Why Freud was wrong

Rating: ★★★★★

Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis

Freud, according to this 1995 book, dispensed psychoanalysis “as if it was a science, when it seems more akin to a faith or a cult, with Freud as a modern ‘Messiah'”. It is an explanation of the human condition firmly rooted in Darwinian evolutionary theories. That Freud was able to do so may well be down to the 20th century spiritual vacuum, the failure of the churches post world war, and their little, if any, moral authority. It is in this respect that Freudian psychoanalysis bears comparison with Darwinian evolution. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical  theory remains a popular psychiatric approach. Its use, however, has been chiefly in the United States. Thus New York, with nine million inhabitants (1980) had almost a thousand psychoanalysts, whereas Tokyo, with eleven million people, had but three!

Dr. Eysenck of the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, wrote in the Medical Tribune of April 4, 1973, that the results “claimed for different methods of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis were almost exactly that found for a spontaneous remission.” In other words, persons receiving psychoanalytic help had about the same recovery rate as those receiving no psychoanalytic therapy at all!

Freud wanted, above all, to be recognised as a scientist, and famously resented friendly critics such as Havelock Ellis who suggested that psychoanalysis was more of an art than science. The scientific method, as verified by Dr Karl Popper, examines the process whereby a hypothesis becomes a theory, only by observable phenomena, demonstrable by experiment, capable of replication in time and place.

Since psychoanalysis is not observable, not demonstrable by experiment, and supported only by dogmatic assertions, it cannot be verifiable by the scientific method. Dr Karl Popper is highly respected, and based on the scientific method he also found evolution wanting as a bona fide  scientific theory. Rather, he found it to be, not science, but suitable for metaphysical research. Psychoanalysis may legitimately be shown to likewise fail the criteria. A hypothesis that is NOT subject, at least in principle, to the possibility of empirical [experimental] falsification does not belong in the realm of science. ‘Observations can never prove a theory but can only disprove, or falsify it..‘ This was illustrated by the statement ‘All swans are white’ which will be disproved by one sighting of a black swan, even if preceded by one hundred white sightings (The End of Science by John Horgan , p34). Freud ignored the black swans.

A definition of the scientific method that not only describes it but also shows its value: “..a way of thinking systematically, a way of assembling evidence and appraising it, a way of conducting experiments so as to predict accurately what will happen under given circumstances, a way of ascertaining and recognizing one’s own errors, a way of finding the fallacies of long-held ideas. Science itself is constantly changing, largely as a result of the scientific method.” (Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness )

Freud the infallible

The idea of the work and the image of the man converged into that of a tough-minded clinical scientist who saw things that were concealed from others and had the courage to speak the unspeakable truths about humanity. The reality however, his own conception of an egoist, his deep insecurity, his raging hunger for recognition, did Freud understand Freud? Did he see himself as a latter-day Messiah?

Those few of Freud’s case histories that are possible to assess are invalidated, as evidence, by a confirmatory bias.  Again and again, Freud muddled his own conjectures of what was going on in his patient’s unconscious with their accounts of what they later remembered and, over time, he came to represent the former as the latter. It was hardly surprising, then, that, like a first-year medical student or a hypochondriac making diagnoses, Freud found that everything he recalled from his consultations could fit his theories. This circularity, whereby the theory created the facts that supported the theory, should have been evident to his peers, but few had noticed it.

Freud’s theories, notoriously, have an inbuilt survival kit: disagreement with them is regarded as a symptom of the very resistance they themselves predict. Freud would tell his patients what he was going to find, and if they responded indignantly, he would interpret this reaction as denial, resistance and proof of his assertions. ‘One need not be particularly sceptical to recognize vulnerable women were being placed under immense psychological pressure to produce ‘memories’ confirming the initial diagnosis.’

Freud’s words: “The work [of therapy] keeps coming to a stop and they keep maintaining that this time nothing has occurred to them. We must not believe what they say, we must always assume, and tell them too, that they have kept something back because they found it unimportant or distressing. . We must insist on this, we must repeat the pressure and represent ourselves as infallible, till at last we are really told something . . . There are cases, too, in which the patient tries to disown [the memory] even after its return. ‘Something has occurred to me now, but you obviously put it into my head’ . . . In all such cases, I remain unshakeably firm. I . . . explain to the patient that [these distinctions] are only forms of their resistance and pretexts raised by it against reproducing this particular memory, which we must recognise in spite of all this”.

A process surely more akin to criminal interrogation than therapeutic counselling.

The trouble with ‘Repressed Memories’…

Webster points out, that many women have suffered immensely as a result of orthodox psychoanalysts construing real episodes of sexual abuse as fantasies. Now the all- knowing therapist is able to persuade individuals that they have suffered sexual abuse of which they have had no recollection. The irresponsible guesswork of the Freudian recovered memory practitioners damages, those who have not been sexually abused, and also threatens to discredit the credibility of those who have, so in effect, countless psychoanalysts have persuaded women who had been abused to believe that they had not been, but others, in imitation of Freud, have tried to persuade women who had not been abused to believe that they had.

Freud the fraud

Having written his first paper on Cocaine desperate for academic glory, and expressly in order to claim his share of the credit for the medical discovery of the drug, he then blamed others for bringing it to the attention of physicians when the awful truth of Cocaine’s addictive potential could no longer be avoided. In 1885, he insisted injections of the drug could cure morphine dependence, he published a paper claiming credit for such a discovery, while knowing his close friend and patient, Ernst von Flieschl-Marxov ‘had poisoned himself’ in hopeless addiction, but that he, Freud, ‘had never contemplated the drug being given by injection’ (Clare)

In 1901 Freud misdiagnosed as ‘hysteria’  a 14 year old girl suffering from a lethal sarcoma. He continued long afterwards in describing it as the most remarkable of cases. In a sense, he was correct, and he always maintained that he may have missed the tumour, but she was cured of hysteria!

Eysenck recognized that kind of alliance between doctor and patient, whereby the patient, in wanting to avoid the doctor’s disappointment, will themselves explain away any reoccurrence of symptoms after treatment. Freud’s cases seem particularly vulnerable to this ‘therapeutic alliance’. Today, the rise of the Recovered Memory movement appears to have taken hold in a very similar way, in group settings, each individual validating the memories of the rest. To doubt one’s own recovered memories was to risk expulsion from the group.

Frederick Crews has written with great insight and compassion for the fathers and others falsely accused, it goes without saying they too are victims of the paedophiles at the root of the genuine sufferers ( The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute ). ” Freudian theory is the water in which the sharks of recovered memory swim, without the water , the sharks would be flapping around on the beach”, as the man says.

In the case of ‘Frau Emmy’, “the patient herself explained the incompleteness of the success as follows.. she felt the symptoms were attached not merely to the initial traumas (of childhood?) but to the memories of them, which I had omitted to wipe out..thus limiting the beauty and completeness of the therapeutic outcome”  How inconvienient.  No matter, for Freud confidently feels with more psychoanalysis he can succeed. One might compare such a success to that of man contemplating space travel, one may speculate, but what are the practical results?

Freud the liberal

His theories also seemed at first to offer liberation, from Victorian prudishness, hypocrisy, and oppressive institutionalised Christianity, to which ‘ he gave a secular interpretation that put it in its place as an aberration, a distorted expression of human desires’.

In her 1943 book  Coming of Age in Samoa,  Margaret Mead popularized the idea of sexual freedom, especially for the young, claiming that the Samoans had a wonderful, relaxed, non-neurotic, free-love sex life, that they were unaffected by sexual jealousy and were tolerant of extramarital liaisons, etc. (The facts are now known to be quite different). Further, she argued that it was this tolerance that led to their happiness and lack of sexual neurosis. While Mead was working on this book, she was herself engaged in extramarital affairs, both lesbian and heterosexual. Her recent critics have provided evidence that her anthropology can be seen as a disguised rationalization of her own behaviour.

As with Freud, much of modern social anthropology is liberal sexual politics masquerading as science.

Sartre pointed out, the unconscious has to know what it is that has to be repressed in order (actively) to repress it; it has also to know that it is shameful material appropriate for repression. If, however, it knows both these things, it is difficult to understand how it can avoid being conscious of it. The only way round this difficulty would be to reduce repression to forgetfulness, and this would undermine the fundamental Freudian principle that repression is quite unlike mere forgetfulness.

Freud’s influence, again distorted, impinges on our child-rearing practices; and also his impact on America’s prison reform movement: here Freud was used (or mis-used) to remove the concept of responsibility from criminal behaviour. Karl Menninger, a champion of Freudian thought (and author of the book  The Crime of Punishment ), declared, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” Really?

Recent research demonstrates that genetic and biological factors are significant in forming our personality. By contrast, researchers have had a hard time showing effects of early experience on our later personality. Extreme childhood trauma does have some effect, but things like breast-feeding, weaning, toilet-training, and the like seem to be essentially trivial.

Even when psychoanalysis has been shown to be utterly misconceived, as the basis of a treatment, as a theory of human nature, as a means of thinking about society and the world, it is difficult to shake off a sneaking suspicion that it must have some kind of special validity, if only because it has always been there, with its all-purpose explanations. One may imagine from the tone of the foregoing that there is no value whatever in psychoanalysis. This is not entirely true, as it is instructive to see what went wrong, and why. There are many thousands of psychotherapists and counsellors who practise with genuine sensitivity and understanding. But just as one malpractice case can bring down a physician, so can a misguided, outmoded technique sully the reputation of an entire profession. The book should encourage both pro and anti-Freudians to re-examine their own conception of human nature and above all, see exactly why Psychoanalysis is fundamentally flawed.

A view more sympathetic to Freud may be found at: http://www.human-nature.com/freud/timrev.html

Thanks to:

Dr Anthony Clare, The Final Analysis, Sunday Times 17/09/95

Prof R C Tallis, Burying Freud, The Lancet

E Fuller Torrey, Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture

Mr B Grimbly

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