Sigmund Freud had immeasurable impact on modern culture. Along with Marx and Darwin, he was one of the great modern thinkers, whose “science” of psychology and treatment, psychoanalysis, defined modern concepts of human nature for generations. His theories (based largely on Darwinism) brought new words into popular vocabulary–id, ego, super-ego, the unconscious. His ideas influenced education, law, religion and medicine. People began to think about their actions being determined by dreams, sexual repression and mysterious forces deep in their unconscious minds. They worried about Oedipus complexes, anal retention, penis envy and all kinds of causal concepts Freud introduced. They spent fortunes lying on couches undergoing psychoanalysis by their shrinks, under the impression they were getting “scientific” treatment because, after all, Freud was a great scientist. He was the father of the scientific discipline of psychology. My, what would those people have thought if they could fast-forward to the editorial in Nature this week:
Anyone reading Sigmund Freud’s original works might well be seduced by the beauty of his prose, the elegance of his arguments and the acuity of his intuition. But those with a grounding in science will also be shocked by the abandon with which he elaborated his theories on the basis of essentially no empirical evidence. This is one of the main reasons why Freudian-style psychoanalysis has long since fallen out of fashion: its huge expense — treatment can stretch over years — is not balanced by evidence of efficacy. (Nature 461, 847 (15 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/461847a; Published online 14 October 2009.)
Freud swept his intellectual peers off their feet and seduced a century–but now he looks like a con man, propounding elegant nonsense with no basis in evidence. The fact that a scientist of the stature of Freud could fall into disrepute is an important lesson in the history of science. Popularity, modernity and persuasiveness are no guarantees of lasting validity. Could Darwin be next? Why not? After all, “the beauty of his prose, the elegance of his arguments and the acuity of his intuition … on the basis of essentially no empirical evidence” sounds a lot like the Origin.
Research project: did Nature praise Freud a hundred years ago?