Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Case Against Psychology : A Short Rant

Simply put, the problem with psychology lies in its "dark corridor', as the nobel laureate Richard Feynman used to call it- an inherently dogmatic and extremely non-scientific obsession with a vaguely defined, ill-conceived, and poorly formalised notion of 'the normal'. Some would argue that the post-Chomskyan revolution, post-Cognitive era psychology has matured and outgrown the pettiness that was the hallmark of the field in the early twentieth century. But a close examination of the so called 'scientific contributions' of psychology, most of which are not remotely scientific to say the least, would reveal a very disheartening state of affairs. It has been said of Psychology, Cognitive Science and Neuroscience that there are only two ways of making a name for yourself in these fields: you either ally yourself with Noam Chomsky, or you join that group of would-be debunkers who thrive on the 'what if'-ambition of someday falsifying Chomskyan theories. The latter group has a long history of producing immensely talented individuals who have all been relegated to mere footnotes in the chapter documenting the golden era of cognitivist research into the mind-brain dichotomy simply because of a misguided and egotistical obsession with disproving Chomsky, in spite of the numerous apparent advantages of Chomskyan theories, not the least of which involve an inherent compatibility with Occam's Razor and a very high rating on the 'economy' scale. The trend started, of course, with the vengeful followers of the disgraced B.F Skinner, and sadly enough Psychology has fallen prey to a sort of empty empiricism/empiricity more and more with the passing years as these ex-Skinnerians have flocked to the field and attempted to hide their old affiliations with an unnecessary obsession with the laboratory, creating badly conceived pseudo-scientific empirical methods with more free variables than can be accounted for even in any of the hard sciences, hoping to find a counter-point to something based purely on common sense, in the dusty corners of the laboratory. A hilariously misguided attempt, to say the least, but it also makes one ponder the implications that the lack of an overarching theory has on a discipline, and the kind of dangerous precedence that can be set when practitioners of a supposedly scientific field of inquiry either deliberately overlook the need to, or consistently fail to place their research in a broader historical context of the kind of intellectual tradition that has contributed to 'the structure of scientific revolution', as Thomas Kuhn would put it. The converse, of course, is a hallmark of Chomskyan theories. Over the years, Noam Chomsky, has taken great efforts to place his theories in a broad historical context, and gone to great details in outlining the nature and historical development of the romantic-rationalist tradition in which he has attempted to construct much of his theories, and all of his linguistic theories. In reading Chomsky's opinions and his theories regarding the nature of I-Language, the Language Faculty (both broad and narrow), the mind-brain dichotomy, the nature of acquisition and the ever-present Plato's Problem, a clear connection can be observed descending from Aristotle, Plato, Rene Descartes, through Charles Darwin, Ernst Myers and all the way down to the modern day evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins. This gradual historical evolution of a rationalist theory, profoundly lacking in Psychology, is of course the hallmark of Cartesian Linguistics. In fact, so much so that on that fateful evening in 1966 when Noam Chomsky addressed the crowd at Princeton University, a crowd composed primarily of Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Philosophers, Mathematicians and post-Structuralist linguists, fifteen minutes into his most famous lecture the convener had to ask him to re-schedule for a three day 'training workshop' because the content proved too difficult for the gathered crowd, as none other than the grand old man of American Biology, Ernst Myers, himself documents in his biography. This very confounding phenomenon, pervasive throughout the history of Psychology, that represents either the effects of the lack of an unifying abstract theory or an unwillingness on part of the practitioners to cope with the painful process of deconstruction, an essential part of formulating an overarching theory that has been undergone in all the sciences (Physics in the 15th century, Chemistry in the 18th, and Biology in the 16th century), so far as I understand it (although which is truer than the other, I cannot tell), has led Psychology down the dark path of 'empiricity'. In fact,'empiricity' might even be the key word to this whole discussion. A careful examination of the methodologies abundant in Psychological research is immediately terrifying in its complete lack of, and an even more frightening unawareness of, the distinction between 'Scientificity' and 'Empiricity', to use romantic, naive-realist, analytic philosophical terminology. The distinction is quite simple, as with most things that pose complex questions, and does not require the employment of complex logical-mathematical formulae and polysyllabic terminologies, but only of everyday common sense. 'Scientificity' implies a necessarily skeptical questioning of the Universe and its structuring, and a deliberate and even labored attempt to gather rational, logical, and empirical evidence for one's beliefs, with any two of the three qualifiers filling-in for the third in the case of unavailability of evidence representing the latter. Examples abound in the hardest of all Science- Physics. Much of what we know, understand and marvel about, about the structure of the Universe that our pale blue dot of a planet is placed in, comes from the extremely complex, and unnervingly abstract, branch of theoretical Physics- Cosmology. Cosmology employs observational and direct realist empirical evidence only as a last yardstick for any theory, the unavailability of which is only taken to imply a 'momentary' confound which can be accounted for by the internal logical consistency of the theory itself, granted, of course, non-circularity of arguments. Notice the profound elegance of such a theoretical position- while utmost importance is attached to  direct realist, observational evidence, even more than any other type of evidence perhaps, it is still acknowledged that such conclusive evidence may yet prove elusive, not because they do not exist but because of the limitations placed upon us by the very nature of the type of being we are. The Drake Equation, used to calculate the probability of making contact with Extra-Terrestrial Life Form,  the fulcrum of NASA's SETI program, is a golden example of such necessary abstractions. In fact, as has been standard in Astrophysics, Astronomy, Cosmology, and to a slightly lesser extent in advanced Quantum Mechanics, logically consistent theories based on rationalistdeductionist reasoning are taken to be the default, or to use a linguistic term, the unmarked state-of-affairs. And for good reasons- there can be no observational, direct realist, evidence for Black Holes, or Worm Holes, or why Entropy must never break the speed of light. And yet, to dispute the existence of Black Holes on those grounds is akin to disputing Evolution because one cannot walk into the San Francisco City Zoo and witness a chimpanzee stand up, shed its fur, pull on a pair of Levis and walk out a homo sapien. Theories, in the hard sciences, are formed to account for the default, countering which amounts to making extraordinary claims which, as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it, requires extraordinary evidence. In fact, that statement (in its more elaborate quantifying form), now known as The Sagan Standard, is the yardstick employed by The Norwegian Academy of Science to determine the scientific validity of novel experimental claims. And Psychology, unfortunately, more than any other field of study, consistently fails to live up to The Sagan Standard. Perhaps, over the years, this has led to some sort of antipathy  among Psychologists towards Cartesian Linguistics. That would, of course, explain why most of the unsubstantiated criticism of Cartesian Linguistics stem from Psycholinguistic circles. It is not a new trend, however. The death of Universal Grammar has been predicted many many times before. And Noam Chomsky, now in his ninth decade, has a long history of outmanoeuvring and outlasting his opponents. I am not saying that Noam Chomsky cannot be wrong. Anybody could be wrong. We could all be wrong about the pink unicorn. But for the time being, in light of the nature of the arguments that have been supplied against Chomskyan theories in general, my money is on Avram Noam Chomsky.

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