About “Shaping Psychology” in “The Skeptical Intelligencer”

Tomasz Witkowski proves to be an able interviewer, very knowledgeable and well informed about psychological and philosophical matters.

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania michael heapProf. Michael Heap who is the Editor of Quarterly Magazine of the Association for Skeptical Inquiry Skeptical Intelligencer in Vol 23, 2020, Number 4, (Winter) published a review of Shaping Psychology: Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field. 


Shaping Psychology: Perspectives on Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field by Tomasz Witkowski. Palgrave Macmillan (Springer Nature: Cham, Switzerland), 2020, pp332 + references.


Reviewed by Michael Heap

The author of this book, Tomasz Witkowski, is a psychologist and a founding member of the Polish Skeptics Club. He is the author of a previous book (note 1) criticising the status of academic and applied psychology, which I reviewed in the Spring 2017 issue of the Skeptical Intelligencer. Prior to that he co-authored, with his colleague Maciej Zatonoski, another account of the numerous failings and scandals that have plagued psychology over the years (note 2). This was reviewed in the Autumn 2015 issue. In the present volume, Witkowski continues the theme in the form of interviews with experienced and eminent contributors to the field of psychology. Amongst the issues about which he is most concerned are the quality, utility and validity of much of the research being published nowadays; the ‘replication crisis’; the efficacy of many psychotherapeutic practices that psychologists seem willing to embrace; and the failure of psychologists to mount a sufficiently strong challenge to their psychiatric colleagues’ fetish for diagnostic labelling. However, the main content of most of the chapters is a discussion of the interviewee’s personal history and contribution to psychology over the course of their working lives.

A total of 15 individuals were interviewed. The author first approached a larger group (he tells us that he ‘placed significant stock on the 2002 ranking titled “The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century”)’ and those interviewed are the ones who agreed to participate. Consequently, the contributors are both author-selected (with the above assistance) and self-selected, meaning that on another occasion, with another author, maybe a somewhat different sample would have emerged, with different interests, opinions and ideas about future trends and requirements. The author acknowledges this in his Introduction, but I think it fair to say that, overall, the picture that emerges from the book is quite representative of the discipline as a whole. Nevertheless, only four of the contributors are women. There is also the predictable American bias (inevitable if the content is to be representative).


Tomasz Witkowski proves to be an able interviewer, very knowledgeable and well informed about psychological and philosophical matters.


Several contributors will be familiar to skeptics. Elizabeth Loftus is amongst them. Many readers will be familiar with her influential work on the fallibility of memory, notably in relation to eyewitness testimony and ‘recovered memories’ of sexual abuse in childhood. Readers will be dismayed by the level of personal and professional abuse that Professor Loftus has had to endure (believe me, psychotherapists are not necessarily the most agreeable, rational, and well-adjusted of people). Another such contributor is the recently deceased (and much missed) Scott Lilienfeld, who was very thorough and prolific in his criticism of the psychotherapy industry (but gives due acknowledgement to those therapies that are evidence-based). Then there is our very own Susan Blackmore, known for her early zeal for investigating the paranormal, only eventually to conclude that there appears to be nothing there to investigate. In her interview she focuses on her later work on consciousness and memes. Next we have Daniel Kahneman, one of the most influential psychologists of our time, celebrated by skeptics for his work on cognitive biases. Brian Nozec also agreed to participate; in 2013, he co-founded the Centre for Open Science and directs its Open Science Framework, an online service where scientists can preregister their research and other of activities, with a view to promoting higher standards. Finally, there is an interview with the very prolific science writer and author Carol Tavris. Despite not being a researcher at a university, she ‘figures on a list of the 50 greatest living psychologists’. Dr Tavris writes about skepticism generally and sex-differences and feminism in particular, and she pens the Gadfly column for the US Skeptic.

It is fair to say that if you are a seasoned skeptic you will probably be familiar with much of the factual content of the above chapters (though not necessarily the others) but you will be keen to hear the views of these people concerning the current status of academic and applied psychology and future developments (likely and desirable). This is true of all the interviewees and we also hear some interesting accounts of their personal lives and what drew them to their field of study. A common pattern across chapters is the confidence and even pride shown by each contributor in his or her chosen area of research, often coupled with criticism of those who have taken an alternative perspective. This is to be expected, as are the differing responses to questions about what have been the most important contributions of psychology so far and what we should expect or wish for in the future. Cognitive neuroscience is a common theme when the latter question is asked. The interviewer also has a list of concerns about the present status of psychology, but the participants vary in the extent to which they share these concerns, some being more sanguine than the interviewer. I should mention that amongst the contributors not listed above, but one who will be familiar to many skeptics, is Noam Chomsky, not a psychologist of course but someone which has been of great influence in the field of psycholinguistics (he was a key figure when I undertook my BSc in Psychology 50 plus years ago). Chomsky’s interview is interesting to me for his reticence as much as anything else. He was reluctant to be drawn on some of the controversies raised (with the exception of world politics and capitalism), sometimes remarking that he was not sufficiently informed to comment. Fair enough, I suppose.

Whilst nowadays there is no shortage of interviews of eminent people that are easily accessible on the internet, I think there is still much to be said for the medium of the written word for these purposes (note 3). The amount and diversity of the discussion that a book provokes is a measure of its success and I could certainly write many pages discussing matters raised by each of the interviewees and my own reactions. One thing Shaping Psychology does achieve, in my opinion, is that whatever the reader’s background, it gives him or her a very good, up-to-date insight into what is happening in academic psychology and applied psychology at the present time. It is very readable (there is one exception, which I shall not name or comment on here—I’ll leave this to readers of the book) and any of the chapters is worth re-reading and studying in depth. Tomasz Witkowski proves to be an able interviewer, very knowledgeable and well informed about psychological and philosophical matters (I confess to doing the occasional Google search to understand a point that was being discussed, when I really ought to have known about it).


Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?



More than one of the contributors (e.g. Robert J. Sternberg, who has some useful things to say about intelligence) refer to ‘wisdom’ and the need for psychology to be informed and directed by this rarely-mentioned human faculty. Just recently I was reading a book, one chapter of which opened with a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s, poem ‘Chorus from the Rocks’:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

We do indeed live in an age when, because technology enables us to gather and store so much information, this becomes an end in itself without regard to how much we need the information and how it is to be used to benefit us and the world in which we live. So I cannot help relating this quotation to the issues that are addressed in Sharing Psychology (and to research generally, education, the media—popular and academic—the internet, and many other facets of our lives).

I am very happy to recommend Shaping Psychology to readers of the Skeptical Intelligencer.


  1. Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy. Tomasz Witkowski, Boca Raton, FL: BrownWalker Press, 2016.
  2. Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Sides of Science and Therapy. Tomasz Witkowski & Maciej Zatonoski, Boca Raton FL: BrownWalker Press, 2015.
  3. Coincidentally, I have just acquired a book that came out 27 years ago entitled States of Mind: Conversations with Psychological Investigators, edited by the late Jonathan Miller and published by the BBC (it is based on a TV series). There are 15 conversations with people who at that time had achieved some eminence in psychology. There is only one woman (Hanna Segal). It will be interesting to compare the contents with those of Shaping Psychology.

Michael Heap is a retired clinical and forensic psychologist.


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