Why Freud Was Not a Scientist
There is perhaps no figure in psychology more contentiously scrutinized than Sigmund Freud. The Austrian neurologist best known for creating psychoanalysis has both been hailed as a "revolutionary" and lambasted as a "fraud." One thing that is certain, however, as noted by io9's George Dvorsky, is that Freud's ideas have "transcended science" and invaded modern culture.
"Rarely does a day go by where we don’t find ourselves uttering a term drawn from his work: Mommy and daddy issues. Arrested development. Death wishes. Freudian slips. Phallic symbols. Anal retentiveness. Defense mechanisms. Cathartic release. And on and on and on."
But the primary reason why Freud's ideas are so ubiquitous is that they didn't transcend science; they bypassed them. If the notions of the id, ego, or superego had been subjected to rigorous peer review, they would undoubtedly not be as widely known as they are today. The same goes for dream analysis, the Oedipal Complex (the idea that adolescent boys lust after their mothers), and penis envy (a supposed stage in development where girls experience anxiety over the realization that they lack a penis). We now know all of these ideas to be wrong, and frankly, a tad whacko.
In 1996, UC-Berkeley's Frederick Crews, writing in the journal Psychological Science, concluded “Independent studies have begun to converge toward a verdict... that there is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas."
That damning conclusion might be a tad overstated. Psychiatric treatments premised on the most basic, bare-bones tenets of Freud's psychoanalysis seem to be effective at treating many mental disorders, including depression. Psychoanalysis, itself, was founded on shaky, unscientific grounds, however.
In 1991, historian of science Dr. Frank Sulloway reviewed six of Freud's principal case studies on psychoanalysis and found them to be "rampant with censorship, distortions, highly dubious 'reconstructions,' and exaggerated claims." Despite Freud's many misrepresentations, he couldn't mask the fact that half of his case studies ended in spectacular failure, with no relief for the patient whatsoever.
Writing for Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall further elaborated, "His approach was not scientific. He never tested his ideas with experiments that might have falsified his beliefs, and he ignored facts that contradicted his beliefs."
These aren't the actions of a true scientist. Rather than use data to construct meaningful theory, Freud theorized first, then attempted -- half-heartedly -- to produce data that fit. In essence, Freud was little more than an armchair psychologist, thought admittedly a well educated and influential one.
In Sulloway's opinion, Freud held back psychology. "Freud's training methods... represent a backward step toward the kind of learning based on authority and secrecy that typified scholasticism and alchemy prior to the Scientific Revolution," he wrote.
Psychologist Hans Eysenck agreed, calling Freud "a genius, not of science, but of propaganda, not of rigorous proof, but of persuasion, not of the design of experiments, but of literary art."
"At best, Freud is a figure of only historical interest for psychologists," Berkeley psychologist John F. Kihlstrom furthers. "He is better studied as a writer, in departments of language and literature, than as a scientist, in departments of psychology."