Sunday, August 31, 2008

Insight Into Psychobabble Review by Anthony McCarthy

I was going to resist the temptation to mock the Boston Globe’s bi-monthly column “Surprising Insights From The Social Sciences” but, pleeeease.

WHAT IF THERE were no God? That is the title of a new study by psychologists at Northwestern University in Chicago who studied 128 observant Christians with diverse political orientations living around Chicago. In interviews, subjects were asked what their lives would be like without God or religion. The transcribed responses were categorized according to concern for impulse control, societal breakdown, or life fulfillment. Conservative Christians of all backgrounds were more concerned with, while liberal Christians were.

McAdams, D. and Albaugh, M., "What If There Were No God? Politically Conservative and Liberal Christians Imagine Their Lives without Faith," Journal of Research in Personality (forthcoming).

Ah, that item, most rare in psych news reporting, a number. 128, count ‘em, “observant Christians”. Apparently divided in, perhaps, equal halves? So, on the basis of 64 (just guessing) each of “liberals” and “conservatives” we are presented with a basic difference in the psychology of the two groups numbering in their scores of millions.

Conservatives are concerned with “containing their baser instincts and societal decay” liberals are “more concerned that life would lose some of its deep richness and meaning”.

Are we to take from this that liberals are more concerned with their lifestyle and conservatives more interested in preventing societal decay? How could you escape that conclusion? Now, that really jibes with the philosophies of these two groups as manifested in real life doesn’t it. I mean, you just know that conservatives will go for shoring up the common good while liberals always go for looking out for airy-fairy fulfillment.

What in the world does the reported methodology mean? Categorizing transcribed responses for concern for impulse control, societal breakdown or life fulfillment? What does that mean in plain English, never mind whether or not the process used has a shred of scientific verification of its legitimacy?

So, what we have here is a tiny sample size, reporting on what they IMAGINE would be the case about a situation they haven’t experienced and DON’T BELIEVE to be true, in ways that requires the interpretation of the researchers. I'll make believe I don't think they had any kind of bias that could influence their conclusions.

Vague interpretation of what the researchers guess the imaginary responses of people to a situation they haven’t experienced mean. When does this get too tenuous for anyone to take it seriously?

Doesn’t a columnist pretending to act as a science reporter have a higher journalistic responsibility than this?

I am tempted to go into the first blurb too. I’m wondering what kind of scientific verification there is for the validity of the “ psychopathic personality questionnaire” used. If it’s like much of psychological testing, that’s an important question in determining the believability of the results. Why would anyone guess a psychopath would give honest answers to a questionnaire, to begin with, or that psychopaths as a group would give consistent answers. As you can also read, it’s a forthcoming “study” so we’ll just have to wait to see if what the “insight” really reveals.

I’d go into the pseudo-science of the Rorschach and some other widely used psychological tests and the horrific and legally mandated use of those by employers and the judicial system but will wait for another time. Did you know the Rorschach test is derived from an old Viennese parlor game, has dodgy verification and yet, unless they've dumped them since the last time I looked, the Rorschach industry still has a position in the AAAS? And it’s still widely used in clinical practice?