Last updated 03/18/07.
Published on: July 21, 1999
Let's start out with the simple declaration that there is some real medical science in psychology. For example, it's pretty clear now that one cause of schitzophrenia has been shown to be caused by a chemical imbalance, which can be treated by drugs. Scientific approaches come from many directions, including pharmacological, perceptual, anatomical, and evolutionary.
An excellent introduction to the science of psychology is How to Think Straight About Psychology by Keith E. Stanovich. Read this, and you will understand why most of what is popularly thought of as psychology is neither scientific nor likely to be right, as well as what qualifies as legitimate scientific psychology.
But psychology, like nutrition and medicine, suffers from a vast body of popular psuedoscience and "folk wisdom". Where ever there is a terrific demand for solutions to problems and limited or non-existent scientific knowledge of good treatments, there will always be an endless supply of such fraudulent products. Fraudulent in the sense that, at best, the proponent (more likely a seller) has no reliable way of knowing or demonstrating whether his product really works.
The Skeptic's Dictionary has an excellent short introduction to fraudulent psychology.
The sterotypical psychologist is a psychoanalyst: yet few people realize that psychoanalysis is totally unscientific and has been clearly demonstrated to work as poorly as shamanism and any number of other bogus therapies. The Skeptic's Dictionary has a scathing article on psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about psychology is that the best known names to the lay public were almost all essentially pseudoscientific frauds. Carl Jung, for example. Sir Cyril Burt and Bruno Bettleheim too. (Burt's status is still stongly debated: but arguments are more about how much he falsified data and wrote under pseudonyms, not whether he did. The world would be better served if the energy was spent reproducing his studies.) Most of the famous pseudoscientific psychologists are mentioned in this review of Edward Dolnick's "Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis."
And yet another good reference is House of Cards : Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth by Robyn M. Dawes and Peter David.
Supposed psychological measurements are also mostly fraudulent. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and IQ tests. While these might give reproducible measures of something, nobody really knows what they are measuring, and thus the interpretations are generally invalid. More recent ideas of multiple types of intelligence might prove more scientific.
The supposedly "practical" applied side of psychology is probably even worse, and rife with fraud and exploitation. Here, for example, is an outline of the book 'Crazy' Therapies : What Are They? Do They Work? by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich. Another title on a related subject is Manufacturing Victims : What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People by Tana Dineen >
And finally, these problems are not confined to individuals choosing bad therapists. Unfortunately, legal implications frequently draw psychology into courts, with frequently awful results. Check out: Whores of the Court : The Fraud of Psychiatric Testimony and the Rape of American Justice by Margaret A. Hagen .
Further references can be found at A Skeptic's Bibliography & Bookstore, The Elizabeth Loftus Room: Memory and Psychotherapy.
Most people believe they know how they themselves think, how others think
too, and how institutions evolve. But they are wrong. Their understanding
is based on folk psychology., the grasp of human nature by common sense --
defined (by Einstein) as everything learned to the age of eighteen -- shot
through with misconceptions, and only slightly advanced over ideas employed
by the Greek philosophers. Advanced social theorists, including those who
spin out sophisticated mathematical models, are equally happy with folk
psychology. As a rule, they ignore the findings of scientific psychology
E. O. Wilson, in "Consilience"
Copyright 2001 by Mike Huben ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).