27 August 2013

Biased and unbiased psychology

Recently I wrote about Charles McCreery’s ability to pick out which reports of ostensibly religious experiences had been written by someone who had previously been diagnosed as psychotic, and that he was the only person at the Department of Experimental Psychology at that time who was found to be able to do this. I also said that by that time he had discussed psychological ideas with me quite extensively, but I would not want to give the impression that his ability in this direction was dependent on his awareness of my ideas. Actually he had taken a great deal of interest in psychology and psychiatry before I knew him, as he was trying to work out what he thought of what was going on and how best he might make a career in it.

Charles McCreery outside the
SheldonianTheatre, Oxford, 
after receiving his doctorate, 1993
Probably he could have picked out cases with a psychiatric background before he knew me, since he had taken a vacation job in a mental hospital in Oxford in order to observe what was going on, and he had listened to the patients recounting their experiences.

What was going on was horrific; patients being knocked out with Largactil (the liquid cosh, as it was known) and carted off by force to be subjected to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). ‘Psychiatry’ had become dominant very quickly at the onset of the Welfare State; I am sure it is even more obviously appalling now, fifty years on. Neither Charles nor I have any confidence in the methods of diagnosis and treatment employed by qualified psychiatrists; and a large part of what happens, in depriving people of their liberty, including the right to refuse medication, is downright immoral.

Charles was also unimpressed by the ‘psychology’ being purveyed at the Department when he was an undergraduate, and this certainly contributed to his difficulties in deciding whether to pursue a career as an Oxford academic or to go to the Tavistock Clinic in London to be associated with the goings-on in ‘psychiatry’ as a clinical psychologist.

In fact he regarded the research which we might do, if we could get our Institute set up, as far more genuinely in line with academic standards, taking ‘academic’ as implying ‘realistic’, ‘objective’ or ‘unbiased’. So it would make his future career more meaningful if it was providing support to work which was indubitably of high quality, whereas he regarded the activities of both the Department of Experimental Psychology and of the Tavistock Clinic as reductionist and circumscribed in the case of the Department, and dubious to say the least in the case of the Tavistock.

However, either of them might be a way of gaining status and salary, both of which would contribute to our war effort in expanding the work of the Institute, and there would be more point in working for increasing academic status and salary if it was to the advantage of the Institute, which would be doing something meaningful, if it was able to do anything at all.
Unfortunately, Charles, like others who became associated with me, found his way into a suitable academic career blocked and hindered by the widespread hostility which we aroused. So none of those who are here now have academic appointments and salaries, although they should have, and they apply for Professorships as often as the shortage of manpower permits.

Also we are very badly in need of an active senior supporter, without which no application for funding has any hope of success. Therefore we are still urgently in need of help of all sorts and appeal for people to come and spend holidays in Cuddesdon or Wheatley as a way of gaining information about our needs for financial support and workers. This information they could at least pass on to other people if they do not want to provide help themselves.

originally posted 18 April 2011; reposted with image added