Psychoanalysis, science or pseudoscience?: the controversy that has divided opinions for more than a century - BBC News World (2023)

Psychoanalysis, science or pseudoscience?: the controversy that has divided opinions for more than a century - BBC News World (1)

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Microbiologist and science communicator Natalia Pasternak sparked controversy with her new book, in which she describes psychoanalysis as a "pseudoscience."

This description caused heated reactions on social networks, both against and in favor of the specialist, who became popularly known for her comments during the covid-19 pandemic.

In his book “What Bobagem! Pseudoscience and Other Nonsense That Don’t Deserve to Be Taken Seriously.” Pasternak and journalist Carlos Orsi criticize as wellhomeopathy, astrology and acupuncture, which they call “falsifications of science”.

However, the controversy caused by Pasternak on psychoanalysis is not new: it is more than a century old.

Some experts claim thatFreud's work was completely pseudoscientificby nature and that the proponents of his theory did little to revise it.

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Others argue that the effectiveness of psychoanalysis can be scientifically proven.

They also point out that it has ahuge influence on western culture,despite all the criticism, and which has many followers around the world.

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Since its inception, at the beginning of the 20th century, there have been fierce discussions about whetherPsychoanalysis is or is not a science.

But, before entering into this controversy, it is necessary to understand what psychoanalysis is,a method of treating mental disordersand a theory to explain human behavior.

The Austrian Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is considered its founding father.

Freud believed that theevents of our childhoodThey have a great influence on our adult life, shaping our personality.

Freud, father of psychoanalysis

For example, in simple terms,anxiety caused by traumatic experiencesin a person's past it is hidden from consciousness and can cause problems in adulthood (neurosis).

Thus, when we explain our behavior to ourselves or to others, we rarely account for our motivation.

For this reason, Freud devoted himself totry to penetrate that “camouflage”, often subtle and elaborate, which obscures the structure of the hidden processes of our personality.

Freud claimed that his postulates formed thefoundation of the science of psychology, which, for him, was a “natural science”.

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One of the main critics of Freud's theories was theaustrobritánico Karl Popper (1902-1994).

Considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Popper considered thepsychoanalysis a pseudosciencefor proposing hypotheses that could not be empirically refuted, even comparing it to astrology.

He argued that science differs from pseudoscience or superstition because it can beprove that scientific hypothesesare false through observation of experiments.

Popper and "falsificationism"

According to Popper's falsificationism, any scientific statement based on observation can never be considered an absolute or definitive truth.

Popper held thatscientific theoriesthey are characterized by involving predictions that future observations may reveal to be false.

For example: in the past, as the existence of black swans was unknown, it was believed that all swan was white.

But, for Popper, it does not matter if all the observed swans were white, it is enough that a single black one appears to disprove that theory.

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Due,we cannot scientifically affirmthat “all swans are white”.

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When it is shown thattheories are false in view of such observations,scientists can respond by revising the theory or rejecting it in favor of a rival, or by leaving the theory as it is and switching to an auxiliary hypothesis.

In the case of Freudian psychoanalysis, Popper argued that this, as well as other theories that he describes as non-scientific,they do not make any predictions that are refutable.

In this sense, since there are no precise predictions,these theories end up being custom createdand provide a putative explanation for any observed behavior.

child in the water

To illustrate his point, Popper gives an example of a situation with two men.

One pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning him and the other jumps into the water to save him.

According to him,psychoanalysis can explain the two apparently contradictory actions.

In the first case, the psychoanalyst can say that the action was prompted by a repressed component of the "id" (unconscious), and in the second case, that the action resulted from a successful sublimation of that same component.type of desire of the "I" and the "superego".

In other words: for Popper, regardless of how a person actually behaves, psychoanalysis can be used to explain both behaviors.

That, in turn, prevents us from formulating any crucial experiments that might serve to refute psychoanalysis.

For Popper,psychoanalysis was “simply unverifiable, irrefutable.There was no conceivable human behavior that contradicted it."

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"It's very clear. Neither Freud nor Adler (Alfred Adler, Austrian psychologist founder of the psychology of individual development) exclude the action of any particular person, in any particular way, whatever the external conditions. If a man sacrifices his life to rescue a drowning child (a case of sublimation) or if he murders the child by drowning (a case of repression),could not be foreseen or excluded by Freud's theory.he wrote in 1974.

"I personally do not doubt that much of what they (Freud and Adler) sayis of considerable importanceand it may one day play a very good part in a psychological science that can be put to the test.

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"But that meansthe 'clinical observations' that analysts believe confirm their theorythey are not different from the daily confirmations that astrologers find”, he adds.

Popper, on the other hand, pointed out that there are often legitimate purposes for postulating unscientific theories.

He said that theories that start out unscientific can later become scientific as we findmethods for generating and checking predictionsbased on those those theories.

criticizing the critic

Over the years, the scientific validityof psychoanalysis was challenged by other prominent figureslike the psychologist Steven Pinker, the linguist Noam Chomsky, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould or the physicist Richard Feynman.

Some delved into Freud's work, dissecting what they saw as its shortcomings, such as theGerman-American philosopher Adolf Grünbaum(1923-2018).

His book "The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique" (1984) made him world famous.

At the time, his work was seen as a turning point in the debate on psychoanalysis and considered by some critics of Freud asa masterpiece".

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Interestingly, Grünbaum was acritic of Popper before becoming critical of Freud.

The truth is that thanks to Popper, Grünbaum became interested in Freud.

This is because both in theory and in practice, says Grünbaum,Freud understood and accepted Popper's falsifiability.

“The first impetus for my inquiry into the intellectual merits of the psychoanalytic enterprise,” he wrote, “came from my doubts about Karl Popper's philosophy of science,” alluding to falsifiability.

Grünbaum also held that the father of psychoanalysis practiced what he preached:on several occasions, Freud abandoned his ideas because they were empirically untenable.

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In other words, in Grunbaum's opinion,Freud acted exactly as Popper's theory says,abandoning theoretical positions when the facts contradicted them.

But, in his opinion, the problem with psychoanalysis lay in what he called the“argument from adequacy”.

In short, Grünbaum criticized Freud for believing that only psychoanalysis could produce therapeutic effects.

According to him,patients are not reliable sourcesto find out what really "works" to cure your disorders.

Other side

Many experts argue that something deserves to be considereda science when consideration of data predominates, which are available to all interested parties, and when the theory is based on data and changes in response to new observations.

That is a more traditional view.

According to this view, the progress of the theory is cumulative, and the original model can servebase for newer models.

Claims must also be based on evidence and not authority.

“Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is based mainly on pseudoscientific postulates that are inherently non-refutable,” explains Anna Järvinen, a clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist and therapist from the non-psychoanalytic/psychodynamic tradition in an article published in the British journalThe Skeptic.

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In an interview with the BBC, he says that the heated reactions to whether or not psychoanalysis is a science "are due, at least in part, to the fact that, despite its well-debated and delineated shortcomings, psychology continues to have quite a prominent presence, at least in the clinical setting.

“Many findthis awkward and downright threatening, due to the fact that Freud's theory is possibly not easy to understand in an intellectual sense (and very few have read his texts first-hand), and touches on very sensitive areas”, adds Järvinen, who has a PhD in Psychology. from Goldsmith College, University of London.

According to Järvinen, "psychoanalysis is extremely powerful.The patient is usually placed in the position of an object, and the treatments are often seen as mysterious and even dark.

"Given theit is something difficult to understand, psychoanalysts are sometimes seen as 'elitist'by different mental health professionals. It also doesn't help that there are some groups or cults of practitioners that take a very uncritical attitude towards Freud's work,” he adds.


"The above factors make Freud's theory highly provocative/emotionally evocative, and people naturally react defensively."

"Furthermore, in this age ofmedical model and evidence-based treatments,Many probably find it incomprehensible that so much attention is paid to psychoanalysis. However, the treatment continues to benefit many ”, he concludes.

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Although, like many other psychologists, Järvinen does not consider psychoanalysis a science, he cautions thatscientifically proven medical treatments “do not always reach the deepest levels of the psycheand they lack the necessary flexibility.”

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“We need a wide variety of treatment options to address the enormousheterogeneity of the human populationand its various symptoms, and unquestionably, psychoanalysis is a useful option”, he highlights.

Järvinen also points out that it is "extremely important" to place Freud's theory in its cultural context - he lived andgrew up in the sexist, racist and imperialist world of the 19th century, in a privileged Vienna, and that is certainly reflected in his theory. However, he would be updating his theory if he could see the evolution of psychology”.

"However, in my opinion,Freud's contribution to the field of psychology is irrefutable”, he concludes.

“Non-uniform” concept

For Érico Andrade, a psychoanalyst, philosopher, and professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco, in Brazil, the concept of science "is not uniform."

The same conception of science will vary throughout history. The attack on psychoanalysis is based on a strictly empirical model of scientific evidence, demonstrable in terms of observation in the laboratory, ”he says.

The idea of ​​empiricism is also associatedin this context to something that we can show in physical terms, that is, the evidence is of a material nature”, he adds.

“With the advent of the Human Sciences, there is a reworking of the very conception of evidence. Empirical evidence is no longer on the material level, but rather in the observation of human behavior from sociological, anthropological, etc., analyses. Psychoanalysis stops revolving around the connection with psychiatry and neuroscience and begins to dialogue more with the Human Sciences”, he says.

When it is said that psychoanalysis is not a science, there isa misinterpretation of the production of the Human Sciences. And, worse, when it is said that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience, the idea is raised that its effects are based on magical and mysterious things, which has nothing to do with the reflection that psychoanalysis itself proposes”.

In Andrade's opinion, psychoanalysis is not postulated as “the only truth, a transcendental solution, nor as immaterial mechanisms. Nor as a physical substance that can change the human being.

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The basis of psychoanalysis is the idea that, through a process of personal analysis, coming to understandbetter our desire has implications in our life,because part of our suffering is linked to psychic issues and not of a material nature”.

In an interview with the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, Ana Cláudia Zuanella, director of Febrapsi, (Brazilian Federation of Psychoanalysis), defended this discipline as a science.

“It is not a hard science, which implies refutations through replicability, but rather ascience that encompasses a body of solidly established knowledgethrough clinical investigations and an infinity of theoretical debates”, said Zuanella.

In the expert's opinion, psychoanalysis "has incessantly demonstrated its effectiveness not within laboratories, but within the subject."

Methodology problems

For Martin Hoffmann, a researcher at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hamburg, in Germany, "even if Freud himself considered psychoanalysis to be a valid scientific theory,its own research methodology faces serious problems.”

But contrary to Popper's critique, it cannot be denied that many of the claims of psychoanalytic theory are empirically testable and that, since the 1950s,there is a remarkable body of evidence that meets scientific research standardswith the aim of confirming the central theoretical claims of psychoanalysis and the efficacy of psychoanalytic therapy,” he wrote in an article published in 2017.

Therefore,from the methodological point of view, “current psychoanalysis is undoubtedly a science”.

"But at the same time,It is an open questionwhether the scientific effort to confirm the central postulates of psychoanalysis will be successful.

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Is psychoanalytic a science or pseudoscience? ›

The philosopher Karl Popper considered psychoanalysis to be a pseudo-science because it has produced so many hypotheses that cannot be refuted empirically. Attachment theory is a notable exception. This model now has an extensive scientific literature.

What is the controversy with psychoanalytic theory? ›

Sigmund Freud was heavily criticized for his theories and focus on sex and aggression. Several critics stated that Freud was too simplistic and repetitive in his ways and was focused on what could not be seen. He was also regarded as not being empathetic and projecting his feelings into the theories he conceptualized.

What are the 2 main criticisms of psychoanalysis? ›

Two common criticisms, espoused by laypeople and professionals alike, are that the theory is too simple to ever explain something as complex as a human mind, and that Freud overemphasized sex and was unbalanced here (was sexist).

What are the controversies on Freud's ideas about science? ›

By the mid-twentieth century, however, Freudian theory was criticized mainly for its lack of scientific data. Although he aspired to make psychoanalysis a science, he never tested his theories with the methods of empirical research, preferring instead to rely on his clinical observations.

What is the definition of pseudoscience? ›

Pseudoscience is a proposition, a finding or a system of explanation that is presented as science but that lacks the rigor essential to the scientific method. Pseudoscience can also be the result of research that is based on faulty premises, a flawed experimental design or bad data.

Did Freud think psychoanalysis was a science? ›

1Freud's envisaged psychoanalysis as a science of nature, which only makes sense if one takes into account the distinction between the sciences of nature (Naturwissenschaften) and the sciences of the mind (Geisteswissenschaften) [1][1][Translator's note: in English, these two notions are often… that was operative in ...


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