Tomasz Witkowski is a Polish psychologist and skeptic (founder of the Polish Skeptics Club) who is well known for pointing out the lack of scientific evidence behind most of what psychologists do. I have reviewed three of his previous books Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Sides of Science and Therapy, Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy, and Shaping Psychology: Perspectives on Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field. He has done it again, and this time he extends his myth busting to topics outside psychology. His new book Fads, Fakes, and Frauds, fulfills the promise of its subtitle, exploding myths in culture, science, and psychology. He shows that many of our popular beliefs are false and explains how they are biased by history and evolution. Amazon offers the book in two formats, Kindle and paperback.
We too readily accept whatever we are taught. Not Tomasz Witkowski! He sets an example that we all should follow: he questions everything! His questions lead him to discover that much of psychology, culture, and even science itself are not supported by credible evidence. This book will challenge you to reconsider some of your most cherished beliefs, to realize that much of what you thought you knew is wrong. Prepare to be discombobulated by his revelations.
People are more alike than different
His first target in this book is “false humanists,” his term for those who insist that “everyone is different”. He says:
I cannot find a single discovery in the history of science that has been made by following the conviction that everybody is different. This invariably leads to helplessness and powerlessness.
Witkowski says the idea that everyone is different has contributed to false diagnoses (one in five diagnoses are completely false and only 12% of initial diagnoses are confirmed), and over 600 different psychotherapeutic approaches have been invented because of the conviction that no one approach could be appropriate for every individual.
I know of only one human achievement resulting from the conviction that everybody is different. And that is tolerance.
Replacing one false belief with another
In medieval courts, pigs and other animals were accused, tried, and condemned. We no longer do that, but Witkowski says our modern courts do something just as silly. They call forensic psychologists to testify as expert witnesses, and almost a quarter of them rely on ink blots to diagnose conditions like pedophilic tendencies. These Rorschach ink blots are a hundred years old and have never been validated; because of the lack of evidence, a moratorium on their use was called for in 1999.
For centuries, women were diagnosed with hysteria, in which the uterus supposedly wandered all over the body in search of humidity. Hysteria is no longer found in diagnostic manuals. It went out of fashion and was superseded by “the vapors”, neurasthenia, and “nervous tension”. Witkowski says the latest whipping boy is “stress”, a vague concept that resists quantification or even precise definition and has been blamed for everything from ulcers to heart disease and cancer, and “is invoked in every situation where we cannot find the cause of some disorder or health problem”.
“Beware of everyone who tells you how to live”
In the past, people sought advice from their local priest or from elders. Today they are faced with a vast array of gurus, self-help books, motivational speakers, celebrities to emulate, trainers, life coaches, consultants, and self-proclaimed experts in every field. Witkowski points out that life is not long enough to sample everything on offer, so one has to choose.
The first task is to choose a method of choosing. Following scientific evidence seems like a rational approach, but he says, “we easily lose sight of the borders beyond which science has no entry, nor can it have”. He says, “it is worth examining the seemingly innocent definitions which have settled in the language of the social sciences”. What does self-actualization mean? How could you know when it has been achieved? What are authentic self, true self, self-fulfillment, authentic relationship, authentic love, etc.? Science can’t answer these questions, because they arise from the need to search for a meaning of life, which is a matter of philosophy and belief, not scientific fact. “Normal” and “abnormal” are purely descriptive. Science doesn’t make value judgments; it can describe what we do but it can’t recommend what we should do.
The race to be a victim
“If all the groups that consider themselves victims or discriminated against were added together, the figure would be almost 400% of the population”. Witkowski describes victims of bullying who have actually bullied themselves. He speculates about why being a victim might be attractive. Falsified hate crimes, false accusations of rape, phony sick leave…what’s going on here? Psychotherapists sometimes tell patients their problems are rooted in childhood traumas, and if they have no memory of trauma, they have ways of helping patients recover the memories. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was established to help people falsely accused of abuse.
If Sarah Hardy is right in saying that it was the ability to care for their kinsmen and understand their needs, and the ability to receive care from others which were driving the evolution of our intelligence and socialization, then the widespread and manipulative abuse of these abilities which we are now witnessing does not bode well for the species Homo sapiens.
Suicide has long been stigmatized. Witkowski asks us to re-assess the reasons given, which are often based on spurious arguments from religion: the real underlying reason might have to do with the economic consequences (a slave’s death deprives the owner of their services, etc.).
Can the rate of suicides be reduced? Feynman likened the social sciences to cargo cults: they imitate the trappings of science but lack the understanding. Psychologists and psychotherapists have put enormous effort into inventing ways to prevent suicide, but these have been ineffective and sometimes the results have been counterproductive. He says “we continue so many ineffective practices which have arisen in the sphere of the social sciences, frequently taking chance and coincidence as the truth”. The only thing that has proven effective is limiting access to the means of suicide like pesticides and firearms.
He says we have packaged suicide in a particular type of hypocrisy, influencing people to think of it either as a laudable act of heroism (in the service of ideas like homeland, God, family, honor, religion, etc.) or as a mortal sin. We euthanize animals when they are suffering but condemn humans who see suicide as a way to end suffering. He says, “we have treated death unambiguously as an evil, and consequently we impose the obligation to live on others”.
One chapter is about the failings of the judicial system. The Innocence Project has revealed false accusations, bias against racial and social groups, stereotyping, misunderstanding of mental illness, jurors who don’t understand the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and the fallibility of memory, and experts who misrepresent the validity of scientific evidence. Witkowski says when the public is outraged by a particularly egregious crime, they may demand retaliation, revenge, and punishment, mistaking that for justice.
Submissiveness to authority
Authority was a mechanism that evolved in animals so that information valuable to survival could be transmitted through social learning. Witkowski says social position has priority over competence. Celebrities who have captured the attention of the public are blindly followed, and their judgment is trusted over that of scientists on issues like vaccination. And after prestigious scientific experts have reached the top they tend to stay there too long, hampering progress, leading to the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.
In psychology “it is impossible to deprive a scientific celebrity of authority when he turns out to be a fraud” but it’s acceptable to destroy newcomers who question authority. “Freeing wisdom from the trap of authority is one of the most burning needs in science”. Witkowski sees a glimmer of hope in the calls for open science, transparency, replication, and data sharing.
Calling for unambiguity
It may be better to avoid unambiguous and categorical declarations, but reality is ambiguous. He says:
…unambiguity and rigidity play a huge role in science. Cold fusion is either a fact, or scientific humbug. There is no third option.
The book addresses many other subjects, such as:
- The visceral nervous system
- Embodied cognition
- The war on loneliness
- Addition is preferred to subtraction
- Gut flora
- Placebos and nocebos
- False perceptions of side effects of statins, aspirin, and other drugs
- Penicillin allergy
- Cancer and psycho-oncology
- Fraud in research
- Harms of psychotherapy
Conclusion: a valuable book that will make you think
You may not agree with everything Witkowski says, but you would do well to follow his example and question everything you have been taught. Ideas that everyone assumes are true may not be. He asks for evidence, and he provides references. He writes well, tells good stories, and offers examples that will make you think. Readers will be challenged and may be provoked to change their minds about things they once took for granted. Prepare to have your apple cart upset; you may need to pick up some apples.