Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Psychoanalysis as alternative medicine: Tommyrot in the NYT OpEd page

I was thinking of Freud the other day. A great thinker, a great writer, and a flawed human being to be sure, but he started out as a scientist. I wonder if some of his very early work as, I think, a neurologist, may still hold up. Most of his time, however, was dedicated to psychoanalysis.

It was of that work that I wondered -- was there anything in there of value? Was it anything but a massive diversion and distraction from a deeper understanding of the human mind? I wondered if any modern scientist had dug through Freud's writings looking for any testable hypotheses that could hold water today. Then I came across this awful OpEd by Adam Phillips in the NYT:
A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Measure - New York Times

PSYCHOTHERAPY is having yet another identity crisis. It has manifested itself in two recent trends in the profession in America: the first involves trying to make therapy into more of a "hard science" by putting a new emphasis on measurable factors; the other is a growing belief among therapists that the standard practice of using talk therapy to discover traumas in a patient's past is not only unnecessary but can be injurious.

.... One of the good things psychotherapy can do, like the arts, is show us the limits of what science can do for our welfare. The scientific method alone is never going to be enough, especially when we are working out how to live and who we can be.

... the attempt to present psychotherapy as a hard science is merely an attempt to make it a convincing competitor in the marketplace. It is a sign, in other words, of a misguided wish to make psychotherapy both respectable and servile to the very consumerism it is supposed to help people deal with.

... its practitioners should not be committed either to making money or to trivializing the past or to finding a science of the soul.

... No amount of training and research, of statistics-gathering and empathy, can offset that unique uncertainty of the encounter.

... Psychotherapists are people whose experience tells them that certain risks are often worth taking, but more than this they cannot rightly say. There are always going to be casualties of therapy.

Psychotherapy makes use of a traditional wisdom ...
Let me get this straight. Recent studies suggest some of the key therapies of psychotherapy are potentially harmful. Rather than investigate this further, Philips makes an appeal to "art", "traditional wisdom" and the fight against "consumerism" (which apparently includes the hard cold light of reason).

Wow. What pretty, pathetic, balderdash. Philips is using arguments that even the alternative medicine cult world has largely abandoned. He's basically arguing against reason and measurement. Those psychoanalysts working hard to figure out how to maximize benefit and minimize harm have my deep sympathies -- having someone like Philips on the NYT Op Ed page is a real slap in the face.

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