Freuds Out; Whos Next?
Remember Sigmund Freud? He was the cat’s meow in psychology as the 19th century merged into the 20th. He was extolled by all the scientists of his day as one of the great modern thinkers (along with Marx and Darwin). His impact on modern thought was immeasurable. He gave us new words like id, ego and superego and concepts like “the unconscious” that are still with us today. Countless people have tried to find hidden meanings in their dreams and have worried about Oedipus complexes and anal retentiveness and penis envy based on his “insights.” They spent millions of dollars lying on couches with their shrink, undergoing “psychoanalysis,” to treat any number of mental illnesses – some of them, like hysteria, undoubtedly brought on by the power of suggestion upon hearing descriptions of the illnesses themselves.
My, what would people have thought in 1909 if a time traveler brought back this quote from Nature a hundred years later:1
Anyone reading Sigmund Freud’s original works might well be seduced by the beauty of his prose, the elegance of his arguments and the acuity of his intuition. But those with a grounding in science will also be shocked by the abandon with which he elaborated his theories on the basis of essentially no empirical evidence. This is one of the main reasons why Freudian-style psychoanalysis has long since fallen out of fashion: its huge expense – treatment can stretch over years – is not balanced by evidence of efficacy.
The purpose of Nature’s editorial was to rein in today’s decadent practice of psychology with this lesson from the past. “If clinical psychology in the United States wants to remain viable and relevant in today’s health systems, it needs to publicly embrace science.” Has cognitive neuroscience learned the lessons of the past? Apparently not: “There is a moral imperative to turn the craft of psychology – in danger of falling, Freud-like, out of fashion – into a robust and valued science informed by the best available research and economic evidence.”2 The editors did not identify the grounds of morals, robust science, or values.
1. Editorial, Nature 461, 847 (15 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/461847a.
2. One of the suggestions in the editorial was to set up a government agency like the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) responsible for determining the efficacy of treatments before authorizing funds, even though the editors realize that it “represents the epitome of big-government intrusion into individual freedom of choice….”
Could Darwin fall? Could he be the big has-been of 2020? Certainly. Look at the lesser gods of the triumvirate, Marx and Freud. Except for a few holdouts in academia, their vast intellectual empires have “fallen out of fashion”. Oh, there are still totalitarian dictatorships in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea that outwardly hold onto the Marx image, but nobody really believes that stuff about dialectical materialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat any more (right, Van Jones?). The philosophical and empirical bases for Marxism and Freudianism (if there ever were any) have collapsed and crumbled. These days, anyone who thinks Marx was brilliant should tour the Gulags and the killing fields and watch replays of the Berlin Wall coming down. Anyone who thinks Freud was brilliant should get his head examined.
Sad to say, even worse ideas flowed in the wake of Marx and Freud. Psychology has been a comedy (and tragedy) of self-refuting and contradictory ideas – some bordering on the criminal, like electroshock and lobotomy, others just weird or dumb, like making vulnerable people undress in group therapy sessions and be subjected to ridicule. Now we see that Freud’s psychological theories and treatments were all made-up, arbitrary, evidence-free fads. He was a con artist: Sick-man Fraud the Magnificent. He was a man who swept women off their feet with the “beauty of his prose,” and who seduced a world with the “elegance of his arguments.” Sounds like the Origin of Species.
The impending fall of Darwin (10/16/2009) will not automatically bring a world of intellectual peace and integrity. The senior devil will see to that. The vacuum left by the fall of bad ideas must be quickly filled by good ideas. Be prepared with good news founded on solid ground. A lot of disillusioned people are going to need counseling.