Sunday, January 27, 2008
Introduction to Bad Psychology
The French philosopher Voltaire said that if we just bothered to define our terms, all argument would be settled simply or rendered moot. Defining our terms does not tell us where their use will lead, but it allows us at least to determine the rules of that argument, and that in turn permits us to use those rules to do and discover new and interesting things. For example, a football game results in first downs, touchdowns and field goals, but the game becomes a drudge if the players didn’t read or understand the rules, disagree with their interpretation, or ask for unending instant replays with a new interpretation for each angle of vision. The use of quick and decisive argument applies of course to football referees, who know and apply the rules. But it also applies to knowing moms, high school algebra teachers, and physics professors. It does not of course apply to politicians, lawyers, and psychologists, whose livelihoods are founded and sustained by the incentive to do anything but describe facts clearly. And that’s the point. If you’re going to precisely define what you’re talking about, the incentive has to be there to take the pains to do it. For physicists, architects, and physicians, clear thinking permits practical procedures and positive results which in term exclude you from the types of ideas that you otherwise would consider entertaining. Thus a rocket scientist wouldn’t for a moment reconsider the theory that the earth is flat and is circled by the sun, since it would render rocket ships useless and him unemployed.
Winning an argument is important, and if we can do so easily, it ironically gives us the incentive to argue. That’s because when an argument can be easily won, then the losing ideas can be safely archived in dusty texts, thus reducing the clutter of ideas which can make thinking so onerous, and allowing you to finally get somewhere*. Thus by tossing aside half baked ideas found in such classic works as Aristotle’s Biology (which showed how, among other things, the brain cooled the blood), Newton’s Treatise on alchemy (or ‘How to make gold from lead in 12 easy steps’), and Ptolemy’s Almagest (which decisively proved that the sun orbits the earth), you can learn and do real science, and have a realizable hope to a find a cure for cancer, create wonder drugs, and fly to the stars.
In itself, truth is uninspiring, and that’s good, for the simple allure of just the facts would make subjects like Guatemalan tax law and the DNA sequence of a frog as alluring as watching a ball game or reading a novel. The choice of what facts we will entertain does not derive from their mere validity, but rather from what they do and what they could do. We are not seekers of truth, but of interesting and comfortable things. If truth gets you there, that’s fine, but truth is only the light that traces your way to a valuable end, and that end may be no better realized than as a clutch of possibilities. Ironically, uncertainty can be very rewarding, since it allows us to model all of the events that could occur. Thus, we would be aghast if we were told before hand the final score of a game before it had been played, our ultimate career and mate before they have been found, and our dying day long before it has been reached. A fork in the road can make us happy because it doubles the possibilities, and happiness can be boundless when we estimate the infinite permutations of existence.
To do things with certainty, we have to get our facts straight. However, to do hopeful things, the facts can be anything we say they’ll be, since after all, the goal is by definition a matter of faith that will be always in the future, and the reliability of faith a mere matter of interpretation. For example, Incan priests and Franciscan friars couldn’t fudge the star charts which plotted the movements of the heavens, since it would throw off their prediction of the onset of the seasons and the time of the year. On the other hand, the correlation between the stars and human fates was far more uncertain, and the inferred influence of these astrological correlations could be anything you wanted them to be, with poor predictions conveniently rationalized or forgotten, and correct ones exaggerated and emphasized. In astrology, the imagination of patterns in random events is validated by the their comfortable, albeit uncertain results. We continue to follow the uncertain implications of rabbits feet, dice rolls, and prayer, because their possible benefits make them worthwhile.
Ultimately, the reason why many arguments cannot be settled is that we often cannot abide certainty, since certainty seems to eliminate all of those comforting possibilities. The uncertain motives which guide our lives are sustained because they vouchsafe the possibility of comfortable realities that are dismissed or ignored by the impersonal logic of science. The primacy of human virtue, the value of music and art, and the love of God, family, and country withstand the cold consolation of reason because we can simply ignore reason. But of course, if reason demonstrated that you must be good for goodness sake, that life has true meaning, and if it enhanced the possibilities of God and resurrection, we would all take equal portions of logic with our religious testaments.
What I intend to do is demonstrate that reason leads to those comfortable truths after all. Now this of course is the mother of all ironies, since geometrical logic is a most unlikely foundation for what amounts to Christian values. But it is, and may no better be proven than through an assembly of ironies. An irony is merely a sudden shift in meaning in an argument, statement, or phrase that catches the listener in a sudden paradox that demonstrates, if only for a moment, that he or she is an utter idiot. Now to prove that you’re not a fool, you take pause and give the paradox a little thought, or more likely make a startle reaction that marks your sudden surprise and interest. This is called laughter. A sudden shift in meaning can come as easily as when we repeat such commonplace phrases as army intelligence, criminal lawyers, must see TV, and U. N. peacekeepers, and are told that they represent oxymoron’s, or in other words, self contradictory statements. This rude intrusion of another way of interpreting the same old facts shows you that your prior reasoning was faulty, and yourself stupid. This of course gets your attention, since you can’t turn away from even a momentary challenge to your good sense.
Now, when you string along a lot of little ironies, like a musical score of dissonant notes, you can either come up with something that can be sound like fingers scratching a chalk board, or perhaps a great ballet score like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Either way, you’re paying attention, and for good or bad, your attention is what I want. This string of ironies, when it underlines a greater and more profound point, is called satire. Of course satire alone doesn’t work if all that kidding sets out to demonstrate the hidden value of virgin sacrifice or of eating brussel sprouts. So, amid all of the humor I will provide procedures that I hope are a little unique and useful, and ideas that confirm your gut feelings that the world can and should be a warm and fuzzy place after all.
Now, to blaze a path to good psychology, you have to hack and slash your way through the mind numbing jungle of terminology, statistics, and half digested theory which is modern psychology. Sadly, much of psychology has become, like modern jurisprudence, mainly a torturous exercise in explaining the obvious with the most convoluted reasoning possible. As such, bad psychology, like the fields of law and politics is unintententially ironic, or should I say, funny. The first step to discarding bad psychology is to reveal its intrinsic foolishness. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, its fun to look at the pretentious garb of modern psychological thought, and discover that most psychological theorizing is cut from a cloth of hot air. And like the fairy tale, the scientific nakedness of much of psychology can only be pointed out by those who think with the innocent simplicity and candor of a child. Of course, a childish candor can put you at risk to being roundly swatted, but I’m willing to risk it.