An Admirable Attempt: Theodore Dalrymple’s Admirable Evasions

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I recently finished Theodore Dalrymple’s wonderful polemic, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality. I characterize it as a polemic, not a book or study, because in my opinion it is neither long enough to qualify as a book (even if it has been published as one), nor scientific (or boring) enough to count as a study. Indeed, the only times the polemic touches the scientific are when Dalrymple attempts to show either its meaninglessness or, slightly worse, its disastrous consequences. In all honesty — and I’m not sure how Dalrymple would feel about this categorization, given his multiple references to Samuel Johnson — the piece reads more like the sort of pamphlet one would see at the high time of pamphleteering: the 18th century. So, I’ll just call it an essay.

Two things arose in my mind as I read the essay over the course of two days and multiple cups of coffee. The first was how books, or “books,” are written these days — their character, if you will. The second, which was of much greater importance, was the question of how Mr. Dalrymple intends to get his point across on a much larger scale.

I will address the much easier and more obvious point first. To say that books published these days have become — or at least attempt to portray themselves as — more scientific would be a gross understatement. From self-help to history, authors wish to make their word the last one by inserting some type of scientific jargon wherever they can. With “self-help,” the temptation is unusually strong, because, as Dalrymple hints, it is just a branch of psychology.

History might be less overtly scientific, but it nonetheless still attempts to be scientific. I would argue that the phrases “historians agree” or “there’s a consensus among historians” are akin to “studies have proven.” They don’t explicitly refer to science per se, but they invoke a quasi-scientific or scholarly authority on behalf of the position that the author is taking.

As an amateur but passionate lover of history, I can say with confidence that there is hardly consensus about any part of history beyond simple, trivial facts about dates — and even these are hotly contested in some cases. But, as Dalrymple rightly points out, this need to seem authoritative is the epitome of psychological writing. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that if everyone is saying “studies have proven” while pushing different and sometimes opposing theses, then the phrase has become all but meaningless. In a way similar to how the meaning of “morality” has been said to have been defined out of existence, we have flaunted “studies” out of existence.

As mentioned earlier, Dalrymple doesn’t use scientific research to back up his position that psychology is destroying our sense of moral responsibility. Rather, he humbly asks us to just look around. His characterization of our modern society is spot on when he says that we’ve changed our motto from “I think, therefore I am” to “He suffers, therefore he is a victim.” But what is interesting is not that Dalrymple comes up with study after study to support his claims, but rather that he uses the rather “low” technique of polemic. He simply uses rhetoric to make his point. He sets no authority upon his argument other than the brief biographical sketch you may or may not choose to read in the dust jacket. (He is a professional in the field with an exceptional amount of experience). I hope this doesn’t take away from Dalrymple or his vast intelligence and masterful use of language, but rather allows his work to convey a breath of fresh air amidst a maelstrom of academic-­style papers, jargon­-riddled rants that make close to no sense, and shallow books about how you can “help” yourself.

The topic of rhetoric deserves more attention than I have given it here. All I can say is that after a while, standing in the exhaust-filled garage of professionalization gets old and boring (if it hasn’t already killed you), and one needs to sit in a field of flowers. Even if that field is not metaphysically or scientifically proven.

My second point is much more difficult. It is less of a praise of Mr. Dalrymple and more of a provocation.

One might agree with Mr. Dalrymple that psychology is undermining morality, but all that is left after putting the essay down is empty agreement. There is hardly a plan to combat the rampant spreading of the attitude that psychology is the ultimate science — that it is the end to knowledge, and all we need to figure out. I’m not asking for the author to write an essay entitled “10 Ways to Win an Argument With a Psychologist” or “30 Steps to Undermining Psychology,” but a mere intimation of what might be done, in light of the unhappy situation in which we find ourselves, is the only feeling left with the reader. I guess this is why some of Mr. Dalrymple’s more dedicated readers have labeled him as pessimistic. Dalrymple’s brand of pessimism is not a story that ends in optimism. It just ends.

This is not, however, a part of my critique of the essay. The work stands alone in its condemnation of psychology, and I can see how the essay might convince more people that prudence is required when wading into the waters of psychology. It is a great tragedy that some of the best ideas are ideas that aim only to question our mad dash for more progress in this or that field — to offer prudence in a world where progress seems to be the only virtue. Prudence is neither flashy nor interesting; it is the great restrainer of “more.” Dalrymple’s work will mostly likely serve as a retroactive prophecy when we say of it in fifty years, “well, someone did warn us about this.” But even if Dalrymple chooses not to tackle it, the question stands: What can be done about the situation? Is this a problem at the educational level? The professional level? The answer — to echo the author’s pessimism — is that it might indeed be every level.

But this is not a call for apathetic inaction, rather an attempt to — in Kirk’s words — brighten your corner of the world. I am afraid I share Mr. Dalrymple’s implicit cynicism that there may not be much we can do on a grand scale. But hardly ever are things done on a grand scale. They are done in the trenches, in the day to day conversations we have with other people. And it is obvious where exactly the root of the problem lies: with all of us.

It is we who get fed some study that doesn’t prove much of anything and proceed to write about it on the popular journalism website of the day, thus feeding it to others. This twisted handing down of “information” is the problem, this convincing of young minds that psychology really has found some things out. In a world where certain subjects dance in dissent and lack consensus, psychology wishes to fill the gaps of certainty. It boldly claims that “we all agree, and you can too,” and young minds flock to it. For they have found something they can not only use, but can use knowing for certain that they are Right. The problem lies in the flourishing of those who without the rigor of science flaunt the prestige and sureness of something that they neither know nothing about, nor realize the potential consequences thereof.

G.K. Chesterton once said that no one should destroy a thing unless they understand why it is useful. I would argue that the same holds true in the opposite. Those who do not understand how a new, flashy thing will affect the useful things with which it intersects should be slow to swan dive into the excitement of novelty.

Like the author, I too urge the reader to simply look around. How often does one engage in conversations that are riddled with phrases like ‘studies show’ or ‘science has proven?” How often does this come across as the last word on the subject, at least until the unlucky conversant can go home and do some PubMed research of his own? I imagine the answer is quite often.

It is on these grounds, I believe, that Dalrymple wishes to combat the ever-encroaching influence of psychology. It is not in policy matters, but personal matters, that this becomes a sort of call to action. For piecemeal changes and the questioning of things previously unquestioned is how grand changes come about. I will call the author’s pessimism and raise him a tiny dose of optimism. There are some out there who read about certain sad states of the world, but who don’t find in this sadness a reason to quit so much as to converse. To keep the conversation going, and to not let anything be taken for granted. It is when things are taken for granted — as psychology almost has — that things become granite and life becomes a whole lot less interesting to live.

I agree with the Harvard psychologist Paul Bloom when he says that psychology is in its pre­-Copernican state. It would be wise if our culture and educational system admitted this, and stopped fooling ourselves about how far we’ve advanced in understanding ourselves.


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26 thoughts on “An Admirable Attempt: Theodore Dalrymple’s Admirable Evasions

  1. I’ll have to check out Dalrymple’s book. Life at the Bottom was well worth the read. Our Culture (Or What’s Left of It) was also good, though since it was mostly a collection of essays wasn’t quite as interesting.

    It boldly claims that “we all agree, and you can too,”

    This embodies a lot of what I find obnoxious about a lot of contemporary discourse (though more typically of the informal rather than formal variety).

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    • Will Truman:
      (though more typically of the informal rather than formal variety).

      If I understand your point correctly, I agree as well. Informal conversations tend to believe in this Socratic view in which as long as someone can sit you down and talk to you long enough, you will end up agreeing with them or at least agree with the merits of their position (e.g. psychology finds things out about ourselves, how can you resist?!)

      However the formal version cannot agree on even the simplest of premises to move the conversation out of the starting gate. A happy medium and a healthy dose of skepticism would be nice…

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  2. So would he say that morality was far advanced before modern psychology came about like in the pre- civil war america. Not much psychology there, lots of slaves and other bad stuff, but no freud. .

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  3. Without knowing the particulars of Dalrymple’s attack on psychology, it’s hard for me to agree or disagree with your take of his take on it. Some examples might be useful to clarify the specific target of his attack.

    One thing that struck me while reading your essay, tho, is the role a narrative plays in shaping our beliefs. Personally, I’m not a bit fan of “providing a narrative” since almost by definition a narrative rounds sharp corners and fills otherwise obvious gaps in an effort to get someone to agree with the thesis rather than reflect on the argument or evidence. (In other words, it’s a subtle form of propaganda.) Is that perhaps Dalrymple’s criticism of mass-consumption psychology? That it pretends to offer simplistic answers to complex questions by invoking a certain type of narrative which readers will (as psychology has determined!) find appealing thereby leading people to view their world in less than strictly moral terms?

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    • Absolutely. Essentially his thesis as I saw it was that psychology (and even worse, pop psychology) shifts responsibility from ourselves to something else, and that it mis-characterizes people based on very shallow studies or research.

      So “I don’t have an issue, the issue was with the way I was raised” or, in the second case, “People who believe in a little invisible man in the sky (God) have mild forms of schizophrenia.” And we walk through life not only as if these statements were true, but that they are proven.

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  4. The whole “is/ought” thing is a huge problem.

    So let’s say that people work a particular way (or, I suppose, that people are predictably going to be in a particular band of behaviors and it’ll be a bell curve). It makes sense to say that we want more people to be on the “good side” of the curve, whichever it is, and fewer on the “bad side” and psychology can help us move them from that one to this one. Nudge them, if you will, to goodness.

    There’s a Steven Pinker book called “The Blank Slate” that gives a lot of cautionary examples of excesses done in the name of nudging… because we don’t know which way good or bad are. And, technically, we don’t really know how to nudge either. It’s more of a shove.

    The problems, of course, come when we don’t know what good is. Or bad. And, when we do, the fact that good for you and me and our relationship doesn’t scale to the size of a town. On top of that, learning a little more about psychology gives you a handful of tools to fight against psychology being used to nudge you… and that might even make you a bit resistant to being nudged at all, even if you’re being nudged in the good direction.

    Which creates problems of its own.

    Nice essay. Thanks.

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  5. I agree with the Harvard psychologist Paul Bloom when he says that psychology is in its pre­-Copernican state.

    I have been known to say the same thing, except I used chemistry in the phlogiston era. Upon reflection, “pre-Copernican” is better: less likely to evoke blank stares.

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    • For this to make much sense it needs to specify which branches of psychology it refers to. There are big differences between therapy, neuro psych, evo psych and other bits. Some are more well founded in science then others. When most people think of psychology they figure its all Dr phil or freud or myers briggs crap.

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    • Both of these are wrong. Psychology isn’t in need of a revolutionary upheaval, nor is it in a quasi-mystical stage in which it uses mythical substances to explain the phenomena it studies. It is in its infancy, to be sure, but it is empirical, it is increasingly experimental, and it is increasingly sophisticated in its modeling at multiple levels of representation. What it lacks is a unifying theory, or theoretical paradigm, beyond some competing metaphors. Psychology is, if we have to have an historical analogy to a more established science, in its pre-Darwinian stage.

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      • I’m curious about this. I’m thinking of Darwin as having proposed an account by which certain hypothesized properties permit adaptations which can be passed on to subsequent generations. The interesting thing was the proposal of a mechanism by which this dynamic process could be effectuated, one which allowed for a theory of speciation and all the rest.

        Are you thinking that certain types of as yet unknown properties can or will permit a more general theory of human psychology? Or are you thinking that already known properties can permit that more general – and presumably reductive – theory?

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        • Yeah, I’m interested in this clarification as well.

          But I also think that the purpose of saying that psychology is pre-Copernican is only to reign it in some. There are people who think that psychology is the end all be all to life; that somehow a philosophical difference can be explained by a psychological state and that fact alone shows the supremacy of psychology. And taking it further, even if we could explain every single thought in terms of psychology (and thus predictable and mechanistic) — would this be a good thing? Would we even want to be able to do this?

          Someone should write a book called “The End of Psychology” detailing what our world would look like if we achieved everything we wanted to in the field. That’s a million dollar book contract right there haha!

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            • I guess I meant more whether or not it was desirable to explain everything in terms of psychology… I realize saying “thoughts” was rather redundant.

              And Bloom said it in one of his conversations with Sam Harris on his podcast.

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              • What do you mean by “everything,” and who thinks psychology explains it?

                And given my opinion of Harris, that would explain why I hadn’t heard the Copernicus analogy. I’d be interested in hearing the context.

                Also, anyone who tried to write a book titled “the end of [insert a science]” would have such a piss-poor understanding of science that the book wouldn’t be worth a penny.

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                • I was only joking and making a poor reference to Fukayama’s “End of History.”

                  And I guess I am speaking strictly from personal experience, but it seems that there’s this thought that psychology is the supreme science because it helps us (supposedly) understand ourselves, and that all other disciplines bow to it. That figures like Shakespeare or Hitler can be reduced to a psychological phenomenon or explanation, and that this is better than any other explanation because it can be proven or validated. But that proof or validation tends to be a molehill made to look like a mountain (for the moment).

                  I stand by my belief that there are a good amount of people that believe everything can be reduced to a psychology. That my preference for blue shoes is a mere representation of being surrounded by blue when I was a child (or, ironically, that I like blue because blue was specifically absent from my childhood). “Everything” is exactly what it sounds like: all human affairs.

                  Again, I don’t doubt that psychology is helpful is some instances, but we should be careful not to give to it the air of supremacy it has enjoyed lately. To be fair, this is done by pop-psychologists defending their thesis and hammering it in the heads of their readers with the phrase “studies have proven.”

                  Harris’ podcast is pretty good when he talks with interesting guests.

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                  • Hmm… I find this to be confused, in part because it conflates multiple types of “psychology,” in part because it treats the arguable position that psychology plays a role in all human affairs with the idea that all other sciences “bow to it” in assume war, and, though you acknowledge that it is pop psychologists who do these (conflated) things, it treats their sins as psychology’s.

                    I can’t make heads or talks of it, except as a lament that people frequently misuse science, and that the sciences that are most directly applicable to human affairs — psychology, medicine, nutrition, etc. — are the most susceptible to such misuse. Of course, this happens to be precisely the sort of phenomenon that is the object of psychology (specifically cognitive and social psychology).

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                  • I’ve never heard that Psych is the dominant science and i’ve been in behavioral science/social services for like 25 years. Judging all of psychology by pop psych is pretty absurd. Most pop pysch types have a terrible rep among psychologists.

                    Dr. Phil and his ilk are jokes.

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                    • It’s not necessarily that people are walking around saying ‘hey, psychology is the king of the sciences!’ but rather, like the author, you just have to look at the culture around us. The latest DSM is as big as it’s ever been chocked to the brim with personality/conduct disorders including things like “oppositional defiant disorder” and “intermittent explosive disorder”; and everyone seems to be always claiming to have or be something – this or that disorder.

                      But, again, this is neither here nor there. The main point the author is trying to make is that having the thousands of entries in the DSM (with many of them being accompanied by vague and ambiguous checklists), we are simply allowing people to say ‘my behavior is due to this, it’s not me.’ And my point about pop psychology what somewhat lost. It isn’t pop psychology that’s the problem – it has its own problems with honesty and genuineness – but psychology in general.

                      This is the preface from the book in its entirety that captures quite nicely the sentiment I am going for (admittedly, I am making my point horribly thus far!):

                      In the misfortunes of our friends, wrote the duc de La Rochefoucauld nearly three and a half centuries ago, there is something not entirely unpleasing. When we read this for the first time we experience both a shock and a sense of recognition. Something discreditable about us has been put into words that, if we had reflected a little harder or more honestly upon ourselves, we should have known all along: and henceforth we shall never be able to pretend that we are other than complex and contradictory beings.

                      La Rochefoucauld was able to put into words what anyone could have known by ‘attending to the motions of his own mind,’ as Doctor Johnson put it. Have human beings progressed beyond this in their self-understanding? It is my contention that they have not, and that overvaunted or pretended progress, amazing though it may be from a technological point of view, is actually a retrogression in honesty and sophistication. Psychology is not a key to self-understanding, but a cultural barrier to such understanding as we can achieve; but it is my belief that we shall never be able entirely to pluck out the heart of our mystery. Of this I am glad rather than sorry.

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        • No, that’s making the analogy more concrete than I intended. What I mean is Darwin’s work ultimately became a paradigm that undergirds virtually all areas of biology in one way or another. It is a unifying theory that, while it doesn’t explain everything, provides a theoretical nexus connecting for the myriad explanations and types of explanations in biology. With such nexus, all sorts of existing explanations of more local phenomena can be refined, expanded, or discarded, and all sorts of new explanations, and even new phenomena, become possible.

          Psychology doesn’t have such a nexus. It is, like all sciences today, increasingly specialized, but unlike the others, there is no theoretical framework with which to see the larger picture(s).

          There have been some attempts at such a framework, but most have been failures, either completely or as general theories.

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  6. “They don’t explicitly refer to science per se, but they invoke a quasi-scientific or scholarly authority on behalf of the position that the author is taking.”

    And what do we call it, children, when someone in an argument brings in an external authority to do their arguing for them? All together now…

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  7. Psychology is at once both an art refined and deadly, a science struggling to be born, something that has been researched for millenia, and something grounded and bounded in facts we want to pretend are nonexistent.

    For what is a lawyer except someone skilled at artfully subverting his fellows using the fine tools of rhetoric?

    What is a doctor’s primary skill — condescension, if not the demand for respect using the basic tools breeding has given him?

    What is a spy’s primary skill — the ability to transmute himself into the person at hand, the ability to tune his social skills and step outside the boundaries of proper to do what is necessary?

    Sciences are the experimentalists’ art… there are many more psychology experiments ongoing than people believe.

    Much more is known about psychology than is ever published.

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  8. I am a hard-core empiricist. It may not matter so much what “others” say, but it sure matters what the data say. The fact is that everyone in politics (and Dalrymple is a political writer, there’s no question there) hates this quality in me and others like me. They feel like it crushes their spirit, or inventiveness or something. Or maybe just that it queers their pitch.

    Dalrymples mode of argumentation seems to be “I can quote Shakespeare a lot and use other big words, so you should believe me rather than those crass scientists”. An entirely class-based argument from authority.

    If I seem hostile to Dalrymple, it’s because he seems hostile to science, particularly to data. This might seem an odd quality for a doctor, but we have the recent example of Ben Carson to point to. Any science that wasn’t directly helpful to making him successful is suspect. The pyramids were made for grain storage because he likes that story better. In fact, this is the same line of argument that denies global warming – it looks at people rather than at data.

    And as an aside, I’m boggled by the complaints upthread about the existence of DSM. Really? Classifying the suffering of people in an attempt to help them is a moral rot? Developing empathy for people who commit crimes is a problem?

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    • I’m not so sure I’d classify Dalrymple as hostile to science in the same sense as Carson. One, you have to admit, provides a tad more argumentative force behind his dubiousness, whether you want to call it elitism or rhetoric.

      I think that his argument is taken as hostility because we live in a culture that believes to not believe in the relentless push toward scientific progress is to believe in the status quo. To me, this amounts to saying ‘I need to classify Dalrymple as either a bleeding-heart progressive or an anti-science reactionary, and he’s not the former, so he must be the latter.’ But pushing this aside and digging deeper into his argument, I think it’s clear that he doesn’t have an across-the-board- disdain for science or psychology (he is a psychiatrist after all, and has helped people). Rather he only wants us to be prudent about when and how we use it (like all science).

      Again, I keep saying this, but his point is not that the DSM is bad, or that empathy is bad. No one, especially not him, is saying that. However, there are plenty of psychologists and mental health professionals who see the side-effects of and issues with over-classification and thus over-diagnosing. Sure, it could be a political issue, but it can also be simply taken as a precursor to a culture in which everyone believes they have something. Have you ever ran across someone (easy example, I know) who can’t pay attention in a class and insists they have some form of ADD. Questioning this, however, does not diminish the severity of people who actually have some form of ADD, only that we not be so quick to call every time we have a lapse in our attention ADD.

      Of course we should have empathy for criminals who commit crimes, but we should be careful not to let this empathy absolve them. To say ‘well, he’s just a product of his upbringing… can we really blame him?’ Can you not see (and this isn’t mean to be rhetorical or sarcastic) how this can lead to the shifting of responsibility from ourselves to something else? That is ultimately his thesis. Not destruction of psychology, nor empathy. But simply questioning psychology’s methods, results, and ultimately its implications.

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