The Professorial Prejudice Against Mormons

Here’s an article by Thomas C. Terry  getting a lot of attention on how openly our professors disparage Mormons in  ways they would be ashamed to talk about  members of various minorities—from blacks to gays—or women or members of other organized religions—from Catholics to Muslims.


The most respectable reasons for this prejudice, professors believe, is that Mormons themselves are bigots.  They marginalize gays, they don’t allow women to hold high positions in the church, and they used to have to some strange view of black inferiority.  They used to be and may still secretly be polygamists.  They put pressure on people to get married young and have large families, and generally the pressure is also on for the wife to take primary responsibility for caregiving in the huge households.  As long as a married couple is open to (lots of) children, contraception can be used prudently to space kids out. Abortion can be chosen in extreme cases. But women have no right to use contraception or abortion to find safe sexual pleasure outside of marriage, and they aren’t to use either to avoid being a mom.  Women who are active Mormons aren’t supposed to have any and, in fact, have remarkably little sex outside of marriage.

But the main reason for the disparagement, I think, is that the Mormons live what they believe.  They formed themselves into a tight community based on their doctrines, and they view themselves as “in it for eternity.”  Each person has an eternal destiny and is to live accordingly. Even marriage is supposed to be for eternity, although Mormons reluctantly allow divorce as a last resort. This life for each person is one among many on the way to becoming a god.

So Mormons don’t think of themselves as free individuals able to live as they please, with human rights and no corresponding human duties.  They are certainly among the most genuinely countercultural Americans.  And one French philosopher actually told me that Provo, Utah (95% Mormon and home of BYU) is the strangest and most wonderful (in the sense of inspiring wonder) place in the Western world.

And I haven’t even talked about the Mormon prohibition of drinking both coffee and beer—two habits that might make it easier for Mormons to make friends with non-Mormons.  One reason, it’s speculated, that many voters don’t find Mitt Romney likeable is that they can’t imagine having a beer with him.  Other people claim they can't cuddle up to MItt knowing that his underwear is different from theirs.

America is getting more libertarian all the time.  And it’s inevitable that those who pride themselves in being nonconforming, skeptical autonomous individuals would be somewhat creeped out by Mormon communal discipline and dogmatism.  Having said that, any open-minded individualist would have to admit that there are both costs and benefits to our creeping and sometimes creepy libertarian drift.

Our author gives us a lot of inconvenient facts about Mormon Utah, showing perhaps its superiority in key areas of human flourishing and human happiness:

Utah is about 72 percent Mormon, so it's a pretty good representation of Mormonism. Among the 50 states, Utah has the lowest child poverty rate, the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the third-lowest abortion rate, the third-highest high school graduate rate at 94 percent, the highest scores on Advanced Placement exams, fewest births to unwed mothers (also the highest overall birthrate), lowest cancer rate, lowest smoking rate, lowest per capita rate of alcohol use, and, arguably, the most comprehensive and universal state health insurance system in the U.S . Furthermore, Mormons as a group have the lowest rates of violence and depression among religious groups, are seven times less likely to commit suicide (if active church members), and have the lowest divorce rates of any social-religious group. Sixty-five percent of Utah residents have personal computers, the highest penetration rate in the country. Crime has decreased in the state of Utah by anywhere from 15-18 percent over the past 10 years.

Mormon women are more likely to be employed in professional occupations than Catholic or Protestant women (similar to Jewish women) and more likely to graduate from college than Catholic or Protestant women (but less than Jewish women). One survey indicated Mormon women experience more orgasms and are more satisfied with their married lives.

Almost all of these facts can be traced to the strength of Mormon community and the support it gives to family life.  Suicide, for example,  most often is a result, as Durkheim discovered, of social detachment and loneliness.

Surprising to some might be the Mormon devotion to education and technology, including the education and professional development of women.  Mormon women don’t regard getting pregnant as the end of one’s education.  Pregnancy, for one thing, about never comes outside of marriage, and Mormons marry young.  The BYU campus is crawling with baby carriages and married couples, showing that overcoming our birth dearth wouldn’t require returning to a lower level of personal accomplishment for either men or women.  There’s a lot of church-based communal support for those who follow the tough but “doable” road of combining marriage, children, and studying hard.  Faithfully monogamous people who have lots of kids might be repressed in some ways but they’re also very erotic in others.  I’m not saying I have full confidence in some study about self-reported orgasms.

I’ve visited BYU a few times, and, despite some singularly religious features to the curriculum, it must be the best or nearly the best very large university in our country. Anyone from outside would be either put off or impressed (or both) by the amount of religious conformity that binds together the very accomplished (by any secular standard) faculty.  But that conformity is compatible with all sorts of methodological and ideological diversity.  I would guess maybe half or even more of the BYU faculty in the social sciences and humanities voted for Obama last time.  That’s a lot less than virtually universal support he received at Harvard.  Those facts would be hard to spin to prove that the Harvard faculty is more open-minded.

I’m no Mormon, and I couldn’t make it for long in Provo.  But maybe sophisticated Americans need some fact-based lessons in Mormon acceptance.  Professors, in many ways, hate genuine diversity even more than most folks.

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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
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