When I took psychology electives in college back in the mid-1970’s, the experience left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. The textbook used in Canada at the time was Psychology Today, and it was chock-full of pseudoscientific b.s. that at the time was the established canon. Auras, ESP, Kirlian photography, parapsychology- get your hands on an edition of Psychology Today from, say, 1974. It’s all in there. In fact, at the time you could make a career of studying this pseudoscience.
Seeing the charlatans exposed, one after another, over the following decades, left an even worse taste in my mouth. I was often ridiculed and put down by my fellow students and our profs for not buying into what today is well-known to be pseudoscientific hokum.
But not all of this type of nonsense has gone away. We still have charlatans like behavioural psychologists.
Let me lead you through a scenario to illustrate my point:
Dr Phil, whom I love to hate, is a behavioural psychologist. Many people who appear on his programme are in fact mentally ill. The clunker is when he says to one of these people, “Let me try to provide some insight as to why you behave the way you do.” What follows is the usual hokum, going over the person’s background, getting the person to talk so that the charlatan can go on a fishing expedition for “clues” or “markers”, in pretty much the same manner a psychic does.
Enter brain science as opposed to pseudoscientific baloney. The person suffers from an inability either to produce or absorb serotonin- a physical problem. Depressed serotonin levels can cause a person to suffer from mood swings, to be irritable, often with control issues. One spectrum of sufferers are considered manic depressives.
What insight is such a person going to gain from the couch treatment? Many or most people think they’re gaining some insight into why they are the way they are, but in truth they’re not learning anything useful. Worse- they’re losing time on an idiotic fishing-expedition while their illness goes untreated.
The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Put the patient on a medication to boost or stabilise or help metabolise or to replace serotonin levels and the “problem(s)” go away. Poof.
Many patients waste years, often decades and in many instances entire lifetimes being sucked in by behavioural psychologist’s pseudoscience.
But behavioural psychology does work, many experts will say. Well, in the same way that religious conversion works. Human beings are easily brainwashed. “Brainwash” is probably not the right term, but the process is pretty much identical. The underlying reality is that human beings can believe almost anything, and if the desire to believe is there, the belief tends to follow. Watch an old episode of The Amazing Randi (of debunker fame) and you’ll see this demonstrated time and time again. He’d have a charlatan on his show who’d do his thing, the audience would clap in amazement, Randi would demonstrate how the charlatan accomplishes his fakery, and the audience would clap again, switching from credulous amazement to credulous amazement. Technically, Randi could have faked his debunkery and the audience would have been none the wiser, which illustrates the plasticity of human belief and credulity.
It is built into us that when a belief settles in that it gains what might be termed “inertia”. Once established, beliefs become resistant to attack. This is how and why people are able to hold on to religious nuttery. To some extent the manner in which the brain works makes them resistant to the notion that the thing they believe is false. Many in the world of psychology will try to tell you that there is a process or pattern of thinking which leads to this condition, and a cursory search on the Interweeb will show this type of hokum in abundance. The fact of the matter is that people don’t need to think or rationalise themselves into anything, although through repetition they can achieve the same end. The human brain is built to assimilate beliefs and then hold to them because indoctrination is a large part of our social past. Further, indoctrination isn’t a thing people talk themselves into. It’s a social phenomenon we’re hard-wired to accommodate.