Ok, let me begin by saying how much I love the New York Review of Books. You should totally subscribe to it. It is generally great content, and they make a lot of it free online to free loaders like you (haven’t subscribed yet?). Tons of thought provoking stuff.
Second, Freeman Dyson is a super super smart man, an amazing physicist and a pretty good science writer to boot. His review of James Gleick’s The Information was excellent (and the book itself was great). Although I am not so sure about his climate change skepticism I generally think his scientific judgment is legitimate.
Dyson’s latest review, of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow annoyed me. In a nutshell, he is a physicist, not a psychologist, not a historian, and yet he speaks with confidence about the state of modern psychology, as well as its history. This confidence is misplaced, because not only does he get a few specific things wrong, but he also mischaracterizes the field.
The trouble begins with a seemingly innocent and typical heaping on of praise for Kahneman:
Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize for economics. His great achievement was to turn psychology into a quantitative science. He made our mental processes subject to precise measurement and exact calculation, by studying in detail how we deal with dollars and cents.
No. Kahneman did not single-handedly turn psychology into a quantitative science. Many psychologists throughout history have “turned” psychology into a quantitative science. Herman Ebbinghaus taught himself nonsense syllables and measured every step, discovering the effect of serial position in memory (in a list, we will remember the first and last things better than the middle) as well as plotting a forgetting curve.B.F. Skinner may have overreached, but the principles of operant conditioning were arrived at using quantitative methods, and are still used in animal training as well as kindergarten classrooms. The beginning of the cognitive revolution, with experiments from Ulric Neisser, George Miller, and Jerome Bruner used quantitative methods. Milgram’s obedience study was not simply one case of one group of people obeying an experimenter and shocking another, but a veritable program of research, with many replications. Likewise with the bystander effect and cognitive dissonance. This is all outside of my area of expertise, perception, which I am sure Dyson wasn’t including as psychology, in that it includes quantitative methods beginning with Fechner’s Elements of Psychophysics (1860/1912), and continuing to the present day.
This might all sound like a bit of snobbish namedropping, but saying that psychology became a quantitative science in the early 1970’s ignores a great deal of history. What Dyson credits Kahneman with (“precise measurement and exact calculation”) has been the goal of psychology since Fechner’s elements of Psychophysics in 1860:
“The task did not at all originally present itself as one of finding a unit of mental measurement; but rather as one of searching for a functional relationship between the physical and the psychical that would accurately express their general interdependence.”
Obviously, we haven’t always met that standard, of finding the relationship between the measurable quantities in the world, like money, or light and our experience of them. But there was a great deal of psychological science before Kahneman.
Ok, this should have prepared me for where the essay was going: Freud. Dyson begins his foray into Freud by noting that Freud was not mentioned by Kahneman, and that Freud is dismissed by most modern day scientists and psychologists. But wait, Dyson is going to tell us why Kahneman in fact owes a debt to Freud:
Freud wrote two books, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901 and The Ego and the Id in 1923, which come close to preempting two of the main themes of Kahneman’s book. The psychopathology book describes the many mistakes of judgment and of action that arise from emotional bias operating below the level of consciousness. These “Freudian slips” are examples of availability bias, caused by memories associated with strong emotions. The Ego and the Id decribes two levels of the mind that are similar to the System Two and System One of Kahneman, the Ego being usually conscious and rational, the Id usually unconscious and irrational.
Freudian slips are no more instances of the availability bias than Democritus’ atoms are the inspiration for the Large Hadron Collider. It is trivially easy to say “mumble mumble Freud, mumble, emotions, mumble unconscious, irrational.” The concept of the unconscious had been around well before Freud (see Henri Ellenberger’s excellent Discovery of the Unconscious). And the Ego and the Id are not any more similar to System 1 and System 2 than a whole host of other ways of splitting up our brain (I think a better cousin would be Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain).
Dyson adds another paragraph, telling us how Freud is mostly literary, while Kahneman is scientific. But he ends his treatment of Freud with this:
But together with the poetic fantasies, he discarded much else that was valuable. Since strong emotions and obsessions cannot be experimentally controlled, Kahneman’s method did not allow him to study them. The part of the human personality that Kahneman’s method can handle is the nonviolent part, concerned with everyday decisions, artificial parlor games, and gambling for small stakes. The violent and passionate manifestations of human nature, concerned with matters of life and death and love and hate and pain and sex, cannot be experimentally controlled and are beyond Kahneman’s reach. Violence and passion are the territory of Freud. Freud can penetrate deeper than Kahneman because literature digs deeper than science into human nature and human destiny.
Ok, so this is surprising. A physicist taking a psychologist to task because … because … because he is not mystical enough? Because literature digs deeper into human nature? Kahneman apparently concerns himself with parlor games, not the real stuff, because psychology can’t do real experiments on the important parts of human nature. How’s this? Life and death: Milgram’s obedience studies show how we abdicate responsibility allowing seemingly normal people to do great evil. Phillip Zimbardo reminds us that Abu Ghraib shows this to be no fluke. Elizabeth Loftus’ memory studies can help exonerate the falsely accused. Love and hate: Dyson clearly hasn’t read Dutton and Aron’s classic (1974) “Love on a Bridge” study in which people misattribute their increased heart rate and find an experimenter more attractive when they are standing on a bridge of stereotype and prejudice research by Claude Steele, Mazarin Banaji, Brian Nosek, and many others show us the different dimensions of “hate” how prejudice can be unconscious as well as conscious. Pain and sex: Most ironically, Kahneman himself has done some interesting work on pain. Sex, well, you’ve got me there. Someone recently did an MRI scan of a female orgasm but this is hardly science, even though it looks all sciency (“Look! the whole brain lights up! memo to science journalists: your whole brain is just about always “all lit up”. Even when you are sleeping). I suppose I could cite the old “homophobic men are more aroused by gay porn” study by Adams, Wright and Lohr (1996).
The point is that Dyson sets up a nice straw man so that he can reference the only psychologists he knows anything about: Freud, Kahneman, and William James. Kahneman, just like he ignores Freud, also ignores James and his 1902 classic Varieties of Religious Experience. What’s that you say? James also published another book, perhaps more relevant to the present case, which is still in print today? What is it called? Oh yeah. The Principles of Psychology. But no, Dyson resolutely has James stand next to Freud: “Freud and James were artists and not scientists.” James may not have been a scientist himself, but he contributed to the science in a way that Freud did not, and is still considered relevant in a way that Freud is not. Just look at the table of contents of the Principles of Psychology. “Perception,” “Attention,” “Reasoning,” “Emotion” they are remarkably similar to a modern day Cognitive Psychology textbook. It is not at all uncommon for a psychologist to invoke James’ definition of attention:
Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”
James may not have been an experimentalist, and he may have been enthralled with mysticism, but he was no artist and he has not been banished into literature the way Freud has. James was an acute observer of the science of psychology in his time (“It is not a science, it is the hope of a science”) and an astute prognosticator of the shape of the science to come.
So I come to the nice, neat end of Dyson’s review:
Admirers of Freud and James may hope that the time may come when they will stand together with Kahneman as three great explorers of the human psyche, Freud and James as explorers of our deeper emotions, Kahneman as the explorer of our more humdrum cognitive processes. But that time has not yet come. Meanwhile, we must be grateful to Kahneman for giving us in this book a joyful understanding of the practical side of our personalities.
Dyson damns Kahneman (and my whole field; “humdrum”? grrr!) with faint praise and yet sees his as one of the three great explorers. Dyson would have us believe this is due to some incisive historical allegory, but to this humble teacher of the history of psychology, it is proof that a physicist who can see to the edges of the universe seems myopic when left to reason about the little psychology available to his limited imagination.
I could restrict my disappointment to Dyson himself, but this is too often a theme in the modern reporting of psychology. I would love to read a review which places Kahneman’s book in its historical context. Unfortunately, that is a job for a psychologist, or a historian of science. I am sure that a publication with the reputation of the New York Review of Books could get a cognitive psychologist who has written successfully for a popular audience like Arthur Markman, Christopher Chabris, Mark Changizi. I think the compiler of all the wonderful historical documents above would also do a great job: Christopher Green. Or just take a look at the incomplete but not bad list of people on the wikipedia page for Cognitive Psychology. No offense to physicists, but we wouldn’t have Steven Pinker review Stephen Hawking, why should the reverse be ok?