Thursday, March 21, 2013

Distrust of Psychology

"There is a tendency among physiologistsamong natural scientists generallyto look upon psychology with distrust, if not with indifference or scorn."

-Yerkes (1904)

Psychology has been having a crisis of confidence lately: blatant and high-profile fraud cases, questions about sloppy methods and statistics, and the increasingly acknowledged file drawer problem of unpublished negative results. For these reasons, I thought it was interesting to take a look back and see similar criticisms of the field over 100 yrs ago.

Pure Rot
"Even the honest and sincere defender of psychology, or of the possibilities of such a science, cannot deny that much work which has been placed upon record as experimental psychology is pure rot."

-Yerkes (1904)

Yerkes was a primatologist and an editor of the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. For most of the journal's existence (1891-present), it has been known as the Journal of Comparative Neurology, but "Psychology" was added to the title from 1904 to 1910. The quotes here are taken from one of Yerkes' editorials:
"The average German physiologist uses very different tones of voice for the “Physiolog” and the “Psycholog.” Some of them apparently feel that psychology is too near akin to metaphysics to be a safe favorite for the natural scientist, while others are evidently satisfied in their own minds that the psychic is not and cannot be material of a natural science. In America too there is a strong prejudice against psychology, among the natural scientists especially, or, if not prejudice, there is a distrustful curiosity which makes the life of the truly scientific student of psychic reactions at times unpleasant. This general distrust and ridicule of psychology is doubtless due, first, to the fact that the naturalistic movement of the last century was accompanied by a wide spreading and deep distrust of the speculative sciences of which psychology was then, and is still by many, reckoned as one; and second, perhaps almost as largely, to the semi-scientific and too often carelessly used methods of that new psychology which called itself experimental."


Yerkes was a keen observer of Psychology and a strong supporter of its importance as a natural science. Unfortunately, he also promoted eugenics in the 1910's and 1920's.

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At March 21, 2013 10:39 AM, Anonymous Gaspy said...

Eugenics? Yes, let's all faint at the word. But what do you think contemporary amniocentesis is for? What do you think the new wave of DNA-based prenatal tests are for? We loyal readers look to you for real thinking, not kneejerk thinking and not thinking in labels, Neurocritic!

At March 21, 2013 11:06 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Gaspy - Real thinking? Yerkes believed in racial superiority based on IQ tests. Is that label-free enough for you?

At March 21, 2013 11:11 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

from God and white men at Yale:

But when he came to Yale in 1924, as a professor in the new field of psychobiology, [Yerkes] was better known for developing the first national program of intelligence testing—a program that provided an ostensibly scientific basis for the fight against immigration in the early 1920s.

Yerkes and a team of like-minded scholars had designed the test at the start of World War I, as a means “for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed in the military service.” By war’s end, the US military had administered it to 1.7 million recruits. According to the test, the average native-born white American male had a mental age of 13. But his foreign-born counterparts were morons (a label coined by the eugenicists, from the Greek for “foolish”), with an average mental age barely over 11.

Yerkes wrote to key congressmen during the immigration debate to remind them of what Army testing had said about the inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans. Fisher chimed in. “The facts are known,” he declared. “It is high time for the American people to put a stop to such degradation of American citizenship, and such a wrecking of the future American race.”

In truth, the facts were badly flawed, and Fisher had reason to know it. Yerkes’s test, which supposedly gauged innate intelligence, was mainly a measure of how long a person had been in the United States and perhaps also how well he might fit in at the local country club.

At March 22, 2013 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a bit skeptical. The "psychology crisis" is manufactured and is something that blogs such as Retraction Watch like to hype. Even though these blogs don't make direct advertising money, the owners get some good ego massage (like being interviewed by NPR, getting their name in Nature blurbs, and so on). These are not incentives one should underestimate, as they can be quite addictive. Once you have been in the media spotlight, you've got to stay there to feel good about yourself. These blogs need a constant stream of catchy headlines to fulfill such purpose. Lately, RW seems to have been censoring all posts that are slightly critical. Just last week, I remember reading a good post against using this graph to conclude anything meaningful about the relationship between funding availability and retraction rates, but that post is now gone!

At March 23, 2013 9:55 AM, Anonymous Semigrounded said...

Gaspy is kind of right, though. Your critique of Yerkes isn't that he was a eugenicist, but that he was a eugenicist a hundred years ago, which implies bad science and perverse social agendas.
What percentage of "high-impact" papers today are about the possible genetic underpinnings of depression, autism, schizophrenia? It feels like they're everywhere. Maintaining the stigma around the word "eugenics" could needlessly hinder or polarize discussion about the budding science of gene therapy. I know it's a silly semantic quibble, but you do write a blog. ;)

Which I very much like, by the way.

At March 24, 2013 10:39 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Semigrounded - Do you think it's fortunate that Yerkes believed in IQ-based racial superiority in the 1920's? We all know where those views led... and in fact there was a perverse social agenda behind it (Yerkes, 1923):

"Far more interesting doubtless to the practical eugenist than occupational differences in intelligence or specifications are the racial differences which appear when the foreign-born American draft is analysed into its principal constituent groups. The difference even of median score or letter grade distribution are so great as to be significant alike to the American people and to the eugenists of the world."

The word "eugenics" is a loaded term, for good reason. Scientists engaged in gene therapy research should avoid it.

For an excellent recent discussion of modern studies on genetics and IQ, see False discovery: How not to find the genetic basis of human intelligence.

I'm glad you like my blog, by the way. :)

At March 27, 2013 11:15 AM, Anonymous Gaspy said...

Wow, Yerkes was a thought criminal! Thanks for alerting me to that!

Of course, poor old Yerkes didn't live to see the racial gaps in educational achievement in the West disappear, as they did in the late 20th century. Or the emergence of high tech idea centers in Africa.

And he also didn't live long enough to hear God's Proclamation of 2012 in which he reassured us all that, even though He allows the existence of war, cancer, river blindness, Pol Pot's Cambodia death camps, etc etc, he draws the line at allowing the emergence of population differences in intelligence-related alleles.

So we can't really blame old Yerkes for his Thought Crimes. But thanks for pointing this out. It needs to be mentioned every time someone brings him up, lest we lose sight of his thought crimes.

At March 27, 2013 2:37 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Gaspy - Writing letters to Congress to recommend limiting the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans goes a little further than "thought crimes."


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