Obama on drugs? 11/20/07
When I heard Senator Barack Obama talking to teenagers about his adolescent substance use today, I had to wonder whether he’s still under the influence. In my opinion, his remarks were harmful to those teenagers (and countless others who heard them repeated in the media as I did), and any serious candidate for President should be smart enough to get that. Teens will take his words not as warnings but as justifications and excuses for experimentation. Obama and any other parent who doesn’t see it that way should read my previous post “Sex, drugs, and lies?”.
I’m about to do something rare. I’m about to admit that my profession (one of them anyway), psychology, does not know nearly as much as many of its practitioners claim to know in their articles, books, and appearances on radio and television. Journalists understandably want to know everything possible about the people they cover, so they interview psychologists and psychiatrists and ask questions that nobody could possibly answer without at least talking directly to the subjects of the questions if not reading their minds, but lo and behold, the psychobabblers bust out definitive answers with unabashed confidence. Now this isn’t that big a deal when it’s just speculation for entertainment purposes, and I can understand a professional’s reluctance to tell millions of viewers, “I just don’t know.” The problem is that psychobabblers also babble in court and elsewhere.
Psychobabblers profess to know “with certainty” that a convicted sex offender can be released safely into the community because he looks “normal” according to some pseudoscientific psychological test that’s easily faked. My dissertation was on psychological test design, and I can tell you that some psychological tests — ones that measure intellectual or neurological abilities, for example — are far more valid in my opinion than others that “measure,” for example, certain personality traits, but they all require the test takers to put forth maximum effort and respond honestly, both of which they’re often highly unmotivated to do. The psychobabblers are also great at finding a “disorder” to explain away bad behavior because that fits nicely with their bogus belief that there are no bad people in the world. News flash ladies and gentlemen: there are bad people who do bad things when there’s nothing mentally ill about them. Oh wait, the psychobabblers have come up with a diagnosis for them too — “Antisocial Personality Disorder” — psychology’s way of getting around having to label anyone “bad,” but let’s face it, that’s basically what they are. People with “Antisocial Personality Disorder” choose to do bad things when their minds are functioning plenty well enough to know that they’re wrong and harmful, and they just don’t care because they’re totally selfish s.o.b.’s (that’s not a technical abbreviation by the way, but in my opinion, it’s got a lot more validity than A.D.D. or some of the other professional abbreviations we have). The non-diagnostic laymen’s terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” do a much better job of capturing the “A.P.D.” person’s essence in my opinion. You wouldn’t believe some of the “disorders” that are included in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — “Intermittent Explosive Disorder,” the uncontrollable urge to lash out in anger, “Frotteurism,” the irresistible urge to rub up against other people, and my personal favorite, “Dissociative Identity Disorder,” two or more different people living inside one body (makes great television, but totally bogus in my opinion). That’s just three, and this book is thicker than the phone book, so I could go on all day. Suffice it to say that in some ways, the manual itself is more insane than the vast majority of people who get diagnosed based on it. There are also people who are somewhat mentally-ill but still make conscious decisions to do bad things that have nothing whatsoever to do with their mental illnesses, a distinction that you won’t often hear from a psychobabbler. For example, how many times in the past year or two have you heard from some psychobabbler on television that some female middle school teacher shouldn’t really be held responsible or punished very much for having sex with her underage male student because, after all, she’s Bipolar, codependent, and lacking closure from childhood abandonment? What a crock!
Psychobabblers don’t just testify in criminal court. They’re regular fixtures in civil court as well, and they’re just as “sure” in that venue. For example, they know “with certainty” that someone’s really not that psychologically damaged after being severely injured by someone else because, after all, the victim’s personality test scores are in the “normal” range. Psychobabblers are also “sure” that it’s not harmful to kids to spend half the time with a parent who has an endless parade of “significant others” staying overnight at the house because, after all, “research” shows it’s not a problem. I’m here to tell you that you can find some obscure “study” to back up just about anything you want to believe including the existence of Bigfoot, and you don’t need a Ph.D. to realize that parental promiscuity under the same roof with children is not only hugely detrimental to the children’s moral and relational development but could also expose them to potential abusers. Most psychobabblers are smart enough to get that, but admitting it would go against their “anything goes” attitude toward sexuality, so we get a lecture on tolerance and resilience from them followed by a recommendation that the absurd custody arrangement continue. By the way, beyond identifying gross mental illness, psychologists who do custody evaluations don’t have any mysterious ways to predict which of two people is going to be the better parent over time — they mainly just serve as (hopefully) thorough investigators for the courts, gathering the relevant information and (again hopefully) applying common sense and logic to it.
Court isn’t the only place psychobabblers are making recommendations that affect individuals and society profoundly. Psychobabblers are quick to conclude that a person with a mental diagnosis can’t possibly be expected to take steps to minimize the impact of that diagnosis and still be a productive member of society. For example, if you want to get indefinite Social Security disability income because you experience a panic attack once in a while, you’ll want to be examined by a psychobabbler. This happens frequently on college campuses these days: a student goes to some psychobabbler (often a wannabe-psychiatrist M.D. in a general-medicine clinic with virtually no training in the diagnosis of mental conditions) and reports such “symptoms” as boredom when listening to boring professors drone on and on about the Civil War and difficulty concentrating through 100 pages of last-minute Shakespeare reading on the night before an exam, so the psychobabbler diagnoses A.D.D., prescribes psychostimulant medication, and recommends to the university that the student be given extra time to complete coursework and allowed to take exams in a “distraction-free” (and unsupervised) room separate from the rest of the class (which the university then requires for fear of being sued for not accommodating a “disability”). Ladies and gentlemen, I guarantee that if you followed that student home in virtually all such cases, you would find that he or she has no problem paying attention to movies, television shows, and MySpace or Facebook for sustained periods of time, which calls the A.D.D. diagnosis into serious question. And even if the student has A.D.D., there are behavioral interventions that enable many people to improve their concentration to the point that it ends up in the normal range. What about the effect on the student of sending him or her into the work force still requiring 80 hours to complete 40 hours of work (not to mention the effect on the unwitting employer who doesn’t see an asterisk anywhere on the student’s transcript warning, “These Grades Earned Under Substantially Advantageous Conditions”)?
Go into any major bookstore, and you’ll see shelves and shelves full of psychobabble from authors, often with dubious credentials, claiming that you can “change your life in ten easy steps.” Give me a break. Humans have been around on the planet for some time, so if there were ten easy steps to the perfect life, we’d probably all know them by now. There are some excellent books in amongst all the psychobabble that will recommend doing things that involve hard work on your part to improve your life somewhat and/or help you anticipate what thoughts and feelings you’ll likely experience as you go through something unfamiliar (like divorce) and/or teach you coping/problem-solving/parenting strategies that have proven effective for others, but you have to be very discriminating to find them. Though you may be unfamiliar with the topic area, the advice should make common sense, and it wouldn’t hurt to seek a recommendation from a well-credentialed professional who’s not a psychobabbler.
Then there are therapists’ offices. There’s a lot of psychobabble floating around in the air in there — talk of “closure” and “codependency” and “finding yourself” and “getting in touch with your feelings” and your “inner child” — words that don’t mean much to me after years of Ph.D. training and practice. Sounds more like a “Saturday Night Live” skit than serious health care, and it’s probably just about as helpful. In fact, I remember hearing about a “study” during my Ph.D. training which found that the participants felt about equally better whether they spent an hour talking to a hair stylist or a psychotherapist. While Ph.D. training provides valuable information about the identification, course, and treatment of mental illness (and I recommend that most mental-illness treatment plans include psychotherapy), it’s not nearly as good in my opinion at preparing graduates to help people who are generally mentally healthy and just trying to optimize their lives (effectively handle the “normal” decisions, issues, and problems that come up in life), which make up a large portion of the therapy client population. As the “hair stylist vs. therapist” study demonstrated, a Ph.D. does not necessarily beat good old-fashioned compassion and common sense. Now, just like there are great books, there are great therapists who can really help you pick a healthy direction and go in it, but you have to be discriminating to find them. There are a lot of therapists whose values and views of the world are about 180 degrees out of phase with traditional American views and values, and partly because of that, there are a lot therapists whose own lives are so messed up that I don’t know how they can bring themselves to give advice to other people. I recommend interviewing prospective therapists carefully whenever possible (like in non-emergency situations) about their general perspectives on your situation and seeking recommendations from people, especially professionals, whom you trust. Like the great books, the therapists should make common sense, and benefitting fully from their expertise will require commitment and effort from you.
Bottom line: in my experience, psychological theories that really stand up to intense intellectual scrutiny over time (like what kinds of thought patterns perpetuate depression or how to treat panic without medication) are rooted deeply in common sense, and theories that don’t smack of common sense (like most of Freud’s theories) should be met with a great deal of skepticism. You might need an expert in the field to explain sound theories to you if you haven’t studied them extensively yourself, but you shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to understand them. Just read back through my previous posts — they shouldn’t read like rocket science, but there are a lot of people in the field of psychology who act like that’s what it is and feel intellectually superior when nobody can understand what they’re saying. They like to pretend that psychology is or ever will be as “hard” a science as medicine, where our tests are as reliable as X-rays and our treatments as reliable as casting broken bones. But even in the “hard” sciences, diagnoses and predictions based on objective evidence and statistics usually prove more accurate than diagnoses and predictions based on clinical experience/judgment. The good news for the psychology profession, as I see it, is that clinical judgment is still considered as valuable as it is, and that clinical judgment in combination with objective statistical methods still seems to produce superior diagnostic and predictive results, probably because we deal with phenomena that science is unlikely ever to fully explain. The psychobabblers need to quit trying to make the field something it’s not — keep striving to improve the science behind it while acknowledging its limitations — and embrace the uncertainty that makes the profession so interesting for professionals and audiences alike.
Tawdry, trollop, temptress teachers 11/4/07
Since my recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Dan Abrams Live” discussing female middle and high school teachers having sex with underage male students, I’ve been asked whether I think such behavior is really increasing in frequency (or if it’s always gone on and is just now being covered in the media) and if so, why. I think it’s definitely increasing in frequency, and generally, it’s a symptom of the moral decay of our culture (our increasing reluctance to make value judgments about one another’s behavior). Now, here are a few specific factors that I suspect have contributed to this particular epidemic:
1) The diminution of the societal stigma formerly associated with female sexual promiscuity. I know, historically there’s been a double standard whereby men haven’t been penalized socially for sexual promiscuity and women have, and I get the concept of gender equality, but the way we’ve gone about “fixing” this particular double standard hasn’t been good for our society. As is often the case with double standards, the people who complained about this one were 180 degrees off course when it came to equalizing the standards. Instead of removing the societal stigma associated with female sexual promiscuity, we should’ve been working to associate a similar societal stigma with male promiscuity.
2) The absence of fathers from so many American homes. Compared to women who grew up with loving fathers, women who’ve grown up with absentee fathers tend to have more dysfunctional ideas about how to relate to men (including perhaps the desire to manipulate, dominate, etc.).
3) The sexualization of children. From marketing to clothing to free condoms in middle schools, our society is treating children like little sexually-active adults to an unprecedented degree, and I think this blurring of the line between childhood and adulthood helps women who are inclined to prey on underage boys (both to rationalize what the women want to do and to get the boys to participate).
Of course this problem is not specific to female teachers, and an analysis of recent cases by the Associated Press revealed that it’s still significantly more prevalent among male teachers. As I said on MSNBC, it’s an abuse of trust that’s harmful to both male and female students, and getting it under control requires tough and equal punishment, regardless of the offenders’ genders.