I’ve been working on and thinking about issues at the intersection of psychology, psychiatry, and moral philosophy lately, so this (partly but not entirely edifying) discussion-thread at BHL caught my eye. I thought I’d reproduce it here, comment on it, and then just leave the comments open indefinitely for thoughts on the matter.
The discussion arises in the context of a post by Jason Brennan on whether one should go to grad school. I don’t particularly like the self-congratulatory tone of the post, but don’t disagree with the advice he gives. Early on in the post, he addresses a frequently-asked question and offers up an answer:
I like reading and discussing economics or political philosophy. It‘s my hobby. Should I go to grad school? You can do all these things without getting a Ph.D. You won’t be as good at it, but you can read and discuss economics while holding down a job as an insurance agent, a lawyer, or a consultant. You might be able to maintain your hobby while making a lot more money.
It’s not very adeptly or tactfully put, but on the whole, I agree with Brennan. His point is not that a non-PhD. cannot in principle be as good as PhDs at philosophy. His point is that the generalization holds as a rule: generally speaking, and given current economic and institutional realities, you need a PhD to excel at philosophy. There are some notable exceptions to that rule, of course. Some of the most brilliant and successful academic philosophers got into the profession back in the day when a PhD was considered unnecessary (e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre, Colin McGinn, Saul Kripke), but no one holds not having a PhD against them. Coming the other way around, I know non-academics out there (without PhDs) who can hold their own–and then some–with many PhD philosophers. But I think such people are the exception, not the rule. Ultimately, one has to commit the fallacy of accident to deny the truth of what Brennan is saying. We can recognize that exceptional cases exist while acknowledging the truth of the rule he’s identified.
Perhaps Brennan should have qualified what he said to accommodate the exceptional cases, but I also think it’s clear he had a very different sort of case in mind–e.g., the middle manager who wants to do philosophy on the side. I think Brennan is correct to think that such a person will tend not to be as good at philosophy as the PhD philosopher from a top-20 school (Arizona, Princeton, Rutgers, Oxford, Pittsburgh, etc.) who is herself working at an R1 school and (therefore) doing philosophy all day. (And most would come out and admit it.) The more invested you are in your day job, the heavier its demands. But the heavier its demands, the fewer resources you have to devote to philosophy. Given the (very) heavy demands of doing good philosophy, having fewer resources means, all things equal, you won’t do it as well as someone with more resources at her disposal. As someone who spent nine years temping and adjuncting before finding a full-time academic position, that doesn’t seem controversial to me.
It’s not much different than the situation of the guy who spends eight hours a day working assiduously on his guitar chops versus the guy who noodles a bit on his prized Gibson SG after a long day at work. The first guy might make it in the music business, if he’s lucky and other things come together; the second guy may do a gig of AC/DC covers at the local bar (if they let him in), but can’t expect to headline Met Life Stadium (capacity: 88,000), or for that matter, headline the local equivalent of the Wellmont Theater (capacity: 1,200). (Again, I should know.)
The conversation took a different (and actually, more interesting) direction after an intervention by someone named Val, a psychiatrist, who jumped in with this comment just below. Responding to the Brennan passage quoted above, he or she had this to say (sorry for the pronoun ambiguity, but “Val” could be either male or female):
Rubbish and simple minded navel-gazing. Except for the unique subspecialty of a Ph.D tenured research professor (“I’m the foremost expert on La Rochefoucauld’s writing of the year 1678!”), anyone who puts in the time and is clever can speak on intellectual issues with equal footing. You can certainly be “as good at it” in whatever interests you.
I’m a psychiatrist attached to a large research university and spend most of my day as a clinician. The philosophy professors who have careers focusing on ethics, political philosophy, or Scholasticism are barely on equal footing with the well-read clinicians who have been reading the epistemology of science for the last 25 years.
I think Val’s comment talks somewhat past Brennan’s. Yes, “anyone who puts in time” can speak with equal footing, but Brennan’s point is that if you have a day job, the better the job, the less time you’ll have to put in. The worse the job, the less sense it makes to do philosophy rather than get yourself a better job (and then do philosophy, in which case, it’s back to the first option). There are exceptions to this rule, too, but as a rule, it holds. Val’s situation is unique, and escapes Brennan’s point, but doesn’t generalize to the cases Brennan is discussing–the majority of cases.
Unfortunately, Brennan, given an opportunity to re-direct the conversation, only had this to say:
Val, I bet you just think you’re smart because of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Clinical psych is easy as pie. It’s what people with bad GRE or MCAT scores do.
It’s a somewhat cryptic–and actually pretty stupid–response. The first sentence is just a particularly abusive instance of poisoning the well. The second sentence suggests that Brennan is under the impression that Val is a clinical psych(ologist). In other words, his implicit reasoning is:
You must be one of those dumb people who’ve opted to work in clinical psychology. Your GRE scores were probably too low to work in a difficult field, like philosophy, economics, or cognitive psychology. Your MCAT scores were probably too low to get you into a good medical school, or to get you in at all. So you opted for the easy way out–clinical psychology. And given that, you must think you’re particularly smart because you’re operating under the Dunning-Kruger effect. Being a victim of that effect, you’ve taken umbrage at my suggestions, but that’s because the effect has deluded you.
One problem here is that Val is a psychiatrist with an MD. So the GRE is irrelevant to his/her situation, and he/she obviously did well enough on the MCATs to get into med school, get an MD, go into practice, and get attached to a research university.
A second problem is that even if there was a documented correlation between low GRE/MCAT scores and the choice of clinical psychology as a profession, it wouldn’t follow that clinical psychology was “easy.” The more obvious inference would be that neither the GRE nor the MCAT was designed to test skill or aptitude in clinical psychology. A little Howard Gardner might have gone a long way here.
Personal experience might help, too. Brennan often likes to talk about his, so here’s a bit of mine. I spent part of grad school writing GRE questions for the Educational Testing Service (ETS), so I have a fairly good sense of what’s involved in designing them, including what they test and what they don’t test. There’s a lot that they don’t test, and a lot in them, methodologically and substantively, that is highly debatable, regardless of what ETS’s in-house psychometricians will tell you. Keith Stanovich’s work is relevant here.
It’s a great irony, by the way, that a large number of the item writers for the GRE (and personnel at ETS generally) are people who, by Brennan’s standards, are academic failures–i.e., grad students, often at Rutgers, Princeton, Temple, or Penn, who’ll never get a tenure track R1 job, or grad students (Rutgers, Princeton, Temple, Penn) who never finished their programs. So lots of Brennanite “failures” end up being the gate-keepers for the Brennanite “winners.” Something similar is true of the PRAXIS exam: I wrote items for PRAXIS at a time when, as a doctoral student without a teaching certificate, I was writing exam questions for a profession I wasn’t permitted to enter–and the questions I wrote were for an exam involving the very credential I lacked for purposes of entry!
A bit of advice, then: Brennan tells people who might want to go to grad school, but shouldn’t, to get a job at GEICO. I would say, instead: get a job at ETS. I worked there as a part-timer for almost six years before I got a full time academic position. It was a good place to work. Not my first preference, but still.
Incidentally, if I were Jerry Springer, at this point I would say that one important lesson we learn here is not to accuse someone of being a victim of the Dunning Kruger effect, accuse him/her of bombing the GRE, and misread what he/she wrote all in the same comment.
Anyway, back to Val’s comment. I sort of agreed, sort of disagreed. So here’s what I said:
I’m a PhD philosopher working on a master’s degree in counseling psych. I spend a fair bit of time discussing philosophy vs clinical psychology and/or psychiatry with people in those fields. I see where you’re coming from, but don’t agree with you (not that I agree with Brennan’s comment below*).
An enormous amount of the literature in both clinical psychology and psychiatry strikes me as methodologically weak and substantively trivial. (Much of it also makes huge, unwitting assumptions about difficult issues in the philosophy of mind.) The clinical work that (good) psychiatrists do gives them practical experience that philosophers don’t typically have (fair enough), but it’s very narrow and doesn’t equip them with the resources to think about bread-and-butter philosophical issues. In any case, for many psychiatrists, “clinical work” nowadays means “medication management,” not therapy. I don’t see how expertise at managing a dosing schedule gives a person insight into the foundations of ethics. I’m willing to hear the argument, but off hand, I don’t see it.
That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant philosopher-psychiatrists out there (e.g., Jonathan Lear, Richard Chessick…Sigmund Freud), i.e., people with excellent philosophical skills who have capitalized on their clinical work. I’d also be willing to say that they have insight and understanding that most philosophers in the field lack. But that’s a far cry from the claims you’re making.
One look at Brennan’s derisive comment below* should tell you that if you were looking for intelligent engagement with your arguments, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re interested in discussing the issues, feel free to come by my blog or contact me privately (contact info at the blog). I sometimes blog on issues at the intersection of philosophy and psychology in the broad sense (that includes psychiatry), and wouldn’t mind batting this one around. We’re mostly philosophers, but there are some psychologists and psychiatrists lurking in the “audience.” You might find it fruitful to have a conversation with us. And rest assured, we won’t ask you about your MCAT score or reduce your arguments to a diagnosis.
Val saw what I wrote and had this to say:
Irfan – I agree with a good deal of what you have said. An enormous amount of psychology and psychiatry research is indeed methodologically weak. As the saying goes, nearly of all of psychology research is trivial if true, and if attempting to show something non-trivial, is impossible to convincingly demonstrate. My experience as well has been that most psychologists and psychiatrists are grossly ignorant of the surrounding philosophical issues. However, there are plenty of psychiatrists that I work with who are keenly aware of the epistemic problems of the assumptions inherent in modern psychiatry and are well read in the psychiatrist-philosophers, (Jung, Jaspers, Freud…Popper is also popular. Human Action was recently under discussion in the geriatrics department). …
I agree with that, of course. I also think it goes the other way. Most philosophers are grossly ignorant of psychology and psychiatry, but it’s unclear to me (one year into a psychology program) how much of a debility that turns out to be. If so much psychology research is trivial, what leverage does one get out of relying on it to do moral or political philosophy? Some, I think, but it’s difficult to articulate what it is.
Same issue from a different direction: as a journal editor and conference organizer, I read dozens of manuscripts in ethics and political philosophy from authors who are trying (sometimes trying too hard) to showcase their familiarity with cutting edge work and cutting edge ways of doing philosophy. A large proportion of this work showcases the latest work in psychology. Decades ago, Robert Nozick told us that either we work within Rawls’s system, or explain why not. Now the same is implicitly being said of Jonathan Haidt. It is, one might say, a haidtful state of affairs.
Much of this psycho-philosophical experiment-mongering strikes me, frankly, as trivial, and if you dig hard enough, you find in many cases that philosophers tend, subtly (or not so subtly) to overstate, distort, and cherry pick research findings from psychology to make them less trivial than they are.
The truth is, by comparison with the intuition-mongering philosophy literature, the psychological literature tends to be very, very equivocal. Here’s a random example that I just happened to read yesterday, Daniel Wegner and Sophia Zanakos, “Chronic Thought Suppression” Journal of Personality, 62:4 (December 1994). The abstract says:
We conducted several tests of the idea that an inclination toward thought suppression is associated with obsessive thinking and emotional reactivity….[Our measure of thought suppression] was found to correlate with measures of obsessional thinking and depressive and anxious affect, to predict signs of clinical obsession among individuals prone toward obsessional thinking, to predict failure of electrodermal responses to habituate among people having emotional thoughts.
Then you read the article and the qualifications start coming: “Throughout this article, we have tried to caution that our intepretations of these results are not the only possible interpretations at this time” (p. 636).
It’s one of dozens of examples I could have used, from cognitive to clinical to political psychology. I’m not faulting the authors. My point is: psychology findings do not easily lend themselves for use as “inductive backing” for some controversial claim in ethics or political philosophy. They just aren’t written that way, or with that purpose in mind. But that’s the way philosophers often use them, at least in my experience. The psychology research of the philosophers is a lot like the God of the philosophers: not the original article. Philosophers seem wedded to the psychology of journal abstracts, not journal text–to unqualified thesis statements, not to the thesis-death-by-a-thousand-qualifications-followed-by-recommendations-for-more-grant-funding-and-research that one typically finds in the text. The jury is still out for me, but I often find myself wondering how useful all this psychology-mongering really is for philosophy.
Of course, then I read hand-waving, flat-footed philosophy that resolutely ignores the empirical literature, and I swing the other way. It also helps to read classic texts–Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Freud–and see how much they got wrong, empirically speaking. (Just think of what passes for biology or cultural anthropology in any one of these writers.) I just got finished reading Calvin Hall’s Primer of Freudian Psychology, published in 1954. One doesn’t think of 1954 as being that long ago–the Eisenhower Administration wasn’t ancient history–but the author has the nerve (so to speak) to assert that asthma, arthritis, and ulcers are psycho-somatic effects of ego defense mechanisms (pp. 85-87). Primal repressions, we’re told, arise in Lamarckian fashion via the “racial history of mankind” (p. 85). I guess sometimes pseudo-science is just pseudo-science. So I’d be the last to trash appeals to hard fact as a constraint on normative theorizing.
I’ve often thought that psychiatry rewards the philosophically minded more than any other specialty. General medicine, for instance, largely reduces to this model: is the blood sugar >6%? If yes, implement algorithm given to you by the Joint Commission. Pattern recognition and memorization required, but not a lot of analysis.
In psychiatry, if a patient complains of depression, you have to say, what does depression mean to this patient? Is depression even real? How can I judge this patient as having depression when there are no absolute standards? How will I know if his depression is responding to treatment? Why is the treatment even working? What caused the depression? Why do some develop depression in similar circumstances but not others? Good clinicians conceptualize patients in such a manner, and this is how they are discussed at conferences. Poor psychiatrists uncritically push pills.
MIT press released a very good collection last year, Classifying Psychopathology, for sale on the shelves in the medical school book shop. I doubt very much a well read psychiatrist wouldn’t be “as good” (to use Brennan’s silly words) at discussing the contents as a Ph.D philosopher who specialized in ethics.
I agree with most (or a lot) of that, but notice that the context of Val’s comment is psychopathology. Yes, within that context, psychiatrists have a lot of challenging, important philosophical work to do. But the context is itself very narrow. You can master all that there is to know about psychopathology, whether psychiatrically or philosophically (or both), and still be light-years away from dealing with issues that are central to ethics.
Anyway, there’s a lot to think about and respond to there. To keep this post within reasonable length, I’ll post any further thoughts I have in the combox. But I figure that some of PoT’s lurking readers may have things to say–there are some psychologists and at least one psychiatrist out there, along with a few non-psychiatrist MDs–so I’ll just leave this open for comment.
*Brennan’s comment was below mine when I first wrote. As of March 9, 2015, Brennan’s response to Val no longer bears his name, and is attributed instead to an anonymous “Guest.” The same is true of a few other comments of his in that discussion.