Is Psychoanalysis Science or Pseudoscience?



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Is psychoanalysis worthy of a place in London's Science Museum? Of course it is, says Robert Bud. Certainly not, counters Mario Bunge

Robert Bud is principal curator of medicine at the Science Museum in London

THE Science Museum has never set itself up as a gatekeeper, deciding what is science and what is not. As a museum, we have a wide-ranging interest in many forms of scientific culture. Our great collections represent diverse technologies and practices as well as research. This has been the basis of our approach to medicine since we accepted responsibility for the care of the Wellcome Collections on the History of Medicine in the 1970s.

So where does psychoanalysis fit in? With 1 in 4 people in the UK formally diagnosed with a mental illness during their lifetime, the subject of mental and emotional well-being has never been more relevant. We have therefore taken a number of major initiatives in this area.

We have a long-standing relationship with the British Psychological Society, which sponsors our curator of psychology. Our recently reopened biomedical gallery "Who Am I?" deals with neuroscience, among other things. The psychoanalysis exhibition, sponsored by the Institute of Psychoanalysis, is part of a diverse, balanced approach to the study of the mind.

Psychoanalysis has moved well beyond the work of its founder, Sigmund Freud. The exhibition takes place at a time when there are fruitful discussions between neuroscientists and psychoanalysts about the relationship between the concept of the non-conscious, as explored by the former, and the unconscious, as described by the latter.

Interest in the effectiveness of a range of treatments based on psychoanalytic concepts and methods is also very active. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shedler of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver recently reviewed a wide range of published meta-analyses of therapeutic outcomes (American Psychologist, vol 65, p 98). He concluded that empirical evidence supports the efficacy of these treatments. Psychoanalysis is also the subject of serious academic discussions within well-known departments such as the Psychoanalysis Unit at University College London.

Our new exhibition aims to introduce the subject to a non-specialist audience. The focus will be on the unconscious, treated in both its therapeutic and cultural context. We aim to engage visitors through a blend of historical and modern objects, visual and audio displays and artworks by artists including Grayson Perry and Noble and Webster.

The exhibition will be a powerful experience that will prompt thought and inform discussion. We anticipate this debate will be the first of many.

Mario Bunge is a philosopher at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a long-standing critic of psychoanalysis

WE SHOULD congratulate the Science Museum for setting up an exhibition on psychoanalysis. Exposure to pseudoscience greatly helps understand genuine science, just as learning about tyranny helps in understanding democracy.

Over the past 30 years, psychoanalysis has quietly been displaced in academia by scientific psychology. But it persists in popular culture as well as being a lucrative profession. It is the psychology of those who have not bothered to learn psychology, and the psychotherapy of choice for those who believe in the power of immaterial mind over body.

Psychoanalysis is a bogus science because its practitioners do not do scientific research. When the field turned 100, a group of psychoanalysts admitted this gap and endeavoured to fill it. They claimed to have performed the first experiment showing that patients benefited from their treatment. Regrettably, they did not include a control group and did not entertain the possibility of placebo effects. Hence, their claim remains untested (The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol 81, p 513).

More recently, a meta-analysis published in American Psychologist (vol 65, p 98) purported to support the claim that a form of psychoanalysis called psychodynamic therapy is effective. However, once again, the original studies did not involve control groups.

In 110 years, psychoanalysts have not set up a single lab. They do not participate in scientific congresses, do not submit their papers to scientific journals and are foreign to the scientific community - a marginality typical of pseudoscience.

This does not mean their hypotheses have never been put to the test. True, they are so vague that they are hard to test and some of them are, by Freud's own admission, irrefutable. Still, most of the testable ones have been soundly refuted.

For example, most dreams have no sexual content. The Oedipus complex is a myth; boys do not hate their fathers because they would like to have sex with their mothers. The list goes on.

As for therapeutic efficacy, little is known because psychoanalysts do not perform double-blind clinical trials or follow-up studies.

Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. Its concepts are woolly and untestable yet are regarded as unassailable axioms. As a result of such dogmatism, psychoanalysis has remained basically stagnant for more than a century, in contrast with scientific psychology, which is thriving.

Psychoanalysis: The unconscious in everyday life opens on 13 October and runs until April 2011. The museum's Dana Centre will hold an associated discussion series. For more information visit

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Wed Oct 06 17:39:52 BST 2010 by Allan Brewer

Actually I think its Mario Bunge's superficial description of psychoanalysis which belongs in a history-book - we have moved as far from Freud as from the 19th century scientists' views on the aether. Although there may be some academic underpinnings, psychoanalysis is more of an applied skill than a science of mind. Clarity of feeling results from the analytic process itself, not from any scientifically established mode of questions, answers and responses.

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