Monday, April 23, 2012

Psychoanalysis in France

The website recently posted an excerpt from the following article in the New Statesman:
Simon Singh also linked to the article on his Twitter account. The article follows right on the heels of a BBC report where France is criticized for still applying Freudian psychoanalysis techniques to treat autism. This whole subject area is very new to me, and I have to admit that I know very little about Freud, psychoanalysis or autism. Before I began digging some more into the issue, this is what I knew: that Freudian techniques are outdated (though I wasn't quite sure of all the details as to why they are outdated) and that autism is a neurological disorder.

The New Statesman article decides to bring the criticism of France to another level by accusing the French of a "difficult relationship with evidence-based science". Now, I do have some misgivings about science and scientists here in France, but the arguments and "evidence" put forward by the author, Michael Brooks, just come across as plain silly. Here's one of his arguments:
According to LSE researcher Martin Bauer, support within a population for science is inversely proportional to the strength of that country’s scientific research. As Bauer and his colleagues put it in this paper, “if the national science base is strong… science initiatives find less support and vice versa.” And, as it turns out, the French are highly supportive of science initiatives – suggesting their science base is actually rather weak.

Have you ever heard of such a silly proposition. To take this argument all the way to ad absurdum, one could conclude that to get a population to support science, one should aim to weaken the country's science base. Is it just me that finds that logic preposterous? So, if I'm understanding this right, countries that are extremely weak in science, say Mali, should have a population that protests on the street for more science initiatives? 

He then digs himself into a deeper hole with this nonsense:
I can offer some arbitrary and rather unscientific figures to back this up. Here’s the question: how many members of a population does it take to create a Nobel prize-winning scientist?
Taking 1970 as the cutoff for modern times, in Sweden, it’s 1.5 million people per scientific Nobel prize. In the UK, it’s 1.7 million. Germany has a prize for every 3 million people (reunification will no doubt have pushed that figure up). France? Since 1970, one scientific Nobel prize per 5 million people.
(bold emphasis mine)

Note to Mr. Brooks: if something is arbitrary and "rather unscientific", then don't use it to back anything up. Also, choosing arbitrary start dates (1970?) puts you on the same level as climate deniers who choose time intervals to "prove" that the Earth is cooling. Finally, one of the foundations of science is an understanding that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, a smaller number of Nobel prize-winning scientists in France compared to other countries is a long, long way from concluding that the French have a difficult relationship with evidence-based science.

There is an anti-pseudoscience association in France known as the "Association française pour l’information scientifique" (AFIS), or in English the "French association for science information". Their website can be found here: They also have a recent article on the issue of autism and psychoanalysis which you can try to read by using the Google translate tool.
In December 2010, the AFIS published a special magazine issue on psychoanalysis. Quickly skimming over the issue summary, it tries to tackle the reasons for why psychoanalysis is still prevalent in France, but that its decline is underway. 
Today (April 23rd, 2012), I just bought the recent edition of Le Nouvel Observateur which has on its front page the title "Faut-il brûler la psychanalyse ?" ("Should psychoanalysis be burned"). Within is a dossier of several articles that strongly criticize the discipline. 

There are criticisms to be made of both science culture and scientific research in France, but this article shows that the author is completely unaware of what those problems are and why they exist. I'll try to come back to that subject in another post.

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