Learning From Error

Questions arose the other day about whether there is any point in discussing whether someone – in particular, Freud – was wrong or not. Is there anything to be gained by looking at errors, mistakes, delusions, wrong directions. I certainly think there is. I think one can learn an enormous amount by studying inquiry that goes wrong, in all sorts of fields. One can learn about epistemolgy, psychology, how evidence interacts with theory and how theory interacts with evidence, how preconceptions and confirmation bias and hopes and wishes can confuse matters. One can learn and re-learn how difficult it can be (how impossible it can be until new instruments are invented) to tell what is really going on.

I found a wonderful quotation on the subject in Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong (p. 581 n. 3):

It may be argued that historians ought to pay more attention than they have done to scientific hypotheses which proved to be failures. The trouble with the history of science, and of scientific medicine, is that it has too often been presented as one long success story; whereas, in fact, a striking feature of the history of science…has been the tenacious persistence of supposedly scientific ideas long after they ought to have been abandoned. I think the historical study of scientific failures is important, not only because it is likely to give us a keener insight into the nature of the scientific process, but also because it may lead us to examine more closely the soundness of some of our own pet ideas. (E.H. Hare, ‘Medical Astrology and its Relation to Modern Psychiatry’)

Freud makes a fasinating study in the whole subject. Some of his mistakes are quite understandable as results of the absence of those new instruments I mentioned. Everyone was groping in the dark when it came to a lot of organic diseases that were then invisible and now are not – temporal lobe epilepsy, for one. Others are less excusable – excusable in terms of good practice in his own day, I mean. That’s one objection people have been raising in the comments: that of course Freud isn’t a scientist in contemporary terms, but it’s not fair to judge him in contemporary terms. But that’s not right: much of his way of working was not good scientific practice in 1904 any more than it is now, and there were scientists who said so at the time. But – as the case of Melvyn Bragg and his guests makes clear – that’s not as widely known as it might be.

Comments are closed.