Ideas That (We are Told) are Too Urgent for Science
By Joel F. Wade - February 08, 2012

It's a familiar and effective marketing technique: You make an offer and then you add, "Hurry. Spaces are limited, so sign up now!" or "These models won't last, so act fast!"

Of course, in most cases, spaces aren't really all that limited, and whether or not you act fast, there were probably only a couple of advertised models, anyway.

The same sort of strategy or stance demands of us to act now in political or social issues: "This is too urgent; no time to wait for the science!" Which, of course, is another way of saying, "I have a belief and it's a very strong belief that, if true, requires fast action. But I don't know what's actually true and I don't want to wait to find out."

The unspoken reason being: "Because I have too much invested in this belief."

During the sixties and seventies, there was a push for something called "The Human Potential Movement." This was in some ways a very exciting and inspiring movement, based on some good ideas, and some questionable ideas.

Some of the good ideas inspired me to become a psychotherapist, and over the years I have seen much good come of them. Some of the questionable ideas caused me to doubt a lot about this element of my chosen profession over the years.

What allowed the questionable ideas to exert such power over our culture – and do so much damage in the process – was the impatience of their authors and advocates.

For example, Abraham Maslow, one of the pioneering theorists of the Human Potential Movement said:

"There is now emerging over the horizon a new conception of human sickness and of human health, a psychology that I find so thrilling and so full of wonderful possibilities that I yield to the temptation to present it publicly even before it is checked and confirmed, and before it can be called reliable scientific knowledge." (Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 3. Italics mine)

What this "too urgent to wait for science" stance enabled, on the negative end, was the illusion of professional scientific support for valuing momentary pleasure in pursuit of peak experiences, an enforced tolerance for deviant and dangerous lifestyles and a belief system that is at once idealistic and inconsistent with human nature.

For example, Timothy Leary was greatly influenced and supported by Maslow's theories. I met Leary at his home years ago, in 1988, at a Ron Paul for president fundraiser. He was personally charming, friendly and in some ways delightful; but the damaging effects of his popularization of LSD in pursuit of peak experiences have done some people grave and mortal harm. His prescription to "Turn on, tune in, drop out," was one of the many cultural poisons unleashed on our country as a result of not wanting to wait for scientific validation.

The idealist feels strongly and believes deeply, which can be a compelling and inspiring trait. Such enthusiasm and devotion is exciting and moving, and if it is based on truth and focused toward worthy pursuits this can be a great positive force, for example, the founding of America and the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

But feeling strongly and believing deeply might be a sign that something is true − or it might not. That is why we use the scientific method and reason to test things out, to get a more reliable sense of whether something is true or not.

Maslow felt so strongly that he was on to something big that his enthusiasm couldn't wait to check it out. I have personally been very excited about certain psychotherapeutic techniques and theories over the years that did not have the research to back them up. But it looked like it worked so wonderfully that I was drawn to learn more.

In retrospect, much of what I was seeing as so promising was likely placebo (which does have a significant effect in itself) and confirmation bias (seeing what confirms your belief and not seeing what disconfirms it). Oh, to have all that money back … but that was the cost of my education in the value of being more rigorous.

And in fairness, finding out what's true is in practice often a very messy business. Very few, if any, of the people with whom I studied were purposefully misleading. They were searching for the truth as best they could. They just got too excited and, frankly, didn't have the training or background to do research. It looked true to them and seemed to check out okay.

The trouble is, we want so much for things to be better in every way. That is humanity's blessing and our curse. This desire moves us to do things that improve our individual lives, the lives of our families and the state of our communities, countries and the world. It is also what can get some people to lose all sense of proportion and judgment in a frenzy of idealistic hope or doomsday scenarios.

Maslow's willingness to yield to the temptation to present what he thought was true as in fact true was an example of idealistic hope.

On the other end, we see an example of the doomsday scenarios in the present hysteria over global warming. Al Gore and the others who have whipped up this frenzy have people so freaked out that there is no time to wait for science to confirm what they think is happening; after all, "We only have ten years to solve this or we're all going to die!!!!"

The truth is, of course, much less dramatic than either Maslow's hope or Al Gore's doom.

In psychology, there have been significant improvements in how we can treat ailments like depression and anxiety and we are gradually learning some basic principles of living well.

I see this as significant, exciting and hopeful; but it is not perfection, and it is not a magic formula. Every effective treatment is helpful for a certain percentage of people, unhelpful for another percentage and sometimes even harmful for another (usually much smaller) percentage.

Psychotherapy is on the whole more effective and has fewer side effects than your standard over-the-counter cold medicine, and psychotherapy and coaching are interventions that can certainly help many people to live better lives. But it is most commonly a normal human kind of improvement.

Over the years I have had the privilege of seeing clients experience true breakthroughs that have significantly changed their lives for the better and which lasted and progressed over time. Nothing I have found leads to major breakthroughs consistently, reliably and with most people.

Breakthroughs happen, and we can be grateful for them; but most life improvement involves changes in habits of thinking and behavior that require perseverance over time.

This is not pessimistic. There is a great deal that you can do that is likely to improve your life significantly. And there is more and more substantial research exploring and fleshing out just what these are.

But if you want to live a better life, you have to work at it, and you sometimes have to learn to cope and deal with troubles that you would rather you didn't.

The idealism of the Human Potential Movement and the horror of the global warming scenario are all very dramatic, but the truth of real life is much more interesting, complex and extraordinary.

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