chose women whom seemed empathetic.”

      Though I’ve been told by a professional saleswoman that the best sales people are easily selected: They’re the most optimistic. Perhaps in these two cases, technical knowledge is not important, but having the proper personality is critical?

    • ursiform says:

      I recall reading long ago that the major service psychologists provided was that they gave people who needed someone to talk to someone to talk to. Being empathetic is probably a better qualification for this service than being trained. After all, are you more likely to choose as a friend someone who is empathetic or someone who has needed training to learn how to make friends?

    • Steve Sailer says:

      My wife recently pointed out that much of what makes my work distinctive is intellectually descended through her from my late mother-in-law’s insights.

    • Priceequation says:

      I think there is also some published research showing that undergraduate science majors are better profilers than the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit employees. Pretty funny that some kids simply trained to look at the evidence reached the conclusion about who did what murder more often than so-called professionals.

  13. Peltast says:

    Freud ideas is what inspired the creation of the American propaganda machine, ever heard of Freud’s American nephew Edward Bernays? He was a chief propagandist for the Woodrow Wilson administration and later create a propaganda method to sell any product or policy to a unsuspecting public.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Psychoanalysis does have one practical payoff, however – it serves as a sensitive detector of a hung. er for nonsense.

    And among many highly intelligent people (including some scientists like Pauli) what a hunger it was.

    I would argue that there are some truly excellent psychologists around. The trouble is they are all laymen (Lincoln was one for example) and they use their psychological insights in real life.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I would argue that there are some truly excellent psychologists around. The trouble is they are all laymen (Lincoln was one in my opinion) and they use their psychology in real life situations. An art as much as a science I’d say, just like economics and politics.

  16. uhlan says:

    Freudians have been out of fashion for some time. They were attacked by feminists above all. Strange to see them attacked here as if they’re what’s wrong with psychology TODAY… by someone who has likely never read Freud.

  17. Greying Wanderer says:

    “They’d beat you at poker, and steal your girl.”

    They did pretty much in that the result (and imo purpose) of the whole thing was to create a cushy gig for themselves so a bunch of guys could sit around all day getting paid lots of money to listen to women’s sexual fantasies.

    The whole thing is/was a scam but it served its purpose: sex and money.

  18. Psychology is an ethics test: if you favour honesty you debunk the bullshit and guide worried people away from useless therapies; if you favour dishonesty you cater to credulity in all its many wondrous forms, of which self-improving mantras are the most lucrative.
    Distinguishing between what actually works and what doesn’t is a minority interest.
    Please note that reading this comment will not boost your IQ, increase the size of your sexual organs or help you lose weight.

    • Cracker1 says:

      One can go far in this world just by telling people what they want to hear. There is something very wrong about that. I just can’t quite get it down as to why it is so wrong. Maybe because sometimes it seems beneficial for all concerned.

  19. Jimbo Nobo says:

    You’re half right, half wrong. As a cognitive psychologist I can tell you that there is of course a lot of BS in psychology as in all social sciences – more in some sub-areas than in others (social psychology has had an embarrassing set of scandals in recent years, for example), but it’s not nearly as bleak as you say and it has little or nothing to do with Freud. Academic psychologists in the US were never that big on Freud, they were more influenced by behaviorism (which itself had both good and bad aspects). Can psychologists make predictions? Yes, here’s one with “an anti-intuitive and dramatic result”: If you get severe enough bilateral damage to your hippocampus you will be unable to form new declarative memories. If someone new walks into the room and introduces himself everything will seem normal but when he leaves and comes back 5 minutes later you will act like you never saw him before. This can be repeated 50 times in a row, same result. You will be unable to form ANY new declarative memories. OTOH, you can still learn some things, you can be classically conditioned, you can learn new skills (like mirror image reading of words), you can even get better at playing the Tower of Hanoi even though you will not remember having played it. (There are some great, very moving videos available on youtube of Clive Wearing, a musician and conductor who suffers from this memory deficit as a result of a severe bout of viral encephalitis). The discovery of different kinds of memory dependent on different structures in the brain is a decidedly non-trivial discovery and one that has been firmly established. I could give lots of other examples of predictions that psychologists can make as well: All the IQ work for example showing that people’s scores on a good IQ test predicts all sort of life outcomes from incarceration rates, to years of education attained, to career success and even life expectancy. I think being able to make a good prediction of who’s going to live the longest based on their IQ test score at age 11 is pretty impressive (Gottfredson and Deary, 2004). Or here’s another one, a study of expertise and short term memory: if you compare the ability of chess masters and novices to remember configurations of chess pieces on a chess board, the experts will be far superior if the pieces are in meaningful configurations such as you would find in real matches. If the pieces are randomly placed the chess experts short term memory performance is the same or slightly worse than novices (Chase and Simon, 1973). This has been shown to be true in all areas studied, expertise improves effective working or short term memory in the specific area of expertise but this superior performance doesn’t generalize to other domains at all. A lot of progress has been made but people are complicated, the brain is incredibly complex, and ethical constraints as well as PC nonsense slow things down, but there still is noticeable progress in the field.

    • I think my comments make it clear I was discussing therapy. I was discussing the very wide scope of what is considered psychological research. The key point is that the public would like answers, and the reliable supply of validated, replicable findings is limited, hence the production of reassuring bullshit. As to your observations, hippocampal damage is mercifully rare, hardly widely generalisable knowledge about normal human behaviour. I am aware that IQ is one of our best predictors of human outcomes, the best of a poor bunch. Hence, I blog about it.

    • gcochran9 says:

      As was obvious enough in my post, I was more talking about Freudian psychoanalysis as an example of how screwy people are than claiming that it is the major error tendency in psychology today.

      I already know quite a bit about each of the examples you mention. I know more than that: I know about hundreds of genetic conditions that affect behavior, one way or another – things like velocardial syndrome, Williams syndrome, Von Hippel-Lindau that generated adrenal tumors (pheochromocytomas)in the McCoys. I know about many kinds of brain damage with interesting effects, not just damage to the hippocampus: hypergraphia in temporal lobe epilepsy, Kluver-Bucy syndrome, etc.

      The problem is, we don’t have a working theory that gives much predictive power – better than a layman, say.

      Alchemists knew lots of isolated facts about chemistry, too – but they didn’t have any correct theories.

    • Toad says:

      “Can psychologists make predictions?
      If you get severe enough bilateral damage to your hippocampus”

      Talking about physical structure takes you out of the realm of psycology and into some other discipline like neuroscience.

      • melendwyr says:

        Psychology includes many more-specific concepts, and touches many other disciplines. The structure of the brain is part of psychology, as it’s part of neuroscience, and anatomy more broadly.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      IQ testing, and it’s many spin-offs, has been a huge and enduring success.

  20. dearieme says:

    “this superior performance doesn’t generalize to other domains at all”: I wonder how general the thrust of this is? I remember being told at school that our wasting time on Latin was no waste; it would, in fact, improve our powers of logic. Mine were already quite up to the task of doubting that platitude: it sounded like purest piffle to me.

    • Dale says:

      I expect that learning Latin enables you to become consciously aware of why particular sentences mean particular things, even in languages other than Latin. (Normally, linguistic processing is buried in the language cortex and you don’t have conscious access to it.) This can be helpful in debate, as often someone tries to slip one by, saying a sentence that is true but can easily be misread as something that is false.

  21. Jimbo Nobo says:

    desarime, studying Latin definitely makes you get better at Latin. that’s pretty much it. and playing chess makes you better at chess. of course i am exaggerating a little, it is a bit more complicated that that. it is possible to distinguish between “near transfer” and “far transfer” and we can sometimes find near transfer. Near transfer is like studying Latin makes you better at learning Italian, or playing piano makes it easier to learn the violin. It’s far transfer that doesn’t happen (Latin improves logic or chess improves memory, or learning this or that skill makes you a better problem solver in lots of domains).

  22. Sean says:

    Was it really Freud? John B. Watson had quite an influence against hereditarianism. And what Freud, John B. Watson and hereditarianism ism have in common is that they all say we are not responsible for being who we are, It follows that no one can be responsible for anything they do. Western society did not want to believe that. Still doesn’t.

    The Symbionese Liberation Army did remarkably well altering with Patty Hearst’s behaviour. And she got 35 years’ imprisonment.

  23. Sean says:

    Hans Eysenk said that psychoanalytic treatment shorten life. I wonder, what would be the effects of people actually believing that they were what they were (and did the things they did) because of their genes and/or environment? Probably something bad. And that is probably why people instinctively avoid thinking like that.

  24. athEIst says:

    But Hari Seldon……..

  25. IC says:

    Politics (social issue) are about issue which is glass half empty/half full. Joining either side, you get instant 50% pupularity (almost half population agree with you). For people with low intelligence, they mistake popularity for intelligence since some many people agree with them. Thus, stupid people are extremely enthusiastic about politics since this kind popularity empower them. When you (with higher IQ) can appreciate or see both half empty/full, you are not appreciated by any body but few.

    Another reason for stupid people into politics is to blame external factors for their personal failure. Admitting your own ill is demoralizing and depressing. Polticial excuses are form of denial of personal studipity which cause personal failure in society. If you are poor, blaming sytem wrong is better answer than admitting low mental ability for low quality of life.

    When poltical issue achieve 100% agreement (like slavery, or child sex abuse), then it is no longer a political issue since no body fight over it any more.

    Science is different. Science is about seeking fact or truth which has no grey answer. Geocentrism vs heliocentrism is example. You only get one correct answer. Math is most representative of science since it provide restricted answers without ambiguity. Either you get correct answer or can not. Agreement from other people mean nothing here. Animals can choose side in their political struggle (wolf packs). But most animals can not do simple math. Ability to do math sets people apart.

    So people who can not figure out fact or truth are the majority.

    The fact is not discovered through arguement or reasoning (verble sale guys, lawyers, politicians gonna hate this). The truth is found through math and research. Qualified intellectuals should be good at math.

    • Ian says:

      Don’t be daft – people of below-average intelligence tend to have far less interest in politics than those of above-average intelligence.

    • IC says:

      Science is a process which is seeking facts and truth about how universe work in my opinion. Since it is a process, it has self-correcting all the time and has no problem admitting mistake.

      Ideology and religion are different from science in that they call on unqestionable belief of its followers disregarding any facts or truth contradicting their belief.

      In order to figure out heliocentrism, you need strong math of Nicolaus Copernicus, and confirmed by scope of Galileo Galilei.

      Math is the rule how university work at end.

      • Yudi says:

        Science is not some detached process that works all around us like the water cycle or the Force. It is put into practice by scientists, and if you think scientists are all perfectly willing to admit their mistakes all the time, you are sadly wrong.

        That’s what this post is about, if you hadn’t noticed.

        • IC says:

          A lot of psychologists (quite a few of them are personal friends) called themselve `scientists’ because they have PhD in their title. When they send me their publications, I really do not know whether I should cry or laugh. They are not scientitists in my opinion due to their incredible deficiency of fluid intelligence and math ability.

          Low standard of GRE requirement for psychology major in graduate school is the problem in my opinion. High mental ability is critical for science. When the system failed to select intellectual competant people, you end up with a lot of pseudoscience.

          • Anonymous says:

            Would it horrify you to know that here is now a university major called “College Personnel Administration”? The GREs in the top programs average (under the old scoring system) about 1000-1100 and we wonder why universities are so backward… Starting salaries are ridiculous however if you have a Master’s in this new field.

        • IC says:

          “if you think scientists are all perfectly willing to admit their mistakes all the time, you are sadly wrong.”

          These people should not be in the business of science. They should get into politics, ideology or religions.

    • Jacobite says:

      “Science is about seeking fact or truth which has no grey answer.”

      Deciding whether or not Schrodinger’s cat is dead or alive seems pretty grey to me.

  26. Jim says:

    Karl Popper deserves credit for pointing out (in the early 1920’s) that the various forms of psychoanalysis were not only devoid of any actual empirical support – they didn’t even have any empirical meaning.

    Freud’s theories were a regression to an animistic pre-scientific view of reality.

  27. Jim says:

    Actually some of Freud’s theories are empirically testable but in that case they rarely survive an empirical test.

    I think though that academic psychologists have been skeptical of Freudian theories for some time now. When I took an introductory course in psychology long ago (but not far away) I recall that our instructor covered Freud’s theories but also told us that empirical studies of cross-cultural
    variation in personality failed to offer any support for much influence of toilet-training or age at weaning on personality.

    While covering Rorschah ink-blots our teacher mentioned to us that Rorschah’s son was a professor of physics at our university which brought a collective gasp of surprise from the class since a very large number of them including myself had taken introductory physics under him. I remember that I got a perfect score on all the exams in his class until on getting back my final, one problem had been marked wrong. I took the exam to Professor Rorschah and explained to him why my answer was correct and he promptly changed my score to 100.

    • JayMan says:


      “I think though that academic psychologists have been skeptical of Freudian theories for some time now.”

      I think a lot of you are missing the point. It’s not that modern psychologists embrace Freud’s theories per se, but that they embrace a lot of shit that’s in the spirit of Freud.

      Of course, some are actual Freudians.

    • dearieme says:

      If you scored 100 the exam was too easy. That’s a comment on the exam, not on you.

  28. zdr01dz says:

    Rick Rosner has an IQ of 190 and is considered by some to be the second smartest man in the world. A documentary was produced about his life. He went to high school for 10 years because he enjoyed school. He consumes 75 vitamins per day to maintain his health. Pretty much everyone who takes vitamins is an idiot or at least generally ignorant. I’m not sure how to reconcile his amazing IQ with his buffoonish behavior.

    • melendwyr says:

      If you’re willing for the majority of the substances to be literally pissed away, taking vitamins is a pretty effective way of ensuring that you’re never short of micronutrients.

      Concern about what other people think and do drops rapidly as IQ rises, although we don’t know whether this is an inherent effect or merely a consequence of smart people realizing they’re surrounded by morons. Either way, it sounds like that fellow is smart enough not to care what people like you say.

      • JayMan says:

        “Concern about what other people think and do drops rapidly as IQ rises”

        Is that true? Because as much as I’d like it to be, I’m not so sure that it is.

        In any case, I’m a good datum on that, so…

        • melendwyr says:

          Yes, it’s true. It’s not clear what happens when smart people start interacting with each other, though – my own experiences suggest that smart people aren’t necessarily any less fundamentally conformist. Also, because they’re better at rationalizing than dumb folk, they’re not any wiser than them. There’s also the overconfidence that comes from spending too much time with dullards.

          But in terms of broader social conventions, very smart people tend to make their own rules.

      • zdr01dz says:

        Maybe you didn’t get the memo. Vitamins don’t work, and in many cases they are probably harmful. Google it.
        “…the case is closed—supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful.”

        As for Rick Rosner I’m not saying that he should succumb to peer pressure. I’m saying that he behaves like a buffoon despite his amazing IQ.

    • MawBTS says:

      Rosner’s an interesting example of the limitations of IQ tests. Chris Langan’s another – he also has a 190 point IQ…yet works a blue collar job and spends his life studying new-age Deepak Chopra stuff.

      I suspect there’s a class of intellect that focuses exclusively on superficial measures of intelligence (like school grades, and IQ tests, and so on)…and somehow that doesn’t carry over to any other part of their life. They’re like gym rats who work out their biceps and nothing else.

      Having a high IQ doesn’t mean you’re rational, or motivated, or prepared to do anything with it. Neither Rosner or Langan will ever contribute anything meaningful to the pool of human knowledge.

      • MawBTS says:

        Also for the “strangely disappointing people with high IQs” file…

        His most remembered accomplishment is a 300 page book about street car transfers.

        • bb753 says:

          Well, Sidis´speculations about the settlement of Europe and the Americas seem broadly in line with recent developments in anthropology. I quote: “there were red men at one time in Europe as well as in America.”
          ” Later on, other races of human beings entered the same region, associating with the Cro-Magnons, both as friends and as enemies, and probably with some intermixture of races. Each invading race acquired such knowledge as the Cro-Magnons had at the time. First came the blacks, who, when the climate cooled before the Ice Age, retreated southward into Africa. ”

          “Then, at the height of the Ice Age, came the Eskimo population (..)”

          ” An immense inland sea was formed during the Ice Age between Europe and Asia, leaving on its eastern side a large region enclosed by sea, mountains, and ice, and isolated from the rest of the earth for many thousands of years. Here were isolated a few human beings and a number of animals. An albino type became the standard human race in this region; this type is found as an occasional freak in all races, but, under this peculiar isolation, it became a white race. And, this freak race being isolated together with certain varieties of animals resulted in their taming the animals, and incidentally infected the people with those animals’ diseases and parasites. In the course of generations, the white race gradually acquired a certain amount of immunity to those diseases, which, however, they always carried with them and which proved to be their greatest weapon in their fight against other races. When the great ice sheet retreated on the north and on the mountains, and the inland sea was drained, this original white men’s country became a desert, forcing both human beings and animals elsewhere, first south over the mountain passes (into India and Persia), then in a succession of waves westward into Europe, bringing a heavy crop of highly destructive diseases.”

    • Bob says:

      To be fair to Rosner, he claims that most of the vitamins probably don’t do anything:

      “Revealed: The 38 pills taken by ‘world’s second-smartest man’ to stay on top form – though he admits most do nothing, and haven’t kept him from being unemployed”

    • Sam says:

      “Pretty much everyone who takes vitamins is an idiot or at least generally ignorant.”
      Why? I don’t take anything but I didn’t know it was stupid to do. Although my parents do take vitamin D because the doctor said they need it due to their skin(black africans) and here in Scandinavia they don’t get enough sun. Is the doctor wrong here or are there cases where vitamins are fine?

      • zdr01dz says:

        Your parents are a special case but even in this instance Vitamin D supplements offer very little. Your parents need exposure to sun to produce enough Vitamin D. Because their skin is dark they need many times more sun exposure than native Scandinavians. They will probably remain chronically Vitamin D deficient as long as they live in Scandinavia.

        • jamesd127 says:

          Your parents are a special case but even in this instance Vitamin D supplements offer very little. Your parents need exposure to sun to produce enough Vitamin D.

          Due to the widespread use of clothing and housing no one gets enough vitamin D except possibly white beachgoing queenslanders. Everyone in the world should take two thousand IU of vitamin D at breakfast every morning, unless they are white girls hanging out on a queenland beach in a bikini

    • Jacobite says:

      IQ scores greater than about 160 don’t have much value or meaning.

    • facebuck says:

      I remember reading about a Korean guy, Kim Ung-Yong who had an IQ of 210 or something. He went on to do physics research for a while as a teenager and then quit to go back to Korea and be a civil engineer.

      He said he was not really that much smarter than other smart people; he said his brain just developed faster. The internet claims he spoke four languages when he was two.

  29. jabowery says:

    One of the more interesting results in human psychology is that primate brains have a neuron that doesn’t change size with the size of the brain — unlike other species. Moreover, the high caloric load per neuron led to a cognitive limitation among primates as they couldn’t afford the calories to both eat and digest enough food to support larger brains until cooking provided a huge boost through pre-digestion of food. This excellent TED talk by Suzana Herculano-Houzel provides the overview of this line of research and how the total number of neurons in the human brain was cited in the academic literature almost like folk-lore, without substantiation, for most of the 20th century: a clear casualty of academic pathology in the study of human psychology.

    Even some of the most recent evolutionary psychology by authorities as preeminent as E. O. Wilson has continued in ignorance of this explanation of human cognitive ability, as exemplified by Wilson’s explanation, in “The Social Conquest of Earth”, for human cognitive ability as arising from the evolution of eusociality in humans resulting from the campfire as a “defensible nest”. Certainly the larger cognitive capacity enabled more sophisticated eusocial organization and the very technology, fire, that enabled this larger cognitive capacity was also a force for eusocial organization, but Wilson’s confusion of cause and effect in human cognition and eusociality indicates that academic failures of evolutionary psychology are not limited minor players.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      I appreciated your comment and the link provided. Herculano-Houzel’s Ted talk was a bit too simplistic but that isn’t her fault, she is giving a brief lecture to a general audience. What I found most interesting was how little research has been done in comparative neuroanatomy. Cochran has talked many times that all the low hanging fruit have not been picked from the tree of science and here is an example.

      Let me go out on a branch and speculate for a minute on comparative nueroanatomy not between humans and other species, which Herculano’s-Houzel talked about, but between humans. Science isn’t supposed to go here, none of us at this blog believe this but that is just how it is. So….go here and look, because there is opportunity to make real discoveries. Out there somewhere in West Hunter land are researchers and or graduate students looking for some interesting area to start poking around in. I suggest you poke here, not that you will be successful, but you might be. It bothers me that we have this huge cognitive variation between humans and virtually no evidence as to why. I can’t get it out of my head that the reasons are out there but we haven’t found them yet in part because researchers are discouraged from looking.

      On a separate subject also covered by Herulano-Houzel she speculated as if it is accepted fact that we controlled fire 2 million years ago and at that point our brains started growing rapidly. I tend to agree with her hypothesis of such an early invention of controlled use of fire as probable based on need to feed a growing calorie glutton brain but evidence of fires going way back in time simply aren’t there. That proves nothing because absence of evidence does not prove evidence of absence but it needs to be added. It isn’t good science to pass off we controlled fire two million years ago as fact.

      • Jim says:

        I recall that Baker in his book on race discussed differences in the gross anatomy of the brains of Australian Aborigines vs. Europeans.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        Comparing races of people isn’t going to yield much. The big question is why there is such a big difference between high IQ people and average IQ people. We simply don’t know and seeing how complex the human brain is we won’t know for a very long time. It is a very important question, what makes us so variable in intelligence. People thinking short term might not think so but thinking long term-big picture nothing, absolutely nothing will transform humanity more than answering this question and then fixing stupid in the next generation. Dream stuff now but give it a generation or two of advances in genetics followed up with studies in the associated sciences like neuroanatomy.

        We have a ridiculously shallow self centered picture of humanity in motion. How new is genetics? The guy who discovered DNA is still alive. The industrial revolution kick started just 170 years ago and the transformation of human lifestyle since then has been staggering. This is the century when we will gather the wherewithal to control human evolution and push it in the direction of ordinary genius. I’ll stop there with conjecture, because who knows. It amazes me that so few people wonder aloud about these things, instead they retreat to a pretend world where a channel changer entertains them until they enter another cycle of sleep and work.

        • ursiform says:

          “The guy who discovered DNA is still alive.”

          Really? He must be very old. Perhaps you mean that one of the guys who figured out it’s structure is still alive.

        • Kate says:

          “The big question is why there is such a big difference between high IQ people and average IQ people. ”

          I’d like to see a more developmental approach to intelligence – there seem to be add-ons, first self-awareness (the mirror test), then other awareness (empathy), then other self-awareness (cooperation), then self-other-self awareness (cold reading) – that sort of thing – intelligence isn’t one thing that some people have more of, it’s several things that some people don’t have all of. Maybe. But the old binomial distribution looks rather 20th century.

  30. Dale says:

    Freud doesn’t seem so far off to me if the practical problem you’re dealing with is counselling mildly maladjusted upper-middle-class late-Victorian Viennese ladies — most of their problems will have something to do with sexual repression. Serious mental illness, though, it’s not so good for. But that’s not the bulk of the market, certainly not when you weight patients by how much money they can afford to pay.

    Psychology for making humans better at the top end of social interaction, though, is a tough nut to crack. Humans are already optimized by 60 million years of evolution for that. We’re barely to the point where direct engineering-style analysis can help a bit with a task as simple as throwing a baseball, and we’ve been building that body of knowledge since Newton’s time.

    • Love your comment – except that your belief that Victorian Viennese (we knew what you meant) ladies were sexually repressed is exactly the sort of Freudian and then post-Freudian nonsense that people still believe because of Siggy. Or not because of Siggy. It might be that people wanted an excuse to talk about sex (see also Oscar Wilde) and Freud simply provided the opportunity. Without him, another Freud might have arisen.

  31. linsee says:

    I took a (graduate) course in child psychology around 1990 or so, and the instructor noted that everybody knew Piaget was wrong, but he was still in the syllabus because there were no other equally general theories.

  32. Yes, it is an irritating aspect of psychology text books: they repeat the history rather than tear out pages which are unsupported. However, help may be at hand on the child development theory front. I will post on the work of Demetriou and colleagues, which I think can be simplified considerably. In my view as the child’s brain develops, processing speed and working memory progress at different speeds, and much of children’s achievements and conceptual problems as they age can be understood as the successive development of those abilities, leading to stepwise improvements in capability, sometimes showing processing speed advantage, sometime increases in working memory.

  33. melendwyr says:

    There are actually psychologists with decent knowledge and insight into human nature. It’s easy to miss them if you expect that psychological knowledge should give people ‘magic powers’. That idea is ridiculous. Engineers don’t have magical object-manipulating powers in everyday life, even when the things they can do in the right contexts would have once been considered magical. Why would you expect psychology to be different?

    We have a long history of finding effective ways to manipulate human psychology even when we have little formal knowledge about why they work. Rather the same way that we had effective metallurgy before we had chemistry. Of course, that practical knowledge does become more potent when theory backs it up.

    • You would expect engineers to achieve things which non-engineers would find magical: engines, for example. To expect a psychologist to function better because of their psychological knowledge is a valid challenge. Physicians, with some help from assistants, ought to be able to heal themselves by having better knowledge than lay people.

      • melendwyr says:

        Physicians, while being somewhat smarter than average, aren’t any wiser generally. And while the field of medicine has advanced immeasurably, the doctors haven’t changed much throughout all of history. Sometimes cleverness just lets you make clever mistakes – and then clever rationalizations for them.

        All fields have a natural tendency towards nonsense and are mostly garbage; some fields have useful data in them which can be acquired by thorough and cautious sifting.

  34. simontmn says:

    “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.”

    True of so many fields. Outside the hard-hard sciences it so often seems that knowledge went into a dark age after 1918, and certainly after 1945. I get the feeling “These men were better than us!” from so much Victorian writing, in many different areas. History is a good example.

  35. Patrick Boyle says:

    Again I come to this thread too late. I guess I need to spend more time in front of the computer if I want to get earlier into these threads.

    I was just commenting on academic psychology on another blog. I got a BA in psychology. At the time (1960) I was drawn by inertia to enroll in a psychology graduate program – but I didn’t. Looking back now I realize that I had had a narrow escape. After just those few classes I had exhausted the field. I learned some statistics and I learned about IQ – those were worthwhile but otherwise there was nothing else. In the half century since there have been no advances in psychology that are worth a tinker’s dam. The whole field has been frozen in place over the IQ controversy and the allied racial issues.

    I had switched from economics to psychology for valid reasons. There simply were no women in economics and I was so lonely. It worked. I married a girl I met in a physiological psychology class. Alas she was a Freudian – we argued constantly from then until the divorce.

    I still read a couple economics books a year (lately more), but I can’t remember reading even an article much less a book on psychology. The unspoken truth is that IQ was the biggest best idea to ever come out of academic psychology and there has really been nothing else since.

    Psychology isn’t so much an academic discipline as it is a former academic discipline. The only interesting psychological fact I’ve learned in the last half century was that my uncle had had a prefrontal lobotomy.

    • dearieme says:

      It must have been 45 years ago that I read Eysenck’s popular paperbacks. He told me things that apparently get keeping re-discovered. Like you, I doubt that there’s been an advance of any size since, though it’s always possible that there has been but people are loathe to make a fuss of it in case the PC artillery is pointed at them.

    • You are either unaware of trait theory and the advances of the five- and later six-factor models, or else you fail to appreciate their predictive power. Delinquency, phobias, political orientation, sexual habits, career interests and success on the job–so long as we’re only talking about Westerners with English as their first language, I can predict all of this with far better than chance accuracy from one simple test. I’m not even a psychologist, just a man who knows how to use the psychometric equivalent of a screwdriver. Of course, trait theory isn’t as far advanced as IQ, but our understanding of g wasn’t very well advanced by 1960, either. The problem with psychology isn’t that nothing is known or no progress is being made, but that there are still a lot of crumbs floating amongst the cream.

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        I think I’m reasonably up to date on trait theory but I don’t think it proves Greg wrong – just the contrary.

        About seven or eight years ago I had a hare brained scheme to get rich based on Big Five theory and other notions. I spent two years developing a new technology dating website. I had recently retired so I still had a complete set of development tools. I wrote all the code in C#. All the code and algorithms were original.

        I’m not a good businessman but i was good enough to due my due diligence in examining the products of my competitors. I saw that no existing dating site really did personality matching in any kind of sensible way. So I developed a section based on Big 5 Theory. But about the time I was doing this a new competitor entered the field – eHarmony. This very well advertised site has a completely bogus personality core. Their technology seems to be based on the authority of the avuncular looking guy’s roll-your-own personality ideas.

        My funding fell through and I lost heart – my site never launched. So today instead of a service based on the latest personality research we have only nonsense. I don’t think this story supports the idea that trait theory is very important. No one in the general public seems to care all that much.

        Merry Christmas

      • harpend says:

        to Mark Graybill:

        Thanks for this post. Can you suggest a reference or two that I ought to read to convince myself that these tests reliably predict things? My not-well-read impression of the field is that there are a lot of snake oil sales in the personnel selection consulting business.


  36. Monica says:


    Pick one.

  37. Gordo says:

    I’m told that CBT actually cures people and that therefore Freudians hate it. That’s cognitive behaviour therapy, not the cock and ball torture thing.

    • JayMan says:

      “I’m told that CBT actually cures people”

      Don’t be so sure about that.

    • candid_observer says:

      I think there are a number of creditable psychologists who do good work in Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

      Really, there’s no reason to think that some such approach would not be effective, and I gather there’s decent evidence for its efficacy. It harks back to the Rational-Emotive therapy of Albert Ellis, who basically taught that we can change our emotions by changing our thinking and behavior.

    • melendwyr says:

      It is sometimes useful in specific ways, as opposed to traditional psychoanalysis, which isn’t good for anything.

      A panacea it isn’t… but if you don’t expect miracles, it’s a valuable tool.

  38. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    if the human race is ever to get anywhere, we need a better way of hiring intellectuals.

    I am sure some of them are saying: “What is the we you talk about, white man?”

  39. Xenophon Hendrix says:

    I didn’t major in psychology, but I’ve been interested in it since my early teens. I’ve also been highly skeptical of it. The problem with all of the social sciences is that adequately controlling the experiments tends to be difficult or impossible. Nevertheless, I do think they occasionally come up with some interesting results.

    They thing is, they are almost never home runs. The effect sizes tend to be small, but I’ll take a shot at pointing out some things that I’ve thought are unintuitive and dramatic.

    As some above have already pointed out, IQ and related mental tests are both useful and surprising. They are the closest thing that psychology has to a home run, so they are, of course, controversial. Once you understand them, though, the world suddenly makes a whole lot more sense, and much of the cant that has been pounded into you by the popular press and public school gets stripped away.

    Judith Rich Harris’s findings – child rearing practices have less influence on children than most people believe. She remains controversial, and popular thought still assumes that parents have a huge amount of control over how their children turn out.

    The results of Robert Plomin’s twin studies were unintuitive and dramatic for most of us.

    Psychology 101’s presentation of various illusions is surprising, and it lets one know that the way we perceive the world can be quite different from the way it really is.

    Mnemonic techniques work. If you already have an uncanny memory you probably can’t surprise yourself with them, but for the rest of us they can be pretty impressive. For instance, once you know how to turn numbers into pictures, it becomes possible to permanently remember historical dates. If you’ve always have had trouble with that skill, it’s dramatic.

    But, yes, psychology lost its way.

    • Can you point me to a link or study discussing these mnemonic techniques? (Failing that, can you tell me a little bit yourself about what they are and how they work?)

      • Xenophon Hendrix says:

        Here is a site that will teach you how to turn numbers into words. If you make sure that the words are of things that are easy to visualize, you can then turn the words into mental pictures, which for most of us are a lot easier to remember than are raw numerals. If you want more mnemonic techniques, just going to the Mnemonic article on Wikipedia and then following the links it provides will teach you a whole bunch of them.

        The book I like best on the subject is Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It by Kenneth L. Higbee. Any one of Harry Lorayne’s numerous memory books can teach you the same techniques.

        Understand that I’m not an expert on this stuff. I use it to remember the occasional person’s name, the odd date, short to-do lists, or the page number of the book I’m reading if I don’t have a bookmark handy. (I consider folding over the corner of a page a sin.) Experts can demonstrate astonishing memory feats.

        One surprising thing I could do when I was reading one of Lorayne’s books — I can’t anymore because I didn’t keep practicing and lost the ability — was to shuffle a deck of cards, remove five without looking at them, go through the remainder of the deck one at a time, and then be able to accurately say what the five removed cards are without looking at them. The first time you do that you really impress yourself.

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        When I was at the firing range to qualify with the M-1 (that will give you some idea of my vast age), they handed out a sheet of paper with all the ranges for the pop up targets. I told the sergeant, this was crazy. How could the surprise factor in the test work if you knew all the ranges beforehand?

        He told me (patronizingly) that no one could memorize a page of random numbers in the ten minutes before we went on the range.

        But of course he was wrong.

        I employed what little I knew of mnemonics and just memorized the page. When it was my time to shoot I announced the range of the next target in a loud voice. No one believed it was possible, but in fact, it was easy.

        The other troopers looked at me funny from then on.

        • Jacobite says:

          Fucking Army. Just zero your Garand for 300 yards and you’ll be ready for any reasonable shot out to 500. A man is about the width of the front sight at 275 so hold on the throat instead of the chest if he looks narrower than that. Semper Fi.

      • melendwyr says:

        Try looking for information on the Method of Loci. Attributed to Simonides of Ceos, it’s been an explicit technique since the ancient Greeks, and may have been used informally since before recorded history.

  40. Anonymous says:

    Just don’t tell these academics that psychoanalysis is bunkum

  41. Dale says:

    “Evolutionary psychology has promise, but I have to say that a lot of the work there looks silly to me”

    The field is only a few decades old and even now is still trying to figure out what concepts and method of analysis will be helpful. It’s not surprising that it generates some low-grade speculations. Isaac Newton’s theories of optics didn’t match the real world very well, but his mechanics was essentially correct.

    But ev. psych. has generated some theories that seem to explain what is seen, and even some things that were seen only after the theories were posited. An obvious one is that step-parents treat children less well than biological parents. (You’d think that was obvious, but there was a huge database of child abuse incidents that was assembled without distinguishing between parents and step-parents. Apparently, the people in charge didn’t expect that to make any difference. But it’s hard to explain the observed difference without positing that psychology is tuned to genetic propagation.) A less obvious one is that if the parents are poor in resources, they’ll tend to invest more resources in female offspring than male offspring; and if they’re rich in resources, they’ll do the opposite. As far as I know, that was predicted without empirical prompting, but it has been confirmed in many situations.

    • dearieme says:

      “Isaac Newton’s theories of optics didn’t match the real world very well”: but his splitting up of the spectrum was brilliantly successful. Anyway, quantum mechanics with its “wavicles” (presumably no longer called that?) rather implies that a corpuscular theory of light wasn’t entirely daft. His alchemy and biblical studies, on the other hand, were rubbish.

      • ursiform says:

        Newton made some great advances, and also went down some dead ends. While the corpuscular theory of light wasn’t daft, Newton’s optical theory was a long way from what we understand today.

        Note that Newton neither liked to admit error nor give credit to others for their achievements.

      • Jim says:

        I disagree that Newton’s alchemical studies were rubbish, at least in the sense of being unscientific. Today we have the theoretical knowledge to rule out say the possibility of transforming lead into gold. But that theoretical knowledge wasn’t available in Newton’s time.

    • JayMan says:


      “But ev. psych. has generated some theories that seem to explain what is seen, and even some things that were seen only after the theories were posited. An obvious one is that step-parents treat children less well than biological parents.”

      Don’t be too sure about that one. The difference is not great (in absolute terms) and most such research is racially confounded (which is a critical problem with most evo psych research).

      “A less obvious one is that if the parents are poor in resources, they’ll tend to invest more resources in female offspring than male offspring; and if they’re rich in resources, they’ll do the opposite.”

      Same deal there.

      • Richard Sharpe says:

        and most such research is racially confounded

        What does that mean?

        Also, could you post a link?

        • Patrick Boyle says:

          I think he might be referring to the fact that white parents almost never beat their kids in public and blacks do so routinely. When I was Social Worker I never saw a white parent hit their kid.

          • Anonymous says:

            So that’s why American children are such spoiled brats.

          • Brian says:

            You must never have wandered south of the Smith & Wesson line. I saw plenty of it when growing up (50s & 60s) in a medium-sized town (Shreveport), and on the middle-class side of the tracks (KCS). I rarely was on the receiving end of that myself, considering it mildly retarded to provoke one’s parents in public. Also, my father considered it beneath his dignity: justice, though sure, could wait (my mother, however, had no such qualms). I recall dispensing public chastisement to one of my one own brood but once (early 90s); they shared my tendency to behave in public. Guess I wouldn’t have the nerve to do it these days… we’re all yankees now.

    • Jim says:

      Specifically how did Newton’s work on optics fail to match the real world?

  42. Richard Sharpe says:

    I keep thinking about the inevitable progress of science in the context of this previous posting of yours:

    In a sense, we can say that Science undermined the competitiveness of black farmers.

    In a world where different groups have differing abilities, on average, Science is not neutral.

  43. Yuri Glesner says:

    Things that are currently completely fraudulent pseudoscience: IATs, Dunbar’s number, lexical models.
    Oh, and don’t be too harsh on sperm competition hypotheses when the jury is apparently still out on epigenetics with spooky action at a distance mechanisms. Having sex with other partners could create epigenetic influences just as easily as anything else that has ever been proposed would on a woman’s eggs. Then it’s possible competitors’ sperm could influence the offspring without transmitting any non-epigenetic information at all, and thus not showing up as false paternity by the tests we run. Naturally evolved sperm competition traits would remain selected for to protect one’s genetic and epigenetic contributions. 😉

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      the jury is apparently still out on epigenetics with spooky action at a distance mechanisms

      Have you put any thought into what that would involve?

      As others have said, any lifetime experience that changes gene expression in the somatic cells then have to be communicated to the germ cells.

      However, it can’t just randomly up-regulate, silence, etc genes. That way usually causes death before birth, and even in the few cases that do not, eg, Trisomy 21, XXX, etc, the results are not pleasant.

      This means that a mechanism must be available for these somatic gene expression changes to find and change specific genes (or more likely, promoters) in the germ line. And that mechanism would have to:

      1. Have some sort of map of what genes/promoters cause what actions, and
      2. That map would have to be carried in the genes along with genes for the mechanism, and

      3. Be able to find the majority of the germ-line cells that could go on to form new individuals.

      I suspect that only low IQ people could believe in something like that.

      • Anonymous says:

        This paper:

        defines Epigenetics as:

        More specifically, epigenetics may be defined as the study of any potentially stable and, ideally, heritable change in gene expression or cellular phenotype that occurs without changes in Watson-Crick base-pairing of DNA.

        Just before that, it says:

        For example, even though the vast majority of cells in a multicellular organism share an identical genotype, organismal development generates a diversity of cell types with disparate, yet stable, profiles of gene expression and distinct cellular functions. Thus, cellular differentiation may be considered an epigenetic phenomenon, largely governed by changes in what Waddington described as the “epigenetic landscape” rather than alterations in genetic inheritance (Waddington, 1957; Figure 1).

      • Yuri Glesner says:

        Well, you’re either low-IQ or High-autism enough to not understand sarcasm. It’s not just reading the paragraph either, unless you plead some browser software issue that caused a display failure for you personally. Do you have serious problems identifying people’s faces in real life or is it just the digital emoticons that are too difficult for you?

  44. Henk says:

    Re IQ, I sometimes wonder: With that much goodness flowing from high IQ, shouldn’t high IQ be less rare? Is the observed distribution of IQ compatible with psychology’s results about the impressive benefits of IQ?

  45. Jim says:

    Whatever the average IQ, high IQ, meaning IQ substantially higher than average, will always be rare.

    • Henk says:

      The difference between mental nimbleness at z=0 and z=2 is too large for my taste; the distribution’s right tail should be more compressed if IQ really has the concentrated good effects that psychology research says it has. Has there been much (any?) research into negative correlates of IQ?

  46. Robert Ford says:

    i majored in behav. PSY. it’s a cult! i’m not kidding. you wouldn’t even believe how weird some of them are. they actually think they know things. it’s the new business/marketing degree only for liberals.
    i don’t think anyone can appreciate how insane behavioral psy is unless you take the classes and talk to the people. when i watch Scientology promo videos online it reminds me of college:)

  47. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    We seem to have gotten to IQ again. Is this a story of multiple intelligences?

    My wife is a teacher who teaches AP Computer Science. Recently she showed me the free response answers two students provided for one question. It was a small snippet of code to determine if a number was divisible by its digits. One student had clearly copied the other student. My wife had already told them that she can easily tell if someone was copying by looking at the variable names.

    Here is the first response (if the pre tags don’t work, of well …, and some irrelevant detail is missing):

    int units = number % 10;
    int tens = (number/10) % 10;
    int hundreds = (number/100) % 10;
    if (((number / units) * units) != number) {
         // something
    } else if (((number / tens) * tens != number) {
         // something else
    } else if (((number / hundreds)) ...) {
         // something else again

    The second student’s answer was:

    int firstd = number % 10;
    int second = (number/10) % 10;
    int thirdd = (number/100) % 10;
    if (((number / units) * units) != number) {
         // something
    } else if (((number / tens) * tens != number) {
         // something else
    } else if (((number / hundreds)) ...) {
         // something else again

    Now, even without noticing that hundreds was erased and changed to thirdd it was clear who copied from who.

    I have heard many people say things like:

    With the effort they put into cheating they could just as easily learn the stuff.

    However, I now think that is just not the case. If you do not have the intelligence to actually understand the subject the best you can do is some cargo cult nonsense.

    • Dull people simply suck at memorizing and retaining stuff, which is why they have to cheat. They are good at scheming and plotting though, which belies their low IQ scores.

      • dearieme says:

        It was my impression that low IQ people are less handicapped at memorisation than they are at reasoning. IU’m open to correction, obviously.

        “They are good at scheming and plotting though, which belies their low IQ scores.” Not exactly: the point with an IQ test is that you have to do it individually, and against the clock. “Scheming and plotting” you do with your cronies in the pub, taking all the time in the world.

    • Jacobite says:

      I prefer i, j, k, and l for integer variable names. Fortran makes one dumb, albeit concise.

  48. RCB says:

    I really like this approach to evaluating a scientific field. If it works, you should be able to do useful stuff with it, like power cities and fly over oceans. Or, at the very least, predict something.

    Agreed that lots of ev psych is silly. There seems to be little connection to the theory I learned from the evolutionary genetics books – the stuff with the math. I am sometimes told that there is a lot of good ev psych, especially if you look outside of the “Santa Barbara school” of ev psych (run by Tooby and Cosmides, maybe others?). I’m willing to believe it, but don’t care to check for myself.

    • gcochran9 says:

      At least predict. In astrophysics we can predict, I think, but as yet we’re bad at control.

      Ev Psych is not that bad. One the biggest problems is that lots of true observations get them in trouble. If they talk about sex differences, most people in academia will be upset. They adhere to a silly ideology in which such differences are forbidden to exist, or at least forbidden to talk about. Same, even more so, with between-population differences: the ev psych people pretend that that there aren’t any, even that there can’t be any, in order to avoid flak.

      I was thinking about ev psych type’s treatment of human sperm competition, which is insignificant in the populations we have data for. They keep talking about it anyway, which is bad. But it might be significant in some population that we don’t have any data for – I doubt it, but it’s possible. Not in Europeans, for sure. If it turned out to be significant in sub-Saharan Africans, or Amerindians, or Australian Aborigines, it would immediately become completely unmentionable.

      • RCB says:

        Lots of ev psych is focused on innate sex differences, from what I’ve seen. I don’t think they’re afraid of the topic, but are forced to tread carefully by others.

        The problem, for me, is that most of the theory is poor: like most evolutionary anthropologists, they mostly borrow evolutionary theory from biology textbooks, but rarely produce any of their own. This means they tend to be ~10 years behind the cutting edge of evolutionary biology. I suspect if you asked such folk who Hanna Kokko was (IMO the #1 person studying sexual selection theory right now, but maybe I’m behind, too), many couldn’t tell you, but they could tell you all about Trivers’ theory from the ’70’s – which I believe most behavioral ecologist don’t believe any more.

        Another problem is what you might call intellectual founder effect. A few folks basically laid down the law in the 80s and 90s, I think, and it seems to be largely unchanged today. So there are a lot of unusual features that seem to arise from the idiosyncratic beliefs of the founders. I think this is where the obsession with a universal human nature (or just two: male and female) and “mental modules” comes from. This is probably true of a lot of subdisciplines, though.

        That’s not to discount their empirical findings, insofar as they are replicated.

      • dearieme says:

        “At least predict. In astrophysics we can predict, I think …”: when I studied chemistry, prediction wasn’t its strength. It seemed to be the science of hindsight. But it was undoubtedly a science. Maybe the crucial test is whether you can rule things out. Chemistry could do a useful bit of that.

        • Anonymous says:

          Come to think of it, that’s maybe the only sense in which Economics is, or could be, a science.

          • Greying Wanderer says:

            The problem with Economics imo is the data part i.e. there’s too much of it.

          • Jim says:

            And much of the data is of very poor quality.

          • jabowery says:

            Given the public policy influence of the social sciences, it is “surprising” that there aren’t more social scientists recommending a public policy of sorting proponents of social theories into governments that test them so that there is some semblance of scientific ethics in obtaining consent prior to experimentation on human subjects and generating some semblance of control groups to tease out causal laws in human ecology.

        • William Newman says:

          I think a lot of synthetic chemistry tends to be unusually weak for prediction as science/tech fields go, but still useful. Perhaps comparable to early aerodynamics, perhaps in 1920 or 1930: far too many utterly intractable problems but you could still get quite a lot of mileage out of using aerodynamics to give you partial guidance in designing aircraft. (Also perhaps comparable to petroleum geology, though I only know a few scraps about that.) Given some zany antibiotic structure and a need to synthesize it in the lab, perhaps no chemist will be able to reliably predict quite what will work for some of the synthesis steps, but nonetheless a skilled chemist will do enormously better than chance in choosing candidates that have a useful probability of working, and even be reasonably confident about various of the steps that the first choice will work well.

          Analytic chemistry seems to have at least as much stuff that is cut and dried as a normal science. E.g., AFAIK an analytic chemist can commonly tell you much more stuff about various kinds of spectra (predicting what spectrum will result from a given chemical structure, or working backwards from spectral data to chemical structure) than astronomers can tell you about corresponding relationships between behavior of distant objects and their spectra, and various of the astronomers’ accomplishments there are nothing to sneer at.

          And the poking around in the fundamentals of physical chemistry seems to have typical applied physics levels of precision and predictive power: some impressive successes, occasional useful successes, many outstanding practically important problems that resist usefully precise analysis.

        • melendwyr says:

          There are lots of examples of prediction in chemistry. Hell, even the Periodic Table is a classic example.
          ALL science is founded on hindsight. Prediction of unobserved properties is very rare.

  49. The leftist doom and gloom media makes it seem like financial crisis are a common occurrence, but there have only been two in the past 100 years with an 80 year gap between them (the Great Depression and 2008). Large system can be very stable for very long periods of time if they are run by competent people and there is not too much leverage, which has been the case since 2008.

    It’s also pretty easy to predict the next multi-billion dollar company if you are smart and you know the field well. The left , including much of pop behavior psychology, likes to spread this comforting, egalitarian myth everyone is an irrational blank slate and that the only way anyone is exceptional is through luck, zillions of hours of practice, or some unfair environmental advantage – never genes.

    • RCB says:

      “It’s also pretty easy to predict the next multi-billion dollar company if you are smart and you know the field well.”

      So you are surely a billionaire yourself by now, I presume?

      • On my blog I correctly predicted Snapchat and Facebook would see huge gains in their valuations. In 2008 I wrote that Facebook, then valued at $15 billion, would be worth hundreds. The problem is it’s virtually impossible for ordinary people like myself to invest in these web 2.0 companies before they go IPO.

      • Jacobite says:

        When GM was going bankrupt in the depths of the financial crisis Ford was at $2 a share yet it was still a profitable company. Within a year it was back in the teens. It was only the second 6-bagger in my life, too bad I only bought 5000 shares. BTW, during my lifetime I have lost money trying to pick individual stocks. Index funds are the only sane way to go and then only in a periodically balanced portfolio that includes commodities, cash/bonds, gold, and real estate. I only hope I am well positioned enough to only lose 50% of my assets when the federal government inevitably starts to default.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      @grey enlightenment

      “Large system can be very stable for very long periods of time if they are run by competent people and there is not too much leverage,”


      “which has been the case since 2008.”


      the same people are running the banks, there have been no changes imposed on the banks to keep their leverage down like there were after the 1920s version, there has been zero need for the banks to change themselves because they were completely bailed out, there is far more leverage now – because the banks changed their own rules in the opposite direction to the way they were changed in the 1920s – and recently Congress increased public liability to that increased leverage.

      we’re in a kind of financial version of the interwar period and the next banking crash will be far worse – unless stumbling towards the second crash causes WWIII before we get to it.

  50. R. says:

    The funny thing is that even though a huge tower of flowery bullshit was built upon Freud’s largely incorrect ideas, the ideas themselves were a step in the right direction**. The idea that humans are mostly driven by emotions, not reason, or that there is such a thing as subconscious* and it’s quite important, or that various parts of the mind ‘fight’ with each other are all way closer to the truth than the ideas of many scholars(or after) before Freud.

    I’m halfway into a recent book on on the human mind (Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite). It really rips psychology and philosophy a new one. An especially scathing chapter is reserved for ‘self-esteem’…

    The author has great fun at the expense of philosophers*** who find the notion of the mind believing A and not A at the same time problematic, as they think it’s some kind of rational, unitary whole. The modularity perspective saying it’s a whole mess of parts strung together on top of an older architecture, with each part only loosely coupled to the other and no large-scale integration explains the peculiarities of human behavior better than the idea that there is such thing as ‘Self’..

    *though this idea wasn’t invented by Freud, it dates back to Paracelsus at least.

    **or maybe not. The ideas themselves were mostly present, but it’s unclear whether their wide dissemination was any good. After all, adaptive and true ideas are not always the same..

    ***people who are willing to argue people can’t deceive themselves, that is, ‘self-deception’ is a logical impossibility. To be fair, only a minority hold that view.

  51. Anonymous says:

    There are surprising results everywhere.

    I was not aware that transistors were a result of quantum mechanics. Now I am.

    Perhaps that explains why vacuum tube guitar amps sound so much better.

      • Jacobite says:

        Tube music amps have a very pleasing and warm harmonic distortion at human voice frequencies. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter or Gershwin on a 300B tube amp if you don’t believe it.

    • deleted says:

      “Quantum mechanics, which made possible the modern age, is nevertheless only understood by at most a fraction of a percent of the population.” My friend the particle physicist says that if you think you understand quantum physics you are wrong. The trick is to become adroit at using it without kidding yourself that you understand it. I asked him whether the same was true of the early users of Newtonian gravity. He said he couldn’t be sure, he thought probably not. Maybe he just meant that Newtonian gravity appeals more to the human intuition. Well, it does now, but did it when Newton introduced it? Perhaps.

      • MawBTS says:

        Xkcd’s advice: ignore every assertion where “quantum mechanics” is the most complicated thing in it.

      • Jim says:

        At the time that Newton’s theory of gravity was proposed the idea of action at a distance was anathema to most of his contemporaries. Newton himself was very uncomfortable with the idea of an occult force.

        According to Newton’s Theory of Gravity any movement I make will instantly affect the motion of the Andromeda Galaxy. The idea that the motions of every particle of matter in the universe are connected at all times by a certain differential equation is pretty mind-boggling.

        Despite the misgivings of most scientists at the time including Newton himself his theory worked, at least within certain limits, so gradually scientists became used to the idea. Von Neumann once said “In mathematics you never understand anything, you just get used to it.”. Probably the same is true for physics.

    • MawBTS says:

      Perhaps that explains why vacuum tube guitar amps sound so much better.

      Transistors have the last laugh, you can now get software amps that emulate the response curve of a tube amp.

  52. anon says:

    Cognitive narcissists are drawn to professorial professions/intellectual positions.

  53. Greying Wanderer says:

    If/when psychology == genetics then it’ll probably make sense.

  54. baloocartoons says:

    This needs to be spread around all over. My attempt:
    Freud a fraud? ‘Fraid so.

  55. Kate says:

    I haven’t read all the comments so this is a bit off the wall, but… my thoughts are that psychology is all around us – advertising, education, law courts, commerce – and fundamentally psychology is or should be the science of perception, how the CNS and ANS function and interact. What Froid did was deflect study away from perception by inventing mythical internal organs – I, E, S – so instead of studying what people perceive the study of psychology became a massive exercise in not perceiving. Jung on the other hand was different, he quite legitimately focused on the perception of symbols.

    • Jim says:

      Jung’s theories were as scientifically sterile as Freud’s.

      • Flemur says:

        But Young had better illustrations than Froid.

        I used to enjoy perusing 1950’s “abnormal psych” books, back when They thought that schizophrenia, manic-depression, etc were caused by toilet training and such. The case histories were fine novelettes.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Jung had a sense of beauty that Freud lacked, making the former a better inspiration for artists.

          • Kate says:

            Beauty, harmony, archetypes – it’s all a numbers game. I watched Dan Snow and an American woman whose name escapes me but she’s introduced ultrasound+laser-searching into archaeology and they went looking for the Roman Empire’s defining engineering feats, or traces thereof. Dan’s concluding remarks were that the Empire was as much psychological as it was military because their buildings were designed to create a) fear and wonder; and b) participation. One example was the 1500 mile wall across North Africa, which wasn’t built to keep the pastoralists out but to control their interaction with the sodbusters. Everyone benefited. Maybe there’s a parallel with Palladian-style plantation mansions. Tiger! Tiger! burning bright In the forest of the night What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

  56. Greying Wanderer says:


    “Dan’s concluding remarks were that the Empire was as much psychological as it was military because their buildings were designed to create a) fear and wonder; and b) participation.”

    Yes. I really dislike a lot of things about the Romans but I love their aqueducts.



    Would 48 chromosomes mutate faster than 46?

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Surely it has more to do with the number of base pairs?

      In addition, since the 46 chromosomes that Humans have resulted from the fusion of 2A and 2B from the precursor we share with Pan, which, in common with the other apes all seem to have 48 chromosomes, it would seem that your question is ill posed.

    • Kate says:

      “I love their aqueducts.”

      They built a mile long bridge across the Danube to get the Dacians.

      It’s been a weekend of stone circles. Wallander had a picnic in one and the Dacians certainly knew how to build one.

      I went to Romania in 2003 and the Professor I worked with was surprised (and maybe offended) that I hadn’t heard of Dacians. And look at me now! Nope, still don’t know who planted the megaliths; was it WHG, EEF, ANE or a combination?

  57. IC says:

    “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
    Shakespeare quote

    This is another insight about idiocracy of ideology and religion. If you find some people going around judging other as good or evil, you know you are dealing with bunch of idiots (from both left and right).

    Beauty is in the eyes of beholder. The same concept. When you believe other share the exactly same sense of beauty like you, well, it is bad sign of mental ability.

    Science (math) is fact without moral judgment.

    • IC says:

      Mental ability is fact which can be estimated roughly through educational achievement, tests, or IQ test. At current scientific and tech level, mental ability can not be measured precisely yet.

      Subjective evaluation of mental ability is very questionable, especially self subjective perception. Idiots always have inflated self evaluation.

      Dunning kruger effect

  58. sprfls says:

    Whom exactly are we talking about here? Experimental academic psychologists or practicing clinical psychologists? I can’t speak to the latter, but regarding the former I believe you are too harsh in your castigation.

    In fact there’s been lots of useful work in experimental psychology since the 50s. You deny this?Meanwhile Freud isn’t even discussed in psychology departments today, so why beat up on him? Obviously he can’t be the problem. Rather, I believe it’s

    a) extreme political correctness causing a trepidation to look into obvious but “unpleasant” answers
    b) pushing back on behavioral genetics, which is largely still caused by a.

    Psychology has lots to offer. I’m not saying it’s math or physics or whatever, but done right it’s an important discipline. Of course your conclusion regarding intellectuals remains true. Who’d want to stick their neck out and say anything “controversial” these days, no matter how obviously true? The freakin president of freakin Harvard has to profusely apologize for merely suggesting that slight biological sex differences might be the cause of male overrepresentation in the hard sciences. Ha!

    How we got here I don’t know, but it’s a sad world we’re in for sure. I mean, why would any smart kid today, no matter how intellectually inquisitive, deal with this academia bullshit when you can suck it up, hit up Wall St. or Silicon Valley, keep your mouth shut, and laugh/cry all the way to the bank?

    • L says:

      Agreed. There is a lot of practical psychology going on that could be useful. I still remember participating as a guinea pig in a psychology experiment and thought the experimenters were fairly bright and the experiment practical. I think if you pushed a professional research psychologist hard enough, they would tell you the facts about iq studies and the truth about things like intelligence. However, any sort of acknowledgement on their part would jeopardize their career and livelihood.

      Going back to your point, political correctness inhibits the field much as in every other social science.

  59. Cracker1 says:

    What we need is for intellectuals to come up with some ideas that will work. We peons can copy and build on those ideas. As it has always been.

  60. Curle says:

    Do you know if Freudian saturation in the US was due, at least in part, to folks escaping Mr. Hitler as was the arrival of the horrible communist Bauhaus architects so mercilessly pummeled by Tom Wolfe in From Our House to Bauhaus? Nobody deserves oppression, but those who are politically oppressed aren’t always the greatest addition to a society.

  61. sabril says:

    How far would material science and civil engineering have gotten if it were politically unacceptable to publicly observe that steel is stronger than wood?

  62. panjoomby says:

    freud was the joseph smith of psychology.

    sadly, psychs get trained in “history & systems” which means wasting time on Mesmer, Freud, Wundt, Liepzieg Germany, & the usual gang of idiots.

    the good parts of psychology run against the grain of psychology’s environmentalist ideology, so they get hidden under a rug.

    we (psychologists) measure certain things very, very accurately (general ability, verbal ability, quantitative ability, spatial ability, less g-loaded relatively independent measures, etc.)
    but the inaccurate stuff is all the rage – “emotional intelligence,” “creativity” etc.
    the silly parts of psychology seem to get more media attention. twas ever thus, i suppose.

  63. melendwyr says:

    “Your breathing is now on manual control.”

  64. Steven C. says:

    Ever see Woody Allen in “Sleeper”? When he discovers he has been brought back to life after two centuries; he comments that he was seeing a therapist twice a week, who was a strict Freudian, and if he hadn’t been frozen his therapist might have cured him by now.

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