Book Review: The Borderlands of Science

The audiobook reviewed here is the ‘Borderlands of Science’ written by Michael Sherman and narrated by Grover Gardner. Gardner narrates at a moderate pace and with an expression that is able to keep the listener engaged over the 13 hours of the audiobook. Sherman’s book is about the areas at the ‘edge’ or borders of science and includes a discussion of the distinction between what he considers science, non-science and nonsense. I found myself sympathetic at times to Gardner’s arguments as he employs reasoning and evidence in his investigation of various fields. I found a central theme running through the book was that of evolutionary theory be this in the discussion of Edward Wallace’s codiscovery of natural selection and interest in spiritualism or a comparison of Darwin and Freud. Sherman is rather dismissive of Freud and psychoanalysis and relatively early in the book refers to psychoanalysis as a pseudoscience and later in his comparison of Freud and Darwin paints the picture of Freud as a celebrity in passing who’s writings have not stood the test of time in contrast with Darwin as a hero who’s greatness has increased through time as the validity of his theories have become increasingly evident. The manner in which Sherman paints the endeavours of a global body of psychoanalysts with a single label ‘pseudoscience’ is in my opinion unfortunate. This contrasts with Sherman’s discussion of the works of Frank Sulloway in establishing retrospectively a relationship between the works of great scientists and birth order supported in this same retrospective analysis with commentary on their personalities. While Sherman admonishes another author for the use of ‘confirmatory bias’ he himself applies this same bias to Freud by carefully selecting those statements made by Freud along with biographical details about him which when pastiched, caricature him as a self-styled conquistador who was preoccupied with his image and mythology. Freud has written on numerous occasions with humility imploring those who study his writings to employ them with due caution and to improve upon his theory. While there is much about Freud’s writings and approach that can be criticised he was a keen observer of human nature and had conducted basic science research and studied with one of the leading neurologists of his time Charcot before developing his methods of psychoanalysis. Freud’s writings are filled with references that will be familiar to clinicians such as the exclusion of organic states when examining the cases of ‘neurosis’ along with discussion with medical colleagues about appropriate management. This suggests that his practice was not an isolated ad hoc experimental journey led from his inner fantasy life but is instead an attempt to understand the mind through a systematic analytical process by a physician who was well versed in basic research methodology and who in his practice communicated, sought the opinions of and referred through patients to his colleagues in the medical profession. Indeed Sherman could on looking closely at some of Freud’s writings (see reviews here and here) see someone with similar values to himself as when Freud writes

‘There is no authority higher than reason’

Such parallels become obvious secondary to a thorough analysis of the relevant branch of the history of science – in this case psychoanalysis.

Similarly the field of psychoanalysis is far from an outdated model with no progress in research as suggested by Sherman but instead is supported by a variety of research studies broaching multiple disciplines (see as an example the debate (Wolpert and Fonagy, 2009)). Returning to the historical analysis by Sulloway as described by Sherman we hear of various speculations about the basis for these birth order findings. However it must be borne in mind that this is a retrospective analysis of a select group of figures. The speculation that follows can itself be considered prescience, in the sense that these speculations need to be backed up with evidence to stand on a firmer footing. These same speculations attempt to attribute a meaning that we can understand but ironically the meaning for an individual is much more likely to be afforded through the work done with an individual in therapy (depending on the objectives) than by the application of the results of group data analysis to an individual. Such group data works best at the group level but could properly be considered to offer a guide when applied to the individual because of the large number of confounders that may operate upon the relationship of interest. In addition the use of a five-factor model along with the birth-order is essentially a quantitative analysis. On the other hand an important feature of psychoanalysis which sets it up as a soft target is the use of a qualitative approach in which language and non-verbal communication aids the therapist in their role. Interestingly in communicating to the listener just what science is, Sherman is using the medium of language in a way which makes approximations and assumptions about the audience which may or may not be correct, references relationships and appeals to both reason and the emotion. In order to do so, it is reasonable to assume that Sherman values this medium sufficiently to use it as a vehicle for his message and in so doing he shares such an approach with therapists who communicate with each other through language and use language as a medium for therapy.

The end result is that Sherman espouses a view of science in which Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an example par excellence of the results of this approach. However if science is an attempt to gain a better understanding of the universe, neutral and undisturbed by our values and prejudices then our path to this understanding does not need to be constrained by a single approach – the quantitative approach generating large data sets and supported by unquestionable statistics with very small p-values. There should be a tacit acknowledgment that there are areas where the descriptive language differs – such as the languages that optimally describe the mind and the brain (see review here). Indeed it is the language of the mind that Sherman uses when he appeals to our reasoning and our emotions and which he does so adeptly. What I consider to be a hidden subtext of the validity of quantitative versus qualitative methodology is illustrated by Sherman’s quotation of an fMRI study in which the findings are used to ‘debunk’ a psychoanalytic explanation. This is done by referring to the ‘expertise’ of the neuroimaging researcher but the dangers of glossing over the many assumptions in such research have been well illustrated (see review here).

I would argue that when a subject such as psychoanalysis is reduced to a simple notion then significant elements of truth and utility get lost in the process. By this stage it is all too easy to apply the rather dubious notion of ‘pseudoscience’. As Einstein once said,

‘Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler’

Of note, Einstein was working as a clerk at the patent office, isolated from the scientific community when he submitted his theory of relativity for publication, a theory which would be paradigm shifting and which he no doubt recognised as such. Interestingly Sherman discusses the above characteristics but in another context in which he predicts those who do not contribute meaningfully to science.

In other parts of the book, Shermer is convincing as in his discussion of the Piltdown Man hoax and his treatment of the life of Wallace and his heretical traits. Sherman is extremely comfortable and knowledgeable in writing about Wallace and there is much to learn from the story of the cocreator of the theory of natural selection. Sherman is also comfortable in tackling controversial areas and uses his knowledge of science to convincingly address problems that do not seem to have obvious answers. Shermer’s approach polarises the subjects he explores and this can be useful in helping to make decisions that apply to those areas. At the same time, as in the case of psychoanalysis which does not adhere to Shermer’s idealised scientific method outlined above, it impacts not just on the theory but also has the potential to impact on the wider culture related to that body of theory and sensitivity is merited in any such discussion.

References

Michael Shermer. The Borderlands of Science. Narrated by Grover Gardner. Books on Tape. 2001.

Wolpert L and Fonagy P. There is no place for the psychoanalytic case report in the British Journal of Psychiatry. In Debate. pp483-487. 2009.

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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Borderlands of Science

  1. Pingback: Fathom Events War Crimes Investigator « The Buzz

  2. Pit Silas

    I was reading something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your linear perspective on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read before. I am still contemplating over the opposite points of view, but I’m inclined heavily toward yours. And irrespective, that’s what is so super about advanced democracy and the marketplace of ideas on-line.

    Like

  3. Dr Justin Marley Post author

    Hi, Glad to have provided some material for reflection. Which points were you interested in. I fully agree with the online democracy and am a fan of the open source movement, open science etc regards Justin

    Like

  4. Pingback: Books Reviewed to Date (Last Updated 7.4.12) « The Amazing World of Psychiatry: A Psychiatry Blog

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