How to Think Like a Scientist

(and Why Psychiatrists Don't)

Science is the study of nature—and perhaps the most challenging wonder of nature is our own brain-mind. It’s unimaginably complex, entirely surrounded by bone, terribly vulnerable to intrusion—and no two of them are alike! All these factors combine to make psychiatry’s task of understanding its subject far more difficult than that of other medical specialties. For centuries, in the face of our enormous gaps in knowledge, psychiatry has tended to grasp at slender reeds of evidence, and then play fast and loose with science—ambitiously concocting half-baked theories, in a vain effort to assert mastery of a scientifically impenetrable mystery.

In order to grasp just how far psychiatry’s brand of science has strayed from established scientific fact, you first need to understand the scientific method—which is how all scientific knowledge is obtained and verified.  Physicist Jose Wudka describes the scientific method as “the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion”—in other words, a sort of intellectual filter specifically designed to eliminate all bullshit.

The birth of the scientific method is credited to the great Arab physicist and mathematician Ibn al-Haytham, who in the early 11th century performed rigorous experimentation while studying optics.  For a thousand years it has prevailed as the prescribed manner in which any working assumption is examined and validated.  The steps of the scientific method are as follows: 

  1. Observe and describe a phenomenon.
  2. Formulate a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon.
  3. Use the hypothesis to predict outcomes.
  4. Test the hypothesis through experimentation and/or further observation, and modify the hypothesis in light of the results.
  5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between your hypothesis and the results.

When a hypothesis has been run through this mill over and over, demonstrating its validity to the point that it’s accepted as proven by a consensus of the scientific community, it is then called a theory—a conceptual framework that’s used to explain existing observations, and to predict new ones.  Such theories, like the theory of evolution and the theory of relativity, function as jumping off points for the creation of more hypotheses, further observation and experimentation, and the continued expansion of the body of scientific knowledge.   

Please note that this use of the word “theory” is very different from the way that we use it in everyday language, where it conveys significant doubt and speculation.  This common use of “theory” actually describes what we would call a “hypothesis” in scientific terms—an unverified idea based on speculation. This ambiguity has contributed significantly to the public’s confusion about science today. While in science no theory is unquestionable—because almost nothing in science is actually unquestionable—a theory is defined as a proposition that’s already been verified as true after extensive scientific testing, and is now used as a foundation for further study. Critics of science have exploited this ambiguity to cultivate disbelief.  After all, the theory of evolution is “just a theory”—and if your personal definition of “theory” is a dubious supposition rather than a generally accepted fact, then a scientist’s unqualified endorsement might seem imprudent. But it isn’t. Theories are NOT imprudent.

The single most ignorant and misleading claim spouted by science’s opponents is that science is a faith in itself—when nothing could be further from the truth. Properly done, science is the antithesis of faith—because its guiding purpose is to question perceived truth, rather than accept it. People of strongly held religious faith despise science for its rejection of faith –which is, by definition, belief in the absence of evidence. But there’s really no choice for scientists in this matter–because scientifically speaking, belief without evidence is nonsense.

When religious opponents of evolution promote the concept of intelligent design—a feelgood hypothesis that maintains that there must be an engaged Creator because it sure seems like there is one—they start with an unobservable phenomenon, God, that is accepted without evidence—then scorn any effort to dismiss its existence. Their sole intention is to reaffirm faith, rather execute the skeptical work of science. In contrast, the theory of evolution is validated every time a drug-resistant strain of bacteria emerges, without us even looking for any more proof. 

But bogeymen of the culture wars are not the only enemies of science.  Like any other human enterprise, science is corruptible, especially when there’s big money is at stake. And in a time when psychiatry most lays claim to being based on science, it has done so by shrouding itself in pseudoscientific myths, to create the illusion of precision where there is none.

Ibn al-Haytham foresaw the corruptibility of the scientific process. As he put it, “Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things.” The sad truth is that most of psychiatry’s scientific knowledge today has been in a state of developmental arrest, stuck on a warped rendition of Step 3, which could be restated as: “Use the hypothesis to market psychiatry and its products”.  Like the advocates of intelligent design, most of psychiatry’s research institutions have been bent on producing data that supports a myth—specifically, the one that psychiatric disorders are caused by chemical imbalances, which are in turn resolved with psychiatric medications. Instead of scientifically scrutinizing this hypothesis, marginal findings are accepted as confirmatory and inflated in significance, so they can be used to generate pharmaceutical sales pitches.

One of the main reasons that psychiatry has abandoned this essential skepticism is because we have so little knowledge about how the brain-mind actually functions—and yet we need the illusion of knowledge in order to promote our products and services. The void in our scientific knowledge of the brain-mind is astounding. If you ever asked a cardiologist, “Physiologically speaking, what is a heartbeat?”, they could probably bore you to tears with details in explaining how it all works. But if you ask a psychiatrist this entirely pertinent question—“Physiologically speaking, what is a thought?”—the only honest answer would be, “We have no freaking clue”. Because we don’t. THAT is the most relevant measure of psychiatry’s scientific knowledge I can think of. We don’t know how the brain-mind executes any of the higher functions that are the actual focus of psychiatry, the generation of thought and behavior—and so the bulk of our psychiatric “science” to date is mucking around finding medications that cause desired effects in a brain-mind, when we really have no idea how it all works!

 With their embrace of technology—defined as “the application of science for practical purposes”—psychiatric researchers display the trappings of science, which is enough to impress much of the public with their efforts. But in fact, the modern myths of psychiatry are more thoroughly sustained by faith than by hard scientific proof.  Most of us use smart phones—a very advanced technology—regularly in our day-to-day lives, but I suspect very little of that time is spent doing hard science. Likewise, countless millions in research dollars have been spent amassing evidence to prop up psychiatry’s biological model and promote pharmaceutical products, rather than rigorously examining the scientific validity of its assumptions. This is a brazen neglect of the guiding precepts that have been at the foundation of scientific study for a millennium. In short, they’re baffling us with bullshit, more intent in generating pharmaceutical ad copy then establishing scientific fact.

You will find little in my work that attempts to assert any hard scientific truths—because the determination of scientific truth occurs through the exhaustive efforts of a community, rather than the musings of an individual.  I’m limited to exercising my scientifically driven skepticism—to doubt everything until all doubt is removed, shooting intellectual spitballs at institutions that may have less to do with real science than I do. Because they are no longer primarily engaged in the pursuit of truth, or driven by scientific skepticism. Ibn al-Haytham has provided me some cover for this mission, as he states:

The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and to attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.

If you question this wisdom, remember that this is a guy who formulated an idea that is still with us a thousand years later. So, in that spirit, I invite you all to apply critical thinking anything that I might say in my videos or elsewhere—but to remember that doing so also requires a rigorous examination of your own beliefs. The scientific method demands a whole-hearted embrace of skepticism—because that’s the only way to establish that the truth you hold will be one that endures.   

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