Wednesday, July 23, 2008

But there is an i in pseudo-intellectual.

I'm doing a couple of pieces related to happiness or the lack thereof, and in the course of my research I came across a quote, from an article in Discover, that's almost breathtaking in the magnitude of its stupidity. The speaker is Harvard's Nancy Etcoff (the latest academic to hop on the positive-psychology bandwagon* that has all but hijacked the psychology department at that Ivy League enclave), and her thinking goes as follows: "The more selfish you are, the more unhappy you are. If you look at suicide notes, they are filled with I, me, and my." See the reasoning? Unhappy people commit suicide. Suicide notes are full of I, me, my. Selfish people use I, me, my a lot. Ergo, selfish people are unhappy people.... Got it? (Maybe Etcoff has better proof than this, but it's the example she uses, and I don't think it's unfair to judge a person's argument by the evidence she uses.)

First of all, anyone writing a suicide note is about to end his life and is pausing briefly to explain why, so perhaps he can be forgiven his momentary self-absorption. But the real point is, people commit suicide because they are in pain, and pain is experienced personally. What would you expect a suicide note to say? ("You people are always so damn depressed. And those folks down the road! Don't even get someone else started....") That is no more an indication of selfishness than if you were to ask some guy who'd just applied a Band-Aid why he did it and he replied, "I cut my finger and, well, it was kind of bothering me."

This is the problem I have with making "emerging sciences" out of realms that are so highly speculative and uncertain. The so-called authorities in those realms, in order to justify their existence and position, end up looking for things to expound on, finding significance in happenstance or random apocrypha, connecting dots that have no business being connected, at least not yet. In the attempt to sound all-knowing about the unknowable, they overreach big-time, and usually end up sounding just plain dumb.

Moreover, this notion that you can tell how selfish a person is by examining his prose and counting the appearances of I, me, my... Well, some of us could go on and on, but why not end with the words of a person who, based on that formula, is surely one of recorded history's most selfish people. I mean, will you look at all those i's!:

"One evening we went out and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in a most terrible condition. And I told the Sisters: You take care of the other three, I take of this one that looked worse. So I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand, as she said one word only: Thank you—and she died. I could not help but examine my conscience before her, and I asked what would I say if I was in her place. And my answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself, I would have said I am hungry, that I am dying, I am cold, I am in pain, or something, but she gave me much more—she gave me her grateful love..."
—Mother Teresa, from her Nobel acceptance speech, 1979
* Fathered by Marty Seligman, whom I cite in several places in SHAM.

15 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

"The so-called authorities in those realms, in order to justify their existence and position, end up looking for things to expound on, finding significance in happenstance or random apocrypha, connecting dots that have no business being connected,"

I have little problem with it when these folks end up sounding dumb. What is worrisome is when others jump on their bandwagon and, by some process of cosmic osmosis, convert the dumb-ness into accepted theory.

Freud is a good example. His overreaching attempts at quantification of mental disorders effectively increased the instances of "disorders" where none had previously existed. And to this day, the homicidal beggars continue to ride.

Steve Salerno said...

This is a very good point, Ron, and I thank you for making it. Though the furor has died down somewhat, "the Diseasing of America" should remain a top-of-the-mind concern to us all, I think.

roger o'keefe said...

This reminds me of your chapter in SHAM about courtroom testimony and how utterly ridiculous it is to have the dueling psychiatrists you describe during murder trials. How did psychiatry get to be a medical branch in the first place? A person is either having a heart attack or he isn't. but if two shrinks can take the stand and one says the defendant is nuts and the other says he's perfectly sane, then what the hell is the point of that?

Steve Salerno said...

Since Roger gave us a nice segue into murder trials and such, I'd like to connect this up with a previous recent post of mine about "new rules" (apologies to Bill Maher) for the criminal-justice system. As I write this comment, the chatterboxes on FOX News are dissecting the latest high-profile child abduction, down in Florida. Suspicion has now focused on the mother, who's been declared a "person of interest" by the police. Naturally, then, the gurus at FOX are analyzing the mom's comportment and public statements. Among those weighing in is celeb shrink Dr. Keith Ablow(hard), who has apparently decided for himself--based on nothing but the nature of the woman's pleas of innocence--that she is actually guilty. (Ablow also seems to think that the grandma may be involved.) Primarily Ablow indicts the mom for the "lack of affect" in her statements (evidently he thinks she should be in a constant state of hysteria). Here's Ablow responding to a direct question from the FOX show host:

Host: "Do you feel that they know what happened to this child?"

Ablow: "Oh, asbolutely!"

So there you have it: guilty as (not yet even) charged. As per a verdict from a TV shrink!

Folks, remember that thing called presumption of innocence? It simply doesn't exist anymore.

Cal said...

The Washington Post is currently doing a 12-part serial on the Chandra Levy murder. Talk about a waste of time! Much of it (from what I can tell since I refuse to read it) discusses how the police originally focused on Rep. Gary Condit. I remember the cable TV talking heads back then convicting the guy, when it turns out that without the bad police work, her body would have been found much sooner. And Condit would have been cleared much earlier.

RevRon's Rants said...

"presumption of innocence? It simply doesn't exist anymore."

It's been replaced by the presumption of idiocy... an accurate assumption, I fear.

Mike Cane said...

Re: guilt/innocence.

The "he's not responsible for his actions" assertion of innocence by reason of insanity always seemed to me to be the best justification for an immediate death penalty. (At least in those cases dealing with clearly deliberate serial killers or mass murderers. I do leave open the loophole for homicide in the heat of passion -- but then, that seems to justify plenty of Muslim "honor" murders these days ...)

Weren't the parents of Jon Benet recently cleared of all suspicion due to new DNA evidence? NY Post columnist Cindy Adams had it in for the mother in column after column.

BTW, Steve, Randy Pausch died. Follow-up post coming?

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, I didn't realize you were such a hard-liner (law-and-order type). I think we differ significantly there. But the topic is always the makings of a "good" argument at parties....

Technically I'm on vacation in Vegas (thoughts of Chevy Chase come to mind?), so I'm actually surprised I've been able to keep up with the blog (or the news) at all. But yes, I just heard about Pausch on CNN. What's to say, though? He knew he was dying. We knew he was dying (and that his PMA wouldn't rescue him at the last). In truth, these past few days I've been exploring another death that I think may be of more interest to people. ;)

Anonymous said...

"In truth, these past few days I've been exploring another death that I think may be of more interest to people. ;)"

Don't tell me-Fidal Castro is dead and you got proof! Right in time for his birthday next month.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, how did you know!? I was actually going to announce that Castro died some time ago but lives on in the body of Dr. Phil. (Yeah, I realize, that's not funny at all. But you gotta cut me some slack: I spent an hour Thursday night watching Last Comic Standing, so I have no concept of what humor is anymore...)

Anonymous said...

All psychotherapy is b.s. Some of it may be better than others, but it's all pseudoscience. Nobody ever gives you a certain answer or prognosis. They leave themselves all kinds of leeway to explain their failures. But they always present a bill for services rendered.

Anonymous said...

All psychotherapy is b.s. Some of it may be better than the rest, but it's all pseudoscience and smoke and mirrors. Nobody ever gives you a certain answer or prognosis. They leave themselves all kinds of leeway to explain their failures. But they always present a bill for services rendered.

Mike Cane said...

>>>Mike, I didn't realize you were such a hard-liner (law-and-order type).

Only on certain things am I a Kill The Bastards And Get It Over With Already type.

But, come on, you just know that people like Chainsaw Al and his ilk are like serial killers and mass murderers to me too.

Out there in Vegasland, did you hear the news report of a woman in Mass. who killed herself, thinking the insurance would help pay off the mortgage for the house she was being foreclosed on?

But I am going far afield.

I will be a merciful World Dictator. Really.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to sound too much like Tom Cruise, but Anon 7:24 pm x 2 has a point about psychotherapy. The statistics for a lot of therapy is not all that great, but for the moment is all that is out there. I know so many who go from therapist to therapist and can diagnose themselves, but are still screwing up their lives. They now just can explain WHY they screw up their lives.

Anonymous said...

Well I would agree that certain types of therapy do no good and maybe even do harm. But imo it could be because a lot of therapists have gone new age and try to utilize iffy modalities (e.g. "emotional freedom technique").

After I started getting skeptical, I was gradually able to cease seeking out "alternative" type therapists and work with someone who is licensed and utilizes cognitive therapy. Finally, some therapy that's not just about giving a TEMPORARY HIGH because it promises an unending bliss if you only you will follow a certain technique all the way through. (Thanks a lot, Oprah, for helping glut the market with that stuff.) I'm talking about therapy that acknowledges that there are positives AND negatives in life and that one needs to learn how to handle it all.

It's actually pretty nice to own the gamut of human experience.

Okay, quasi-rant over. :-)