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An Unscientific Theory
on 28 August 2014
Before I criticise Alice Miller's (AM) book let me say first that it is very well written with avoidance of unnecessary jargon. Also, her condemnation of abusive and selfish child-rearing methods should be welcomed by everyone.
She puts forward the theory that adult neuroses and antisocial behaviour (including the holocaust) is due to 'toxic pedagogy'. This is the abusive manner in which child rearing has often been done with a lack of respect for the child as an autonomous person. This abuse is repressed and forgotten by the child who often idealises his/her parents and upbringing. The child's anger emerges in adulthood and is directed to their children or, in the case of Hitler, to the Jews.
My objection is that AM's theory is not presented as a hypothesis or conjecture to be criticised and tested, but as a fact. I think this renders it unscientific. In case anyone thinks that a scientific basis is not possible here, AM asserts twice that her observations are lent scientific validity by the fact that they can be made repeatedly and can be verified or refuted even by non-professionals. I also think that in such an important area a scientific basis is essential.
What is AM's scientific approach? Presumably, it is her experience in analysing clients. But we are given no detailed description of her methodology. Two hundred years ago, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume established two important results:
1. No amount of positive evidence can justify a universal theory.
2. No amount of positive evidence can make a universal theory probable,
Theories, such as the one presented in this book, cannot be accepted unless they are subject to severe, critical testing. i.e. tests designed to find any flaws in the theory.
The only example presented by AM which she considers to be a test is her analysis of Hitler. Instead of presenting one example of a dictator who committed vicious crimes, far more examples would need to be examined and especially of those abused in childhood who became benefactors of mankind e.g. Abraham Lincoln.
AM also rejects any idea of an innate contribution to abusive behaviour. But on what basis? To discount the contribution of genes to violent behaviour, extensive studies would have to be undertaken using identical twins, non-identical twins and adopted children. I am not aware that AM carried out such studies or referenced them in formulating her theory.
My feeling is that the 'toxic pedagogy' theory (like so many similar ones) is a result of confirmation bias; i.e. a failure to take Hume's lessons on board. Any plausible theory in any field will find lots of confirming evidence, but this proves nothing.
I am very sceptical about psychological explanations of history (the holocaust in this case). I think they are inherently irrationalist, as seen in AM's view that wars can only be prevented by better child rearing and not by politics (although she sees her view as being the rational one). Often, people adhere to theories and the emotions follow from the theories in my opinion. Hitler pursued two policies, consciously held, in implementing the holocaust:
1. Martin Luther's nasty policy of dispossessing the Jews and putting them to useful work for society;
2. The equally nasty social darwinist view that inferior races will perish in the conflict of states.
I do not think that the toxic pedagogy theory contributes anything better as an explanation.