Strangling research in its crib [revised]

By Bill Kaye-Blake 21/05/2013

The Dominion Post runs a science column by Bob Brockie, who briefly introduces readers to new findings or key ideas from the world of science. It’s a nice addition to the newspaper, better than the scandale du jour that passes for journalism, even if he has the annoying habit of speaking ex cathedra.

Monday, though, he got up my nose [no link — sorry — doesn’t actually want you to find anything easily]. He was discussing the new DSM-5, which has courted controversy by redefining psychological pathologies. We are all — well, half of us — apparently in need of treatment by the very people who decide whether we need treatment.

In his brief history of the DSM, Brockie said that psychology moved away from Freud to science. The meaning of this is clear: there is real, true knowledge that is produced through science, and then there’s all that other stuff that people believe without it actually being true, and that’s where Freud (and by extension, Lacan) belongs.

There are two enormous problems with this. The first is that this statement is glaring proof of the social production of scientific knowledge. I’d venture to guess that Brockie has not actually studied Freud, and has little knowledge of the split between Freudian psychotherapy and Anglo-American psychology. What he knows is likely to be what he’s been told, the stories he’s heard along the way. Science proceeds not only ‘funeral by funeral’ but clique by clique, lunch table by lunch table. Waving the ‘Freud’s not science’ flag isn’t so much a statement of fact but a not-so-secret handshake that marks him as one of gang.

And what a gang it is. They are in charge of funding, and funding allows science research. That’s the second problem with Brockie’s statement. They’ll say they want investigator-led research; they’ll say they want to give researchers the ability to follow their curiosity and investigate all manner of topics, regardless of where they might lead. The truth is, they are perfectly happy to strangle research in the crib if they don’t like it.

I know this, because they have strangled mine, repeatedly, while intoning ancient rites of scientific concern. They have just done the same to novel research proposed by a friend and colleague. We can show the theoretical basis for the work, we can demonstrate the linkages to international peer-reviewed literature, we can link the primary research to the hypothesis — we can do all the things these quartermasters of science demand. And then, they say that it isn’t ‘science’ because the science hasn’t been done because it hasn’t been funded.

It doesn’t help that we are talking about inter-disciplinary research – research that falls somewhere in between the disciplinary silos. Call it economic psychology, or psychological economics, or decision sciences if you like, but it is just the latest area of research in which we develop theories of human behaviour and test them. I’ve tried to explain it here (pdf), Andrew Dickson tried a different angle here, and yet another perspective is here. And still we get things like this 2012 article saying ‘Surprisingly little scholarly work has linked food and Lacan’.

Maybe that has something to do with funding decisions rather than lack of curious researchers. You want to say that Freud is not science? Give me a few a million dollars over several years to do the research. If I fail, you can have your talking point.

The scientists controlling the money are like Abraham, driven by Yahweh to demonstrate their obedience by sacrificing the young Isaac. But Yahweh is I Am Who Am, certain in His existence. Science can also be a jealous and uncertain Master, a Cronus who must devour his young to protect his reign. When he guides Abraham’s hand, he doesn’t stay the knife.