Was Freud Scientific?

Inspired by my earlier question, “Was Phlogiston Scientific?”

Please go easy on me: I’m kinda new here still, and this is a topic that is very likely beyond my reach. (“But what’s a heaven for?”)

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Sigmund Freud was a “pseudo-scientist.” That his theories were operational nonsense; that they were not testable. Some people accuse him of deliberate fraud; others merely relegate him to the trash-bin of self-deluded fantasists (Fleiss, Reich, etc.)

My opinion is that Freud was a scientist…to the best of his ability…which, certainly, was very limited by the conditions of his times. He was wrong about a whole lot of things, but he made the effort to make predictions from models and then to test those predictions. He didn’t have the advantage of double-blind research, or other modern techniques. He didn’t have the budget…

Most specifically, I think the idea of “suppressed feelings” is scientific, because of the specific model of the “Freudian slip” by which these feelings reveal themselves. This provides a method of observation. It is a kind of “black box” experimental set-up, where your input, in the form of probing questions, produces actual objective results.

To be cartoonish…

Q: Tell me about your sister.
A: Oh, I don’t like her very much.
Q: Tell me about your father.
A: He’s the best man who ever lived on earth.
Q: And your mother?
A: What are you insinuating? What are you trying to say? Don’t talk that way about my mother ever again!

(I have actually seen dialogues that were very close to this!)

Am I wrong in wanting to give Freud the same credit I give to the Phlogiston theorists? “Meant well, tried hard, had some good ideas, but were ultimately wrong?” Are should I accept that Freud was a joke and there is not a single ounce of science anywhere in his work? Or perhaps something in between?


Freud’s theories were scientific. His method of testing his theories was not.

For example, say that I have a theory that the sky is red. There are methods to test the color of the sky which would actually work to prove or disprove my theory. But instead of using those, what I do is invite people into a closed room with no windows, and tell them that they can’t leave until they tell me that the sky is red. Once they have done so, I tally that up as a vote, and at the end of the “testing” I tally up the votes for or against the red sky conjecture, and publish that.

That is not a valid test. It is, effectively, the method that Freud used to prove his theories. He talked impressionable people into going along with him long enough to agree with what he wanted the answer to be, and then tallied that up as a positive response.

Freud was, of course, a pioneer of psychology as a scientific field. His theories may sound a little bit crazy when you first encounter them, but I’d say that almost all of it arose form the same mistake. He observed a psychological phenomenon occurring in some individuals, then managed to convince himself that it was present in all individuals, and that most people weren’t aware of it because it had been suppressed into the unconscious. Doubtlessly there have been a few women here and there who envied and secretly desired to be men. Freud extrapolated that all women were. Doubtlessly some people have used physical illness as a means of manipulating those around them. Freud extended it to almost all illness. The claims about the subconscious gave him a convenient excuse to ignore any counter-evidence.

As time went on, Freud eventually became convinced that he had personally unveiled deep truths that could explain the entire human experiences throughout all of history. He became intolerant of disagreement and demanded cult-like control of the people closest to him.

Here’s a recent book on the topic of Freud and Psychoanalysis: Madness on the Couch. Worth a read.

And from The Exhalted Master HisOwnSelf: Was Sigmund Freud a Quack? His answer:

Off-topic, but a serious question: How are you still kinda new here? Your join date is 9 years ago.

Freud was not scientific and consequentially neither were his theories. Once you start using the subconscious as an excuse for why you aren’t seeing evidence for your theories, you’re just inventing invisible pink unicorns.

The whole field of psychiatry is not scientific. It is all subjective judgement.

No, he was not a scientist, but a charlatan. Lacan was a skilled scientist, but he was just as crazy IMO.


My posting history here reveals that I am no fan of psychiatry, but to say that the whole field is not scientific is patently not true.

Psychiatry encompasses the use of chemicals to alter brain chemistry and behaviour. When you say that the whole field of psychiatry in not scientific, you are effectively saying that there is no evidence that sedatives work, which is obviously not true.

Psychiatry also encompasses the use of medical imaging technology to investigate changes in the brain function during abnormal behaviour. So you are also saying that we have no scientific evidence that the brain of a schizophrenic operates differently to that of others. This is also not true.

If you had said that all non-physical psychiatry was non-scientific, I might have let it slide. I wouldn’t have agreed, but I would have let it slide. But claiming that the entire field of psychiatry is unscientific is obviously untrue.

As far as Freud goes, no, he wasn’t scientific in any way at all. He never made any attempt to falsify his theories and even went so far as to say that they could never *be *falsified. That is so far from science that you can’t even see it from there.

I have implied nothing of the sort. A general practitioner can prescribe sedatives to treat symptoms, without passing any judgements about what may or may not have caused them. That is the difference between psychiatry and medicine.

I don’t have any idea why you would say any such silly thing. I may as well say that a general practitioner can prescribe sedatives to treat symptoms without judging what caused them. This is the difference between urology and medicine.

This reads almost like someone who had no idea who Freud was.

Freud’s theories were nonsensical, but the subconscious wasn’t an “excuse for counter evidence.” It was the primary location of the conflicts that caused problems for people.

Freud was a practitioner who developed theories and associated intervention strategies. He did not scientifically evaluate anything. However, he did help significantly to change beliefs about the potential for change in mental health problems through humane practices.

So a general practitioner might, for example, prescribe sedatives to treat skin lesions? After all, what caused the symptoms is irrelevant to what you might prescribe to treat them.

This is your argument. Right? That a doctor doesn’t need to know what caused a symptom in order to prescribe something to treat it? Regardless of whether a skin lesion is caused by stress, and thus psychiatric in origin, or caused by a chickenpox, and thus viral in origin, or caused by ringworm, and thus fungal in origin. Regardless of what caused the lesions, a doctor will prescribe the same treatment, because what caused it is irrelevant?

None of this appears to make any sense, and it sure isn’t factually correct. A doctor would only prescribe a sedative to treat a skin lesion if he knew that the cause was stress. He has to pass judgment about what causes them before he prescribe a sedative. And the ability to pass that judgment is only possible because of the field of psychiatry.

Nope. It is not reasonable to conclude that from what I said.

That is true.

Wrong. A doctor is scientifically justified in prescribing sedatives based on symptoms, not what caused them. I don’t know of any doctors that would conclude lesions would respond to sedatives, regardless of what caused them. A psychiatrist might disagree.

What I do I say in response to a comment like this. Seriously?

WTF sort of response can you give to someone who believes that a doctor can prescribe a treatment for skin lesions without knowing whether they are caused by chickenpox stress, cancer, spider bite or boiling water?

I am genuinely gobsmakced at the ignorance of this position.

So if someone presents with a partial thickness skin lesion, the doctor is justified in prescribing sedatives based on those symptoms? He doesn’t need to take any steps at all to determine whether the lesion was caused by a spider bite, a burn, a bacterial infection or circulatory problems?

All he needs to justify prescribing antibiotics is the symptom: a partial thickness skin lesion that could have been caused by a spider bite, a bacterial infection, a burn or circulatory problems?

Then you know very little about medicine. *All *dermatologists conclude that many lesions respond to sedatives. This isn’t open to debate, it’s an established medical fact. Those lesions that are caused by stress respond well to sedatives, and sedatives are commonly prescribed for the same.

So you are contending psychiatrists evaluation of emotional distress is somehow equivalent to the science used by urologists or dermatologists?

Grin! I posted for less than a month, way back then – and then fell silent until only a couple months ago. A “registered lurker!”

(Scared off by the Pit!)


No, I am contending what I very specifically stated: that the science use by psychiatrists to evaluate the effect of drugs on brain chemistry is exactly the same as the science used by dermatologists to evaluate the effect of drugs on skin chemistry.

Do you dispute this?

My own views do not seem to be consistent with the responses – and around here, that’s a pretty good sign that my views are likely wrong!

My opinion (opinions are like underarms; everybody’s got half a dozen of 'em – uh – ) is that Freud tried to be scientific, and that he was aware of the pitfalls of his methods. He really did try to falsify his conclusions; he just didn’t have the tools.

But…nobody else here seems to agree, so, of what has been posted, I guess I like yours best, for being the most generous to the man’s memory…

I’m not competent to join in the sub-debate, but I think I disagree with Fear Itself and his condemnation of the whole field of Psychiatry. We may still be in an age of “stone knives and bearskins,” but we are operating under scientific rules and protocols. (I think.)


P.S. Hentor: we have corresponded before, long and long ago: I was the guy who originated the “Rush Limbaugh and the Hindenberg” joke that Garry Trudeau used in a Doonesbury strip. And I’ve got a chain of provenance, and witnesses too!

I dispute that you ever stated psychiatrists use science to evaulate the effects of drugs on brain chemistry. Yes.

Psychiatrists are doctors. Doctors engage in science; in that regard, there is nothing a psychiatrist can do that a non-psychiatrist doctor can not do. The only thing that distinguishes psychiatrists from doctors is the practice of unscientific, subjective analysis. Ergo, psychiatry is unscientific.