Monday, June 17, 2019

The Reign of Pseudoscience

The old saying tells us never to say never. It ought to add, never say always. Unless you can claim some expertise in a field, do not make oracular extremist pronouncements. Do not explain that psychological phenomena are all frauds and hoaxes. Some are. Some are not. One size does not fit all.

Kevin Williamson becomes overly enthusiastic about his understanding of human psychology and makes a series of pronouncements, most of which contain some truths. Others he exaggerates for rhetorical effect.

Thus, his argument, one with which we tend to accept, falls afoul of rhetorical hyperbole. To say that recovered memory syndrome is largely an imprecise guide to the past seems to contradict the fact that those who have been induced into remembering something that did not happen really believe that it did happen. But if they really believe that it happened, haven’t they been brainwashed? If you don’t like the word, you might say that they really believe that they are remembering something real.

In psychiatry such beliefs are called delusional because the individual who believes them really believes that they did happen. A psychotic who hears voices telling him to jump off a bridge really believes that God is speaking to him. He takes his command hallucinations to be real and obeys them unthinkingly. He is not kidding. He is not trying to evade responsibility. The phenomenon exists.

Fair enough, the 1980s saw a rash of witch hunts attacking nursery school teachers, The teachers were prosecuted. Many of them were sent to jail. The evidence introduced into court was often planted in the minds of young children by unscrupulous therapists. If the children really believed that they had, for instance, been impaled on a carving knife, this, despite the absence of corroborating evidence, might we not also say that they had been brainwashed. Or better, that their psycho therapists had manipulated them into believing, beyond any doubt, that the injuries had really happened. That courts came to accept this testimony as gospel truth tells us a great deal about the way that the psycho professions and the courts conspire to produce the right results… but it does not tell us that the children were not brainwashed.

Surely, I happily embrace Williamson’s larger point, namely that many of the theories explaining that the devil made him do it are really ways to dodge responsibility. But, this does not obviate the fact that our criminal justice system, presumably based on the Common Law, holds a  madness exception, namely that someone who does not know the difference between right and wrong cannot be held criminally liable, by reason of insanity.

The problem is not that some of these issues exist, but that rhetorical flourishes, to the effect that there is no such thing as… whatever… do a gross injustice to the argument.

As for Williamson’s approach, here is an opening salvo:

Brainwashing, as it is currently understood in the popular culture, is a literary and cinematic device that has made its way into the global imagination as though it were a real thing. It fills the same mythological role once played by demonic possession — a way of explaining how it is that someone apparently has become utterly unlike himself for no obvious reason.

How the concept has been propagated in the culture is one thing. That many psychiatrists studied the victims of brainwashing and concluded that it was real is quite another. Williamson should have consulted Robert Jay Lifton’s book: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

At a time when young people are being subjected to non-stop indoctrination it is not quite right to say that brainwashing, or thought reform, does not exist.

Williamson is on firmer ground when he goes out after recovered memory syndrome and multiple personality disorders. Obviously, the two are not the same, though people who have multiple personality disorders do offer up recovered memories. One suspects that such patients are suffering from a form of hysteria, of histrionic personality disorder:

But there are many imaginary things that have played a large and important role in our culture and politics. There is no such thing as a “recovered memory,” but people have been put in prison on “recovered memory” evidence. There is no such thing as “multiple-personality disorder,” but many people believe there is, thanks to the popular film based on the 1973 book Sybil, written by the psychiatrist Cornelia B. Wilbur and journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, much of which was fabricated. The term “multiple personality disorder” is no longer used, and there is no psychiatric consensus about whether the rebranded “disassociative identity disorder” exists. Some psychiatrists believe that it is therapeutically induced, and that some patients are especially susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. The problem with that theory is that hypnosis does not exist, either. There is no scientific evidence that a hypnotic state exists. To the extent that the word “hypnosis” refers to an actual phenomenon, it is simply role-playing.

One appreciates that Williamson, lacking any semblance of scientific training or experience in the therapy world declares that hypnosis does not exist… but we would appreciate less bloviating and more evidence.

As for Williamson’s analysis of Freud, we cannot help but agree, since we have said as much ourselves:

Much of the cultural legacy of Sigmund Freud is pure mythology, based on pseudoscience and fraud. There were no Satanic sex-abuse cults infiltrating the nation’s daycares back in the Reagan era, but people went to prison over it, enabled in part by “recovered memories.” The typical emotional problem associated with trauma is not the suppression of memory or experience but the inability to cease thinking about the trauma and move on.

We have also made the last point, in our book, The Last Psychoanalyst. Apparently, Williamson is not familiar with it, otherwise he would have mentioned it. As I noted, the problem with trauma is not the inability to remember it, as Freud posited, but the inability to forget.


trigger warning said...

Williamson is an expert on all topics - at least according to Williamson, the expert on Williamsonian expertise.

IMO, his "bloviating", as SS correctly diagnoses it, can be safely ignored.

Sam L. said...

He's still a writer for National Review. (I gave up on it 3 years ago.)