Letter to a young psychologist



Dear Joshua,

In regard to the 24 July 2013 New Scientist article, “Fixing broken brains: a new understanding of depression,” I was disturbed by it for a number of reasons. The author admits that not only are drug treatments for depression not working as well as we would like, they are not working nearly as well as they’ve been advertised — there’s been some serious misrepresentation by researchers and drug companies.

The author also acknowledges that it appears the hypothesis that depression is caused by lower than normal serotonin levels in the brain was treated as established theory for decades before it was effectively tested at all. In particular, she admits the following:

  • Current drug therapies have been used for the past fifty years
  • A 2006 NIHM study found that antidepressants completely failed to help at least 40% of depressed subjects
  • A 2007 study showed that serotonin levels in untreated depressed subjects were double the level of those in non-depressed subjects

It took a half century for researchers to get around to testing their theory and its results, and they found that the theory is false and doesn’t work. This lack of scientific rigor is the hallmark of a very immature field of study. In other words, the article demonstrates that the study of human behavior is not yet a true science. Researchers and clinicians in the social and behavioral fields are making rookie scientific mistakes, because they have a goal other than discovering the truth — they are in a rush to help people find relief from their pain.

Desperate to help their charges, some frustrated clinicians began to look for new therapies.

It is admirable whenever people sincerely want to help others, but that can never be the goal of true science. Any goal other than the pure search for knowledge — no matter how commendable, necessary or noble — corrupts science. In their desire to help people suffering from depression, researchers have utterly failed to accomplish the three necessary stages all genuine sciences have gone through: an initial paradigm shift, the total commitment to empiricism over every other goal, and the discovery of natural laws. That is why the fields of psychology and psychiatry do not yet have their version of Copernicus, Galileo, or Newton. I hope you won’t be offended if I observe that psychology is the undisciplined brat in the family of sciences that thinks it knows better than its elders.

The author makes a telling statement at the end of the article:

Whatever the future holds, glutamate, and the new possibilities it has raised, has at least enabled us to start thinking about depression in a different way. That is rare in the troubled waters of psychiatry. [emphasis added]

It is indeed troubling that researchers in the study of human behavior find it difficult to think in “different ways.” The reason for this lack of creative thought is that the field is hopelessly stuck in old ways of thinking. That’s why a paradigm shift is always the starting point of any true science, as Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Researchers have obviously responded to the failure of drug therapy to cure depression by doubling down on their old failed paradigm. The article makes it clear that they’ve decide that since their current drug therapies have failed, what is needed is a newer and more powerful drug. I don’t object to someone proposing this alternative hypothesis; what bothers me is that the overall response is so severely limited to this one possibility. In the father of all sciences, the field of astrophysics, when a hypothesis fails as spectacularly as the serotonin hypothesis has failed, there is a period of magnificently creative chaos where all kinds of alternatives are offered and considered.

There are some obvious alternatives to the current theory about depression that even a layman such as myself can think of. For example, the findings by the noted psychologist Hans Eysenck that two-thirds of all people who suffer from some sort of mental/emotional disorder spontaneously recover within two years without any professional help raises three important possibilities:

  • That the 60% of cases in which drug therapy for depression appears to help are really just instances where people would have recovered spontaneously even without the drugs. The forty percent of subjects that do not appear to be helped by drug therapy represent the one-third of people who don’t recover spontaneous plus a significant number of people who are actually harmed by drug therapy.
  • That what we think of as the undesirable state called ‘depression’ is actually a necessary part of the natural healing process people have to go through when they become mentally/emotionally unbalanced in the same way that drug addicts have to feel terrible when they come off their drugs.
  • That depression cannot be ‘cured’ by drug therapies.

Psychologists are incapable of entertaining such radically different ideas, because they are prisoners to their unrecognized assumptions and slaves to their unchallenged paradigm. As a result, the study of depression is rushing off to repeat the same mistakes that led to the current failure. Researchers and clinicians are once again leaping straight from pure speculation to accepted theory without the smallest effort to address the systemic problems the author recognizes in the study of chronic depression:

  •  Money and profits are distorting the science around drug therapy for chronic depression.
  •  The way drugs therapies for depression are tested is deeply flawed.
  • Clinicians are using new drug treatments before they have been tested adequately in a rush to satisfy their patients’ demands for relief from depression.

The article shows some of the telltale signs of phony science. If you review the article, you will see a lot of ‘we think’,’ may’, ‘could’, ‘might’, and ‘suggests’. Whenever I find people depending on this kind of language, I know things have slipped away from the realm of science and into the primordial human tendency to magical thinking. Science takes mental and moral discipline, which the fields of psychology and psychiatry are sorely lacking. People who call and think of themselves as scientists are actually in the business of magic potions.

From the first moment I realized that knowledge was important to you, I have always had great respect for your capacity to feel frustration about not knowing something. You have a real desire for truth, which means you have the capacity for real science. To be true to yourself and the pursuit of knowledge, you must resist all of the anti-scientific forces in your field. As I have said several times before, I think that you and others like you can and must transform psychology into a true science from its current alchemistic state — what else can you call it when the author suggests that depressed patients simply be given a powerful animal tranquilizer like ketamine to see if it works in lieu of an actual diagnostic test.

I hope that you will not misunderstand or become tired of my efforts to encourage you in that direction. As the article demonstrates, it has always been so easy for even the best people to be corrupted by money, ambition, and feelings of urgency. I know you well enough to be certain that you would never be content with being part of a grandiose failure.


Photo credit: Gary Waters/Getty Images