Unempirical Psychobabble Bugs the Living Excrement Out of Me
Few things give me the heebie jeebies more than the use of unempirical psychobabble. The “psychobabble” part of it is the assignment of dark psychological motives to someone. The “unempirical” part of it is that it is impossible to establish whether or not the psychobabble claim is actually true or not, since psychological motives are not observable. This is the weakness of unempirical psychobabble that unempirical psychobabblers use as a rhetorical defense: although you can’t empirically show that a psychobabbly claim about motives is true, you can’t show it’s false either. All the psychobabbler has to do is toss up enough contentions and hope one sticks, and they never go away since they can never be proven wrong.
My first encounter with unempirical psychobabble was back in college, when my very depressed girlfriend at the time was engaged in what seemed to me to be textbook examples of suicidal ideation: mentioning a very specific plan for how to kill herself, giving away precious things, stuff like that. So I called up CAPS: Counseling And Psychological Services, and I said, “look, I think that my girlfriend may try to kill herself.” You know, hey, heads up there! But no, the helpful CAPS psychologist told me that I was being “co-dependent” and needed to ask myself why I felt it necessary to involve myself in an issue that was really my girlfriend’s concern. In other words, the issue wasn’t the empirical behavior of someone killing themselves, the issue was how I felt about it and what motivated me to want to call people about it. We went ’round and ’round on this one: “Um, I, like, don’t want someone to, like, KILL herself. Can you do something here?” “No, no, let’s talk about YOU. How does that make you feel?” Yaaaaaaaagh. I could never get beyond this first issue to what I later learned as a hall director was considered the appropriate next step of intervention by residence life and professional staff, because the counselor was trained to always pay more attention to lurking psychological motivations than issues of empirical personal behavior.
My next encounter was in college too, in a course on gender that I found to be otherwise pretty darned neat. But there was this one day when we read an essay about how men’s sexism toward women is just everywhere you look. Why, golly, the author wrote (OK, she didn’t write “golly”), look at men opening doors for women! It just goes to show that men feel women are inferior to them, as if they must be dependent upon a man to open a door, as if women can’t do it for themselves…. I asked the professor what it would mean if men didn’t open doors for women, or if women actually opened doors for men. Couldn’t you say that men failing to open doors for women would be a sign of disrespect and disdain of women (failure to do a favor), and couldn’t you say that women having to open doors for men is a sign of men feeling they have the right to be taken care of and women feeling they have to do things for men all the time? If a motivation of sexism can be assigned to any of this set of exhaustive and mutually exclusive behaviors, if there’s no possibility at all that sexism doesn’t exist, then doesn’t that say there’s a problem with the system by which motivations of sexism are claimed to exist? The professor’s response: “we’re not talking about logic; we’re talking about oppression.”
My most recent encounter with unempirical psychobabble is with a person giving me shit for smoking a legal herb for the first time one evening and making a podcast out of the experience. After telling me I might not reach my 40th birthday, which is a weird but helpfully empirical claim, he went on to refer to me as an “addict” for engaging in this one-time, not repeated and probably not to be repeated experience. If I assert I am not one, I am “defensive” — the classic retort for people who deny being what someone else says they are. Or maybe, gosh, I’m in “denial,” which is a classic sign, isn’t it? This is a nice little conceptual trap: if someone says you’re an addict and you agree, then you’re an addict. If, on the other hand, someone says you’re an addict and you disagree with that statement, then you’re suspiciously defensive or in denial, which is an indication that you are an addict after all. You can’t disprove it, because it’s unempirical psychobabble: people saying they see what cannot be seen. [This sort of addiction psychobabble is distinct, of course, from directly observable phenomena related to the action of the brain in psychological and physiological addiction. I have a great deal of interest in and respect for research into the empirical, observable aspects of addiction.]
It’s personally frustrating to have unempirical psychobabble lobbed at me, because there’s no way to get it off my clothes or skin. Even lemon juice doesn’t really help. It just sticks there, and the more I try to get it off me, the more the unempirical psychobabblers will crow that it’s sticking to me.
But beyond the personal aspect of it, it’s a shame that all this unempirical psychobabble is out there because it’s really not necessary. Focusing on empirical behavior is ever so much more helpful. If there are reliable behavioral indicators of possible impending suicide, then by golly people should do something about it when they see that behavior. Why spend your time talking about hypothetical sexist motivations behind door-related behavior when it’s clear from actual empirical studies that real behavioral patterns of sex-based discrimination exist in the world? And instead of playing dramatic psychobabble games all loaded with guilt, shame and moral dudgeon about who’s an admitted addict, addict in disguise, or addict in denial, how about we treat addiction as the neurological and physiological health problem that it is? How about we stop turning policy approaches on some elusive category of things called “drugs” (no, not drugs, drugs) into a moral war about people’s motivational failings and instead work from the basis of what empiricists actually know and don’t know about these things?