Evaluating Sigmund Freud: Should we compare him to biologists or economists?

May 10, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

This post is about how we should think about Freud, not about how we should think about biology or economics.

So. There’s this whole thing about Sigmund Freud being a bad scientist. Or maybe I should say a bad person and a terrible scientist. The “bad person” thing isn’t so relevant, but the “terrible scientist” thing is that, in a sort of perverse reversal of Popperian reasoning, he falsified his data to fit his theories. This came up in a recent book by Frederick Crews (see, for example, this review by George Prochnik), but it’s not news to anyone with any awareness that Freud had major, possibly fatal flaws as an empirical scientist, at least by the standards to which we hold empirical science today, and even in the time of Darwin.

But . . . maybe we’re using the wrong standard of comparison. Maybe, instead of comparing Freud to biologists such as Darwin, or psychologists such as Piaget or Pavlov, we should be comparing him to economists such as Adam Smith or David Ricardo who, like Freud, set up broad theoretical frameworks that promised to explain vast otherwise seemingly disconnected aspects of life. OK, so Freud altered the story of Dora to make a point he wanted to make. Well, what about Adam Smith and the pin factory? That’s a stylized story too, right? Smith was more honest because he didn’t pretend he was documenting a particular story—and honesty is central to science. My point here is not that Freud was an exemplary scientist, or an exemplary social scientist, but rather that his theories have a similar logical status to classic economic theories, and a similar appeal. The problem is, one could say, that Freud is presenting social-science-style theorizing as if it’s biological science. Imagine if some economist of Freud’s era had said that there was a “utility organ” in the brain. That would be pretty silly.

So, from that perspective, perhaps Freud’s big problem was that he was making a sort of category error. Strip away the biological trappings and Freud is a social scientist of 1900 vintage. To criticize Freud for being unscientific would make no more sense than criticizing Adam Smith on these grounds: both are builders of frameworks.

This is not to shield Freud from criticism, just to say that he can and should be criticized on the specifics, and his framework can be evaluated on its utility, but without thinking that just cos it’s not biology-style science, that it’s necessarily useless.

Try thinking this another way, as a sort of family tree of scientific inquiry starting with Newton, Kepler, etc., who were systematizers, coming up with general laws of motion. From this tree, one branch leads to the social scientists who are, in a sense, the followers of the theoretical physicists, coming up with models of the world, the social equivalents of string theory. Another branch leads to the biologists who are testing their theories with data and being all Popperian. This split is not clean—biology has sweeping theories and some social science theories can be tested—but I think there’s something to this idea.

P.S. Also this (racism is a framework, not a theory) and this (Economics now = Freudian psychology in the 1950s).

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