I smell something rank

It’s been nigh on 20 years since I started on a career in Psychology, but I’ve noticed the creep of something unpleasant, something unscientific, something atheoretical, creeping into psychology. Biological Psychology and Neuroscience. In the very last semester of my degree I finally copped on to something which hadn’t been entirely obvious. It is pretty much all bullshit. The lecturers in the department were wonderful and enthusiastic teachers, don’t get me wrong, but they had embraced the new toys and the colourful pictures a bit too whole heartedly. In the rush to seem ‘cutting edge’, theory, appropriate controls and statistical analyses, and actually finding something novel and important, went out the window.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like the toys and the pictures. In fact, if I ever have a brain injury, I would probably be quite happy to hear that the reason I fail all my students is because of the dirty great pick axe in my right frontal lobe. But, seriously, I think I woulda kinda worked that out for myself. What I would want to know is: what are you going to do for me?

For those of who know better, BP & N is deeply, deeply, atheoretical. I assume the thought process behind the majority of research is: Step 1, find well established psychological finding. Step 2, add toy. Step 3, get pretty pictures. Step 4, make grand claims that this bit of the brain is responsible, despite the fact that your toy doesn’t actually have the spatial/temporal specificity to make said claim. Step 5, send press release to BBC claiming you’ve solved the Meaning of Life, knowing that BBC Science Correspondent will only read the headline. Step 6, watch your international reputation grow and grow, so long as no-one actually looks into your methodology or statistical analyses.

The blatant misuse of statistical procedures is appalling. No wonder people laugh when you say you’re a psychologist. Those doing this type of research should swap PhD at the end of their names for ‘overfitting’ and ‘data fishing’. And, of course, if you find one significant effect but ten nonsignificant ones, well, that doesn’t matter. Go ahead, just report your significant finding and don’t mention the ten other ones. We all seem to have cottoned on to this with Pharma but we seem to have given BP & N the benefit of the doubt or, more likely, the fact than none of us actually understand the toys and pretty pictures, except of course the technicians. But, the day will come, when BP & N will fall from its golden perch. And we will all look back and wonder why we were so enamoured with it in the first place.

But, back to the first issue. Undergrads get 3/4 years of BP & N. We drill it into them that memory is in the hippocampus, emotion in the amygdala, too much dopamine causes schizophrenia (year 1), too little dopamine causes schizophrenia (year 2), enlarged ventricles causes schizophrenia (year 3). It is only at MSc level that we finally shrug our shoulders and say we haven’t a clue. If you are one of the chosen few who go onto Clinical Psychology you might finally learn that life circumstances and trauma are much better predictors of, if not causal factors, of so called mental illness.

Given the size of first year classes, we have a fantastic opportunity to educate the next generation about the real causes of mental distress and pierce the bubble of the PR machine of the biomedical account. The biomedical model increases stigmatisation and goes against the public’s natural inclination to assume that social reasons are the cause of someone’s distress. In fact, encouraging the public to think that distress is the result of social factors, and is therefore a natural reaction to hardship, rather than some kind of internal pathology that cannot be cured, decreases stigmatisation.

But, no. We give them years of misinformation. Maybe our students will think we’re ‘proper scientists’ if we talk about frontal circuits and dopamine receptors. By the time they get to postgraduate level they’ve already been indoctrinated into the biomedical model cult.

Seriously, sociology, philosophy, cultural studies and feminist theory have said more worthwhile things about distress in the past 50 years, than all the psi-disciplines put together.


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