MORE ON BOGUS SCIENCE….The Chronicle of Higher Education, following up on “The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science,” today treats us to a long but interesting column about the gullibility of pop psychologists and psychotherapists ? and thus the public ? in accepting theories of human behavior that have been discredited by scientific studies. Examples include:

  • Low self-esteem causes aggressiveness, drug use, prejudice, and low achievement.

  • Abused children almost inevitably become abusive parents, causing a “cycle of abuse.”

  • Therapy is beneficial for most survivors of disasters, especially if intervention is rapid.

  • Memory works like a tape recorder, clicking on at the moment of birth; memories can be accurately retrieved through hypnosis, dream analysis, or other therapeutic methods.

  • Traumatic experiences, particularly of a sexual nature, are typically “repressed” from memory, or split off from consciousness through “dissociation.”

  • The way that parents treat a child in the first five years (three years) (one year) (five minutes) of life is crucial to the child’s later intellectual and emotional success.

Now, “scientific studies” in areas like this are notoriously dicey since the study of human beings is far more complex than simpler subjects such as physics and chemistry. Still, even granting this, I think the article makes a fair point. Scientific studies of human behavior are far from perfect, but they are also far from worthless and frequently provide genuinely interesting ? but counterintuitive ? results. Unfortunately, all of us think we are experts in how humans work, so while we accept bizarre theories like quantum mechanics simply because physicists say they are true, we are far less likely to accept theories of human behavior that run counter to our own experience and beliefs.

I suspect this won’t last very much longer. Both social psychology and evolutionary psychology are rapidly undermining some our longest held “common sense” ideas of how humans work, and you don’t have to accept every one of Steven Pinker’s “just so stories” about evolved human behavior to accept the general idea that (a) human behavior is susceptible to rigorous study and (b) evolution has a lot to do with it. The evidence on both these scores is already pretty compelling, and it looks likely to get more compelling still as time goes by. Much of what we intuitively believe about how we operate is likely to turn out to be…..well, just a bunch of old wives’ tales.

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