May 22, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Psychology Struggling to Regain Scientific Image

In the wake of scandals and replication failures, psychiatry and social psychology are enduring scrutiny some practitioners call an “inquisition” or “bullying”.

Psychiatry’s Ills

Computers need a reboot sometimes, and maybe sciences do, too.  New Scientist cheerfully says that, after a few years of bad press, “Psychiatry’s scientific reboot gets under way” (this presupposes it was booted up to begin with; see 5/10/13).  Even though psychiatrists are MD’s, “There are no blood tests or brain scans for mental illnesses so diagnoses are subjective and unreliable.”  The subjectivity goes beyond the 5th edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the target of criticism earlier (see 5/18/12, 4/24/13).  To some, the subjectivity (a bad word in science) reaches down in to the core of the discipline:

Criticism of psychiatry has been growing for years – existing treatments are often inadequate, and myriad advances in neuroscience and genetics have not translated into anything better. Vocal opponents are not confined to the US. Last week, the new UK Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry launched a campaign claiming that drugs such as antidepressants and antipsychotics often do more harm than good.

What’s more, many suspect that commonly used labels, such as depression and schizophrenia, merely group together people sharing some superficial symptoms, when their underlying brain disorders are quite different.

It might be like labeling an apple as a fruit possessing “red-skin syndrome.”  To show that’s not an idle semantic game, one critic noted that “It’s as if calling it ‘bipolar disorder’ reveals some essential truth – it reveals more about the subjective preferences of the diagnoser.”

Reporter Clare Wilson is confident that increased understanding of brain networks via EEGs and other tools will eventually move psychiatry toward the objectivity sought by scientists.  One critic thinks that’s a reductionist’s pipe dream: “The idea that the conditions we have to deal with are reducible to simplistic biological categories is wish fulfilment.”  Psychiatry is only beginning to come to grips with the brain’s complexity, a positivist admits.

Social Psychology’s Ills

If psychiatry is subjective, social psychology is even more so.  After a slew of scandals the past few years (10/06/12), a global network of psychologists is trying to replicate some high-profile papers.  The results from replication tests of the first 13 papers might cause depression.  Science Magazine reports that “In more than half of the cases, the result was a partial or complete failure.”  In a second batch of 14 papers, only 10 passed the replication test.

Replication is usually considered a requisite for science.  “Replication helps us make sure what we think is true really is true,” one tester said.  It’s painful therapy, though, for the authors of the papers.  Some liken it to bullying, others to an inquisition.  These are odd responses for scientists who are supposed to seek objectivity and welcome reproducible results.  If they’ve been wrong, the criticism is deserved (3/20/14).  Moreover, the tests are being performed on some pretty high-profile claims that have till now been considered authoritative:

All told, the researchers failed to confirm the results of 10 well-known studies, such as the social psychological effects of washing one’s hands, holding cups of warm or cold liquid, or writing down flattering things about oneself. In another five cases, the replications found a smaller effect than the original study or encountered statistical complications it did not report. For embodied cognition and also for behavior priming—the study of how exposure to one stimulus, such as the word “dog,” changes one’s reaction to another, such as a photo of a cat—the results are particularly grim. Seven of the replications focused on experiments in these areas, and all but one failed.

The testers are not alleging fraud in these particular papers, but the article reminds readers of very embarrassing fraud cases in recent months.  Now, after the widely publicized scandals of Diedrich Stapel (11/05/11) and Dirk Smeesters (7/05/12), “fresh misconduct charges” have hit Dutch social psychology again, a separate news piece in Science Magazine reports.  Jens Förster, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, is the third high-profile researcher accused of data manipulation, though he denies it and accuses his accusers of putting him through an “incredible witch hunt.”

Some research on the dynamics of witch hunt behavior priming might be called for.  But who would one trust to arrive at the truth?

It sounds like a setup for an infinite regress, like “Who’s watching the watchers?”  In this case, who is testing the testers?  Both sides are vulnerable to bias.  There needs to be some solid ground for psychology or psychiatry to claim credibility – and there is one.  It’s a more authoritative Diagnostic Manual — authoritative because it comes from the Manufacturer of the brain and soul (psyche).  Its claims are replicable.  It has a significant track record treating a variety of disorders, such as depression, guilt, addiction, irrationality, anxiety, anger, and selfishness.  While it doesn’t provide technical details on all ailments (particularly those with a biological basis), it is reliable: to the extent the therapist builds from its fundamental principles, success is assured.  The converse is also true: the more a practitioner strays from those principles, the more likely symptoms will be aggravated.  Failing to take advantage of this proven resource, especially in light of the failings of secular approaches, can be viewed as a form of madness.

This Diagnostic Manual also comes with a guarantee: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:1-8).  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).


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