Defending Obama

Defending Obama:

It's clear by now that I don't have any brief for the guy. However, just as I defended him a bit this weekend on the grounds of his wife, I'm going to defend him against this psychoanalytic attack. It's from back in March, but just came to my attention this morning.

The problem with the "diagnosis" starts with the fact that it's unethical to diagnose people you haven't actually examined -- especially politicians in an election year. However, ethical rules in the field of psychology are 'really more of a guideline.' In 2006, the Sanity Squad debated whether or not they were free to talk psychology about political figures they hadn't examined, and determined that of course they were. It's the public's fault if they mistake such talk for an 'actual' diagnosis.

The second problem with it is that every single Presidential candidate gets 'diagnosed' with NPD without examiniation. Sometimes it's laymen doing it, but sometimes it's "real mental health professionals." It happened to Bush, it happened to Kerry, and it happened to Gore. Oh, and people raised the charge about Sen. Clinton. And her husband -- that was what the Sanity Squad got criticized for doing in the first place.

Third, the whole methodology underlying psychology and psychoanalysis is non-falsifiable. It's not science. It's pseudoscience. [UPDATE: It is pointed out to me that I use the term "she" and "her" here incorrectly: this piece was posted at the Body Language Lady's site, but was in fact written by one of her male correspondents. She merely endorsed and distributed the view; she did not originate it.] In an email on the subject of the Obama piece, I wrote:

What is the evidence this expert fields?

1) "An amorphous expression that looks like a child, about three years old, needing approval. I’ve almost never seen this expression in someone who isn’t NPD (occasionally in Borderline Personality Disorder, a closely related type II personality disorder). To me, it’s an exceptionally good indicator. It’s often a fleeting micro-expression (hard to catch without practice)."

So: we are required to take her word for it. If we don't see it, it's because we aren't practiced enough. How do we know who is practiced enough? They can see it!

As always with psychology, there is no way to falsify the claim. You either agree, or you're wrong.

2) "The eyes of NPDs usually have an unusual look. My face-reading friend describes them as “dead eyes”. I perceive NPD eyes as “no boundary between inside and outside”. Some people perceive them as magnetic."

So: their eyes look "unusual." But not unusual in any particular way. Some people see them one way ("dead"). Others see them in exactly the opposite way ("magnetic").

3) "The startle response of pupils (e.g. to disturbing scenes) is often diminished relative to normal people (both less of a change in pupil diameter, and a longer lag before pupil size changes). I think people with NPD also spend less time playing through internal imagery (visible in eye tracking and facial expressions)."

At last, a falsifiable claim. So, has she measured Obama's pupil dilation, to measure it against "normal people"? Well, no, not as such.

Also -- even if she had, it's not telling. The delay is "often" diminished, not always. Nor is it claimed that this is the only potential reason for such diminishment. Most importantly, though, because it is only "often" diminished, a "normal" reading wouldn't clear him of her diagnosis. He might be one of the NPDs whose response is not diminished.

So: in theory this is the strongest claim so far, because it could be tested. It hasn't actually been tested. And even if it were, it wouldn't actually prove or disprove the claim. Once again, psychology doesn't deal in science -- if X then Y. It deals in pseudoscience: its claims cannot be falisified.

I won't go through the whole thing, but hopefully with these examples you can see how the game works. It's all [redacted barnyard expression inappropriate for public discourse]. I don't doubt that she sincerely believes it, as she sincerely believes she is an "expert" in reading people. The problem is that the "expertise" can't really be put to the test: even when individual claims can be falsified, the diagnosis is untouched.
There is nothing wrong with someone going to a psychologist on his own, to seek help for a problem or disturbance in his life. I don't personally believe any of its claims, but just as religion or the martial arts can improve your life, so can psychology in its proper limits: so can a belief in feng shui. Just wanting to feel or do better, and adopting a disciplined method of working towards it, can have positive effects on you. As we discussed with regard to Aristotle and Free Will, the first thing is to adopt a vision of beauty and pursue it.

Even if all of psychology's claims and models are untrue in the final analysis, it can still help a willing participant to overcome problems that he identifies in himself. It's not necessary -- a devotion to rock climbing can work as well or better. But it's not wrong, confined to its proper role as an art, participation in which is wholly voluntary. Any disciplined method will do, so long as it pursues a vision of beauty that you personally truly believe.

These attempts to use psychology as a weapon against political enemies are not within the proper limits of psychology. Its unscientific, unfalsifiable nature means that no one so accused has any means of clearing himself. This is the same reason it should not be allowed in courts: it is an unfair method of argument because its claims cannot be disproven.

No one should be subject to having their fitness for public office questioned because of such an attack. Whether we like them or despise them, they deserve better than this.

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