Why Psychology is (and Probably should be) an Embattled Science

Josh Clark

The walls appear to be closing in more than usual on the field of psychology these days. The bad press over antidepressants -- a survey of six clinical trials found that placebos work just as well as the actual pharmaceutical -- has made psychiatry look a bit bumbling. Psychiatry is, of course, the same discipline that prescribed Ecstasy for marriage counseling in the early 1980s before it was listed at the top of the federal controlled substance schedule. This is not to say that the couples entering counseling in that era didn't have fun, but anyone who's ever made a connection with another person through synthetic chemistry can tell you those ties are fleeting and tenuous. Once the sun comes up at the party, things just aren't the same.

That MDMA example isn't entirely fair. A growing segment of legitimate researchers have concluded that the government moved too quickly and clumsily by banning the drug outright. It's probably better used as an example of how weak the field is. Even when it's onto something, it's so easily co-opted or banned. The banking industry gets bailouts; psychology gets absently scolded.

MDMA isn't the only drug taken away from the field. Previous tinkering with soon-to-be-illicit drugs include LSD, Quaalude, the psychedelic plant extract ibogaine, benzedrine and cocaine. That last one was prescribed heavily by Sigmund Freud, who himself has become little more in the eyes of those outside the field than a useful humorous device in introductions of articles on larger topics. ("Let's see what Sigmund Freud had to say about train tunnels/sausage making/breastfeeding/Greco-Roman wrestling. He's a kook, isn't he, everybody? But seriously, we should get on with the article.")

Even with the field's successes (chemicals that everyone agrees for now are fine, just fine, for every person to take), studies like the antidepressant survey reveal psychiatrists as Oz-like wizards who aren't really sure how the levers they pull work, they just know that they do. Kind of.

There is also plenty of hostility within the field itself, the fifth edition of the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, being the biggest flashpoint. Accusations that the editors of the DSM-V, led by one of the guys who headed the project to create the DSM-IV, have been too secretive and exclusive were somewhat silenced by the online publication of the rough draft of the upcoming edition. But the early peek has also opened the APA up for even more sniping.

Are you interested in sex? You should be careful who you reveal that to. The DSM-V has been much criticized for including vague language for diagnosis of "hypersexual disorder." For example, one factor includes "spending 'a great deal of time' consumed by sexual fantasies and urges." It is up to your shrink to determine what constitutes "a great deal of time." There are other factors that would contribute to a diagnosis of hypersexual disorder, including the patient's sexuality contributing harm to his or her life, by damaging intimate relationships, for example.

But that "great deal of time" stands out like a flashing neon sign. If you'll notice the asterisk beside it, you'll notice it leads to a disclaimer at the bottom: "We're not really a scientific discipline." For science, one needs quantification. If all you have is qualification, then, my friend, your scientific discipline is based on the equivalent of fishing stories told at the VFW.

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