Several years ago I attended the 40th birthday party for Robin Finck, the guitarist of Nine Inch Nails. Ten of us were crammed into a small booth in a nondescript restaurant in Sherman Oaks, California. The guy sitting next to me asked: What do you do? Not wanting to play the academic card I said I’m the lead singer and lyricist of the Americana Desolation Punk Rock band Crying 4 Kafka. I write songs like Give Sodomy A Chance. When he stopped laughing he said I’ve written an opera about oral sex. We shook hands and exchanged addresses. His name is Thomas Ades. The Wall Street Journal describes him as one of the most important composers working today. His opera, Powder Her Face, has been performed in the Royal Opera House (London) and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Sex is an unending soliloquy, certainly for a Gogolesque academic with decades of study. Envisioning the nexus that dominates the metaphoric center of sex I ultimately inferred that it was reducible to three facts: women get pregnant but men don’t; sex has the capacity for extreme pleasure; and people lie like hell about sex. During a two-day conference at Stanford Law School I happened to mention, as a parenthetical aside, my three-fact epiphany. Michael McConnell, the Stanford Law Professor who organized the conference, suggested that I add one more fact to the list. There’s no such thing as the reasonable person either.
In 2010, Science Magazine did a series of articles on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM V. Many of the researchers involved in this revision, it was noted, had financial ties to pharmaceutical companies. Other questions were raised as well. Was there enough scientific evidence, for example, to support the diagnoses? More fundamental however was the concern with diagnosis itself. Instead of steadily accumulating and then discarding ephemeral classifications, one article suggested that psychology and psychiatry pay closer attention to the people they treat, and the symptoms that trouble them, than agonizing over a moribund deck of disorders.
I saw an Ouija board at a vintage store, Artifact, on Division Street in Portland Oregon. The board looked guileless and abandoned. Then I found myself thinking about the composer John Cage and the poet James Merrill. Merrill wrote Changing Light at Sandover in homage to an Ouija board; Cage composed Music of Changes sparked by the I Ching. Both strategies seemed jejune to me. I never resonated with Merrill’s poems, they aren’t especially visceral, and though I admired Cage for many reasons, the I Ching, no less than the Ouija Board, seemed like artifice to me. I prefer messy representations drawn from the frieze of memories and associations, coupled with the serendipity of human consciousness.
Once upon a time, psychologists spun intricate webs of theory, concocted of equal parts fact and fiction. Now, bubbling with exultations, a new era has arisen, whereby evidence-based rules supreme. Progress no doubt, but a bit disingenuous too, certainly for a discipline that steadfastly refuses to publish null results. Perhaps, instead, it would be more accurate to say that the true clarion call of the new centurions of psychological research is something on the order of carefully manicured evidence, though admittedly it doesn’t have quite the same punch as its evidenced-based counterpart. If marketing of psychological research is the objective, evidence-based is surely the way to go. If accuracy were the goal, more humility would do the profession well.