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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Thinking About Self Help

Thinking About Self Help

If you take a walk down the psychology section of any book store, you’ll find row after row of books and paperbacks of the self help kind that promise to help you understand your neuroses, the means to cure them, and will even suggest new ones for you that you never thought you had. We live in an age of analysis unfortunately, and that means that you had better get the straight dope about yourself, and fast, for that’s a mean and confusing world out there.
Self help books are like fast food, you consume them by the bunch, but you’ll never find time to examine their dietary pedigree. Well, of course, you do read the cover flap of the book you buy, like the label of some hyped up patent medicine. The cover normally states your problem in a folksy, poetic, clinical or even cryptic phrase, and thus teased, the potential buyer will pick up the book for further examination. He will note first of all the author of the book, who can usually be found smiling like the Cheshire cat on a photo on the back flap. This person usually has enough initials behind his last name to form half the alphabet, and is normally a therapist in private practice who is also founder of some vague sounding organization like the Center for the Development of Human Potential, the Center for Potentially Human Development, or the Center for Humane Potential Development. Actually, most of these writers are centering on their own potential development, and you help them to do that by buying their book.
So what do you get for your expenditure? For one thing, you get recipes. Many self help books are based on the ‘Joy of Cooking’, or ‘Home Carpentry Made Easy’, and that means you’ll find many lists of easy detailed steps that can make remodeling your personality a breeze. Most of these steps are repackaged versions of common sense, and the ring of familiarity they invoke make them seem all the more convincing. Thus a word like affection become stroking, reinforcement, or positive regard, and marriage becomes pair bonding, conjugal relations or dyadic pairing. These terms are ‘power’ words, words that give you the impression that the writer knows some arcane psychological wisdom, when in fact he is giving you nothing more than what your mother or a good friend would have given you for free.
A second persistent theme of self help books is the case study. The case study is short history of the therapeutic encounter of one poor soul with the master therapist author, and details how the author learned about and treats the serious psychological affliction which happens to be the topic of his book. Case studies are great filler for self help books, much like the proceeds of trials are great filler for law books. They do of course get to a point of sorts, but that point only sets the stage for the therapist quoting from yet another case study, as if he were a lawyer bouncing from one legal precedent to another. Its all great drama, but not very rewarding in insight.
A second course of action for the curious is to investigate the collected wisdom of the academic psychologist. Sad to say, if you think you can gain any surer wisdom through a more hard nosed research effort into psychology journals or other professional publications, think again, for academic psychologists are not interested in talking to you, but only with each other. Since these folks are intelligent fellows whose jobs depend upon their sophistication, it follows that they all continually vie with one another to prove who is indeed the most sophisticated, and translates into complicated. Moreover, although the publish or perish mentality of university psychology departments would seem to put a premium on new ideas; in actuality, most of these ‘ideas’ aren’t new ideas at all, but new vocabulary. Like artificial colors and flavorings, its easy to substitute complexity for originality, and that’s what academicians promptly do.
So, the overwhelming tendency among academics is to be complex, and since they don’t publish for the general audience anyway, what do you care? But where does this leave our hapless reader? One way to start is by learning to think for yourself. But how do you do that? Simple, you learn from those other non-behavioral sciences that have long embraced the virtues of clear thinking. You must think like a chemist, a biologist, or better yet, as an astronomer. For psychology descends from the stars.

It you wish to know how our ancestors understood and predicted human behavior, you need but look at the sky on a dark and clear night. It was all of course written in the stars. A uniquely human characteristic is the love of finding new and unexpected correlations between unrelated natural events, or better yet, between natural events and human behavior. A new correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation; but its often pleasant to think it does since it makes that correlation seem a lot more reliable. Nature is replete with mysteries, and the key to solving them was that magic correlation that once found would make the clockwork of nature more comprehensive and predictable. And what better example of a fine clockwork that the rotating heavens above? The burning desire to incorporate man into this heavenly mechanism resulted in the formulation of the pseudo-science of astrology, which was used to predict in a generalized way what your personality was like and what the future held in store. The popularity of astrology has continued unabated into the present, and several books like ‘Love Signs’ and ‘Sun Signs’ presume to give you just the sort of advice to further your understanding of yourself and your likely future.
Astrology is irresistible nonsense because you can wrangle from that complex discipline just the sort of advice you want to hear, or interpret that advice in such a way as to convince yourself that it uniquely applies to you. Modern science rightly considers astrology a hoot because there is not the slightest proof of its predictive value. Indeed, in several carefully controlled studies, participants who were provided with off the shelf generalized personality assessments of themselves in general considered those assessments to be very precise estimates of their personalities, when in fact the assessment had about as much psychological merit as the fortune in a fortune cookie. In short, people believe just about any third hand opinion about themselves even if it does no more than provide over generalized opinions that can apply to anybody. Only when one demands precision and clarity in his predictions will the price of nonsense become to great to bear. In astronomy, that price became unacceptable over four hundred years ago.

Ptolemaic Psychology

Before the advent of the telescope, the workings of the heavens were as inscrutable as the workings of the human mind. Since both were so obviously interrelated, the astrological framework for these interrelations served the psychologists as well as the astronomer. Although the predictions of astrologers were necessarily over generalized, the star charts that they used to churn out such nonsense had to be very precise. Presumably, if the mainspring of the universe could be found, then all you need to predict where and when each planet will be is to deduce how that mainspring will unwind. A simple problem it would seem, since common sense as well as the church told you before hand how the whole mechanism generally worked. There remained but the need to fill in the mathematical details which would lay the whole clockwork bare. In the second century A. D. the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy did just that, as he worked out a marvelous mathematical model of this cosmic clockwork which allowed the astronomer to predict just where the stars would be at any particular time. It was all the more an amazing feat when you consider that Ptolemy based his theory on the ‘fact’ of an immobile earth resting comfortably in the center of the firmament. Ptolemy forced a fit of a fixed earth into the cosmic clock by simply changing the clock. Nobody could see how the stars and planets really moved anyway, so what would it matter if he replaced a cog here or a wheel there? Wouldn’t altering the unseen be immensely more preferable than altering the obvious? Besides, altering the obvious would disturb theological truth, and that prospect was unthinkable. So Ptolemy confidently proposed his geocentric theory of the universe, which was promptly seized upon as a scientific underpinning of Christian dogma. In hindsight, the Ptolemaic system is one of the most eccentric scientific models in history. Rather than have the planets course around the earth in neat circles, Ptolemy was forced to place them on a wild and inelegant roller coaster ride through the void. The planets would literally zip around in loop the loops as they rotated about the earth. The resulting orbit was more of a wild squiggle than a circle, yet the whole thing made a weird sort of sense if you believed God has a hearty sense of humor. However, Nicolai Copernicus didn’t get the joke.
Most of us have the illusion that Copernicus was that brave and noble scientist who set the universe right by plunging a scientific dagger into that phony presumption that the earth was at the center of the universe. The truth is quite different. Copernicus was by profession a Catholic priest as well as astronomer, and his last wish was to turn theology on its head. Actually, Copernicus found fault with the Ptolemaic system not because it was wrong, but rather because it was inelegant. Indeed, when Copernicus published his heliocentric or sun centered theory of the solar system, he prefaced his little book with a disclaimer of any intention to unseat the obvious truth of the earth being at the center of everything. He proposed that his theory was better not because it symbolized an obviously unpalatable truth but rather because it conveniently did away with most of those awful squiggles. His critics were of course not so easily swayed, but by then Copernicus was conveniently dead.
Copernicus’ theory was touted originally because it was more elegant than Ptolemy’s, and elegance always favors simplicity over needless complexity. Still, Copernicus’ theory was also in many respects wrong, for even through he rightly placed the sun in the middle of the solar system, the circular orbits of the planets still required some planetary looping to make the equations all worked out. It was several decades later when Johannes Kepler finally established that the orbits of the planets were not circles, but ellipses. However, it was only with the invention of the telescope that the issue was finally settled in favor of Kepler’s system.

The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy
Kepler was fortunate that the telescope finally toppled Ptolemy’s theory, for mathematical elegance meant nothing when set against the powerful philosophical implications of his theory, even though that theory was based on weird and confusing reasoning. For Ptolemy’s case we may now add a new element, outright fraud.
It now appears that Claudius Ptolemy carried out the biggest and longest running con job in the history of science, as much of the data he built his theory upon were inaccurate and downright false. No one guessed this of course until 1977, when in his book ‘The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy’, the physicist Robert R. Newton argued that Ptolemy couldn’t make his available fit his theory, and so he solved his problem by simply making up some that did. His theory is so complex, Ptolemy must have figured that no one would take a critical look at his data. He was right, since that look had to wait almost 2000 years.
It is not unreasonable to assume that in lieu of the telescope and the space program, Ptolemy’s theory would have remained a viable if not preeminent theory of the solar system. It is conceivable that religious fundamentalists would have tied in the inerrancy of the bible to Ptolemy’s hypothesis, just as they do now to ‘scientific creationist’ viewpoints. The seductiveness of Ptolemy’s system derives from the simple fact that human beings love to leap to certainty from inadequate premises, and if logic is stomped on in the leap, so be it. This leap, or leap of faith if you will, involves the simple conclusion that a series of correlated observations in reality represent a series of causally related observations. For example, the flickering motion of moving figures on a TV screen gives the illusion of a connected series of movements, and so we react as if this in indeed true, and we don’t even think to question what is in fact an optical illusion. Likewise, it was a simple leap of faith for Ptolemy to proceed from the observation that the stars moved as if they circled the earth to the conclusion that they do in fact move in such a fashion. Adding a few more simple leaps of faith, the scheme of the world became quite straightforward to the medieval mind, Thus, since man is quite evidently at the center of the universe, then that’s all the more reason to accept the bible as inerrant, hence there is less justification to question the prevailing religious doctrine.
It may seem relatively harmless for Ptolemy to have given in to an illusion and stubbornly pronounce a hypothetical mechanism as fact, yet by that mere announcement, all debate on the matter was summarily cut off. Because the hypothetical movement of the stars was a fact, then a philosopher could use that now rock solid truth as the foundation for any number of outlandish scientific and theological premises. Thus the Ptolemaic system was used as the buttress for many different theological beliefs, and it was because Ptolemy’s system was on foundation of these beliefs that even the slightest doubt about its truth could not be tolerated. The philosophy and theology that rested on Ptolemy’s ideas justified Ptolemy’s truth because there was imply too much to lose by casting even the slightest doubt on its accuracy. Just the argument was to painful to bear, as Galileo found to his disgust when two priests refused to look through his telescope to see Saturn and its moons silently mocking their refusal to question the ‘truths’ they held about the world and the stars above. In their opinion, out of sight was literally out of mind.
That we also build systems of belief on causal illusions is really not the problem, as often time we must suspend some skepticism to get on with our lives. The problem comes when we fail to as least periodically examine the many premises that prop up our beliefs. By uncritically accepting non facts as facts, we close the book on further argument, and render ourselves susceptible to accepting silly theories which are based on those non facts. Because it is easy to raise up ‘facts’ from simple correlations, and distance oneself further and further with a tangled knot of theories based on half baked truths, is it any wonder then that we call upon ‘experts’ to help us out our confusion? Of course, experts can seldom help, since they only differ from us normal folk insofar as they don’t realize that they are confused too.
Like the implications of Ptolemy’s theory, popular psychology is full of theories and ideas that are many steps past the facts that stimulated them, and often these originating facts are obscured and forgotten, and were probably not facts at all. So these theories stay around with us like some nostalgic relics in an attic. We know they are useless junk, but they have a perverse value all their own. Nonetheless, we argue that the attic should still be swept clean. A good theory simply weaves together observations into ordered patterns that predict events. If you can’t readily infer from a theory the observations and the accuracy of the observations that it is built upon, then that theory is asking you to make a leap of faith that is probably unwarranted. Thus, to claim that people have a need for achievement or have an oedipal complex implies a basis in facts that aren’t readily apparent, and a type of neural or mental mechanics that is as obscure as any of Ptolemy’s planetary loop the loops. So one must avoid postulating little mentalisms like drives, needs, egos, and the like, and simple note the patterns in which people, like the stars in heaven, move. Theories should mirror the facts or our own experience, and should be judged on the basis of how they make that experience comprehensible and predictable. Every man can know himself, he only has to observe himself. Effective thinking thus should be the province of every man, and he should never meekly surrender it to any ‘expert’.

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