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Selected Replies to "The Myth of Mental Illness"

Selected reader responses will be posted here.
All names and some identifying details will be withheld.
The visitors' prose and grammar is in all cases uncorrected.

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It's Real I | It's Real II | It's Real III | Is it Science? | The Role of Theory I | The Role of Theory II | Science: Stories and Tricks I | Science: Stories and Tricks II | Metaphysics I | Metaphysics II | Behaviorism | The Null Hypothesis I | The Null Hypothesis II | Definition of Science I | Definition of Science II

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It's Real I
I'm a medical writer who writes about mental health. One of the great quandaries for people with mental illness is where to get help. Psychiatrists have become little more than drug dispensers and research shows that for many people, drugs are not enough to get better (let alone well), whether their problem is depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and a host of other conditions. Some sort of interaction with a caring and attentive human seems to be required. Or a sympathetic friend, or a bartender, or a dog, or a cat. All show the same statistics for improvement, and in controlled studies, none can be systematically shown to be superior. According to your arguments, the drive towards evidence-based treatments in psychology is a hopeless effort because psychology is not a science. Am I reading you wrong? No, that's correct, and it is the conclusion of the few scientists in the field. It is not my conclusion, it is my position, drawn from the conclusions of such people as the present director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), and the past president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

If you will read my recent article and its bibliography, you will understand that the status of psychology is not someone's opinion, but the result of careful study by people who have every reason to discover that it is a science — but cannot.
So, if one cannot distinguish the effectiveness of treatments based on research, what do you suggest for people with mental illness who are desperately seeking help? How about those who desperately need astrology to be a science? What shall we do for them? How about those who desperately need revealed religion to be a literal truth? What shall we do for them? Shall we lie, or shall we tell the truth?

Because psychology cannot prove its claims scientifically, because it cannot explain what it describes, it is indistinguishable from astrology. And until there is a science-based mental health discipline, there can only be empty promises and exploitation of clients.

My article makes the point that eventually all "mental illnesses" will be resolved into biological conditions with psychological symptoms, some treatable, some not. But in the meantime talk therapy, psychiatry and clinical psychology, will remain on a par with astrology and fortunetelling. It is a simple matter of educating people to this fact.
It's Real II
I understand your points but I think you're being overly cynical about the role of psychotherapy, especially when you equate it with astrology or fortune-telling. If seismology were on a par with psychotherapy, a seismologist would say, "Sometimes the ground shakes, sometimes it doesn't, and we don't know why." If oncology were on a par with psychotherapy, an oncologist would say, "Get this cancer patient a softer pillow — maybe that will help, but we don't know why."

I am perpetually astonished at the total ignorance of science among the advocates of these mental fields — an ignorance only equaled by the ignorance of the practitioners.
There is plenty of evidence to show it improves conditions like depression, especially when combined with antidepressants. This is perfect nonsense. There is no such scientific evidence, which is why mental health professionals, including the present directory of NIMH, flatly reject the claims made for psychotherapy. Think I am making this up? Read this article by NIMH director Insel.

A quote from the above-linked article: "From the scientific standpoint, it is difficult to find a precedent in medicine for what is beginning to happen in psychiatry. The intellectual basis of this field is shifting from one discipline, based on subjective 'mental' phenomena, to another, neuroscience. Indeed, today’s developing science-based understanding of mental illness very likely will revolutionize prevention and treatment and bring real and lasting relief to millions of people worldwide."

The above is a diplomatic way of saying, "I'ts time to change directions and look for something that might actually work."

As to your claim, it has has been specifically and totally falsified in many recent studies. One example is "The effectiveness of psychotherapy". A quote: "... no specific modality of psychotherapy did better than any other for any disorder; psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers did not differ in their effectiveness as treaters; and all did better than marriage counselors and long-term family doctoring." This means these treatments cannot be distinguished from the Placebo Effect.

Another similar study — Establishing Specificity in Psychotherapy Scientifically: Design and Evidence Issues — came to this conclusion: "... the uniform efficacy of psychotherapeutic treatments with adults does not provide any evidence that the null hypothesis is false." This scientific jargon means the study's result cannot be reliably distinguished from a chance outcome, or an outcome resulting from unevaluated causes.

Someone can claim that shaking a dried gourd over a cancer patient works, if combined with surgery and chemotherapy. This is identical to the claims often made about psychotherapy.

Until you have read "Manufacturing Depression" by psychotherapist Gary Greenberg, you don't have the right to claim to be informed on this topic.
My intention is not to argue that with you, just to understand more where you are coming from. This is not about where I am coming from, this is about science. To hold the views you do, you simply cannot have read any of the present professional literature, and you don't have sufficient training in science to understand why such knowledge is essential.

You also clearly didn't bother to read my article or its extensive bibliography. As a result, your conclusions are uttely uninformed.
It's Real III
Thanks for your response. It's pretty much what I expected and perfectly illustrates the positivistic view of science that so poorly fits with psychology and promotes a mindless neuroscience ...
  • The above is remarkably close to the objection commonly made by religious fundamentalists against science, who say they want to "... replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."
  • Yes, I have a deplorable, unfortunate attachment to truth and evidence, completely out of touch with modern psychology. As does the director of NIMH, the past president of the APA, and hundreds of other serious science professionals.
If you care to explore the views of less extreme scientists ... Do you really think you can change a scientific outcome by selecting different scientists? This only works in politics and religion. Science is steered, not by the opinions of scientists, but by evidence.

The only reason you think science is steered by opinion, by something resembling politics, is because you are utterly science-clueless.

In science, evidence means everything, reputation means nothing. The greatest amount of scientific eminence is trumped by the smallest amount of scientific evidence.
... who are exploring how neuroscience can be combined with psychology ... Yes — people who are trying to keep neuroscience from splitting off from psychology, just like those who tried to keep astronomy from splitting off from astrology. The only difference between astronomy and astrology is that astronomers pay attention to evidence and falsifiability and abandon worthless beliefs when they fail the evidence test. This is the same barrier that separates neuroscience and psychology. ... that only supports your one-sided view. That would be the "one-sided view" of the National Institutes of Mental Health. That would be the "one-sided view" of the American Psychological Association, the latter much to the displeasure of many of its members. That would be the view steered by evidence. The fact that you think this is an issue of opinion is identical to the fact that you think psychology has testable, faisifiable scientific content. I have no time to discuss this with you further, but your comments have been enlightening. Unfortunately, your insulting language tells me you are really not interested in discussion, but only in polemic. Translation: "I successfully managed to avoid either accessing the numerous sources of evidence you provided, or imagining a world in which evidence transcends all other issues." Sadly noted.

I have not insulted you — that you are science-clueless is an objective fact, and it is remediable. If I said you could stand to learn how to drive a car before entering a road race, would you feel insulted?

Editorial Comment: This correspondent suffers from a common misconception about science — that one can get whatever result one wants by choosing the right scientist. But if scientists cannot agree on the meaning of experimental results, it's not science, it's belief. This is Fact One about science, without which one cannot begin discussing issues with a scientific dimension.
Is it Science?
I came across your article this past evening and spent a good chunk of time not only reading the article but numerous posted replies.

As a high school senior intending to go into the field of psychology after I graduate, I'm a little confused as to where you found your evidence to back up your arguments.
Okay, fair enough:

  • Here is what the present director of the National Institutes of Mental Health had to say about this issue, in a recent issue of Scientific American:

    "From the scientific standpoint, it is difficult to find a precedent in medicine for what is beginning to happen in psychiatry. The intellectual basis of this field is shifting from one discipline, based on subjective 'mental' phenomena, to another, neuroscience. Indeed, today’s developing science-based understanding of mental illness very likely will revolutionize prevention and treatment and bring real and lasting relief to millions of people worldwide."

    The short version: "Psychology is not a science and there is no evidence that it helps people."

    Here is a link to the article where the director put forth his evidence:

    Faulty Circuits (Scientific American)

  • Here is what the past president of the American Psychological Association had to say about this issue:

    "Some APA members have asked me why I have chosen to sponsor an APA Presidential Initiative on Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) in Psychology, expressing fears that the results might be used against psychologists by managed-care companies and malpractice lawyers ... psychology needs to define EBP in psychology or it will be defined for us. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines."

    The short version: "Psychology is not a science and if it doesn't start paying attention to evidence, it will disappear."

    Here is a link to the article where the APA president put forth his evidence:

    http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb05/pc.html

  • Here is a quote from a scientific article entitled "The effectiveness of psychotherapy": "... no specific modality of psychotherapy did better than any other for any disorder; psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers did not differ in their effectiveness as treaters; and all did better than marriage counselors and long-term family doctoring."

    The short version: "Nothing works better than anything else, nothing can be distinguished from a talk with a friend or a bartender, and there is not one shred of scientific evidence to support current psychological practice."

    Here is a link to the article:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8561380

  • Here is quote from a more technical scientific article: "... the uniform efficacy of psychotherapeutic treatments with adults does not provide any evidence that the null hypothesis is false." This is scientific jargon that means "there is no reliable scientific evidence that psychology means anything at all."

    Here is a link to the article:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1093/clipsy.bpi025/abstract
Now, I could go on for hours, linking to thousands of scientific articles, all of which say that psychology is not a science and that no one can produce scientific evidence that talk therapy actually does anything.

What you don't realize is that the burden of evidence is not mine to prove that psychology is not a science, the burden of evidence belongs to psychology to prove that it is, and this is a burden that psychology cannot meet.

The reason for my article is not to prove that psychology is not a science — that is already a well-established fact among scientists — the purpose of the article is to make this fact available to people who don't know anything about science.
Have you ever taken any courses in the field of psychology? I've heard variations on this question a thousand times. When Albert Einstein published his first Relativity article, he didn't have a degree. Do you know why he was published in a prestigious science journal, even though he was just a patent clerk? Because those who read his paper understood science.

Let's say you're asked to serve on a jury in a murder trial. Imagine that you object, saying "I'm not qualified to judge because I'm not a murderer"? But you can't say that — you don't need to be a murderer to judge a murderer, you only need to be able to evaluate forensic evidence. By the same token, you don't need to be a psychologist to judge psychology, you only need to be able to evaluate scientific evidence, and any properly educated person can do that.

Science is not about people and college degrees, it is about evidence. If you have the evidence, nothing else matters. If you don't have the evidence, nothing else matters. The greatest amount of scientific eminence is trumped by the smallest amount of scientific evidence.

On the general topic, here is a link to my Wikipedia page.
I guess what I'm most confused and upset about is your relation to psychology and both astrology and faith. When there's no evidence, that's all there is — faith and belief. I also believe this argument is stupid because psychology isn't a "hard" science but a social science. Science isn't ice cream. It doesn't have flavors. Something is either scientific or it isn't. "Social science" is a polite way to be able to use the word "science" without actually doing the hard part — the science.

Is Christian Science science? Why not? — it has the word "science" in its name. Isn't that enough?

How about Scientology? Is it a science? Doesn't it automatically become a science because it has a science-y sort of name? Or to become a science, would Scientologists have to craft and then defend scientific theories with evidence, in order to justify the label "science"? Yes? Then so does psychology.

This is not meant to criticize or argue, only to make you think. At your age, your decisions and choices will echo over a lifetime. Make good ones.
The Role of Theory I
If I understand your argument, you say a field of inquiry can only claim to be science if it has a central, unifying theory. Does your criterion imply that a narrow field of inquiry can be science even when a broader field that includes the narrower field is not? Newton developed a unifying theory of motion that was consistent with the data then available, so the study of motion would have counted as science. This isn't accurate. Newton (and, later, Galileo) described motion, but they didn't presume to explain it. There was no unifying theory to explain what these men described. For example, they asserted that objects continue in a given state of motion unless acted on by an external force, but neither went so far as to suggest a role for energy (uniform motion doesn't require energy, but changing the state of motion does). That would have been a first step away from description toward explanation, toward a scientific theory. Likewise what we now call thermodynamics could have been called science, because there was a unifying theory, of heat being a fluid called "caloric". Again, that is only a description, not an explanation, and even the description suffered from difficulties. It never rose to the status of testable theory. Yet because there was no theory that unified the study of heat and motion, it seems any field including both was not a science at the time. Does this then mean that a field of inquiry with a unifying theme could consist of subsets which each could claim to be a science, yet the whole thing would not be science if there is no theory to tie together the subsets? Yes, and I make this point in my articles. The presence of science within a field is not sufficient to confer scientific status to the field itself.

There's plenty of science in psychology. But until that science addresses psychological theories, and introduces the possibility of falsifying them (not presently true), the field is not scientific.

A field like psychology, where there is plenty of science but no central theories, is sort of a Tower of Babel, where everyone speaks but there is no shared language. Everyone publishes seemingly important results, but the results don't make any difference to the status of the field because the individual efforts don't address a nonexistent, unifying corpus of falsifiable theory.

Here's an example of a recent "important" psychology study result: You Might Already Know This ... (New York Times)

Daryl Bem is not simply a psychologist, he is an advocate for the position that ESP is real. He has been working for years to uncover evidence that people can predict the future, or transcend mortal limitations in any number of other ways.

Bem is right at home in psychology, where studies that don't meet one's expectations simply aren't published. All one need do is conduct study after study (as Bem has done) and publish only those that support the favored conclusion.

On the topic of whimsically choosing which outcomes to publish, are you aware that, in the rankings of published negative outcomes (a sign of a field's candor and integrity), psychology comes in dead last?

Given this atmosphere, imagine a series of ten studies, five of which show a small negative correlation with the expected outcome, and five of which show a small positive correlation. Guess which studies will be published. Then guess how severely this undermines the scientific standing of the field.

For balance, here is a critic's response to Bem's work, detailing the statistical difficulties that plague this kind study, and coincidentally making the same points I'm making here.

Other critics have deplored the decision to publish Bem's work in a prestigious journal, saying such dodgy work will undermine the field of psychology. I agree with the sentiment, but I doubt that it can hurt the field.
I would have been confident I got that right if it weren't for your reply in "Inappropriate Title I", where you write "no part of a field can be scientific in isolation". That seems to contradict my interpretation, but I don't know where I went wrong. I meant that, without a central corpus of falsifiable theory that defines the field, subfields, however scientific, cannot confer scientific status to the parent field.

If this were not true, my toy "scientific" astrology study would make astrology scientific by association. But it cannot do this, for the reason that it doesn't test astrology's theories (which was the point I was making).
I think there is also a question of how specific a theory needs to be to function as a unifying theory in practice. Tinbergen (1963) wrote that any explanation of behaviour must address four questions: what is its function, what mechanism produces the behaviour, how does the mechanism develop, and what is the evolutionary history? I divide Tinbergen's mechanism into two levels, Marr's algorithmic and implementational levels. With all respect, don't you see that this is everyday psychobabble? That it puts forth claims that cannot be realistically tested or falsified? Try to imagine how one would go about testing the questions Tinbergen poses.

If these questions became testable explanations, it would be different. Science is not in the questions we ask (important as they are), it is the explanations we put forth, and then dispassionately test.
I recently added a paper to my students' curriculum that proposes as a unifying theory of perception that it should be seen as statistical and causal inference. That idea is specific enough to serve as a unifying theory. It is an idea about the algorithm. Would you consider the study of perception to be a science? The problem with a "statistical and causal inference" is that it is a description, not an explanation. If I see someone fall over and die, I can describe his behavior in excruciating detail. But that's only a description, not an explanation — science requires explanations.

This is not a new idea — it was the conclusion Sigmund Koch came to in his six-volume magnum opus "Psychology: A Study Of a Science," published in 1963. Koch said, "The truth is that psychological statements which describe human behavior or which report results from tested research can be scientific. However, when there is a move from describing human behavior to explaining it there is also a move from science to opinion."

On that basis, Koch's conclusion is that psychology is not a science.
Although there is as much reason to believe that perception has evolved as anything else in biology, evolution doesn't take the role of a unifying theory. Of course it does! Evolution is a classic example of a testable, falsifiable scientific theory, a theory that doesn't only describe, but explains. It offers explanations that can be, and have been, rigorously tested.

I say that an organism cannot inherit acquired traits from its parents. The explanation is that genetic inheritance is the only inheritance. I have described, and I have explained, and further, my explanation can be tested (and it is tested, again and again).

It is important to add that a failed attempt to link evolutionary theory to psychology doesn't condemn evolution, it condemns psychology.
The link between function and algorithm is indirect, because each function can be carried out by several algorithms. Then each algorithm can be implemented in several different ways. Is this really how you talk in your field and/or in your classroom? Do you ever wonder what evidentiary basis exists for such pronouncements? I'm not saying there is no evidence, I am asking whether you have ever wonder that. I personally would never make the above claim unless and until I had gathered some experimental evidence. And if there were evidence, I would print the evidence, not my opinions.

And not just me — one person testing ten theories doesn't bear comparison to ten people testing one theory. But in psychology, not only is it rare for more than one person to rigorously test an idea, it is becoming increasingly rare for one person to do that.
Evolution acts both by selecting based on function, namely how well a behaviour fulfills functional requirements, and through algorithm and implementation, which determine the cost of fulfilling the function. Evolutionary history further constrains what algorithms and implementations are available for a particular species. That makes it difficult to make predictions specific enough to be tested. Therefore, although evolution should act as the unifying theory for perception, in practice it doesn't. From a scientific standpoint, this is perfect nonsense. Evolution is extremely well-supported by observation and test, including the woolly kind of evidence common in your field.

I won't be so brash as to suggest that you try to support any of what you say above with experimental evidence — I already know how that would turn out. Apart from the vague nature of your claims, there are basic ethical issues that constrain what experiments we can conduct.

It's easy to say that behaviors evolve, that memes represent social genes, each of which might thrive or expire, but we cannot test this in anything resembling a disciplined scientific study. Which means such claims are not science, they're philosophy.
Is your criterion concerned with whether a theories acts to unify research in practice, or only in principle? Let me spell it out:

  1. Someone observes and describes a behavior.
  2. Someone offers an explanation for the behavior.
  3. Someone generalizes the explanation, proposes it as a principle common to all such organisms.
  4. The generalized explanation is tested in controlled conditions and is subject to falsification if the explanation either fails to hold up, or a simpler explanation makes an appearance.
  5. The entire study is replicated (i.e. successfully repeated) by different groups with different beliefs and attitudes, but exactly the same level of scientific discipline.
  6. The tested idea — the theory — is then perpetually open to falsification by new evidence. It never becomes an unchallengeable law.
Modern psychology rarely gets beyond (1) above, and your quoted passage above reinforces that impression.
You compare neuroscience favourably with psychology. Although I have some neuroscience background, I am not aware of any unifying theory of neuroscience. Really? So you don't know about the central nervous system and its role in human behavior?

Consider schizophrenia, bipolar syndrome, and autism. Efforts have been made to treat each of them with psychological methods, i.e. talk therapy and analysis. Those methods have failed. More recently each of them has been studied and been shown to be a physical ailment with psychological symptoms, so any meaningful treatment must address the physical issues, the neurological roots of the conditions — focusing on the psychological aspects only treats symptoms.

My prediction is that each of the remaining conditions presently thought to be psychological in origin will eventually be shown to be physical ailments with psychological symptoms. The evidence for this prediction is that many conditions once thought to be psychological have turned out to be physical. More to the point, each "psychological" condition that now has a meaningful treatment, has been recognized as a physical ailment with psychological symptoms.

Most psychologists think a combination of talk therapy and neurological treatments (i.e. drugs) is the best approach to the above-listed conditions. My opinion is that this is just a way for psychologists to save face, when confronted by the fact that (in the example of bipolar syndrome) lithium works, and talk therapy doesn't work.

Whenever I hear a psychologist say that talk therapy and drugs work best in combination, I can't help thinking of mobster Al Capone's dictum that "you can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone."
Jeff Hawkins, both in his book "On Intelligence" and in his TED talk, very much emphasises that lack. He says neuroscience has data coming out of its ears, but there is no theory to tie it all together. Believe me, when you snip someone's spinal cord, it always has the same effect. When you administer certain kinds of drugs, they always have the same effect. When you pour cold water into an astronaut's left ear and hot water into the astronaut's right ear, it always has the same effect (it's difficult to remain standing). Each of these effects can be explained, and the explanations can be tested.

I anticipate the objection that neuroscience is nowhere near explaining pathological narcissism or Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy. But these may not be treatable diseases, or even diseases as that term is generally understood — they may simply be very bad choices made by individuals suffering from free will.
He then proposes a unifying theory of the function of mammalian cortex, but that is as far as it goes. Would you say that neuroscience is misnamed? No, it's accurately named. When neuroscience has no testable explanation for a particular observation (all too common), this opens the field to criticism by psychologists because there doesn't seem to be much that is open to explanation and test — and that's true.

But that also demonstrates the scientific standing of neuroscience — if there is no available explanation with evidentiary support, a neuroscientist won't just make something up. A psychologist will.

Neuroscience is just starting out, and it would be fatal for neuroscientists to pretend to know more than they do. I say this with absolute confidence, because we have the model of psychology as a cautionary example where there are so many explanations not backed up by evidence, and so much division and argument uninformed by evidence, that the entire field is on the verge of collapse.

Here is an example of neuroscience. A person's ability to determine the source of a sound was once thought to result from the sound being louder in one ear than the other. But in now-classic studies, the arrival time of sound waves was shown to be much more important. You can submit sounds identical in volume, but different in phase (in arrival time) to a subject's right and left ears, and the subject will accurately perceive a direction for the sound based solely on the sound wave arrival times.

Briefly:

  • The description is that people translate differing sound arrival times, not volumes, into a direction for the source of a sound.
  • The explanation is that the ears and brain (not the mind) work together to compute a source for the sound based on sound wave arrival times that can differ by only a few milliseconds.
  • The explanation has been tested and confirmed repeatedly, and is now part of the theory of human hearing.
That's neuroscience.
Or have I misunderstood what you mean by a unifying theory? If you consider neuroscience to be a science, what do you see as its unifying theory? Psychology studies the mind. Neuroscience studies the brain and nervous system. This gives neuroscience an overwhelming advantage because there really is a brain and a nervous system. I appreciate that a lot of the email you get is a waste of your time. I hope my questions are both coherent and interesting enough to be worth thinking about. Your prose is significantly above the average, but I am very familiar with your position. And you're more than willing to offer untested, indeed untestable, notions in a discussion purportedly about science. Nevertheless, a worthwhile exchange — thanks for writing.
The Role of Theory II
This isn't accurate. Newton (and, later, Galileo) described motion, but they didn't presume to explain it. There was no unifying theory to explain what these men described.


I misunderstood. I thought description and generalisation, so that predictions about new observations could be made, were enough. If I got it right now, you demand that a unifying theory also refers to a more fundamental principle.
First, I don't demand anything. Second, a scientific theory must be sufficiently general to move beyond specific cases, to refer to testable explanations rather than to description, and to serve as a unifying bridge between otherwise unrelated areas.

If I say that 100 swans are white, I have described something. If I say swans are always white because this allows them to conceal themselves in a snowy landscape or because a white exterior minimizes heat loss, then we can actually do science on the ground that I have dared to offer an explanation. We could, for example, locate a happy, vigorous flock of black swans.
On the topic of whimsically choosing which outcomes to publish, are you aware that, in the rankings of published negative outcomes (a sign of a field's candor and integrity), psychology comes in dead last?:


Yes, and I added it to my collection of things my students should know. I have to see whether I can squeeze it into my course or persuade the statistics lecturer to add it. Alcock's critique of Bem was also interesting. The quote from Bem's guide to writing papers severely conflicts with my understanding of good statistical practice.
More important for the general case is the fact that the "soft" sciences are more likely to discard articles that don't live up to the authors' expectations, a behavior that unrealistically reinforces marginal statistical outcomes.
I think there is also a question of how specific a theory needs to be to function as a unifying theory in practice. Tinbergen (1963) wrote that any explanation of behaviour must address four questions: what is its function, what mechanism produces the behaviour, how does the mechanism develop, and what is the evolutionary history? I divide Tinbergen's mechanism into two levels, Marr's algorithmic and implementational levels.


With all respect, don't you see that this is everyday psychobabble? That it puts forth claims that cannot be realistically tested or falsified? Try to imagine how one would go about testing the questions Tinbergen poses.


I have not seen a single paper trying to address all four questions. I have read papers addressing any of three questions and sometimes combinations, and I know there are papers dealing with the fourth, development. In fact, there is a whole field of research dealing with the evolution of development, which covers three of Tinbergen's questions when dealing with the nervous system. I could send you example papers.
The problem is not whether articles are written about this, the problem is that the subject matter isn't falsifiable. No one makes a testable claim that can be clearly refuted (in principle). No one takes an observation or set of observations and tries to extrapolate that to something at a more basic, universal level. It's philosophy, not science.

If I time the fall of a rock from different heights, and if I keep copious notes, I might come up with a rule about the time it takes for a rock — any rock — to make its way to the ground. Then I might take the dangerous step of publishing a rule — an explanation for all such descents under gravity — which could be tested and potentially falsified.

If I say "a ten-kilogram rock fell 44.1 meters in three seconds, as did a one-kilogram rock," no one will bother to refute my claim — they weren't present at that specific event. But if I say, "Neglecting air resistance, I assert that all rocks fall proportional to 1/2 g t2 where t = time in seconds, and I have experimentally determined that g = 9.8," then I have moved beyond description to explanation, to theory. My claim can be tested and possibly falsified.

Given the content of your first post, this example may seem somewhat mechanistic, even trite, but I am trying to make the point that there are claims on which different people can agree, that have an element of objectivity, of universality, and without that property, there can be no science.

Science is not about subjective observations. Science is a discipline that relies on matters on which people can agree, experiments that can be replicated, theories that survive the process of communication.
Most would be from behavioural biology and neuroscience, because I am not a psychologist. I haven't looked much into evolution of development. Based on the content of your first post, I drew an unwarranted conclusion. My apologies.
Although there is as much reason to believe that perception has evolved as anything else in biology, evolution doesn't take the role of a unifying theory.


Of course it does! Evolution is a classic example of a testable, falsifiable scientific theory, a theory that doesn't only describe, but explains. It offers explanations that can be, and have been, rigorously tested.


My point is not that evolutionary theory is wrong, or untested, or irrelevant. My point is that merely knowing that, for example, the neural networks that measure interaural time difference have evolved doesn't tell me how they work.
But don't you see that, to begin to sort out how this mechanism works, we must first establish that the mechanism exists in the first place, and is common to all human beings? The fact is that we possess a timing method with a survival dimension that can discern sound arrival times in the millisecond range, but using a processor that appears to have a "clock speed" of about 10 Hertz. That is a big step toward an explanation, toward true science.
I say that an organism cannot inherit acquired traits from its parents. The explanation is that genetic inheritance is the only inheritance.


Although it is pedantic, because I'm a biologist I can't let that pass. In the last few years, it has been found that epigenetic markers (which regulate gene expression) can be acquired and inherited for a few generations.
Yes, I know this — I was stating the prevailing principle, not refuting recent work. In any case, when such inheritance mechanisms have a large body of related observations and a clear mechanism — as we have for basic genetics — then it rises to the level of falsifiable theory.

As to your being a biologist, all right, but if you will re-read your first post, you may see how I drew the conclusion I did.
It is important to add that a failed attempt to link evolutionary theory to psychology doesn't condemn evolution, it condemns psychology.


It would also condemn neuroscience.
Only if neuroscience tries to apply evolution in an untestable, unfalsifiable way. One can create a lot of legitimate science without trying to broaden the scope of the work to the degree that the entire structure collapses.

I might study the hearing mechanism mentioned earlier (indeed, I have) and add a small amount to what is known about it, without taking the gratuitous step of trying to force an evolutionary interpretation onto the result.
I personally would never make the above claim unless and until I had gathered some experimental evidence. And if there were evidence, I would print the evidence, not my opinions.


The two reasons why I didn't give you references are: 1) I didn't expect this would be any more controversial than the statement that nervous systems (and hormones, in interaction with nervous systems) produce behaviour,
Easy to say, hard to prove. Not a fertile ground for science. There are any number of studies in which the subjects knew what the experimenters hoped to see, or what the study was meant to discover, as a result of which — to put it diplomatically — such studies tend not to be repeatable.
Evolution acts both by selecting based on function, namely how well a behaviour fulfills functional requirements, and through algorithm and implementation, which determine the cost of fulfilling the function. Evolutionary history further constrains what algorithms and implementations are available for a particular species. That makes it difficult to make predictions specific enough to be tested. Therefore, although evolution should act as the unifying theory for perception, in practice it doesn't.


From a scientific standpoint, this is perfect nonsense.


Would you tell me why?
That's simple — it moves beyond available evidence. It assumes something that, were it to be fully examined, would turn out to require proving a negative. Claims that implicitly require proving a negative are legion, but they are rarely examined carefully enough to uncover this flaw.

So your saying "although evolution should act as the unifying theory for perception, in practice it doesn't" quite obviously leaves the domain of science. We don't know that this is so, and the framing of the claim suffers not only from a lack of evidence but if taken to its logical conclusion would require implicit exhaustive proof of a negative, i.e. a logical error.
I rather thought this was straightforward combination of mainstream neuroscience and mainstream evolutionary biology. Where did I go wrong? No evidence. And no basis for gathering evidence that could resolve the issue. And yes, this is a genuine question. I learned far more from a discussion with someone who disagreed with me on a paper I wrote than from those who had compatible views.

Evolution is extremely well-supported by observation and test


I never disputed that. I have repeatedly tried to explain this to creationists until I gave it up as equivalent to wrestling a pig.
We're in complete agreement on that — there's no point arguing with someone who cannot abandon his views, who is emotionally attached to a particular outlook.
including the woolly kind of evidence common in your field.


You don't like people jumping to conclusions, so I have to ask: what did you think my field is when you wrote that, and on what evidence?
As soon as you identified yourself as a biologist, I thought we would eventually get to this. Here is part of the basis on which I wrongly assumed you were a psychologist:
Tinbergen (1963) wrote that any explanation of behaviour must address four questions: what is its function, what mechanism produces the behaviour, how does the mechanism develop, and what is the evolutionary history? I divide Tinbergen's mechanism into two levels, Marr's algorithmic and implementational levels.
I must ask, how is that a biological claim? And how is it not a psychological one? It certainly isn't resolvable with a practical experiment. I shouldn't have made the assumption, but there was plenty of evidence supporting it.

The bottom line is that behavior, human behavior in particular, isn't biology, it's psychology.
Apart from the vague nature of your claims, there are basic ethical issues that constrain what experiments we can conduct.


There are no ethical constraints specifically relevant to what I was thinking of, so it seems likely we were not thinking of the same things.
If we're talking about behaviors, I can see plenty of latitude for experiment. If we're talking about human behavior, different rules, different outcomes, and severe ethical constraints. The title of your original post included the word "psychology," a fact that steered my interpretation of its content.
It's easy to say that behaviors evolve, that memes represent social genes, each of which might thrive or expire, but we cannot test this in anything resembling a disciplined scientific study. Which means such claims are not science, they're philosophy.


And they have no relationship I can think of to anything I wrote.
Once one begins to discuss behaviors, without qualifying the term, calling it philosophy seems fair. I know that my writing style doesn't suit many people, but I can try to rephrase if we can track down where things went wrong. Or we can just treat this as a digression and ignore it. Fair enough, but your reference to the work of Tinbergen et. al. was sufficiently general to admit the probability that you were addressing human behavior. And for many reasons including ethical ones, human behavior isn't a suitable area for useful scientific research. Ask Margaret Mead (whose magnum opus "Coming of Age in Samoa" turned out to be based on fantasies concocted by her subjects).
Is your criterion concerned with whether a theories acts to unify research in practice, or only in principle?


Let me spell it out:


1. Someone observes and describes a behavior.


2. Someone offers an explanation for the behavior.


3. Someone generalizes the explanation, proposes it as a principle common to all such organisms.


Phenotypic variation will usually force you to come up with a rather restrictive definition of "all such organisms", even if we're not talking about behaviour. You can again ignore that as a digression, but again, as a biologist I can't just let that pass as if I agreed with it. I can accept it as an idealised case, and we can get on with the core argument.
But my outline above (and below) was meant to describe classical science — very specific observations leading to very general conclusions — intentionally to contrast it with the variety of science commonly seen in the soft sciences.

Consider that, with all phenotypic variation, all organisms rely on DNA and all of them appear to demonstrate evolution by natural selection. So there are some universals, and the presence of differences between organisms can be used to produce — indeed, strengthen — an argument for the universality of evolutionary principles.
4. The generalized explanation is tested in controlled conditions and is subject to falsification if the explanation either fails to hold up, or a simpler explanation makes an appearance.


5. The entire study is replicated (i.e. successfully repeated) by different groups with different beliefs and attitudes, but exactly the same level of scientific discipline.


6. The tested idea — the theory — is then perpetually open to falsification by new evidence. It never becomes an unchallengeable law.


None of this addresses my question. I'll rephrase it using chemistry as an example, in the hope I can express myself clearly this time. You write the unifying theory of chemistry is how atoms interact. As I understand it, that would mean solving the wave functions of electrons in shared orbitals.
No, this is not correct. If all of particle physics required writing and solving quantum wave equations, it would be true, but this isn't accurate. As far as I know, until recently the relevant equations could only be solved for extremely simple molecules, like the hydrogen molecule. That's true, but chemistry is now a branch of physics for a key reason — most of it can be described and predicted using particle physics, and particle physics is not based on quantum probabilities to the degree you're suggesting.

Particle physics explains what 19th century chemistry described. In that sense, particle physics converts chemistry from stamp collecting into science.
That means that if a chemist had found something in a protein that was incompatible with these equations, no one would have known because no one could solve the equations for that case. You're overstating the significance of quantum effects in everyday chemistry. 99% of contemporary chemistry is satisfactorily explained using the non-quantum elements in particle theory. If, in practice, no one can predict the outcome of an experiment from the unifying theory, then this experiment can't falsify the unifying theory. Is that theory then still a unifying theory? That is the point I was making in relation to evolution. Wow. You just tried to use an argument based on quantum theory to argue against applying evolution to a macroscopic theory. I assure you, the reality of quantum effects can't realistically undermine an assertion about the role of natural selection in the evolution of organisms.

In discussion of this topic, remember this equation:

Δ x Δ p ≥ ℏ (reference)

All other issues aside, this says that, as a collection of atoms increases in size, the prospect for any measurable quantum effects declines dramatically, proportional to the mass/momentum of the collection. By the time we get to a level for which the term "chemistry" is appropriate, and in the majority of cases, we've left quantum behind.
I didn't say evolution is wrong, I didn't say evolution is untestable, I said there are specific cases where, with the information available, it is impossible to make predictions specific enough to be interesting. But the point is not to make predictions about a specific case, the point is to draw general principles from many specific cases.

If I want to establish that a coin is fair, I can't resolve the issue with one flip, or a dozen flips. I will need to flip the coin many more times, and as the issue becomes important, more data is required in proportion. It's the same with behavior — observing a single organism isn't going to resolve any global issues.
You compare neuroscience favourably with psychology. Although I have some neuroscience background, I am not aware of any unifying theory of neuroscience.


Really? So you don't know about the central nervous system and its role in human behavior?


That is not specific enough to be a unifying theory.
Of course it is. All of current neuroscience relies on certain basic, experimentally derived principles. The propagation rate of nerve impulses. The specific mechanism by which nerve impulses are propagated. The architecture of the nervous system. Things of that sort.

In its present form, we shouldn't compare neuroscience to physics — that would pointlessly embarrass neuroscience. We also shouldn't compare neuroscience to psychology — that would pointlessly embarrass psychology.
From what follows in your reply, I am guessing that you would agree with the more specific statement that human behaviour can be satisfactorily explained by processes within the central and peripheral nervous system (some stuff happens in the spinal cord even without the central nervous system), in interaction with hormones. Not explained, no. Described, yes. We are, after all, discussing human behavior. No immaterial soul, life force, animal spirit or such concept is needed to explain anything that has been observed. Is that an accurate statement of your position? If yes, I agree with all of it. You've mixed two different things. As to the first, we can't explain human behavior using neuroscience, we can only describe it. We can only explain the behavior's precursors, the rudiments. After that, we have to either stop presuming to explain, or abandon science. Behavior is not neuroscience's domain.

As to the second, the presence or absence of a spirit or another supernatural agency, well, that's outside the domain of science, don't you agree? It would be like someone trying to prove the nonexistence of God. It should be enough to say there's no evidence and assert the primacy of the null hypothesis.

A particular science is as much defined by what it excludes as by what it includes. Characterizing the traits of the brain strengthens neuroscience. Avoiding discussions about the mind also does, and in equal measure.
And it doesn't address my question. I spent [deleted for privacy] years reading neuroscience papers. I have never yet attended a psychology conference, but I have attended neuroscience and neuroethology conferences. In all that time, I have never come across a single experiment designed to find out whether the behaviour of an organism with a nervous system and hormones can be satisfactorily explained by the actions of that nervous system and hormones. That's easy to explain — the topic of behavior is sufficiently vague, and sufficiently difficult to study, that it doesn't represent a suitable topic for scientific research.

This in turn means that behavior is not part of neuroscience. If it were ever to become part of neuroscience, it would compromise the scientific standing of the field.

I don't see a mandate for neuroscience to assume responsibility for any of the topics that psychology pretends to study. It would be more than enough if neuroscience offered testable explanations about the genesis and biochemistry of schizophrenia and bipolar syndrome, to offer two off-the-cuff examples.

If someone possesses behaviors that make him unemployable, and if there is an obvious neurological anomaly, say, one addressed by the administration of lithium, then a neurological theory that leads from a theory about biochemistry to a treatment involving lithium, never needs to address the issue of behavior. Indeed, under those circumstances, addressing behavior would undermine the process.
That is just taken for granted. I expected that a unifying theory should make predictions specific enough to guide the development of hypotheses. This assumption is still far too general that I would have thought of it as a unifying theory. To the degree that neuroscience has unifying theories — for example, the universal mechanisms of nerve conduction — they are noteworthy for not trying to address the issues you're bringing up, i.e. behavior. The next parts of your message that I don't reply to I see again as us discussing different points because we have different criteria for how specific a unifying theory should be, and we didn't realise that. Let me express it in a way that there can't be any doubt about the meaning of the term. In physics, there are certain experimentally derived theories that affect everything in the field — and all subfields.

Example. Someone asserts the equivalence of mass and energy. This claim is met with ridicule or wonderment, eventually grudging acceptance. Because physics is unified by theory, the principle that mass and energy are equivalent affects every field remotely associated with physics, from military strategy to nuclear medicine to ... evolution.

I'm not exaggerating — Einstein's equivalence equation affected the theoretical development of evolution by natural selection, in this way: In the 19th century, Darwin and others tried to argue for natural selection, but one objection was obvious — based on the prevailing idea that the sun's energy derived from gravitational contraction, there simply wasn't enough time for the level of complexity apparent in living organisms. This, by the way, is why Darwin seriously considered the idea of inheritance of acquired traits — it was a way to get around the problem of not enough time.

With his now-famous equation, Einstein removed this obstacle. The sun's source of energy is mass-energy conversion, not gravitational contraction, the sun is suddenly thousands of times older, and the time available for natural selection increase proportionally.

This is an example in which an abstract idea in mathematical physics resolved a problem in a specific area of biology. That's what I mean by theoretical unification.
we have different criteria for how specific a unifying theory should be Not any more, I hope. The above example is just one of dozens of similar examples that come to mind, that demonstrate the role of theoretical unification in science.
Psychology studies the mind. Neuroscience studies the brain and nervous system. This gives neuroscience an overwhelming advantage because there really is a brain and a nervous system.


You know more about software than I will ever learn, so you can correct me if I am wrong in the following. Say you want to sort some data. Is there a useful description of what you do between the specification "I want to sort the data" and the manipulation of electrons on the chip?
Yes. Simultaneously specific and useful. Because I worked in electronic design before I switched careers and took up software design, I am in a position to know something about each of the steps on the way from circuits to algorithms. I read there are many sorting algorithms, described at a level far removed from the manipulation of electrons. The point was illustrated by a description of bubblesort, because it's simple, but it was described as inefficient. My understanding is that there is a useful level of analysis between the specification of the computation and the implementation on the chip, and that level (or possibly a set of levels) is named the algorithmic level. Would you say that level exists or not? If you are asking whether algorithms exist apart from their implementation, well, yes — they exist in that sense. They exist because the same algorithm can take many forms, which argues for their universality. For example, If I say that an organism can minimize the risk of predators by only coming out of hiding during prime-numbered years, I can shape an algorithm, a model to test the thesis, but I can also locate examples in nature: Mathematical Locusts

Different embodiment, same algorithm.
If there is such a thing as an algorithmic level, then I argue that mind is the algorithmic level description of behaviour. I'm reasonably certain you know that Stephen Wolfram (in "A new Kind of Science") takes this same position. The problem is that it's easy to say but difficult to quantify to the degree that any particular assertion can be tested and falsified. It's hard to turn it into science. It is a useful level of analysis between the details of what happens at the level of synapses and neurons and the level of behaviour. That is not a crack in the pavement, it is a chasm. Imagine proposing a testable, repeatable, falsifiable connection between a specific algorithm and a behavior, or between the operation of synapses and human behavior. My point is that a sufficiently large quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference. I could give you examples, including some of my papers, if you want. However, the one I judge most likely to be interesting enough for you that you don't feel you're wasting your time is one by [deleted for privacy] on schizophrenia. He doesn't bother taking a position on whether schizophrenia is a biological condition with a behavioural phenotype, I think because he just takes that for granted. And although the title promises a hypothesis of the NEURAL basis of hallucinations and delusions, both the explanation and most of the evidence presented are at what I consider the algorithmic level. Do you think [deleted for privacy] explanation in terms of efference copy, forward model and attribution bias is useful? Are we still discussing science? Yes? Then no. It would be germane if it could be reduced to a repeatable experiment that tied a theory to an unambiguous measurement. I think you will agree that this is not feasible.

The bottom line: is it falsifiable through practical experiment? No? Not science.
I have two final questions: I was prompted to read your latest argument about psychology by a student of clinical psychology. She is very determined to do something useful, and you got her worried she might be wasting her time. When I mentioned I had written to you, she asked whether she could read your reply. Do you allow me to let her see our discussion? Yes, certainly, especially given that I'm also posting this discussion in one of my online discussion boards (with identifying information removed). On that topic, if I don't remove enough information to assure your privacy, please speak up. I don't know whether she might want to join in. There is also someone in the neuroscience group whose opinion I would find interesting, if he could be persuaded to join the discussion. [deleted for privacy] works on computational neuroscience. I rather expect he thinks there is an algorithmic level, and it would be interesting whether he also thinks the mind is an algorithmic level description. Would you be interested in either of them joining, or have you reached the limit of how much time you want to invest? To me, the question whether there is an algorithmic level (I assume you mean in human behavior) is at present not a suitable scientific topic. I would be happy to discuss this to some degree, but I tend to lose interest in philosophical discussions fairly quickly.

The problem with the question is the same one that confronted Stephen Wolfram on publication of his huge book "A new Kind of Science" (i.e. everything is an algorithm) — it's really philosophy at the moment, it cannot be resolved by evidence.
Second, what would you recommend the student should do? Anything other than quit psychology and do something else? I think you can anticipate my reply. This student needs to understand the role of science on the modern world — that anything worthwhile, anything able to rise above pointless and endless argument, must have a scientific dimension. It's clear that psychology doesn't have this property, and is unlikely to change enough to allow for this, without disintegrating in the process. The reason why I ask is that I ... have been volunteered ... That's a nice bit of prose — "been volunteered". It reminds me of the old battlefield joke — a sergeant addresses an obviously involuntary audience of three sad sacks, saying "Now I want three volunteers ..." ... to start up a regular series of seminars. I want to lead my colleagues and students gently into the habit of attending. If I manage that, they might then benefit from being severely provoked to think. I can think of some topics that might lead to high attendance. In fact, years ago when I lectured more than I do now, I tended to extol the virtues of science, much as I have been during this exchange, to enthusiastic audiences who (it seems) hadn't until then understood what it actually was in any detail. Would you be interested in giving a talk via teleconference? I'll say I'm tentatively interested. If you tell them just to give up psychology, I expect they'll dismiss you as a crackpot, and the whole thing would be a waste of your and their time, regardless of the merit of your argument. Yes, I've had the experience, and I agree. But as it turns out, the present director of the U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health has recently taken that exact position (i.e. psychology should be abandoned), apparently to a wide and respectful audience among scientists: Scientific American: Faulty Circuits

I think his position made his position more palatable, if you follow. :)
If they walk away determined to prove you wrong, or that they can do useful things anyway by insisting on giving evidence-based treatment even in the absence of a unifying theory, I think it would be good for them. What do you think? Apart from any other considerations, I think it's worthwhile to make people aware that there is a role for evidence, and dispassionate evidence gathering, in virtually every field of endeavor. And that the first sign of an absence of evidence is long and heated argument with no resolution.

Again, thanks for writing.
Science: Stories and Tricks I

In this episode, a psychology professor's students alert him to one of my articles, and after reading it he decides to write a lengthy rebuttal. I can't publish the rebuttal (I don't have that right) but only a few quotes from it, and my own remarks.

Ok. Please find encl. Try to keep off the rhetorical tricks and do try to see the difference between the words "psychology" and "psychiatry" - not only are they spelt differently they refer to different activities ;-)# If psychiatry were not a branch of human psychology, your objection would be legitimate. But psychiatry and psychology (both practice and research) are branches of human psychology and depend on human psychology's theories for their legitimacy. Because the topic is the scientific standing of human psychology, and because human psychology is the tree and psychiatry and psychology are branches of that tree, in this discussion they deserve to be referred to as one.

Imagine that I say, "Since Einstein's work, gravity is now known to be caused by the warping of spacetime." Hearing this, is it legitimate for someone to ask, "Does this new finding apply to particle physics, or only to astronomy and cosmology?"

Such a question is absurd — a finding about gravity applies to every branch of physics, and to mechanical and civil engineering, and to many other fields — all of which are proper subsets of physics, and all of which depend on the present standing of physical theories. Physical theory unites all these fields, and a change in physical theory changes all of them at once.

In the same way, all branches of human psychology — the 53 subfields identified by the American Psychological Association, as well as all of psychiatry — depend for their scientific standing on the present state of psychological theories.

To argue, as you have, that psychology and psychiatry cannot be lumped together in a discussion of the scientific standing of human psychology, you must first argue that either psychology or psychiatry aren't part of the field of human psychology and don't need to pay attention to psychological theories. I don't think you want to do this. The question is not whether clinical psychology, or psychiatry, are scientific, the question is whether human psychology is scientific — and I make this point abundantly clear in my articles.

You haven't said this directly, but you above imply that one cannot address psychology and psychiatry in the same breath. Do you realize what this means? It suggests there isn't one theory of human psychology, but two (or more). Imagine what would happen if this were true in a scientific field — imagine what would happen if there were more than one theory of atomic physics, or gravity, or biology, or medicine.

To what degree does tested, falsifiable scientific theory unite scientific fields? Very much — you may find this hard to believe, but there is a connection between Einstein's famous mass-energy equation E = mc2, and the theory of natural selection in biology:

  • In the 19th century, when Charles Darwin first proposed natural selection as part of his theory of evolution, one obvious objection was that there didn't seem to be enough time for organisms to evolve to their present state. In Darwin's era this problem caused long and heated debate.
  • The reason there didn't seem to be enough time for natural selection was because the sun (and therefore life on earth) was not believed to be old enough to support the required time periods.
  • The reason the sun didn't seem to be old enough was because its energy source was thought to be gravitational contraction, an energy source that would not last very long.
  • But Einstein's mass-energy equation changed everything. If the sun was powered by mass-energy conversion (i.e. nuclear fusion) instead of gravitational contraction, it (and earth) might be billions of years old, more than enough time to support evolution by natural selection.
  • In this way, physical theory reached out and supported a seemingly unrelated theory in biology. This was only possible because both physics and biology pay attention to legitimate, tested theories — they are united by scientific theory.
Meanwhile, in psychology, because of a lack of theory to guide their thinking and actions, two fully qualified, licensed practitioners cannot agree on a simple diagnosis. It's well established that two practitioners, faced with the same clinical presentation, are very unlikely to agree on a diagnosis. Tom Widiger, who served as head of research for DSM-IV, says, "There are lots of studies which show that clinicians diagnose most of their patients with one particular disorder and really don't systematically assess for other disorders. They have a bias in reference to the disorder that they are especially interested in treating and believe that most of their patients have."

Is Tom Widiger a critic from outside the field? No, again, he was head of research for DSM-IV, the very influential "Bible" of psychological practice. He is in the best possible position to understand the state of his own field. And his remark indicts the scientific standing of clinical practice, and the degree to which practice is informed by theory.

How important is theory? That's easy to answer — without theory, without a basis for testing and possibly falsifying the ideas that shape a field, there is no science. This is true whether or not there is scientific activity in a field — there can be plenty of scientific activity, papers published, white lab coats, clipboards. But if this work doesn't lead to testable, falsifiable theories, it is not science.

Absent the shaping and testing of theories, can scientific activity within a field make the field itself scientific? No, this is not how science works. Here is an example of why not: The Architecture of Science

In the toy astrology study linked above, I scientifically determine that there are more Leos than other astrological signs. The work is perfectly scientific — I gathered data, processed it, and published the result. The outcome is useful to astrologers — they now know who their clients are going to be.

But does this result make astrology scientific? No, it doesn't. It doesn't because my study doesn't address astrology's core theories — the idea that we are shaped and influenced by the position of the stars and planets at birth, and on a given day. Which leads to this principle: no amount of scientific work within a field can make a field scientific unless it either creates or tests that field's theories.

When Asperger's Syndrome became a diagnosis, this decision was made without addressing the core theories of psychology, or even field work. Now Asperger's Syndrome is being discarded because it obviously has no real meaning — but this new decision is also being made without reference to any theory or field work. This is not surprising, because there is no central psychological theory that addresses these issues, and psychological practice is entirely disconnected from any scientific theories.

The above is true about psychiatry/psychology, but it is not true in any scientific field. A medical doctor may not offer treatments that are not vetted by scientific research, and that research must be informed by medical and biological theories. If a doctor breaks this rule, she will be expelled from her profession and possibly prosecuted.

In psychology, by contrast, practitioners can offer any therapy whatsoever — alien abduction recovery therapy, reincarnation/past lives analysis, you name it — and no one will object on the ground that there is no theoretical basis for these therapies. The reason? Unlike physics, biology, and medicine, psychology is not informed by scientific theory. It is not a science.

If psychology were scientific, there would be a central corpus of theory that would guide all research and practice, just as with all legitimate scientific fields. If this were true, practitioners would not be allowed to offer any of the weird therapies that are perfectly legitimate in psychology's present relaxed atmosphere. If this were true, Candace Newmaker and Rebecca Riley would be alive today, instead of being killed by the unscientific and dangerous practices that have come to be accepted in the field. If this were true, none of the hundreds of bogus legal prosecutions and dozens of false imprisonments resulting from Recovered Memory Therapy (most of whom have since been declared innocent and released) would have been allowed.

Psychology is not a scientific field. There is plenty of science taking place, but none of it addresses the central, authoritative, scientific theories that unite the field. The reason? There are no such theories, and the field is certainly not united by anything else. Today's evidence? Didn't you just say, "try to see the difference between the words 'psychology' and 'psychiatry' - not only are they spelt differently they refer to different activities".

Imagine if I said, "Particle physics and cosmology refer to different activities." They don't — they are both informed by physical theory, and they both shape future physical theory, as a result of which particle physicists and cosmologists much constantly talk to each other. The two fields, as different as they seem to be, are united by scientific theory. A change in physical theory changes both fields at once — any change in cosmology changes particle physics and the reverse (as demonstrated by the recent Dark Matter and Dark Energy theories).

For psychology to become scientific, there would have to be central, falsifiable scientific theories that were open to practical test and potential falsification. Such theories would regulate the practice of psychology, just as physical theories regulate seemingly unrelated activities like building bridges and airplanes. But this is simply not true — when they offer alien abduction recovery therapy, clinical psychologists aren't ignoring scientific psychological theories that address this activity, because there aren't any such theories.

In answer to some of your points:

"you cannot ethically do an experiment that for instance withholds a life-saving or enchancing treatment to a group of individuals to demonstrate that those lucky individuals who DO get the treatment show an improvement. This was one of the pseudo-problems demolished by John Beloff in his book 'Psychological Sciences'"

It would have been more honorable for you to try to summarize how this individual "demolished" the ethical constraints that, for excellent reasons, prevent most serious psychological research on human subjects.

Let's say that there is a drug that might prevent teenage suicide, and someone decides to test the drug. This study will require a control group, a group that, if the drug is efficacious, will have a higher suicide rate than the experimental group. How will we prevent lawsuits by the parents of the teenagers in the control group who kill themselves?

This issue is usually "resolved" by using a retrospective design, but retrospective studies are notoriously unreliable. This is why most psychoactive drugs are perfect debate topics, because none of them has been subjected to the high-quality sort of research that would only be possible if modern ethical standards were abandoned.

Your next point begins with "Blurring of research, diagnosis, and therapy" and, without offering a counterargument, ends with "He sees problems here." So does everyone else in the scientific community.

As to "Overall lax standards", you say " ... he does not give any systematic critique or cite any reviews - because there are none!" You need to read more carefully — I offer dozens of citations that address this problem, but for brevity, I will offer just one of the many that appear in my published work: “Positive” Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences (Fanelli, PLoS One, April 2010)

The article demonstrates that, in the ranking of various fields, psychiatry/psychology ranks dead last (and yes, the term "psychiatry/psychology" is the exact term used in the article) in their willingness to publish negative outcomes.

Why is this important? It means that psychologists tend not to publish studies that don't support the theory that led to the study, and this is a more serious problem in psychiatry/psychology than in other fields. To say that a field is unwilling to publish negative outcomes indicts its scientific integrity, because over time, marginal statistical outcomes tend to become confused with real, balanced evidence in support of the topic of study.

Imagine that ten studies are conducted that study something important to psychological theory or practice, and the ten studies, taken as a whole, only support the null hypothesis (the idea that there is no basis for the theory). Now imagine what will happen if only those studies that support the desired outcome are published, and the others are discarded. The result will be a distortion of science, a false impression that the thing being studied is more statistically significant than it is.

That is the meaning of the above-referenced article — because of selective publication, psychological research is being systematically distorted to favor the outcomes preferred by the researchers.

Moving on, in answer to your point "He claims that (3) could be satisfied by 'evidence based practice' ...", hold on — that is not my position, that is the position of Ronald L. Levant, the past president of the American Psychological Association, in this article. A quote: "Some APA members have asked me why I have chosen to sponsor an APA Presidential Initiative on Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) in Psychology, expressing fears that the results might be used against psychologists by managed-care companies and malpractice lawyers".

It seems you aren't objecting to my reasoning, you are objecting to the careful reasoning of the head of a professional association of psychologists. Parenthetically, Levant got nowhere trying to get clinical psychologists to adopt evidence-based practices.

Moving on, you say that "In the end he bases his argument on the observation that 'clinical Psychology can make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation — no clear criteria [sic] to invalidate a claim.' However, there is no support given for this contention ..."

Absolutely false. In my articles I quote the example of John Mack, Harvard professor or psychology, who opened an alien abduction recovery clinic, whose operating assumption was that alien abduction claims were true and that psychology was ready to help. I quote the example of Ian Stephenson, chairman of the University of Virginia Department of Psychology, who opened a center dedicated to the analysis of the past lives of its clients. I offer many other examples, including the disastrous episodes of Recovered Memory Therapy, Facilitated Communications, and Rebirthing Therapy, the latter responsible for at least one death.

As to your comment: "Although Lutus is entitled to his judgements about clinical Psychology and the DSM, a scientific evaluation of Psychology would require not just confirmation-only [sic] evidence and the enumeration of cases to support his argument ..." I have provided copious detail, bibliographic reading lists, and ample literature support for my position. And I emphasize these are not my conclusions — I am only reporting the conclusions of those in the field of psychology who see a need for change of the most basic kind, among whom are Thomas Insel, present director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, Ronald L. Levant, past president of the American Psychological Association, Gary Greenberg, psychotherapist and author of "Manufacturing Depression," Tom Widiger, head of research for DSM-IV, and hundreds of other mental health professionals.

In your quote above, you use the term "confirmation-only evidence". Where did you get this idea? Science is driven at least as much by refutation as by confirmation. If you believe that "confirmation-only evidence" is the only legitimate kind, what role does falsification play in your view of science? The prospect of falsification is essential to any scientific theory, and it requires falsification by evidence, and obviously not "confirmation-only evidence". If the only kind of legitimate evidence is based on confirmation, then everything is either true or undecided yet — nothing can be disproven. This is not science.

I must add that a belief in "confirmation-only evidence" would compel a psychology researcher to only publish confirming evidence. And that is exactly what we see in the field — a reluctance to publish negative results, and an erosion of scientific integrity.

While reading your section on science, I encountered this remarkable comment — "But if the trick works 'does the story explain the trick' is not always a clear-cut question (and stories will change as well as tricks.)". On that basis, and in particular the fact that the key term "falsifiability" doesn't even appear in your prose, I have charitably decided to avoid a detailed refutation of your lengthy and flawed effort to describe science. I am not likely to be able to dissuade you from believing the science is either a demonstration or a confabulation of tricks and stories. But having read your effort to describe science, I now understand why you insist that psychology is scientific — as with most people in your field, you have no idea what science is.

As to "Psychology is studied in our Universities by highly-selected bright young people", students need to know that psychology sits near the bottom of the academic ladder, offering nearly the lowest prospects for future gainful employment, respect and social standing (only beaten out by sociology): College Graduate Salaries by Field and Major

Also, very important, as science and scientific practices increasingly shape the future, unscientific fields like psychology/psychiatry will fall farther behind, as suggested in this recent Scientific American article by U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, who concluded by saying: "From the scientific standpoint, it is difficult to find a precedent in medicine for what is beginning to happen in psychiatry. The intellectual basis of this field is shifting from one discipline, based on subjective 'mental' phenomena, to another, neuroscience. Indeed, today’s developing science-based understanding of mental illness very likely will revolutionize prevention and treatment and bring real and lasting relief to millions of people worldwide."

I won't argue that psychology isn't a popular college major — it certainly is popular. So is astrology.
Science: Stories and Tricks II
Thanks for the reply. You have a tendency to over-state your sources in a journalistic way You mean, by linking to the sources, as I always do, so the reader can examine the original evidence? Yes, I do that. It's not often that I hear truthful statements accompanied by literature references described as "overstating." and your reading and writing is sometimes a little careless Where is you evidence? If you weren't so careless, you would have included an example to make your point, as I always do with mine. but readers who follow you up will notice this for themselves: it's the genre in which you work. The "genre" in which I work is called science writing. I recommend it to you. In science writing, the evidence must speak for itself. And in my writing, the copious evidence does speak for itself. I shall include your reply appended verbatim to my commentary. It amplifies your point of view about Psychology in a very characteristic manner. As a reply to your post that made false statements about my articles, it certainly is characteristic. You claimed that " ... he bases his argument on the observation that 'clinical Psychology can make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation — no clear criteria to invalidate a claim.' However, there is no support given for this contention ...". I replied by once again posting the support for this contention, and I will do it again, right now: The Myth of Mental Illness: Footnotes

This reading list was present in the original article, is it there now, and it will be there tomorrow. It proves my contention that "clinical psychology can and will make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation — no clear criteria to invalidate a claim". But I doubt that you will find time to read the evidence the above reading list contains. My evidence? You didn't manage to notice or read it the first time. Instead, you falsely claimed that I didn't present the evidence that I in fact presented.

Just to make the point, I'll detail the evidence again, right now: This is a brief list meant solely to make the point — and the point is that "clinical psychology can and will make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation — no clear criteria to invalidate a claim".

Elsewhere in your reply, with respect to my claim of lax research standards, you say "... he does not give any systematic critique or cite any reviews — because there are none!" This is false twice — (1) there are many literature references that make this point, and (2) I include them. Rather than list them again, I will once again link to a very good reference that clearly makes the point: “Positive” Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences (Fanelli, PLoS One, April 2010).

The above article shows that, in the rankings of a key measure of scientific integrity (publication of negative results), psychology and psychiatry are dead last. How important is this? Imagine a scientist who only records experimental outcomes that support his personal beliefs, and throws out the rest — isn't that scientific fraud? Well, yes, it is — and it renders scientific work meaningless.

The above article suggests that research psychologists don't necessarily throw out specific experimental outcomes, instead they throw out entire studies that don't support what they hoped to discover. The above study formalizes something that is widely recognized in the field — lax research standards, studies that fail efforts at replication, and results that flatly contradict other results with no one noticing or caring.

Here is another literature reference that makes the same point: New England Journal of Medicine: Selective Publication of Antidepressant Trials and Its Influence on Apparent Efficacy. In this study, researchers compared a list of successful research proposals for antidepressant medications to later article publication, and discovered that 34% of the studies simply weren't published. The study found that virtually all the published articles (94%) reported positive results. The remainder of the studies, the negative outcomes, were either not published (2/3), or were rewritten in a way calculated to suggest a positive outcome, but at odds with the study's actual results (1/3).

The authors of this study say, "Whether and how the studies were published were associated with the study outcome", a very diplomatic way of saying the negative outcomes were discarded. To a reader of scientific literature, this makes antidepressants seem effective in 94% of published studies. But an FDA analysis that included the studies that were not published shows positive outcomes in 51% of the studies, and negative outcomes in 49% of the studies. This means the real results lie near the chance level and support the null hypothesis (the idea that antidepressants don't actually work).

There are any number of similar articles in the professional literature that make the point that psychology suffers from lax research standards, and occasional outright fraud, to a greater degree than mainstream scientific fields. All you need to do is question your assumptions. You know, like a scientist?

The bottom line: saying "... he does not give any systematic critique or cite any reviews — because there are none!" about these readily available research findings can only make you look wilfully ignorant.
Metaphysics I
Hello Dr. Lutus. I just read your articles on The myth of mental illness and some of the selected replies, and I wanted to comment on how thought provoking they were. I am a 5th year senior in psychology, and I've been trying to think on how to best go about my future education. I know I want more empiricism, and I enjoyed seeing that other people are taking notice of the flaws in the current model of modern psychology. There is certainly too much of a need to understand and account for those awfully subjective, internalized states. Not if those internalized states are predicated on the existence and presumed function of a mind (as opposed to a brain). Not if those states are based on verbal reports by subjects, or that rely on the unfalsifiable pronouncements of psychologists. Not if those states are based on anything but an unambiguous technical recording, the swing of a needle, a trace on paper, the outcome of a brain scan — something on which two or more people can agree.

When an experimental subject experiences a state, and when that state is recorded unambiguously by dispassionate means, and when any number of similarly trained people can agree on the meaning of the state, then we will have brain science. This is obviously not true for psychology, and it isn't even true yet in neuroscience. But neuroscience has a future potential that psychology doesn't.

Psychology is predicated on the existence of the mind, while neuroscience is predicated on the existence of the brain. In psychology, subjects say what they are experiencing and psychologists listen. In neuroscience, researchers ignore the subject's report and pay attention only to technical measurements. That is why neuroscience has a chance to move beyond philosophy into science.
I predict in the future, we will find new ways to fully understand our internalized states. I predict that we will eventually abandon the notion of "internalized states" and turn to science instead. Until a needle swings, until a paper trace shows an unambiguous biological change, we haven't crossed the threshold of science. With that said, I am inclined to ask you if you have heard of Amit Goswami? He has some pretty interesting ideas about the meta physical interactions that make up our selves and consciences-es. To be perfectly frank, who cares? Metaphysics is not physics, and only physics is science. No one is going to pay for metaphysical treatments if physical treatments are available as an alternative. This is why astronomy replaced astrology, and this is why neuroscience will replace psychology.

Astrology was perfectly acceptable until there were telescopes and a scientific method. Now it is regarded as a joke. Psychology is already regarded as a joke, but it hasn't been replaced by neuroscience for the reason that there are a vast number of ignorant practitioners and clients who don't understand science.

In the meantime, I recommend that clients pay for metaphysical treatments with metaphysical money — that would instantly reform the field.
Your article and references have reinforced my goals of getting into applied behavior analysis and learning as much as I can about neuroscience. The culmination of those two fields is inevitable, IMO. You didn't mean to say "culmination", you meant commingling or merging, yes? If so, no — the "culmination" of psychology will be its abandonment, and the "culmination" of neuroscience will be the formalization of objective and repeatable measurements and treatments, perpetually subject to falsification, as with all truly scientific theories and practices.

Psychology's abandonment doesn't mean it will disappear. Astrology didn't disappear either, it just became a standing joke and a crutch for the weak-minded.
I have even come up with a pretty solid biopsychosocial psychoanalytical model to apply towards human behavior ... Please — avoid psychobabble. A "pretty solid biopsychosocial psychoanalytical model" means precisely nothing. If you want to have a measurable, positive effect on the world, choose topics that have scientific content, topics that deal with objective reality. Aside from praising your excellent breakdown of modern day psychology, I also wanted to ask your opinion about something. At my university, when a student has an original research they often can't do anything with it because we need another professor's current work to use as a means of comparison. The only thing is.. none of them seem overly interested in doing anything they aren't already doing. That didn't stop Einstein. His teachers hated him, considered him a dissolute daydreamer and thought he would never amount to anything. They couldn't see where his research would take him — and us. But remember — for every Einstein, there are ten thousand people who really are daydreaming, and who really won't amount to anything.

The difference between Einstein and the ten thousand daydreamers is objective, measurable, replicable evidence.
Its not like I have ground breaking ideas or anything, but I would kinda like the option. How practical would it be for someone (who doesn't even have a degree yet) to start trying to write down research ideas or proposals? That depends. If you include phrases like "pretty solid biopsychosocial psychoanalytical model", no scientist will bother reading the rest of the proposal. This doesn't mean a psychologist will stop reading, but psychologists aren't scientists. I know I have no real certifications to date, but I want to believe if I had a good enough proposal it wouldn't be outright ignored. Any professional input? Sure — pay attention to evidence, not metaphysics. Instead of waving your hands in the air, wave experimental results, results that anyone can duplicate in a similarly equipped lab.

Real science works like this:
  • Level 1: "I have an idea."
  • Level 2: "Here are the objective experimental results that confirm my idea."
  • Level 3: "Here are papers by six other laboratories that have successfully replicated my experimental results."
  • Level 4: "Over decades, vigorous efforts to falsify my idea have so far failed."
Psychology rarely gets beyond level 1, and psychology's experimental results are rarely examined by others. Meanwhile, in the world of science, results that pass through all four levels become the modern practice of medicine. This is why, contrary to a widely held misconception, psychology and psychiatry are not medical fields.
Metaphysics II
I appreciate your constructive feedback. I agree with you on most every point regarding the future of psychology. I only mentioned Goswami thinking you might find his research interesting. Metaphysical speculations are not "research." They are philosophy, and they are entirely subjective. Science depends on many things, and two or more people agreeing on the meaning of an observation must be included. All of his research is well quantified, I am just looking forward to seeing what comes of it. Say what? I just took a quick look — this man (Goswami) is not a scientist, he's a philosopher, there is no objective component to his work, and none of it is "quantified." Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

"Scientific Proof of the Existence of God"

This is total New Age crap, and it has no relation to science whatsoever. And it was literally the first reference to Goswami I found in a quick search. "Scientific proof" of the existence of God? Please — this is a joke.
I am at a small loss as to what to do about your suggestion to cut back on the 'psychobabble,' though. That's easy — limit yourself to statements and claims that can be verified in observations and experiments. Limit yourself to claims that are concrete enough to produce agreement between two or more similarly equipped observers. I don't know how else to talk about the subject material of internalized states. That problem is easily solved — stop talking about "internalized states." Such states are not part of science for a reason. Even if we both agree they aren't the most reliable variable to measure, they are still a variable that could be at least accounted for. Absolutely false. One man's dream is another man's nightmare, and neither subjective state is a suitable topic for scientific investigation. I would offer biological backing for everything I would ever pose a claim towards, though. Nonsense. Once you have a way to directly record someone's personal internal state, in full sound and color, in a way that there is no ambiguity and all observers agree, then you can claim it as a scientific observation. But this is not possible.

Don't you understand that a psychopath can pretend to be a normal person, and a normal person can pretend to be a psychopath, such that both actors can easily persuade a psychologist of their respective deceptions?

Don't you understand that "Recovered Memory Therapy" was a disaster for many innocent victims because even those who had the bogus memories believed they were real? In one case, after the encouragement of an unscrupulous therapist, a woman "remembered" that she had been raped by her father. Only after he was arrested and jailed, his life ruined, was it discovered that the woman was a virgin.

My point? This kind of psychological crap is not just a waste of people's time and money, it sometimes causes people's lives to be ruined. It is not just unscientific, it is dangerously unscientific.
Everyday we learn more about the neurological links between 'feelings' and how they work together to make up 'emotion.' Those involuntary predispositions that go on inside every human differently lead way to an individual's 'attitude' which over time shapes one's beliefs. Now I know where all those disenchanted ex-religious people went. Modern life isn't based on belief, it's based on facts, on scientific findings. I hope someday you'll catch up, so your life and education won't be a total waste.

Honestly — "scientific proof" of the existence of God? Now I've heard everything.

A couple of Goswami critics selected at random:

Quantum Quackery (Victor Stenger, Skeptical Inquirer)

Quantum Quackery (Michael Shermer, Scientific American)

There are many more such scientific criticisms, and if you had any scientific training, you would already know this.
Behaviorism
So would you consider the studies done by Skinner, and other behaviorists, on animals such as pigeons and rats to be scientific? That depends. If conclusions that are drawn in published papers can be falsified in principle in further experiments, then yes, the work is scientific. Let me add that no one has tried to directly replicate, nor add to, nor refute, any of Skinner's work. Also, the majority of behaviorists describe behavior, rather than try to explain behavior in a way that could lead to a testable scientific theory. Anyone can describe behavior, but a falsifiable explanation is required to shape a scientific theory.

I want to add something that I emphasize in The Myth of Mental Illness — a field can have lots of low-level scientific activity — descriptions — but unless that work leads to testable explanations and theories, the original work cannot make the field itself scientific. Astronomy is a good example — any number of people described little points of light in the night sky, but astronomy only became scientific when someone dared to explain what those lights were. At that point, astrology became astronomy.
If not then why not? It lacks the classic properties of scientific work — a strict separation between experimentation and interpretation. In many cases, interpretation stands in for experimentation — someone will draw a conclusion, then publish it without bothering to design or conduct an experiment. Also, your article emphasized psychology's failure to explain some complex behaviors, especially ones that are labeled as "abnormal." What about psychological research on simpler behaviors such as delaying gratification or choosing one reward over another? See above. If a concrete claim is made, one that is based on evidence rather than conjecture, and that can be refuted in principle in further work, that would cross the threshold of science. But, although necessary, that by itself isn't sufficient to make the field scientific. For that, one needs explanations, and then testable, falsifiable theories based on those explanations.

I should add that psychiatry and psychology have the lowest rate of publication of falsified results — either original studies that didn't work out, or of failed efforts to replicate the work of others, of any field. In psychology it is rare for a work to be repeated, and even more rare for a falsification to be published. It's important to point out that studies like that linked above, that cast doubt on psychology's standing as a science, are only rarely conducted by psychologists. Here is a graphic that emphasizes the conclusion of the above-linked paper.
The Null Hypothesis I
I agree 100% that psychology as a whole is not a science. However, I do have some issues to bring up...

1.) The individual studies and meta-analysis that you refer to in order to falsify the effectiveness of CBT ...
Hold on. Where do I claim to have "falsified the effectiveness of CBT"? Those are your words, not mine. I never said this anywhere. What I did say was that psychology's claim to have proven the effectiveness of CBT is contradicted by experimental results — results that cast doubt on that repeated assurance.

As just one of hundreds of articles, I select at random "CBT Treatment Proven Effective for PTSD Veterans", which, not surprisingly, claims that CBT has been "proven effective" in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the body of the article, we read that "The CBT approach was proven to be highly effective in treating a range of disorders." But the study has no control group, has nothing resembling scientific design or discipline, and the published outcome is an opinion, not an experimental result. It could mean anything or nothing.
... can't be used to do so. As well, the rejection of the null-hypothesis supporting evidence for 'talk therapy' can't be used to do so either. Same problem — you're objecting to a claim I never made anywhere. You have constructed a straw man. The reason is that statistical testing is extremely flawed... Statistical reasoning is a legitimate, useful approach to data analysis if its limitations are kept in mind. But it could never be used to claim that CBT is "proven effective," as in the above linked article.

If I flip a fair coin eight times, the probability that all the flips will come up heads is exactly 2-8 = 1/256. That is a simple fact, one provided to us by statistics and probability. The problem with statistics is not statistics, it is with people who try to misuse it. People who, for example, try to draw a conclusion from a study with laughably poor controls, or no controls. People who refuse to take into account that a change in an experimental group might have arisen from something other than the experimenter's pet theory.
See paper, "All evidence is equal: the flaw in statistical reasoning" Nonsense — all evidence is not equal. By the way, on the topic of evidence, where's your link to the article you've just tried to use as an argument, which objects to a remark I never made anywhere? Therefore, one cannot be certain that 'talk therapy' is or is not beneficial! I never said anywhere that I am certain that it's "not beneficial"! Those are your words — I never uttered them. Both the supporter and critic of 'talk therapy' cannot use results from Null-Hypothesis testing for their opinions. False. The null hypothesis favors the assumption that there is no effect present. On that basis, the burden of evidence is on the person claiming an effect, to substantiate his claim. It is psychology that claims CBT is "proven effective" as in the above example, but without meeting its burden of evidence.

See my quotes around "proven effective"? Want to know how I dare to enclose those words in quotes? That's easy — I looked up the phrase and found one (of hundreds) of articles that use the phrase "proven effective" with respect to CBT, but without first doing some science. Then I provided a link to the article that uses the phrase "proven effective." That is how one constructs an argument. That is how one generates light instead of heat.
2.) I do not think it is accurate to state that speaking to a therapist or counselor is no different than speaking with your uncle or bartender. First, that is the essence of the null hypothesis — that, absent evidence to the contrary, there is no difference between two groups. Second, the null hypothesis is a hypothesis — it's a reasonable, default position that awaits concrete evidence one way or another. Third, in a scientific debate, what you think is not a matter of interest to anyone. Fourth, I never said that therapy is "no different" than speaking with a sympathetic relative. I said that there is no reliable scientific evidence that this is so. Fifth, psychologists who have bothered to take a look, have come to the same conclusion. A seasoned counselor, for instance, after having met and learned the most intimate of things with so many people, would probably have knowledge that an uncle or bartender has not been able to gain. So, according to what you have said, you "think" that a therapist is "probably" a better choice than a sympathetic relative. Thanks for sharing your unsupported opinion, your belief. In point of fact, in repeated studies, no reliable difference has been found between the activities of therapists of one kind or another, and the activities of anyone else. 3.) If a certain subject or practice is unscientific, does that necessarily mean that it is useless? First, having abandoned your effort to locate evidence for your viewpoint, you've just changed the subject. Second, I ask you to substantiate my having ever used the word "useless" anywhere, with respect to therapy. No? Can't do that?

I can't tell you how many times I've had this exact conversation, invariably with people who have no idea how to construct a logical argument, people who think arguing for an emotional viewpoint, using words like "believe" and "probably", is on a par with arguing using evidence.

My conclusion? You can't construct an argument, you don't know how to do research, and you think your personal beliefs are a matter of interest in a scientific debate.

You'll fit into the world of psychology just fine. You would also have fit into the world of religion just fine, but religion is so ... how shall I say this ... embarrassing and out-of-date. After all, we have psychology now. So instead of pretending to have a personal relationship with an invisible super-being, we can pretend to be doing scientific research.

Have a nice day.
The Null Hypothesis II
The article, "All Evidence Is Equal: The Flaw In Statistical Testing": of course not all evidence is equal, but this is just a title. In technical and scientific writing, titles matter as much as contents do. In science, it's not acceptable to title articles in ways that appeal to emotion or draw false conclusions, conclusions not supported by the article's contents. I can't tell you how many "scientific" articles I've read in which the title contradicts the contents — many, but not all, from the field of psychology.

The article doesn't present a mathematical or logical argument, it presents a philosophical one. It contains no mathematical reasoning, nor does it mathematically identify errors in logic or analysis in specific cases. Not one equation, not one table of data is presented to bolster the article's premise (there are tables, but they're coincidental to the article's position). And to an unfortunate extent, the argument depends on phrases such as "I believe ...".

Then, late in the article, the author says, "The conclusion here should not be confused with an argument against numeric analysis, rather the reverse." But the premise of the article's title and introduction is that numeric analysis cannot successfully process sources of evidence and draw a reasonable conclusion. The article presents itself as an argument against numeric analysis, but the article's text comes to the opposite conclusion — the problem rests with how people misapply numerical analysis, not numerical analysis per se.

If the article pointed out "a" flaw numeric analysis, rather than "the" flaw in numeric analysis, the title would seem less hyperbolic. In any case, as is deplorably common in articles of this kind, the title contradicts the article's conclusions:
  • Title: "All evidence is equal: the flaw in statistical reasoning"
  • Conclusion: "... should not be confused with an argument against numeric analysis, rather the reverse."
To understand this flat contradiction between title and content, you would need to learn why academics write as they do. But one thing is certain — you drew the wrong conclusion from the article, apparently by not reading carefully.
The point that I'm making refering to this article supports your claim. It shows how Modus Tollens is used improperly. That may be true, but it certainly doesn't support the conclusion you drew on its basis — that "statistical testing is extremely flawed ... Therefore, one cannot be certain that 'talk therapy' is or is not beneficial!"

In the above sentence, your "therefore" clause doesn't follow from the presented evidence, and it ignores the article's actual conclusion presented above. The fact that people can lie using statistics is not an argument that all results based on statistics are invalidated, the conclusion made by your "therefore" clause.

And your premise is false — if more careful, dispassionate studies were to be conducted, by people more interested in producing meaningful results than in supporting a preconceived conclusion, CBT might be portrayed more truthfully than it is. As things stand, there are many articles that claim CBT is indistinguishable from other therapies, and there are an equal number of articles that make hyperbolic claims about CBT. The meta-analyses tend to favor the conclusion that all therapies are equal, that the placebo effect hasn't been properly taken into account, and that the null hypothesis is not refuted. That the effect of sitting on a porch with a sympathetic relative cannot be scientifically distinguished from formal therapy.
True, you never said this or that is 'useless'...but there does exist a certain 'tone' to your writing which can make a reader assume this. So now science is based on analyzing certain "tones"? Only in psychology. You really need to learn how to avoid arguments based on your perceptions rather than objective sources of evidence. Unless, of course, you're not interested in science. What I'm getting at is if a psychologist holds and opinion and this opinion is based on hypothesis testing, then their opinion is logically flawed, since the article (link above) shows the flaw in hypothesis testing. The article does nothing of the kind, indeed as I have pointed out, it comes to the opposite conclusion — it argues that flaws can creep into improperly conducted statistical analysis. It doesn't say that all hypothesis testing is flawed, the position you're taking (and the position of the article's title). I am agreeing with you sir. This article would be a good addition to your site. On the contrary. I've read the article — it has more flaws than the practices it deplores. Why are you being rude to me? Point out where I have been rude to you. If I say, "to become an airline pilot, you first would need to learn how to fly an airplane," is that rude, or simply informative? Essentially you are saying I am an emotional being that can't think logically. Essentially you made this up. I neither said nor implied it. But your inability to quote accurately provides evidence for that very conclusion. You read an obscure academic article and drew a totally distorted conclusion from it. You read my articles and drew equally distorted conclusions from them. These are simple statements of fact. Well, I have studied logic. And? How does this free you from a responsibility to apply logic when the occasion demands? I am not religious. And I do not believe in CBT. I can't understand how this comes from someone who claims to have studied logic, and in a discussion of science. Evaluation of CBT shouldn't be based on personal belief — it should be based on objective evidence for its effectiveness. Do you realize that saying "I don't believe in CBT" is logically indistinguishable from "I believe in CBT"? That both outlooks suffer from the false premise that belief has a role to play? I have attendted CBT sessions and have first hand experience. I have also seen counselors. My opinion, in my experience, my subjective experience, is that they are useful. Yes, and that is the problem. You have no idea whether your opinion of CBT is based on CBT itself, or a specific, personal exposure to a variety of CBT (they're not all created equal), or the placebo effect, or some unevaluated third possibility.

But this is all beside the point, which is that practices that aren't scientific, that are not based on evidence, shouldn't be allowed to masquerade as sciences.
As well, since we are in agreement about psychology not being a science, my last e-mail simply wanted to introduce a question outside of the scientific realm.

Can something have value if it is not scientific?
You studied logic — don't you see the problem with your question? It's that, without science, we can never objectively determine whether something has value (your word). Without science we're reduced to drawing personal conclusions based on belief, opinion, and taste. Without a role for science, people aren't required or expected to agree, which means it's not worth discussing.

The problem with psychology is that uneducated people think they're visiting doctors and that psychology is a branch of medicine with treatments based on evidence. My articles are meant to correct that falsehood.
Definition of Science I
Hello, I am a psychology student from ...., also interested in philosophy of science. I was reading your article regarding the scientific status of psychology and I'd like to discuss some parts of it, if you agree. Specifically, if I understand you correctly, you distinguish scientific approaches from non scientific ones based on whether they state falsifiable claims or not. This criterion was made popular by Karl Popper, but some other philosophers and historians of science demonstrated that science in reality does not work that way ... This is absolutely false. All true science requires testability and falsifiability as primary requirements. This is an absolute, non-negotiable standard. It's not just a philosophical posturing or someone's hand-waving idea.

Why is astronomy a science, and astrology not a science? The answer is falsifiability — astronomy tests its claims and abandons those that fail. Astrology doesn't.

What's the difference between evolution theory and "Creation Science"? The answer is falsifiability — evolution theory tests its claims and abandons those that fail. "Creation Science" doesn't.

And guess what astrologers and "Creation Scientists" have in common with psychologists? They argue that falsifiability shouldn't be a requirement for science, that maybe it's optional. But they're wrong — they want the status and prestige of science without the single essential component of all true science: the courage to compare theories to reality.

If you want your existence to make a difference to the world, you will start by learning this single most important fact about science, and why science differs from superstition: Science must compare its ideas to reality.
I think that science cannot be so easily defined as you pretend I didn't invent the above definition, science did. Over centuries of trial and error, scientists reluctantly realized it's not possible to circumvent the one key element that separates science from superstition — a willingness to compare theories to reality, and the intellectual integrity to abandon those ideas that fail the comparison. ... but one cannot necessarily conclude from that that psychology cannot be a science. But it's much simpler than that — it's trivial to locate true science. In a field based on superstition, its practitioners are often forced to stop practices and treatments that have never been tested against reality, usually after the treatments have begun. In science, the practitioners test their ideas and abandon the failures before even considering offering treatments. Psychology is infamous for offering treatments that have never been tested scientifically. Recovered Memory Therapy and Asperger Syndrome are just the two most recent examples, neither of them scientifically tested, both offered in clinics, and both abandoned after public outrage because of the harm they caused. Psychology might not be "scientifically perfect", but neither are the rest of the sciences. No science is perfect, but psychology is not a science.

Want to roll back the calendar, return to medieval times, times when the Church could demand on threat of torture that Galileo stop making those heretical claims about the motion of the earth? Simple — just argue that testability and falsifiability aren't necessary, that philosophical hand-waving is a suitable replacement.

Do you know why Galileo's outlook eventually prevailed over the Church? After all, the Church had civil authority, it represented centuries of tradition and collected wisdom, and it had nearly universal public support. And it's true, the Church had all of that. But Galileo had a telescope, and he used it to observe reality.
Definition of Science II
You say that "All true science requires testability and falsifiability as primary requirements." One can derive from that that theoretical physics, logic and mathematics for instance are not sciences because many areas of those disciplines cannot be tested empirically. If a physical theory cannot be tested and potentially falsified, then it is not scientific. For example string theory, in spite of its name, is a hypothesis, not a theory (i.e. something that has evidence to support it). And it seems that scientists now agree that string theory is not science:

"The most ambitious idea ever outlined by scientists has suffered a remarkable setback. It has been dismissed as a theoretical cul-de-sac that has wasted the academic lives of hundreds of the world's cleverest men and women.

This startling accusation has been made by frustrated physicists, including several Nobel prize winners, who say that string theory - which seeks to outline the entire structure of the universe in a few brief equations - is an intellectual dead end."

But this doesn't mean that physics isn't science. It means that new ideas are given a grace period to prove themselves, and if they fail reality tests, they are abandoned. This is not true in psychology. In psychology, ideas are only abandoned because of public outrage or because courts refuse to listen to psychological "experts" any more (as happened with Recovered Memory Therapy, more on this below). Also, untested, unscientific ideas become therapy in clinics without first being compared to reality. There is no other field with scientific pretensions where this is true.
Then you say "I didn't invent the above definition, science did." But that is not true. Yes, it is true — falsifiability is a cornerstone of science, it is not something I made up:

"In philosophy of science, and most notably that endorsed by Karl Popper, the scientific method demands that a theory must at least in principle be falsifiable in order for it to be valid as science. This requirement was developed in order to solve the demarcation problem, or what is and what is not science. Determining that something is unfalsifiable is one of the primary tests of pseudoscience. Evolution, for example is theoretically falsifiable - "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian", as J.B.S. Haldane once said - whereas intelligent design is not, mostly because it makes no predictions that can actually be tested. All major scientific theories can, in principle, be falsified, from gravity to atomic theory to the standard model of particle physics. That experiments have failed to disprove the theories is a testament to how robust they are."

Let me add that this is not just something a philosopher said. Popper didn't invent falsifiability, he discovered it. One of many ways the value of falsifiability can be measured is the fact that pseudoscientists desperately argue that falsifiability isn't necessary for science, but scientists accept falsifiability as an obvious requirement.
While some have accepted the falsifiability criterion Popper postulated, many scientists still believe that corroborating theory is the way to go, as proposed by Hempel, Carnap and the rest of the Circle of Vienna. First, contrary to that philosophy, science doesn't hinge on theories that agree with each other, it hinges on theories that agree with reality.

Second, I can't believe what I'm hearing. Do you understand what you're doing? You're picking philosophers on the basis that they agree with what you already think, but without bothering to test whether the ideas have any connection with reality.

This way of arguing requires an outlook called Postmodernism, the idea that there are no shared, objective truths, that everything is a matter of opinion, including science. But the first thing you need to understand about Postmodernism is that, when applied to Postmodernism itself, it nullifies it: if everything is a matter of opinion, if there are no shared objective truths, then Postmodernism is itself a matter of opinion, and contains no shared, objective truths, and on that basis cannot be used to support an argument that requires, as its first principle, that two or more people might agree about something.

A Postmodernist first denies the existence of shared, objective truths, then tries to start a dialogue requiring what's just been denied.

Please think a bit more deeply — never use, as an argument, the premise that argument is not possible.
Lastly, you say that "Psychology is infamous for offering treatments that have never been tested scientifically." With this I agree, but I don't think that from that one is able to conclude that psychology is not a science. Yes, that is exactly why psychology is not a science. Until psychology controls its own practice, until psychology can prevent clinical psychologists from offering therapies absent evidence that they actually work, then psychology is not a science — in fact, it's not even a single scientific field, by definition unified by tested theories.

In physics, if someone builds a bridge or airplane without paying attention to physical theory, he can be charged with criminal wrongdoing if the bridge falls, or the airplane crashes — or even if they don't, on the ground that he is endangering the safety of the public.

In medicine, if a doctor administers a treatment without paying attention to medical theory, he can be charged with criminal wrongdoing if the treatment fails — or even if it succeeds, on the ground that he is endangering the safety of patients.

But in psychology, there are no similar reality tests — clinical psychologists can do whatever they please, they are not constrained by a nonexistent psychological theory that can regulate their activities. The only thing limiting clinical psychologists is what the public will accept, not the content of psychological theory, which is just as well, because there is no psychological theory available that can inform clinical practice.
The only thing that can be concluded is that it needs more legal regulation for its technological applications. No, that isn't good enough. Does regulating the practice of astrology turn it into a science or make it effective? Does having published rules about what astrologers can do mean that the positions of the planets govern our lives? Those are separate things — the only way to turn astrology into science is to test its claims, and if the tests fail, abandon astrology. And that will never happen. I'm sorry if you thought my message was against science. Your message is certainly against science, for reasons you don't yet understand. It's not a matter of opinion. I'm all for science, it is a matter that captivates me deeply. That's great — a good first step. Next step: learn the basics of science. Learn why testability and falsifiability must be present. That is why I think psychology can and must abide by its standards. Psychology doesn't have any standards. If a psychologist can sit down with a client and persuade her that she was raped by her father, if the psychologist can then go into a courtroom and swear under oath that it's all true, and if the court accepts the expertise of the psychologist on the ground that psychology is a science and overlooks the fact that the accuser is a virgin, then psychology has no standards and is not a science:

Creating False Memories: "In Missouri in 1992 a church counselor helped Beth Rutherford to remember during therapy that her father, a clergyman, had regularly raped her between the ages of seven and 14 and that her mother sometimes helped him by holding her down. Under her therapist's guidance, Rutherford developed memories of her father twice impregnating her and forcing her to abort the fetus herself with a coat hanger.The father had to resign from his post as a clergyman when the allegations were made public. Later medical examination of the daughter revealed, however, that she was still a virgin at age 22 and had never been pregnant. The daughter sued the therapist and received a $1-million settlement in 1996."

Notice that the psychologist wasn't charged with criminal wrongdoing, only sued in civil court. The reason? There are no laws to prevent a psychologist from talking someone into a false and dangerous fantasy.

If a doctor offers bogus therapy, he can be charged with a crime. If a psychologist offer bogus therapy, he can only be sued for being stupid. The difference? Medicine is based on science, on evidence.

This is just one of thousands of similar, outrageous stories that came out of the Recovered Memory Therapy debacle during the 1990s.
While it has its problems, its not an impossible task, or so much harder than in other sciences. Not impossible? This idea has no chance until it is made a legal requirement, and that is not a remote possibility — clinical psychologists are perfectly happy to practice pseudoscience and vigorously resist any efforts to reform the field. Contrary to sociology or economy, psychology is experimental, at least to a large extent, like human biology, ethology or medicine. There is no comparison. Again, when the day arrives that clinical psychologists can be forbidden to offer treatments that have not been tested and found to be based in science and evidence, then psychology will finally cross the threshold of science. I also think that you should broaden your horizons regarding the definition of science, I think you need to go out and get an education in reality. Science is not whatever we choose to call science. Science has strict, non-negotiable standards that cannot be argued away as you are trying to do. When you try to argue that science is anything we care to claim is so, you are saying that Beth Rutherford was really raped, and her father was really a rapist and molester, because that's what her therapist claimed was so. based on historical facts and epistemological works. I recommend you the reading of some of the books of Irme Lakatos (a mathematician) for that matter. I always like getting messages like yours. It reveals for me, beyond any statistic or analysis, the sickness in psychology. You have no idea what constitutes science or argument, you don't understand why science must be that way it is, and you're willing to offer any argument to support your position, including the obviously self-nullifying Postmodern argument that it's all just opinion and there are no shared, objective truths.

You will fit into the world of psychology just fine. In fact, in many ways you'll be the perfect psychologist — you have a superficial grasp of reality, you can't imagine rational counterarguments to your own positions, and you have no idea why science must be the way it is.

Congratulations on avoiding any substance in your education until now, any difficult but necessary turning points, any reality-tests. Do you know what separates you from Beth Rutherford, the virgin accuser? Circumstance. You both accept things that have no connection with reality, because you haven't been trained to be skeptical.

"Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion" — Richard Feynman

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