Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Brooks social animal

Thomas Nagel reviews The Social Animal, by David Brooks:
The main idea is that there are two levels of the mind, one unconscious and the other conscious, and that the first is much more important than the second in determining what we do. ... The main problem that Brooks addresses in this book is how to understand the relation between these two mental domains. His aim is to “counteract a bias in our culture. ...”

We may think that what we believe and do is largely under our conscious control, and we may believe that we should try to increase this control by the conscious exercise of reasoning and will power, but Brooks says that this is all wrong.
The book is currently no. 6 on the Amazon bestseller list. His view seems to be a mixture of Freud and the nurture side of the nature v nurture debate. In case you think that has side on his side, the Wikipedia article Sigmund Freud says:
Freud has been described by David Stafford-Clark as "a man whose name will always rank with those of Darwin, Copernicus, Newton, Marx and Einstein; someone who really made a difference to the way the rest of us can begin to think about the meaning of human life and society." In contrast, Hans Eysenck claims that Freud "set psychiatry back one hundred years". Psychology departments in American universities today are scientifically oriented, and Freudian theory has been marginalized, being regarded instead as a "desiccated and dead" historical artifact, according to a recent APA study.

Philosophers have debated the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Karl Popper, who argued that all proper scientific theories must be potentially falsifiable, claimed that Freud's psychoanalytic theories were presented in unfalsifiable form, meaning that no experiment or observation could ever prove them wrong. ...

Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist, made the oft-quoted remark that psychoanalysis is the "most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century". Freud critic Richard Webster calls psychoanalysis "perhaps the most complex and successful" pseudoscience in history. Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe wrote that, "Freud created one of the twentieth century's most significant myths but presented it as a scientific theory, supposedly based on rationalism and empirical observation. He claimed to be opening up the complexity of the mind to the world, but in fact he created a convoluted and speculative system of assumptions that has misled thousands upon thousands of well-intentioned therapists and vulnerable patients over the last hundred years".
That is correct. Except that the comparison to the other famous intellectuals makes me wonder what the guy thinks that they accomplished. Brooks claims to have newer research, but nearly all of it is dubious. For example, he tells the story of dentists named Dennis, but that appears to be debunked here.

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