The Art and Science of Pseudology

By Szasz, Thomas | Freeman, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview

The Art and Science of Pseudology


Szasz, Thomas, Freeman


The common belief that the scientist's job is to reveal the secrets of nature is erroneous. Nature has no secrets; only persons do. Secrecy implies agency, which is absent in nature. This is the main reason the so-called "behavioral sciences" are not merely unlike the physical sciences but are in many ways their opposites.

"Nature," observed Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), "admits no lie." While nature neither lies nor tells the truth, persons habitually do both. As the famous French mathematician and philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot (1801-1877) observed, "It is inconceivable that [in the science of politics] telling the truth can ever become more profitable than telling lies." Indeed, deception and prevarication are indispensable tools for the politician and the psychiatrist - experts expected to explain, predict, and prevent unwanted human behaviors.

The integrity of the natural seientific enterprise depends on truthseeking and truth-speaking by individuals engaged in activities we call "scientific," and on the scientific community's commitment to expose and reject erroneous explanations and false "facts." In contrast, the stability of political organizations and of the ersatz religions we call "behavioral sciences" depends on the loyalty of its practitioners to established doctrines and institutions and the rejection of truth-telling as injurious to the welfare of the group that rests on its commitment to fundamental falsehoods. Not by accident, we call revelations of the "secrets" of nature "discoveries," and revelations of the secrets of powerful individuals and institutions "exposés."

Because nature is not an agent, many of its workings can be understood by observation, reasoning, experiment, measurement, and calculation. Deception and divination are powerless to advance our understanding of how the world works; indeed, they preempt, prevent, and substitute for such understanding.

Psychiatry is one of the most important institutions of modern American society. Understanding modern psychiatry - the historical forces and the complex economic, legal, political, and social principles and practices that support it - requires understanding the epistemology of imitation and the sociology of distinguishing "originals" from "counterfeits." With respect to disease, the process consists of two parts: One part is separating persons who suffer from demonstrable bodily diseases from those who do not, but pretend or claim to; another part is separating physicians who believe it is desirable to distinguish between illness and health, sick persons and healthy, from physicians who reject this desideraturn and insist that everyone who acts or claims to be sick has an illness and deserves to be treated. In an effort to clarify the difference between medicine and psychiatry - between real medicine and fake medicine - I proposed a satirical definition of psychiatry, slightly revised as follows:

The subject matter of psychiatry is neither minds nor mental diseases, but lies, beginning with the names of the participants in the transaction - the designation of one party as "patient," even though he is not ill, and the other party as "therapist" even though he is not treating any illness. The lies continue with the deceptions that comprise the subject matter proper of the discipline - the psychiatric "diagnoses," "prognoses," and "treatments" - and end with the lies that, like shadows, follow ex-mental patients through the rest of their lives - the records of denigrations called "depression," "schizophrenia," or whatnot, and of imprisonments called "hospitalization." If we wished to give psychiatry an honest name, we ought to call it "pseudology," or the art and science of lies and lying.

The imitation of illness is memorably portrayed by Molière (1622-1673) in his famous comedy, The Imaginary Invalid (Le malade imaginaire). The main character is a healthy individual who wants to be treated as if he were sick by others, especially doctors. …

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