Psychology Led Astray is a well-written, readable and thoroughly researched book. … The importance of its subject matter is difficult to overstate. Anyone who is concerned, however remotely, with the study of human psychology and the treatment of psychological difficulties and disorders (and this includes potential patients and their families – i.e. just about anyone) should familiarise themselves with the information in this book.
Prof. Michael Heap who is the Editor of Quarterly Magazine of the Association for Skeptical Inquiry Skeptical Intelligencer in Vol 20, 2017, Number 1, (Spring) published a review of Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy.
Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy by Tomasz Witkowski, Boca Raton, FL: BrownWalker Press, 2016, pp 276 + xiii. ISBN-10: 1-62734-609-0; ISBN-13: 978-1-62734-609-2.
What is going wrong with Psychology and why is it so vulnerable to so many unproven, unscientific and all-too-often weird ideas and practices?
Reviewed by Michael Heap
Speaking as someone who has worked as a psychologist for the last 47 years it may come as no surprise for me to defend psychology as a worthy field of study. Like all disciplines it is vulnerable to quirky ideas, questionable practices, and pseudoscientific claims, but more so than the hard sciences because of the nature of the subject matter, about which everyone can have his or her opinions and theories, some of them strongly held. A Psychology degree, thousands of which are handed out annually by universities, in itself offers no guarantee that the holder is endowed with the discipline required to adhere to a rational understanding of the human mind, its capabilities and its afflictions. Psychological research is particularly vulnerable to a malaise that is now acknowledged to affect many fields of study involving human subjects, namely unreliability; experiments and other forms of investigation are often badly designed and conducted, and the results poorly analysed and improperly interpreted. One force responsible for this lamentable state of affairs is the requirement on most university staff to maintain a decent flow of research publications. Hence convenience will play an important role in choice of research topics and human volunteers to be studied (usually undergraduate students). The inevitable result is that thousands of research papers in hundreds of journals are published annually, most are hardly ever read, and what limited attempts are made to replicate the findings all too often end in failure. Applied psychology (clinical, educational, forensic, occupational, etc.) is no less a dodgy business, more revealingly so in the present climate of accountability to a strong and reliable evidence base.
All of this does not discredit Psychology as an academic and applied discipline, vital in the prospectus offered by any university worth its salt, likewise in medical and educational services, civil and criminal justice systems, and many other important spheres of public life. But Psychology is something people do and when it goes seriously wrong it is largely because of the way people are doing it and the political, social and economic contexts in which they operate.
The author of Psychology Led Astray would agree, I am sure, with the above sentiments. Tomasz Witkowski is himself a psychologist (and a founding member of the Polish Skeptics Club) who, with his colleague Maciej Zatonoski, has already published a highly critical account of the numerous failings and scandals that have plagued psychology over the years (note 1). In fairness, as is the case with the present book, some of the topics covered could equally well have been included in a book titled ‘Psychiatry Led Astray’. Also some of the dubious and even harmful therapeutic practices that are discussed would receive short shrift from most mainstream psychologists, psychiatrists and medical practitioners in general. But not all of them, it seems, and there are cultural and national variations in the extent to which this is so.
The material covered in the book is divided into three parts. Part I asks the question ‘Is Psychology a Cargo Cult Science?’ and is a critique of important ways in which modern psychology has developed. The term ‘cargo cult’ was used in an address by physicist Richard Feynman in 1974 at the California Institute of Technology as a criticism of contemporary social sciences. He compared the ways in which social scientists emulate their colleagues in the physical sciences to the cargo cults that developed amongst people in the South Seas during and after World War II through their contact with the west. For example, having witnessed aeroplanes landing and bringing lots of desirable cargo to their islands, they made their own runways and lit fires along the sides, constructed airports made of wood, radios made of coconuts and straw, and so on. Of course any hoped-for material benefits of doing all this never appeared (note 2).
The chapters in Part I largely concern the failings of modern psychological research as I have briefly outlined in the first paragraph of this review. There is also a chapter on research into stress and its supposedly deleterious effect on physical health. The gist is that the most well-constructed research suggests that claims for such a link (which seem to represent current orthodoxy) are at least overblown and may even have been discredited. Informed readers may be divided on this assertion.
A particular point that the author makes made me sit up. It is that, at least from the standpoint of research, Psychology has all-but ceased to be the Science of Behaviour. The basis for this claim is the declining number of research papers that involve the direct observation of behaviour. The author quotes social psychologist Roy Baumeister lamenting the decline in research papers in which observable behaviour is the dependent variable in favour of those using introspective measures and scores on questionnaires. Several reasons are cited and Witowski includes convenience and the demands on researchers to be prolific in their publications (see my earlier comments.
I was pleased (because I have often pondered on this paradox) to read the author’s remarks about how the growth in the number of professionals and the resources dedicated to the needs of people with mental health problems has been matched by an increase in the number of people diagnosed with these problems. Naively one would predict that the former would lead to a decline in the latter.
A range of dubious, unsupported and discredited (though still thriving) treatments and therapeutic practices and diagnostic categories are covered in Parts II and III of the book (Part III being devoted to children’s problems and needs). Throughout these sections the author repeatedly returns to the analogy of cargo cults, which some readers may feel is somewhat overworked at times.
The material covered in Part II comprises the following: the syndrome known as ‘adult children of alcoholics’; the Simonton visualisation method for cancer patients; and psychological debriefing following trauma (which research has revealed to be more harmful than beneficial). The section ends with a chapter titled ‘Experimental therapy patient’s handbook’; this provides guidelines for people who are considering undergoing some form of therapy.
The chapters in Part III cover the Doman-Delacato for the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders and other children’s disabilities; the pseudoscience of educational kinesiology (‘Brain Gym®’); certain ‘attachment therapies’, including holding therapy; and dolphin therapy.
Psychology Led Astray is a well-written, readable and thoroughly researched book. Two criticisms are that, as with Psychology Gone Wrong, there is no index and the referencing system could be more reader-friendly. Nevertheless, the importance of its subject matter is difficult to overstate. Anyone who is concerned, however remotely, with the study of human psychology and the treatment of psychological difficulties and disorders (and this includes potential patients and their families – i.e. just about anyone) should familiarise themselves with the information in this book.
- Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonoski (2015) Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Sides of Science and Therapy, Boca Raton FL: BrownWalker Press. (Reviewed in the Skeptical Intelligencer, 19, 2018 (3), 1.
- I personally think that the metaphor is very apt when comparing the diagnostic classification systems of psychiatry with those of medicine generally, something covered by the author in his first chapter.