Sunday, November 25, 2007

How did Freud become a respected humanist?!

Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department:

PSYCHOANALYSIS and its ideas about the unconscious mind have spread to every nook and cranny of the culture from Salinger to “South Park,” from Fellini to foreign policy. Yet if you want to learn about psychoanalysis at the nation’s top universities, one of the last places to look may be the psychology department.

A new report by the American Psychoanalytic Association has found that while psychoanalysis — or what purports to be psychoanalysis — is alive and well in literature, film, history and just about every other subject in the humanities, psychology departments and textbooks treat it as “desiccated and dead,” a historical artifact instead of “an ongoing movement and a living, evolving process.”

I've been wondering about this for a while, ever since I heard someone describe Freud as "one of the greatest humanists who ever lived." I'm pretty sure he didn't think of himself that way. If you're a crappy scientist but a decent writer, does that mean you get to be reincarnated as a humanist next? To my mind this doesn't bode well for the humanists, or for new potential Freuds in this regard.

The article duly notes that psychoanalysis as it lives in humanities academia is completely different than clinical psychoanalysis. Clinical psychoanalysis is now discredited because of its lack of empirical grounding. I guess outside of psych departments that's not an obstacle, thus psychoanalysis for gender studies and the like.

Some of the sentiments expressed in the article really irritate me though, like:

“Some of the most important things in human life are just not measurable,” he said, like happiness or genuine religious feeling.

Give me a break. There are great measurements of subjective happiness. It's even gone far enough to start studying its relation to welfare economics and policy implications. Sure, some of the brain work is at a pretty early stage, but measuring these things -- and pragmatically using this knowledge in the real world! -- can be done.

Freud, though, is particularly useful for gaining insights into questions of human existence. “There will be the discovery of problems that the standard ways don’t address,” he said, and then “there will be a swing back to Freud.”

I'll be waiting.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Actually that 2008 elections voter fMRI study is batshit insane (and sleazy too)

A much more slashing commentary from Slate:

An op-ed from Sunday's New York Times, "This Is Your Brain on Politics," proposes to answer what must be the most vexing question of modern American politics: What's going on inside the head of a swing voter? The authors—a team of neuroscientists and political consultants—ran 20 of these undecided volunteers through a brain scanner and showed them pictures and video of the major candidates from both parties. The results, laid out both in print and an online slide show, purport to give us some insight as to how the upcoming primaries will play out: "Mitt Romney may have some potential," the researchers conclude, and Hillary Clinton seems to have an edge at winning over her opponents.

Don't believe a word of it. To liken these neurological pundits to snake-oil salesmen would be far too generous. Their imaging study has not been published in any science journal, nor has it been vetted by experts in the field; it can't rightly be called an "experiment," since the authors weren't testing any particular hypothesis; and the arbitrary conclusions they draw from the data aren't even consistent with their own previous research.

And they're funded by a sleazy neuromarketing consultant agency that convinces Fortune 500 companies they need brain scan focus groups! Their own employee writes glowing New York Times op-eds about their work without disclosing the connection. And the study itself is terrible.

The Slate article is well worth reading. It highlights all the classic mistakes in flaky cognitive neuroscience, like cooking up totally different psychological stories from the same brain data just to fit your desired hypothesis. 21st century phrenology, baby!

Conclusion: Slate 1, Times 0.

(previous nicer post on this is here)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pop cog neuro is so sigh

A good anti-pop-cognitive-neuroscience rant on Language Log:
In closing, there is a larger issue here, beyond the validity of a specific study of voter psychology. A number of different commercial ventures, from neuromarketing to brain-based lie detection, are banking on the scientific aura of brain imaging to bring them customers, in addition to whatever real information the imaging conveys. The fact that the UCLA study involved brain imaging will garner it more attention, and possibly more credibility among the general public, than if it had used only behavioral measures like questionnaires or people's facial expressions as they watched the candidates. Because brain imaging is a more high tech approach, it also seems more "scientific" and perhaps even more 'objective." Of course, these last two terms do not necessarily apply. Depending on the way the output of UCLA's multimillion dollar 3-Tesla scanner is interpreted, the result may be objective and scientific, or of no more value than tea leaves.

Fightin' the good fight. Maybe it's hopeless. Perhaps "it's hard to avoid the inexorable rise of cognitive neuroscience as the dominant dicourse of the next decade." Sigh. Doing lots of statistical analysis of human behavior just seems like a better use of time to me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Authoritarian great power capitalism

Before I forget -- a while back I read a terrific Foreign Affairs article, The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers. The argument is, just a century or so ago, states based on authoritarian capitalism were very powerful in the world; e.g. imperial Japan and Germany. They got plenty of the economic benefits of capitalism but not so much the democratic effects people like to talk about today. (And there are interesting points that the failure of fascism in the second world war was contingent and not inherent to the ideology.) The author argues this looks like the future: Russia and China are becoming economically strong world powers but keeping solidly non-democratic ways of governance. The period of liberal democracy we live in, with all its overhyped speculation about the inevitable spread democracy and free market capitalism -- say, an "end of history" -- might just be that, a moment caused by the vagaries of 20th century history.

After I read the article last June, I actually saw Mr. End of History himself, Francis Fukuyama, speak at the good ol' Long Now seminar series. He pointed out several challenges to liberal democracy, admitting:
China and Russia will be a test of his thesis, Fukuyama said. They are getting wealthier. If they democratize in the next twenty years, he’s right. If they remain authoritarian, he’s wrong.

But this only posed it as a test, not addressing this particular point -- that authoritarian capitalism could be efficient and powerful enough to beat out liberal democracy's hegemony. Maybe it's secondary to clashes of civilizations or environmental catastrophe, but it seems something's there.