Hello I would like to reach into your head and tear out the myths that you believe about my beloved field
This essay could easily have been a lot more defensive, and I appreciate the nuanced approach of attempting to reckon with the actual situation, rather than presenting a fantastical vision of scientific research. Something that often frustrates me is when people think theories accurately describe reality just because they were uttered by a scientist and peer-reviewed. Psychology, like all fields of science, is an attempt to build useful models with which we can explain or predict certain events and situations. The models are meant to resemble and replicate reality as much as possible, but it is important, I think, to never confuse the model with reality itself!
As a geographer, I can empathize with having my science dismissed. It's hard to explain how important the field of geography is to the uninitiated, because it basically treats all the other sciences like a goodie grab-bag and says "but let's analyze it spatially." Someone I know once asked me "Isn't geography just non-scientific geology?" It is most definitely not. Geography explains the interconnectedness between geology and meteorology and biology and ocean mechanics and crisis management and sociology and politics and yes, psychology. After all, the World Population Review (a bunch of geographers) ranks countries by happiness. And once we know where people are happier, then we can look into why people in different places might be happier, further enriching and informing psychology...
I love geography.
I understand saying we live in the Dark Ages (my dad had to have his jaw broken and re-set to help his TMJ, and a chiropractor once said that if I wanted to aggressively treat my mild scoliosis they could strap me to a table and slowly pull me in two different directions). But I think simultaneously we are also experiencing some enlightenment. Personal boundaries and bodily autonomy have really come into the popular conscious in a way that they weren't, even as recently as when I was a kid. And I think that advancement was built on some pretty big stones in the field of psychology. In other words, we don't know everything, but I think we've learned some pretty nice pieces. Some of these rocks are pretty solid and well-formed.
Thank you! This newsletter is the one I clicked the fastest when it appears in my inbox. Your fantastic writing and thinking might have something to do with it!
Yup, you caught me, I DID think science was a castle. I also DID think that we weren’t in the Dark Ages, to some degree; I think we have political and economic forces to blame, in part, for that: that scientists are incentivized to make their work seem amazingly NOT Dark Agey in order to continue to get funding and pull those levers.
I will say something about the Prometheus myth of science rubs me the wrong way, and I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the assumption that resistance always marks the struggle for useful knowledge? I don’t think the universe always resists you in the quest for knowledge, scientific or otherwise. I think some of that resistance is naturalized or normalized by the methods we have culturally decided produce legitimate knowledge. But I have a hunch that a wider, culturally inclusive approach may connect us with other forms of knowledge gathering and verification that don’t feel so… bad or evil. Just a hunch!
Ummm also I’m speaking as an ethnographer, and I fucking love my job, but also the world is full of scientists who dismiss the work I do as “folk psychology” ;) But do I feel like I’m stealing fire? Maybe when I find something thrilling. Not because I feel like the universe, or nature, or other people, are trying to kill me.
Ok see you in two weeks!
So, I agree that many findings are unimportant. That said, aren’t there major theories that have gotten a lot of traction but might be oversold? And that does matter, right? For instance, individuals and organizations have put lots of time and even money into learning/teaching about grit and mindfulness based on experiments by people like Mischel and Langer. To what degree have those studies held up? And if their haven’t, to what degree have they stopped showing up in self-help books and K-12 curricula and the like?
Terrific discussion, but it also needs to be said: this is a f*cking masterpiece just from a pure writing perspective as well. 👏👏👏
Psychology has no Archimedean point. The subject and object are one in the same. It is the only science where this is the case. Maybe if we reintroduced soul back into it we would fare better, I don't know.
Love it Adam (and Kyle)
I should have specified that it is depth psychology that I am referring to. I remember reading a book titled "We've Had a 100 Years of Psychotherapy---and the World's Getting Worse." It's a conversion between James Hillman and Michael Ventura. Good read.
Seems like you’ve provided a case for why not only is “all psychology like made up and fake” but actually it is largely unimportant, uncritical to scientific knowledge, advanced by self-interested researchers, and we are in the dark ages in some sense. Rather than refuting what Kyle has said, it seems like you’ve mostly provided more reasons to be critical of the profession. Although this doesn’t seem to be the intention, because you seem critical of “Kyle.” I’m not sure I understand.
While we have limited knowledge about certain areas, I would much rather be depressed in the present where we know about SSRIs and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I would much rather live in an era with antibiotics and the ability to do organ transplants. I think the dark ages argument is overstated.
I (a psychologist) was once married to a physicist. When he would mock the scientific credibility of psych, I would remind him that we are studying things that are FAR more complex than physics has managed so far.
I think we're just past the 'alchemy' phase, in psych. Still lots of garbage out there, but some important and useful info.
BTW, some of the useless/unimportant studies actually are useful in a different way; I truly don't care whether holding a pen in your teeth or your lips makes you find a joke funnier/less funny. But I do care about whether our physical expression of emotion can in turn influence the emotion we feel, in a bit of a feedback loop. And I would like to disprove the theory that emotion is just our body's reaction to thoughts.
I recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in Applied Psychology and spent my last semester exploring the prevalence of psychological misconceptions (we use 10% of our brains, learning styles are legit, memory works like a camera, listening to Mozart increases intelligence, etc) in students of psychology. My literature review several times led me back to the replication crisis and it really made me feel helpless about the state of things (finding in my study that Indian students, just like those in the West, believed in a lot of the misconceptions didn't help).
Currently, while waiting for my post-grad to start, I’m reading research on how we learn best. I keep encountering study tips (which include rereading, highlighting, and stuff that’s been shown not be as effective as retrieval, spaced repetition, etc.) on platforms with large audiences (and on blogs/accounts run by teachers/psychology students). That makes me even more helpless.
It’s because for a long time, a part of me, thanks to my death anxiety and climate anxiety, has made me feel like I have to somehow fix all problems in the world in the limited time I have on this world. And because that’s an impossible thing to do, I don't do anything at all because all of this makes me think, “would it make even the littlest dent?”
I was, in fact, going through another phase of “people don’t know that a lot of what they know about psychology is wrong and isn’t backed by evidence and someone needs to tell them what does work but this applies to a lot of information where do I even begin” when I received this essay in my email. It was the very thing I needed to read at this point. You’ve put forward considerations that would have never occurred to me. And they’ve really helped. I feel optimistic, and that sense of doom and helplessness is gone–until something else triggers another such phase again, at least.
But I have hope now, and I really needed that. Thank you for writing this.
Great writing! The best generic idea I have about psychology is that every human being always makes the best available decision at all situations; the difference between human beings is just ability to understands the available facts and ability to keep enough data in working memory; the less facts you can handle, the worse decisions you make.
I have crazy mood swings (undiagnosed bipolar perhaps -- my brother is clinically diagnosed and I am quite similar symptomatically), and it always strikes me how differently I react to the same piece of writing under different moods. This piece resonated a lot with me when I was feeling black; rereading it right now when I'm a lot more positive it feels -- off, like I'm seeing the black version of myself from the outside (albeit a lot more articulate and knowledgeable). Made me a bit sad. Current me loves Our World in Data and can't get enough of their main theme; black me would've pushed it away in disgust for their cloying positivity and preferred pieces like this instead.
Our world is situational psychology, like the Stanford experiment. Subjects are either cases or psychologists, one serving as inmate, the other, corrections officer. Psychology has caused the mental healthcare crisis of our day, algorithmically, in tandem with big tech, social media, private industry and world governments. We will not have enough critical minerals left soon to produce meds. What will you do then? When the crazies figured out what I already have? Gaslight us more?
Good article. But it would be stronger if it didn’t accept the biased, scientistic prejudice that ESP is so absurd an idea that a study providing evidence that it exists is proof of something going wrong. There’s a lot of strong evidence supporting the existence of ESP, and as you yourself admit, we are still living in the dark ages of science. Don’t be so certain our current materialistic science has absolutely delineated the borders of what is thinkable and what is absurd.
Hi. Very interesting discussion. Do you know this quotation?
"Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks: but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house” (Henri Poincaré)
I don’t have a sub stack of my own ;-) but I dusted off an old blog post you might be interested in.