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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 22, No. 10. September 14, 1959

Is Psychology Good Science?

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Is Psychology Good Science?

Goethe: "There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action." O'Conner: "Only hypocrites and neurotics take Psychology seriously."

Psychology is not a science, and the reason that it is not a science is psychologists are not scientists.

This is reflected in its history, which shows no teleology, no "creative evolution," as every other science has. But unfortunately there are far too many people today—pillars of society—who do not understand psychology and are therefore afraid of it, and this, it seems, is just the situation the psychologists desire.

The public is seduced by their patronising manner, by their engineered metality, by their ten-thousand shibboleths, and their prattling "well-adjusted" minds.

Under their direction people pursue "real" living, against public and family shams; altruism is deplored because "subconsciously" the motive may be (and therefore, is) selfish, and all the while an eccentric figure with a goatee looks over our shoulders and in the succulence of wet jams, describes to us the terrible and deep things that lie dormant in the human psyche.

Long words by the gross are churned out by the universities, school-children are branded with I.Q. numbers stigmatizing them for life, brains are dissected into a thousand pieces, pigeons peck endlessly at coloured discs, white rats gallop down endless corridors, sentences stick out of mouths like splinters of shattered granite, steam escaping, taps dripping—the emotional flow has become staccato.

An explosion would be a relief, but Psychology is not going to explode into a world of new ideas—it is going to solidify into a formalistic dogma.

There is only one decision any honest psychologist can make at this stage, and that is to screw up the old ideas, put a line through all the jargon, head up a clean sheet, and start again.

However, in order to cure the patient, and in this case the doctor, we must first understand the disease, and this article is an endeavour in that direction.


It is hard to know where to start, perhaps the most obvious flaws (especially with the lecturers at Victoria) occur in the mathematical field; graphs are drawn without axes ("this is learning," says the lecturer and sloshes a great curve of white across the blackboard) or, if that luxury is allowed, they are very rarely labelled!

More generally, we may assert no facet of personality can be assessed quantitatively, for reasons that will appear later. But does this worry the psychologist ?—not a bit.

In order to introduce "mathematical accuracy" into his results, he simply rates them on seven-point or 100-point scales.

(One lecturer at Victoria, who shall be nameless, thought that marking essays out of 10 was unrealistic. His solution: the essays were marked A, B, C, D, E, and each letter was extended to plus or minus—A minus distinct from B plus—giving in effect a 15-point scale).

It may be objected that the exact sciences also use this idea (e.g. cloud-cover is rated on an eight-point scale) but we cannot permit the analogy since a physicist's ratings may always be verified if required, albeit in a more laborious way, but anything in the way of verification of strictly subjective ratings such as maturity or intelligence using another, more general system, is impossible.

We cannot even permit definitions using statistics, e.g. "intelligence"—"A general factor entering all abilities", because (a) The relative ability of the candidate depends on the particular test used to measure that ability, and (b) The units of abilities (i.e. the "spreads" in frequency vs. ability curves) are completely arbitrary.

No Justification

There is not even justification for saying psychological factors fall into normal curves—the tests are merely "cooked" in such a way that the results fall into this (assumed) pattern.

Of course even if we were able to define and assess psychological qualities using statistics, there would still be the utterly insurmountable task of interpreting our numbers in a meaningful way. So the effort to quantify consciousness is a dismal failure.

Let us analyse next a few typical quotations from psychological text books.

In one of R. B. Cattell's books ("Introduction to Personality Study") we have the following assertion : "The genius lives in a state of prolonged adolescence"—a sufficiently vague statement to seem intelligent to the psychologists.

Now relying on the everyday meanings of the words in this sentence, we may be prepared to grant its truth—for the moment that is, but of course we expect the author to justify the comparison later, within a rigorous discussion of terms used and experimental details.

Absentmindedly, Cattell omits any discussion of this nature, and instead hastens on to other equally vague and ill-founded statements.

Another is: "Psychologists are fairly well agreed that the subconscious exists"—by all the Gods! What sort of proof is this? Did they take a show of hands, and prove it by statistics? Note, by the way, the term "fairly well" inserted to give the statement an air of impartiality. This is more than pulling the wool over our eyes, it's pulling the whole sheep over!

Or consider the view of Skinner, that inner states are not relevant to the true study of Psychology—behaviour, and "since mental events are asserted to lack the dimensions of physical science, we have an additional reason for rejecting them."

Are human beings to be compared to electronic computors?—the psychologist feeding in punched cards stamped with "conflictsituation", "drive involvement", "habit," etc. at one end, and then dashing as fast as he can to the other, where the cards emanate with "hate" or "depression" or "happiness" on them.

In sooth! Can we dismiss our subjectivity, our whole life, by cryptic phrases such as "is irrelevant to"? (I give my word to the reader that Mr Skinner's name will not be mentioned again in this article.)

Don't Read

We don't even have to read the texts—look at the chapter headings: "What is Schizophrenia?" asks one. There is only one possible answer; schizophrenia is what you define it to be.

And there are the never-ending conflicting theories. The conflicts are usually hard to perceive since the theories themselves are never stated explicitly and are wrapped up in a welter of hastily-added qualifying phrases.

Here are five examples:
1.The theories that dreams are and are not expressions of wish fulfillments. (An example of an ad hoc tag, in in favour of the first theory, would be: "If the dream is clearly not a wsih-fulfillment e.g. starving men dreaming of empty tables, then "reaction-formation" has set in.")
2."Conditioning applied to drives leads to their better functioning." So much for childhood traumata as causes of neuroses.
3."Memorizing is an active process requiring that we attend and intend,"—this knocks the "latent learning" theory on the head.
4.The farcical "cafeteria feeding" theories, in which protagonists on both sides of the fence claim to have proved their case experimentally. (For example of nullification of the principle see "Adv. of Science" Vol. XIII No. 52, p. 269.—When given the option, pregnant ewes chose a carbohydrate instead of protein diet, to the eventual detriment of their offspring.)
5.Ambiguous classification theories such as "Mental illness may be divided into two main divisions—schizophrenia and manic depression" or "Personalities show two distinct types—introverts and extroverts."

These theories are the weakest. Suppose an introvert shows extrovert behaviour, this is said to confirm the theory because introverts are "subconsciously" extroverts. In fact any behaviour can be satisfactorily explained by ascribing the behaviour to a conscious or subconscious cause!

And what is the reaction of the lecturers to all this? They simply put into effect "Operation Eclectikos" and set the students an essay on the topic: "Outline the various theories associated with ..."


What a masterpiece of confused thinking! Do they think that by doing this, the conflicts are thereby resolved? In one lecture the speaker whispered something about "the flaw in Eysenck's argument" (re Psychiatry being of proven value), immediately all the students pricked up their ears, but the speaker had said all he wanted to say, and an explanation of "the flaw" if it existed was not given.

If questioned in a tutorial the usual reaction is for the lecturer to say: "Well, you'll understand better when you do stage II (or stage III if you're already doing that)—I don't think the sceptics ever reach honours."

And the jargon, are you aware of the thousands of ill-defined words floating around the precincts of room C2. Words are tossed on the lecture-bench, cold and cooked like a leg of cold mutton. "The male shadow", the "female anima", and the "occult mandala"—new myths and symbols to replace those that have been destroyed. Here is a little test you can try on the next psychologist you meet: demand that he define "mental disease" and then listen very carefully to his reply.

The answer is inevitably in the form of a circular definition! If pressed he will refer you to books on the subject. There are grounds indeed for hoping that, with a little luck, Psychology will talk itself to death.

The trouble is, one sees such a titanic bulk of stupidity in this department, that one begins to suspect oneself of paranoia, but to admit that would be the end of all intellectual integrity.

So why is it that so many students are fooled by the subject? Is it lack of critical ability on their part or are they taken in by the apparent power of the subject; its ability to force an interpertation on all situations?

The real reason I think, lies in a particularly insidious technique

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which has crept into the lecturing, and this is what it is: the lecturer first mentions some results connected with a concrete study such as physiology or statistics, and then, with the dexterity of a card sharp, shifts to the psychological idea he wishes to present, hoping that the precision which the student associates with the other study will be transferred to that of his own.

Examples: the introduction of chemical terms such as "acetylcholine" in a discussion on anger; or, in some notes on perceptual learning, we have a preliminary screed on electronic analogue computers.

The Cause

All these arguments turn our attention, inevitably, to the secret intentions of the psychologists themselves. What sort of pattern do they form?

Firstly, it seems, they enjoy shocking people; they are iconoclasts, and they have the courage of one. An iconoclast, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is a person who goes round breaking statues. The danger is, as Cocteau pointed out, that such people risk becoming statues themselves.

Psychologists cannot accept the world and adopt all sorts of emotional and intellectual subterfuges to rationalise their way out of this. Their handling of situations at a distance by words reflects their lack of capacity for emotional involvement.

What neater way of solving the problem than instituting themselves (in the manner of Dr. Caligari) in a department concerned with mental health? (And not without a certain grandeur of self-sacrifice on the part of the martyr.) Who would, after all, suspect the High-Priests of being athiests?

To borrow a term from J-P. Sartre, psychologists are not "engages". They are afraid of their own subjectivity—desperately on the outside of a world they'd give their world to enter. One can only laugh at their attempts to drag the wonders of Art and Science into the Procrustean bed of their narrow system; at their efforts to nail down the soul of mankind, if not the soul of the soul, and the meaning of meaning of meaning

... I ask you: could any psychologist answer the desperate outcry of Judas?—"Why did I have to be Judas?" or that of Christ, the most heart-breaking words ever uttered: "My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?"

Future Prospects

And this brings us to the whole point; the psychologist wants it both ways: he arrogates the right to explore the mysteries of consciousness to himself (and even says that all other studies are particular branches of his own), and at the same time he tries to make the exploration a scientific one. The psychologist wants to be able to interpret the paintings of William Blake and Paul Klee with the same surety that he knows the extinction-of-learning curves for Chimpanzees.

Unfortunately this is an irremediable conflict of aims, and here is the reason: The beginning of all Philosophies is the realisation (If you're a science student) or postulation (if you're an arts student) of an external world corresponding to that of our sense perceptions.

But the mere postulation of this external world does not explain what it was supposed to explain, namely the fact that consciousness finds itself placed in such a world. The external and internal worlds are distinguished by our identity with the latter, so that it is absurd to try and investigate ourselves by the same methods that we investigate objects.

This has been the method of Psychology up till now, and the result has only been an embarrassing and grotesque aping of human nature. The only legitimate methods are indirect ones; such as exploring the relation between Cybernetics and Neurology, and that between mathematical structure (which is, after all, a direct product of consciousness) and the physical model.

So there you have the complete picture: seven-point scales, circular definitions, conflicting statements, unscientific experiments, theories which leak like a sieve, rubber brains, and neo-impressionist inkblots, all juxtaposed into the spurious unity of "Psychology." (Perhaps "Psychologism" would have been more appropriate.)

In sum, I accuse the psychologist of three crimes. I accuse him of taking advantage of his position to the end of his own prestige. I accuse him of having an ineradicable almost sublime contempt for the truth. And, most seriously of all, I accuse him of mixing Art and Science.

M. Heine.