Witch Doctors

Remember the story of multiple personalities and the famous book Sybil? BS. Remember the recovered personalities craze? Broke up families & got people put in jail? BS. Many refer to the whole process as psychobabble. We now know that Freud was full of crap, yet we are still in the thrall of this sort of pseudo-scientific gnosticism.

As with any field, there are good and bad practitioners. We need to be skeptical of anybody who talks about new & dramatic discoveries that don't seem to square with common experience. Be even more skeptical when practitioners try to stop debate by referring to their own credentials and/or studies that only the cognoscenti can understand. Run for the door when they try to use the political or legal system to protect their ideas and their phony-baloney jobs.

We go through periods of these sorts of hysterias. We all remember the famous Salem witch trials. We dismiss them as superstition that no longer affects us today. But we have them today. The multiple-personality hysteria resulted in many ruined lives and lots of wasted resources. The recovered memories mendacity tore families apart, resulted in victimizing kids, who while actually not physically harmed STILL managed to have the guilt and trauma created by the suggestions of overeager therapists. Some people actually went to jail for crimes that they could not have committed. This is not significantly different from the spectral evidence accepted during the Salem witch trials.

I love history and have studied it from ancient times to today. It is clear that human nature really doesn't change. We respond to lots of different situations that affect our outcomes and we have vastly different institutions and technologies. But people are people. An ancient Greek would not understand our technologies and techniques, but if he could understand the language and compensate for the physical differences, he would understand what was going on in our television dramas or soap operas. We still have lots of people who look to the "hidden" (gnostic) knowledge and are sure that occult forces are responsible for intractable problems. We have always had shamans, witch hunters or witch doctors who claim special knowledge based on their unique skills, talents or training. We have them today too.

There are few really bright lines or boundaries. The difference between science and superstition is rigor, but the two slip together. A superstitious person is also trying to make sense of his world. He sees correlations but draws the wrong conclusions about causality. Maybe he wears the same "lucky shirt" or goes through some ritual before making a bet at the race track. This is stupid. But other correlations are more complex and difficult to disentangle. Sometimes superstitions grow into rules of thumb that kind of work, sometimes for reasons we don't understand. I read about a tribe where the witch doctors did a ceremony to find big game. It mostly involved tossing a bunch of bones around in a random way so that the gods could choose. Of course, no gods were involved, but the random toss tended to equalize hunting pressure and so preserve hunting.

I have lived long enough to see many "truths" reversed. I expect to see it happen again. I think the only thing we can do is be reasonable. If somebody suddenly discovers something that is widespread, that nobody has noticed before, and seems too good or too bad to be true, maybe it is.

Posted by Christine & John at October 22, 2011 9:41 AM
Comment #330924

Thanks for the fun read Christine and John. Human nature changes very little over eons. One can read the Bible and understand how and why people thought and did what they did. I too enjoy history, both ancient and recent.

Many of our greatest misconceptions today involve the myth surrounding how government should work. We have strayed far from the useful necessity of our Democratic Republic into the field of adoration and exaltation. It was designed to be neither, but rather, a useful device to convey and insure individual liberty.

Posted by: Royal Flush at October 22, 2011 8:03 PM
Comment #330929


The one thing that is truly remarkable about humans is that they continue to be so gullible.

The real life heroine in the “Sybil” case actually told the the psychiatrist that she made it all up, and was told that is merely part of her delusions.
Of course she eventually caved.

The only people that get rich in “get rich” schemes are the authors of the schemes, and when they are exposed, the dupes just can’t believe it.
Self help books and lectures are mostly about the “self help” guru helping themselves to our money.

Humans will believe just about anything, especially if it’s too good to be true.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at October 23, 2011 10:42 AM
Comment #330931

Rocky & Royal

Yeah, human nature stays the same. But I don’t think that means we don’t make progress. We have learned how to channel human nature into more peaceful and productive processes, through good institutions and sound policies.

The persistent failure of “intuitive” process and the presence of what can only be called hysteria, argues against the whole idea of spontaneous revolutions or in general radical change, which will always be fueled by hysteria and negative emotions.

In our personal and our political life, we are best served by deliberate progress. The “nature” human is a savage, and not in that noble way argued by Rousseau.

Posted by: C&J at October 23, 2011 11:50 AM
Comment #330973

I would argue the natural human is us.

The fallacy really is defining natural merely in terms of the “nature” part of “nature vs. nurture”, that is, as just what you get when you throw a child out in the wild to grow up. The truth is, though, the Human species evolved it’s verbal capacities and it’s social relationship right along side it. It is natural for us to speak language to one another, natural to exist in social groups.

Other creatures learn behaviors from the adults of those species, behaviors that are part and parcel of their ability to function. Monkeys, birds, and other creatures learn from their parents, adapting not merely in biological or anatomical ways, but also by their education through imitiation of their parents, and experimentation on their own.

Humans have the added advantage of a system of communication that allows us to consider things on a higher level, in a manipulateable, abstract way. We are learning creatures. Not everything we learn is useful, but then, that’s what a brain is for.

Which brings me to psychiatry. Let me put it this way: there is a degree of BS to many who do psychiatry, the primal scream and power of positive thinking folks, but we shouldn’t deny one fact:

Freud, despite the discredited nature of his theories, at least got the dialogue going in the right direction, towards a more scientific model of human behavior. We can understand mental illness (as well as regular mental function) as driven by something else than just spirits, demons, and imbalances of humors (sanguine and melancholy are terms derived from that)

Freudian Psychoanalysis was something to move beyond, but people moved beyond it by improving their model of the human mind, rather than just starting anew from whole cloth.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at October 24, 2011 1:03 PM
Comment #330987


Freud was pretty much anti-science. His theories quickly calcified into a dogma that caused great suffering for generations.

I suppose you could credit him for popularizing the idea that you COULD study the mind. But we could wish for a better messenger. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I take your point that we are “natural” men, but the term is usually employed to refer to those free of the “corruptions” of civilization. I think civilization is what keeps this natural man under some control.

Primitive people are always at war, always killing and raping. It is what they do. Read the legends and you know they thought such things were good. We have come a long way, although we have not overcome our savage past.

Posted by: C&J at October 24, 2011 5:08 PM
Comment #331097

Freud was wrong about lots of things, like Newton and Descartes were.

That doesn’t mean their ideas were useless, quite the contrary is true.

Modern psychoanalysis, still has a basis in Freud’s work. All Psychiatrists must go through psychoanalysis. Cognitive therapy was derived from psychoanalysis. It is a rather simple way to cure many neurotic and depressed people by challenging their maladaptive behaviors.

I agree human nature has not really changed. What has changed is our base of knowledge. Books and now modern technology have had a great impact on this. One can dismiss psychology as nonsense and witch hunts, which it sometimes is. One can dismiss economic theory, and even established science. Sometimes this, of course, is often regression rather than progress.

Science is not owned by any one person, and it’s entire basis is best served by skepticism, but skepticism for skepticism’s sake is no different than a witch hunt. What makes science sound is repeated results and differentiation from unsound thinking. Exploration often involves going down unknown paths, wisdom comes from knowing the difference between dead ends, and opening vistas.

Posted by: Tom Jefferson at October 27, 2011 10:13 AM
Comment #331107


We probably agree on most of these things. I am just saying that we should not go overboard with some of the supposed “science”. Freud was a generally malevolent influence, who got a few things right. Ditto Marx, Rousseau, Sartre, Nietzsche & Schopenhauer, among others. We cannot trust any individual who tries to give us a comprehensive theory.

Posted by: C&J at October 27, 2011 5:07 PM
Comment #360119

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Comment #417756

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