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Negative Reinforcement and Perverse Incentives in Academic Psychology
A multi-part series exploring ideological-capture in the Academy
Editorial note: This is the first post in a multi-part series chronicling the experiences of a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. graduate student navigating and observing the ideology-induced decimation of his academic discipline. -J.D.H.
Part 1: Iatrogenics and the Problem of Curious Men.
In mid 2016, I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy at a small liberal arts college in the southern United States. It would only be another twelve to fifteen months before I could be heard emphatically imploring my younger high school-aged cousin (male) to avoid college at all costs, but if he decided to go, to study either computer science or philosophy; the former because of its self-evident ROI (Return on Investment), and the latter because it seems to be one of the last places in academia where learning how to Think and Be in the World is permitted, if not mildly encouraged.
What took place within that year or so began with my enrolling in a clinical psychology master’s program at a non-elite college in Texas. I initially intended to pursue a philosophy Ph.D., but met my future fiancé in the interim, and decided to weight financial variables more heavily than I had previously (I was 50/50 on which career path to pursue ab initio). Within the first few weeks of the first semester of the first year of the program, even while in possession of an au courant understanding of the early necrotic state of the field of clinical psychology (and, of course, academia more broadly), it began to dawn on me the degree of moral and intellectual vapidity that lay ahead of me.
Most of my knowledge in any given field of study, from evolutionary game theory to pharmacodynamics, was learned and acquired outside of the classroom. The term autodidact seems a bit much, but could suffice as an apt descriptor. Since high school, I have at best been indifferent to formal education; my innate curiosity and being quite high in trait openness (interest in ideas/aesthetics) have always seemed, on the intellectual front, insatiable enough.
One of the early required classes in the program was on psychological theories (naturally enough). Once I began thumbing through the chapter titles of the required textbook, I knew immediately that ahead of me likely lied a plethora of difficult choices.
The instructor of the class was a tall, wiry, Caucasian man, somewhere in his early forties who had likely never been in anything with even the semblance of a physical altercation with another man in his life. He struck me as a kindergarten teacher, or a gregarious bank teller. The 11 or so letters following his last name were certainly concomitant indicia of his gestalt.
In any case, nothing that took place in the class would surprise anyone who’s up to speed on the current state of the universities today. Rather, sadly, and ironically, I now look back, comparatively speaking, with a modicum of nostalgia at the quality and quantity of debate and open dialogue that was had WHEN?, even though at the time, in all my naivete and inchoate cynicism, I loathed the vapidity of the whole project.
Throughout the semester, with few exceptions, I would simply sit quietly to myself, only attempting to get other important work done. I had no qualms about saying what I thought about the topics being discussed; my efforts to remove myself from the conversation were solely a function of being devoid of any interest whatsoever.
One of these exceptions took place when the chapter on the evergreen “intersectional feminist” therapy was the topic of interest. I was lured into involving myself in the discussion by the professor, the reasons for which I will never know.
As a good and proper Socratic, I proceeded to do nothing other than ask questions about the intellectual dreck that was bathing the minds of the pathologically compassionate surrounding me.
“Define ‘patriarchy’”. “What is ‘the system’”? At one point, I asked the professor at the head of the class to join me in a thought experiment, and in so many words asked: on the concept of “intersectionality”, is it not the case that if, taken to its logical conclusion, one would end up with an N of 1, with the singular individual, pray tell? (The indigent, asexual, crippled, deaf, five-foot-three, left-handed, diabetic, Latinx burn victim from southeastern Ecuador named Rojelio would be an N of 1, por ejemplo).
The paroxysm of frustrated prevarication that ensued was not only a fascinating indictment of the overall failure of higher education (not to commit a mereological fallacy here), but also a quite public illustration of the very psychological shortcomings and intellectual infarctions that Adler and Jung, for example, were writing about roughly 100 years ago; writings that the students I shared the room with had not read, and were not reading. It goes without saying, my inquisitiveness was not well received, and was not addressed.
When the professor was fielding topics to discuss in class related to these ideas, one of the students introduced the concept of “white privilege”. To my complete surprise, her contribution was followed by an exiguous cacophony of groans emanating from a few of the other students (some of which I understood to be her friends in the program). I was incredulous; these were better times we find ourselves living in. What has happened to us?
I felt, if only ephemerally, an impulse to posit a few questions surrounding the possible scientific measurement techniques utilized in the discovery of this phenomenon, such as Cronbach and Meehl’s multi-trait multi-method construct validity, or nomological network modeling methodology. I of course immediately decided against it, recognizing the absolute futility in such a pursuit in current environs, because it was apodictic by this point in time that comprehension, investigation, and understanding were not desiderata to be pursued. We were there to listen, not to reason. As Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.
Of course, these topics have been discussed, debated, defended, and refuted incessantly, ad infinitum. These experiences are ubiquitous and quotidian now on college campuses, and I doubt that anything written thus far will be of much surprise to anyone close to these issues.
I had been cognizant of this new cult phenomenon and its behavioral manifestation since as early as 2015, around the time when the wonderful physician and social scientist Nicholas Christakis was on the wrong end of an infamous woke diatribe and mobbing at Yale over Halloween costumes. But now, roughly two years later, it had finally made its way to the state of Texas, and to me.
I am not necessarily taking a position on any of these ideas here, nor was I that day; I was simply asking questions. For some, being curious is perhaps just as severe a moral infraction as being a non-believer.
Insofar as I do hold positions on these specific topics, or any topic for that matter, they are not indelible, and I am always willing to be persuaded away from any beliefs or positions held, or what’s more, convinced of their falsity. This is one of the many invaluable gifts that studying philosophy gave me. And as a scientist in training, my project is quite literally antithetical to this way of navigating idea space, that is, to attempt to refute or falsify what are provisionally held hypotheses about reality and the world. As the economist John Maynard Keynes (allegedly) quipped, “when the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do, sir?”
What took place that same evening, hours after the class had ended, was the most revealing part of the entire ordeal.
I promptly received emails from four other students in the class (all young women; class of 12-18) over the course of a few days or so. As mentioned, one was sent mere hours after the incident. It was only then that I finally personally was able to observe the ecological validity of preference falsification in vivo. This is a term coined by the economist and political scientist Timur Kuran, who wrote the incredible book Private Truths, Public Lies. Preference falsification is, “…the act of misrepresenting a preference under perceived public pressures. It involves the selection of a publicly expressed preference that differs from the underlying privately held preference”.
These emails illustrated this very act. In so many words, each of the students thanked me for speaking up, said that they disagreed with what the professor and the other students were espousing, and that they would have never done the same as I. Shamefully, I have since authored such emails myself, addressed to public figures and intellectuals asking questions.
Be that as it may, it became so clear to me within this period of my graduate “education” that, for individuals such as this professor and his like-minded students, intransigence is an intellectual culture war medal, pinned to their meretricious belief systems, hiding the the God-shaped hole that Nietzsche warned us of drilling, of scraping out of our our collective soul so long ago. Nature abhors a vacuum, religious or not. Individuals in general, and well-educated ones in particular, who are unwilling to revisit their views in the presence of sensible criticism, much less skepticism, ought not to be taken seriously, and neither should their views.
My cousin did not take my advice. To his credit, he tried his hand at computer science for a few years at a private college before the advanced math became too much for him, but he will now likely finish with liberal arts degree. I don’t know which of us was correct, whatever “correct” means here.
The “professional class”, comprised of academics, politicians, journalists, scientists, public policy makers, social workers, teachers, administrators, and physicians, to name a few, often are apparently perplexed as to why men are refusing to go to psychotherapy, dropping out of higher education, using alcohol or psychomotor stimulants, antidepressants or analgesics, and rejecting outright any form of help with mental health issues and concerns. There are obviously numerous reasons for each of these choices; these things are always multivariate, and a function of multiple etiologies and their concomitant interaction effects.
But one of the reasons why men seem to choose, for example, suicide over psychotherapy, carpentry over graduate school, and alcoholism over pharmacological treatment is, for me, unequivocal, and a bleak Hobson’s Choice. After many years of exposure to its contours, I know intimately the shape of the prototypical creature that these men would find themselves in the care of, had they chosen the latter options. As early as 2017, I began to ask myself the question, “what option did they ever really have?” Neither “computer science or philosophy”, nor ideological iatrogenic ineptitude can be permitted to be answers. Perhaps I should have been a philosopher, with all of my disquieting questions.
Still today, I vividly recall what took place in that class so many years ago, not because anything consequential became of it, but simply because it was my first personal experience with this ideological phenomenon. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the consequences were only to come later.
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