The Left Was Right!

Self justification, we are told, is an unhealthy preoccupation. But just for a change – and considering the enormity of the issues that are and have been at stake, I got thinking the other day about just some of them. I also got thinking about how those of us who have argued passionately for them or against them were frequently castigated, ignored and insulted. I also got to think about so many in the Labour Party who were disparaged, blocked and barred from office – in order that those who let ambition guide them, were rewarded for their sycophancy.


Here are just a few. Readers will no doubt think of more.

*The systemic flaws in the Anglo American free market system; many of us argued that worshipping at the altar of the market place, allowing state assets to be flogged off and the banks, insurance and credit companies complete carte blanche would not only result in a  more unequal society, the whole system risked imploding. Back when we were doing so, the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown MP, had gone to worship at the altar of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. He came back to Britain to tell us that he would end “boom and bust”. He competed with the Conservative Opposition to relax regulation of the financial services – and came to believe that a combination of the ‘dot com’ revolution and ever rising property prices would lead to permanent prosperity.

Then came that “bust” we all knew would happen. Fortunately Gordon Brown, by then Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling were clever men. They had studied Keynes, and they knew what they had to do. As did the incoming Obama administration. They plugged the gap and prevented a banking crisis through a massive bale out. This of course was our money! The bankers didn’t contribute a dime. None of them have been prosecuted for their grand larceny, and now they are back paying themselves huge bonuses again as the rest of us are told to tighten our belts. We know who is laughing all of the way to the bank!

Gordon Brown has now written a book and Alistair Darling has written a perspicacious article for the New York Times. They are both now singing from our song sheet. We were right when it counted, and they were wrong.

*European Monetary Union; Many of us who were not anti European, but worried at the centralising aspects and the democratic deficit associated with the European Project, had huge doubts about the long term prospects for the European economy. We thought that this was as much a political project as an economic one, and one that brought together economies that didn’t perform at the same rate, but that would enjoy the same interest rates.  The then Prime Minister Tony Blair told friends that he wanted to be “remembered in history” for taking Britain in. Those of us who disagreed were labelled ‘little Englanders’ and told to “get with the project.”

Had Britain joined the Single Currency, given our over exposure to credit driven debt, our recession would have turned into a depression. Perhaps the British economy – and the British banks – would simply have been too big to bail out by the European Central Bank. Britain would have been another Ireland or Greece. So who supports Britain joining the Single Currency now?

*Manufacturing and the Financial Sector; For thirty years, since Margaret Thatcher was elected to power and used unemployment as a tool to control inflation and was allowed that to take key sectors of Britain’s heavy and manufacturing industry with it, we said that it was a terrible mistake to allow the country’s manufacturing base to shrink. We said that cyclical unemployment wasn’t worth the social and economic cost, but were labelled ‘dinosaurs’. We said an over dependence on the financial sector was the equivalent of putting all our eggs in one basket.

Now everyone seems to agree. Britain has to export itself out of recession by selling goods to the World, instead of exporting our best brains and most able bodied to the Middle East and South Asia. But what exactly does Britain have to export?

*Closing the Wealth gap; the gap between rich and poor in Britain and in America is the widest it has been since Victorian times, and just keeps getting wider. Once Britain had North Sea Oil to act as a cushion, but now that has gone. We said that Labour owed its very existence to tackling the most fundamental inequalities of all, and they just kept getting bigger. We were attacked for wanting to ‘level down’, for failing to understand aspiration. Instead the Meritocratic Society was offered up as sticking plaster by mediocrities, and we were allowed to imagine wealth ‘trickling down from above’.

Now we know that the wealth kept on trickling up. Now we know that the “squeezed middle”, the so called little people who pay their taxes are paying so that the super rich can get, er, richer!

*The Special Relationship; the British establishment has for years fostered the idea that there is a ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States. We said that could be loosely translated as the US telling Britain to “jump”, and the British saying “How high?” We know from the Wikileaks, just how many British politicians worried, wheedled and promised in order to maintain the fiction.

Now even Jack Straw, who arguably jumped pretty high when he was asked to do so, agrees with us.

*Afghanistan; in the wake of the horrendous terrorist attacks on the United States, which saw thousands of all religions and nationalities lose their lives in the Twin Tower outrage, some, including the American and British Governments thought that it would be a good idea to send armies to Afghanistan. We said that the terrorists weren’t from Afghanistan, but that militant extremism that led to terrorism had to be dealt with in much more imaginative ways. We reminded the politicians that Afghanistan had not only seen off Hannibal, but the British and the Soviets. Britain’s Defence Secretary said that “not a shot would be fired”, and those British troops would be back by Christmas.

Now we know that the Afghan war is the longest in living memory. It is largely futile and has been years. Now we know that the politicians are desperate to bring back the troops, knowing, as we always did, that foreign armies always come to grief north of the Khyber Pass.

*Iraq; we said that we doubted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, we said that war could only be declared with the agreement of the United Nations, and that a war conducted without it could conceivably be against international law. We said that the construct that is Iraq could fall apart and descend into civil war and that the whole balance of power in the region could fall apart and that Iran could only stand to benefit.

Hundreds of thousands of lives later, with tens of thousands of hideously wounded and disabled in its wake, we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Government on both sides of the Atlantic with the collusion of many journalists told lies. Only George Bush (Retd) and Tony Blair (Retd), plus a bunch of loony neo cons now think that the Iraq War was right.

Of one thing we can be sure; to be proved right on so many of the great issues will not invite gratitude. Still less, by reminding those who were wrong. In fact quite the reverse.

So just for good measure, here is another warning for those who ignore history at their peril. The Anglo American model has de stabilised the World economy to such a scale, economic power may now be irrevocably shifting from West to East, and with it the life chances of millions. Instead, in Britain at least, the new political establishment is beginning to mirror a very old one indeed. This political elite, millionaires all, is intent on rowing back the State to such an extent that it will exist primarily to protect the interests of the super rich. The bottom have been squeezed into apathy and defeat. But by squeezing the middle, this new elite does not know what it risks unleashing.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less