April 11, 2007

The Trouble With Psychiatry-- "Not Even Wrong"

I recently read Martin Gardner's review in the New Criterion of Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics, and Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory.

I am almost finished Smolin's book, but I wanted to make a comment about Gardner's piece.  Writing in the New Criterion, he should have appreciated a wider view of the books, that they speak to more than physics.  They're just as much about psychiatry.

Because I suck at writing, I'm a much better speaker, I often have difficulty getting my ideas-- which are already baffling-- across to people indoctrinated in psychiatric mythology.  But Gardner does a great job, so I'm simply going to quote him verbatim.  I don't think he'll mind.  Just substitute the word "psychiatry" anywhere you see "physics."

He sees string theory as not a theory—only a set of curious conjectures in search of a theory. True, it has great explanatory power, but a viable theory must have more than that. It must make predictions which can be falsified or confirmed.

Consider that the terms "borderline" and "narcissist"  which have supposedly no predictive power, yet give you more information than the epidemiologically valid and "reliable" diagnosis "bipolar."


In a chapter on sociology, Smolin introduces the concept of “groupthink”—the tendency of groups to share an ideology. This creates a cultlike atmosphere in which those who disagree with the ideology are considered ignoramuses or fools. Most physicists tied up in the string mania, Smolin believes, have become groupthinkers, blind to the possibility that they have squandered time and energy on bizarre speculations that are leading nowhere.


The last part is key-- who among psychiatrists are willing to say, "holy crap, we just made this all up as we went along!"

The other book Gardner reviews is Not Even Wrong, the title coming from Wolfgang Pauli's quote that a theory was so ridiculously unscientific that it was "not even wrong."  Quoth Gardner: "By this he meant it was so flimsy it couldn’t be confirmed or falsified."

Gardner quotes another writer (Glashow), in an indictment of why the masturbatory nature of psychiatry is detrimental to its own practitioners.  Replace "string theory" with "bipolar model:"

Until string people can interpret perceived properties of the real world they simply are not doing physics. Should they be paid by universities and be permitted to pervert impressionable students? Will young Ph.D’s, whose expertise is limited to superstring theory, be employable if, and when, the string snaps?

And closing with a quote from the physicist Gerard ’t Hooft:

 Actually, I would not even be prepared to call string theory a “theory” rather a “model” or not even that: just a hunch. After all, a theory should come together with instructions on how to deal with it to identify the things one wishes to describe, in our case the elementary particles, and one should, at least in principle, be able to formulate the rules for calculating the properties of these particles, and how to make new predictions for them. Imagine that I give you a chair, while explaining that the legs are still missing, and that the seat, back and armrest will perhaps be delivered soon; whatever I did give you, can I still call it a chair?

I wish I could write better, more clearly.  I can't.   But at least read Gardner and Smolin-- if the problem of loose science and groupthink occurs in the hardest of the sciences, physics, it most certainly occurs in psychiatry.  The first step in recovery, of course, is admitting you have a problem.  We may never get past this step.  The second step is to stop pretending you're something you're not, stop trying to make judgments and pronouncements about which you know nothing: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.