Scientific fundamentalism

The December article, “A Reason to Believe,” was interesting and exciting, but left me disappointed. The article described a great deal of fascinating research, but did so within the context of what appeared to be an enormous epistemological bias based on the assumptions of 1) the infallibility of the theory of evolution and 2) the absence of transcendent forces in the universe. While belief in the validity of these assumptions is popular among psychologists, it is far from universal. To frame the reported research findings in such a way may be a good example of humans being predisposed to believe, but also demonstrates the danger of this predisposition. I would call this frame “scientific fundamentalism,” comparing it to the kind of rigid thinking that we associate with religious fundamentalism.

Many believe that Charles Darwin was prompted to publish “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 in part because Alfred Wallace had shared with Darwin his own very similar treatise on evolution in 1858. Although their theories had a great deal in common, as time went on Wallace came to doubt the validity of evolution to explain the emergence of uniquely human qualities. While deeply contemptuous of organized religion, he became very interested in exploring what was then called “Spiritualism,” something having to do with the transcendent forces mentioned above.

Of all the sciences, I would hope that psychology would be somewhat less vulnerable to fundamentalist beliefs than other sciences, since we directly study how beliefs are formed and operate.

John Rhead, PhD
Columbia, Md.

“A Reason to Believe” illustrates a superficial application of evolutionary psychology. Here one takes a psychosocial phenomenon — say, religion — assumes it is highly desirable, and then rationalizes how it came to be (thereby reinforcing its desirability). Thus, religion may be a “byproduct of how our brains work, growing from cognitive tendencies to seek order from chaos, to anthropomorphize our environment and to believe the world around us was created for our use. Religion has survived because it helped us form increasingly larger social groups, held together by social beliefs.” Thus religion is supported by neuroscience, and is highly desirable because of its pro-social effects.

The acid test of such thinking is to posit the very opposite as highly desirable, and then rationalize how it came to be. Let me illustrate. Skeptical secular humanism (SSH) is a byproduct of how our brains work (clearly there are areas of our brain devoted to critical analysis), growing from cognitive tendencies to discern fact from childish fantasy (through the application of reason and the scientific method, which can also be linked to the brain). SSH has survived because it prompts people to form social groups held together by pragmatic goals and realistic beliefs about solving problems with fact, not fantasy (and the need to protect themselves from religious zealots).

Religion may or may not be good for us. And there may or may not be a God. But let’s not base “A Reason to Believe” on ad-hoc rationalization.

Jonathan C. Smith, PhD

More CE

This letter is in response to “More CE for you” in the November Monitor. As director of the University of Kentucky’s continuing education program for medicine (CME) and pharmacy (CPE), I am acutely aware of the accreditation standards that guide CE in these two disciplines. As a psychologist, I am struck by the degree to which our profession seems to have lagged behind our peers in terms of making a commitment to quality assurance in the educational process and to assessing outcomes beyond evaluative surveys. Such vehicles as Practice Improvement Continuing Medical Education seem not to exist in psychology and relatively simple outcome measures such as commitment to change also are not routinely employed, if they are employed at all. Further research on the effectiveness of such methods is certainly needed, but, since the APA is the major accreditor of CE for psychologists, there might be value in a discussion within the organization as to the advisability of requiring or, at least encouraging, the use in CE for psychologists of some of the methods that are becoming increasingly the standard of practice in CME and CPE.

James C. Norton, PhD
University of Kentucky

A contextual view of Muslim participation in U.S. society

Thank you for presenting Anisah Bagasra’s research on U.S. Muslims in the October Monitor. However, we have concerns about the way the results were presented.

In regard to the article’s subhead: “Muslims put their religious values ahead of their American identity,” the situation and the data are far more complex. We might start by asking, “What is an American identity?” Many might suggest that this identity is based on tolerance and a respect for all religious practice. Moreover, there are many U.S. citizens who might question the need for an “American identity,” when America represents two continents and the bridge of Central America. A better subhead would have stated: “Muslims question their place and how welcome they are in the United States.”

We also feel that the article did not given enough attention to Ms. Bagasra’s research on acculturation. The article failed to highlight that nearly half the surveyed population were recent immigrants, as the process of acculturation is complex and it takes a few generations to completely identify with the host culture.

In addition, the article’s third paragraph talks about illegal immigration and through this associates Muslims who have legally immigrated with a totally different population. This incorrect pairing further distorts the presence of Muslims in our country, but sadly is not uncommon. The difficulties Muslims face have little to do with immigration status, but Islam. Many people in this country confuse legal and illegal immigration. It was disappointing to see this confusion repeated in our professional magazine.

Allen E. Ivey, EdD
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Farah Ibrahim, PhD
University of Colorado, Denver

The ICD revision

According to Dr. Carol Goodheart in her December presidential column, relative to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, the “ICD revision will better capture the nature of mental health disorders presented in clinical settings in a succinct and efficient manner.” The DSM is a very complex system because “providers must consider 20 to 35 separated pieces of information in diagnosing a mental disorder. This degree of complexity is probably unnecessary.”

The main problem with the ICD is that its does not provide providers with sufficient details to avoid either misdiagnosing or underdiagnosing mental disorders. For example, in the case of 296.2: Major depressive disorder, single episode, the ICD-9 allows providers to use their imagination to make that diagnosis, because specific guidelines are not provided to determine under which specific situations reports about symptoms actually point to MDD.

Although the DSM is not the best diagnostic tool of mental disorders, relative to the ICD the DSM makes great efforts to prevent providers from using their imagination in the present context. The DSM is very specific regarding guidelines (all missed in the ICD) providers must consider in diagnosing a mental disorder including, e.g., specific culture, age, and gender features, course, differential diagnosis, and major symptoms specific to a given mental disorder. It is true that the DSM is a complex system to use, relative to the ICD. But this degree of complexity is actually necessary to avoid either the Type-I or Type-II error.

Freddy A. Paniagua, PhD

Please send letters to Sara Martin, Monitor editor. Letters should be no more than 250 words and may be edited.