Better Living Through Chemistry: Epilogue (One Step Up From Witchcraft)

Unless someone is familiar with the ideas from Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, calling psychology “one step up from witchcraft sounds like the first shot from someone planning a war on psychology. That reading takes the angry words of a disillusioned 22-year-old too literally, even if it was how he had meant them in 1984—long before he understood how science was born, or how disciplines grow and change.

           Indeed psychology has a long way to go before it’s a mature science in the same sense as evolutionary biology or Einsteinian physics.

So to be clear, these words are not now an attack, but first, an observation. One that many people have made about inefficacy in treatment, contradictions in theory, and wildly different practices. This lead then to a critique, fitting psychology into the history of ideas, what psychology is good and not so good at, and what its future could be—really should be.

Before diving into ideas inspired by Burke (of Connections and The Day the Universe Changed fame) and Khun, the origin of the bitter words “One step up from witchcraft,” spoken circa 1984, needs be told.

By my sophomore year at the Ohio State University, I was confident I’d become a clinical/counseling psychologist. The intro to psychology survey course I’d taken as a Freshman had lit a fire—as a person who likes to share what he knows, the idea I could earn a living helping people through sharing my knowledge of how the mind worked seemed a job made precisely for me. By the second quarter of that year, I’d shifted my major from Engineering† to Psych.

Disappointing grades in calculus† had put me off engineering, and of course, the hard sciences, thus medicine and psychiatry, so sights were set on grad school in psych.

I started taking all the elective psych classes I could that related to applying psychology to helping others. During a course in human sexuality, I dabbled briefly with becoming a sex-councilor, though I suspect that had more to do with being a single 22-year-old boy than actually understanding what that meant.

Then I took the course that I was sure would be the foundation for the rest of my life: an upper-division level course in Theories of Personality. We reviewed all the major schools beginning with Structuralism, then moving onto PsychoanalysisFreud, Jung, Adler, then onto Behaviorism: Classical Conditioning, and Operant Conditioning with Skinner, and then onto Gestalt, Piaget’s cognitive theories of children, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the humanistic theories of Rogers. We even touched on the medical model. Likely more that I’ve since forgotten.

It was fantastic all we knew and were learning.

Yet, serious problems kept bubbling up as the course went along.

On its own, each school worked brilliantly.

  • Each theory was internally consistent.
  • Each described how personality develops in detail, with logical cause and effects and mechanisms for healthy personalities as well as how psychiatric diseases arise.
  • Each then described applying its foundational theory to curing disorders.
  • Each one was beautiful, logical and explained things so clearly.

Hence the problem.

None of the schools could agree on much of anything. Not how personality develops. Not on pathology. Nor yet on cures. In fact, they mostly contradicted one other. Each school even considered different data as relevant.

For psychoanalysis, traumatic events and at what age they occurred are thought primary data to collect.

For behaviorism, the systems of rewards and punishments received are collected. Specifically, whether these be negative or positive, punishment or reinforcement, and the schedule by which these stimuli are given or withheld—whether fixed or variable, by ratios or intervals and various kinds of each.

Still, other schools pay attention to yet other data, considering trauma or stimuli occurrences as secondary at best, adjunctive at worst.

Compounding the felony, none of these schools works well for a broad swath of disorders. Some work reasonably well for specific neuroses, and all work rather poorly for most psychoses other than for managing some symptoms, and then only when used in conjunction with medication.

To a counselor in gestation, this riot of theories, contradictory pathologies, and inadequate cures seemed little better than what exorcists or witchdoctors practiced. Psychology was hardly a science as I understood it then, and I snarled to myself that this mess was only “one step up from witchcraft.”

With that, I abandoned the idea of working in psychology and threw myself into a second passion: Classical Humanities (Greek and Roman literature and culture).

Yet psychology has never strayed far, and I’ve kept reading about it, minding discoveries, and trying to apply them in my life, and to help, mildly, those around me who would listen. Much like I would have had I pursued this career.

Then, in NYC two and a half decades later, I would come to understand what my initial disillusion had stumbled upon: a scientific revolution in a very early stage. One that is actually a step or in some cases a leap or two above the witchcraft whence it arose.

Next up: Science From Burke to Khun: Part 1 (How one gets from Witchcraft to Science)

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