Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How Psychology Is Like Biblical Interpretation

While I was driving to the Denver airport yesterday I was scanning through the AM dial, looking for the local NPR station (what else?), when a the talk on a station caught my attention. They were discussing "Evolution Sunday" in unfavorable terms, so I decided to bide awhile and see what they had to say. I found out later that I was listening to Return to the Word on KLTT-670; you really out to see if you can find a copy of the broadcast somewhere, its really fascinating from a cultural standpoint. What really caught my attention, more that the talk about the evils of "evolutionism", was how the host also had a beef with psychology as well (referred to at least once as "psychologism" [or thereabouts]). I don't think I was aware of this particular hostility prior to listening to this broadcast, but the host seemed to pair psychology with evolution as a supreme evil. There's a great bit later on in the show where the host asserted that "evolution and psychology are the Siamese twins of paganism". Aside from the abuse of language (they're the Siamese twins of atheism, if anything) it was striking to hear the two disciplines coupled so tightly. The host went on to talk about a recent study that treatment using a couple of antidepressants (the names elude me) decreased depressive behavior in mice. The host and co-host ridiculed this study without making any specific criticisms; the general gist of their argument seemed to be that it was foolish to use mice in an attempt to determine how a drug might affect humans. They went on to cite other studies which indicate that antidepressants (and other behavior-altering drugs) are dangerous, such as one which asserts a link between Ritalin and heart problems, in support of their contention that psychology is a pack of lies. That was the point where I did a mental double-take. Does it seem incongruous to anyone else that they can reject a medical study (without substantive criticism) on one hand, and then use other medical studies to bolster their criticism on the other? The studies they cited in support of their claims and the study they chose to reject rest upon the same methodological grounds1 (biomedical statistics, in this case); the same principles which tell us that Ritalin might cause heart problems tell us that the mouse model is a good first-approximation for gauging the effects of a drug on human beings. The host seemed to be ignorant of (or indifferent to) this contradiction. Which got me thinking that this is yet another example of behavior I've seen from the pro-religion/anti-science types in the past. There seems to be a tendency to treat scientific knowledge as a loosely-grouped collection of facts rather than as a coherent body of knowledge; you can disagree with some conclusions without jeopardizing your ability to believe others. There's no recognition that the multiplicity of conclusions put forth by the scientific establishment are all derived from the same basic set of principles and processes. Sometimes these shared dependencies aren't immediately obvious (you have to get close to the level of axiom to see the commonalities between, say, physics and evolutionary biology), but if you're talking about conclusions in the same domain of knowledge (drug studies, for instance) the shared dependencies are right out there where you can get a good look at them. This treatment of scientific knowledge immediately reminded me of a common approach to Biblical interpretation. Rather than treat the Bible as a (sort of) coherent narrative I often see it treated as nothing more than a bag holding a bunch of separate verses. Verses are presented in isolation (or twos or threes) as proof of some theological point or another without considering the context in which they occur; there doesn't seem to be a recognition that the meaning of any particular verse is intimately tied up with the text that surrounds it. Which makes me wonder if, perhaps, approaching the Bible in this manner conditions you to treat other knowledge in the same fashion? Or, more importantly perhaps, whether the "bag of facts" and "coherent body of knowledge" represent two distinct epistemologies which will forever prevent their various adherents from having a productive discussion? When I hear people raving about homosexuality being "an abomination", and then I ask them how come they're still eating shellfish, I usually don't get a satisfactory response. Some day its going to lead me to a sort of theatre of the absurd, walking around downtown with a sign that says "God hates shrimp".
1 Granted, some studies are better than others, but they didn't raise that issue; I'm assuming that all of the studies they cited were well-constructed.

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