Psychology Denialism and 'Big Government'

An interesting discussion with a neighbor of mine ensued today when he and I started talking about local politics. We eventually started talking about republican candidates for president and I told him that I would love to see Sarah Palin run because the race would be quite entertaining and silly. He responded and said that she has some great ideas, but the media is out to make her look stupid. I asked him to clarify what these great ideas were and responded saying that while people in the media may make people believe that she is stupid, Palin's speeches, appearances, and ideas make her look very silly and make her a candidate to be laughed at. My neighbor mentioned that her ideas consisted of 'people fending for themselves,' 'being a man,' and not wanting big government to carry people. He explained that people can fend for themselves no matter what.

I objected to all of these points and I asked him to clarify his terms. He defined 'being a man' roughly as 'toughening up' and making things work for yourself. Aside from the patriarchal undertones which I objected to/his using of this term, I understood his point and mentioned that people are often victims of circumstances and cannot always fend for themselves without help from the government or even others. I mentioned various cases such as single mothers who have little opportunities for jobs [and only high school education or ever less]. I mentioned persons with mental illnesses, physical disabilities, and other various limitations. I mentioned disaster victims. I mentioned children in dysfunctional families who simply can't provide for themselves...

My neighbor objected to the idea of mental disorders and other limitations because he believes that people can fend for themselves no matter what. Defending this, he appealed to one person with mental disabilities who is local to me who works a job and can function. Even though he has disabilities, he said, he can still 'fend for himself' and doesn't need government assistance. I objected saying that he's committing a sampling error: you can't just look at one person with one or some disabilities and then say that every person who is disadvantaged can 'fend for themselves.' Many, while they may be diagnosed with a mental disorder, have different levels of diagnoses: some may be fully-functioning, low-functioning, or quite disabled. Some people simply can't hold jobs and don't have money to purchase their medications, and their mental disabilities can limit their daily activities to quite a debilitating level. Just because one person or some people with mental disabilities can 'fend for themselves' does not mean that all can.

At this point, my neighbor started to object to diagnoses by levying the 'classic' 'scientists are always wrong' objection. I wasn't going to let this one pass and started to talk about what science is, what scientists want to do, and about how science is self-correcting. Of course scientists can be wrong, but what they do is offer what we can know today given the evidence. Scientists, if and when wrong, should not discount the whole of science, but rather should be welcomes because we can substitute wrong information with more accurate information.

While some people may be misdiagnosed/some psychologists may overdiagnose, this doesn't mean that the whole of psychology should be thrown out. Diagnoses are made through a combination of testing, definitions derived from diagnostic manuals, etc. It is one of the reasons that top psychology schools ensure that students receive technical research experience throughout the program. Persons with mental disorders may be able to function better than others or not noticeably (at least to the general public) be impaired in some areas of life. To deny psychology because scientists were wrong about some things or because some persons can deal with their impairments better than others is extremely fallacious.

Instead of responding to these arguments (or perhaps simply admitting defeat), my neighbor tried a new argument that was quite odd. He mentioned that some famous brilliant scientists were considered to be 'crazy' by their neighbors and the public and that if we prescribed medications to these people, we wouldn't have had so many scientific advances today. Notice, first, the inherent special pleading here: while this person said that scientists are always wrong, he then cherry-picks and admits that some scientists were indeed right and then fails to understand how scientific advancements take place. It matters not what a scientist's disposition is, but rather whether their ideas are correct. Many scientists in the past and even today may be considered 'crazy,' like my neighbor mentioned, but this matters not if their ideas are correct. It's also not the case that we would not have advanced scientifically if we prescribed medicine to past scientists or if we believed that had mental disorders.

Taking his argument a step further in a new awkward direction, my neighbor mentioned that 'big government' did not hold these scientists back and now, because government is so big and because we have an advanced understanding of human psychology, we're 'suppressing' scientists. This is a very weird claim because federal funding, although it is not as much as it should be, is assisting scientists...and what does advanced psychological understanding have to do with our advancement of science? All sorts of scientists may struggle with mental disorders, but they can still 'do their science' and contribute. Advanced psychological understanding isn't a 'tool' of 'big government' that is used to stop scientific progress.

Finished with this discussion, I returned to other situations in which people are victims of circumstance, specifically disaster victims. He said that people who are effected by natural disasters simply shouldn't live where they live and should have insurance...
He said that he has insurance on his house [in an area of Pennsylvania where natural disasters very rarely, if ever, happen] and can 'fend for himself' without 'big government' stepping in. People who are in disaster-prone areas often have little to no options and a mass exodus of people 'moving out' simply just can't happen. Where are these people going to go? Who will provide these people with money?

I explained to my neighbor that we don't have a utopia where everyone has a great family, good social support, and lots of money to provide for themselves. It's rather hard in this economy, especially, for good jobs to just suddenly spring up and recruit all unemployed and disadvantaged persons. Persons don't have some sort of unrestricted free will like my neighbor espouses. Save the more difficult and engaging idea of whether or not we free will from a philosophical perspective, people are largely limited by their genetics, environment, and their opportunities. Everyone is not wealthy enough to 'fend for themselves' and government is often needed to provide for the general public. While some people may 'cheat the system' and be irresponsible, many are really well-intentioned persons who are simply disadvantaged. While some programs can be cut and while there is wasteful spending and bureaucracy, there's no reason to think of government as some evil force that is suppressing people and giving out free rides to undeserving people who can 'man up' and 'fend for themselves.' This largely republican mindset* simply doesn't pan out when faced with criticisms that I levied against my neighbor.

As always, feel free to offer some ideas by commenting on my blog post. This is largely about a discussion I had with my neighbor and can't possibly offer objections to all who don't agree with my ideas/think that government should be largely eliminated from our lives in terms of social programs, disaster relief, etc.

*Some libertarians (and other republicans), while not identifying as republican, may, of course, not be like my neighbor and have less extreme ideas, but many often cast the ideas of 'big government' and unrestrained human freedom with the 'everyone can and should fend for themsleves' mentality. This, as I noted, may be true for some, but certainly is not for all persons. Many are victims of circumstances and don't have the same opportunities as others. We can't all possibly pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, live the 'American Dream,' and live without aid from the government.