Who’s Afraid of Negative Psychology?

By Neuroskeptic | June 14, 2014 4:53 am

Medium recently published a piece by neuroscientist Jim Coan called Negative Psychology, in which Coan criticized what he sees as a recent, problematic trend towards overly-critical discourse around psychology, especially on blogs and social media.


Moreover, Coan cited me (namely, this post of mine) as part of this unhelpful ‘negative psychology’ movement.

The day that article was published, I was heading off on holiday, although I did find time to make a few comments on Twitter, in response to which Coan (graciously) updated the article to correct some points of detail in his characterization of my post, but he did not blunt the general thrust of his argument (to which we’ll return later).

Upon my return to the UK, I sat down to rebut Negative Psychology – but I found that I actually agree with many of Coan’s arguments. Or you might say that Coan agrees with my arguments, because in many cases I made the same points, previously.

For example, Coan criticizes the conflation of scientific fraud with questionable research practices (QRPs):

In the end, Negative Psychology equates – for the public, at least – poor methodological habits, run-of-the-mill scientific sloppiness, innocent probabilistic error, injudicious hype, and outright fraud.

But I criticized this equation myself back in 2012, devoting a whole post to emphasizing the distinction in my Two Problems with Science, warning that “There’s lots of concern at the moment over mistakes, misconduct and misbehaviour in science… [but] I worry that much of the recent discussion has failed to distinguish between two fundamentally distinct problems [fraud and sloppiness].”

Elsewhere, Coan warns about ‘pseudocriticism’, saying that

Pseudocriticism is a cousin of pseudoscience. Both adopt the superficial trappings of science without the substance. As with pseudoscience, the lay public are ill equipped to evaluate the claims of pseudocritics. But the snark and outrage are readily interpretable.

I agree. One of my first ever posts was about this, and I said amongst other things that “the idea that anyone can look at the evidence and reach their own conclusion seems only fair and democratic…[but] it’s balls. Unless you are a professional… the chances are that you just don’t know enough to come to an informed conclusion [about most scientific debates, e.g. global warming]…”

Moreover, Coan says that

The habit of Negative Psychology dilutes serious criticism by shifting attention from content to snark and outrage…

I identified this kind of attention shift as problematic back in 2009One of the pitfalls of debate is the temptation to indulge in tearing down an opponent’s arguments. It’s fun, if you’re stuck behind a keyboard but still feeling the primal urge to bash something’s head in with a rock. Yet if you’re interested in the truth about something, the only thing that should concern you is the facts…”


By showcasing these examples I’m not trying to claim priority in making these arguments. Others said them, and better, long before me. What I’m suggesting is that I do understand where Coan is coming from. I am aware of the dangers of pseudocriticism in psychology and in science in general. I know the need to be skeptical of the skeptics.

Yet I don’t share Coan’s concern over ‘negative psychology’ today. Why not? Because I just don’t recognise the picture Coan paints. I think I’m on the alert, but I’m not sounding the alarm because I see nothing amiss.

Maybe I’m overlooking something? It’s quite possible, but Coan’s piece gives no indication as to what I’m overlooking, because he gives few concrete examples of the problems he decries. Perhaps this is because he didn’t want to offend any individuals but, either way, this vagueness makes it hard to evaluate his argument. For instance, when he says (emphasis mine)

Because Negative Psychology makes such hay from snark and outrage, and because fraud […] is rare, the criteria rendering a paper or scientist the target of snark and outrage will have to be relaxed… One has to “feed the beast.” Because real rigor is difficult, but snark and outrage are easy, it’s a trivial thing for Negative Psychology to morph into pseudocriticism, which I submit it is well on the way to doing.

As a psychological sketch of a generic situation, this makes sense. Hypothetically, after running out of serious stuff to criticize, any critic must face the choice of either going quiet, or resorting to non-serious criticisms. This can and does happen. But has this in fact happened in psychology? If it has, where are the examples?

In fact, there is one specific example in ‘Negative Psychology’ and it’s me, and my Science Needs Vigilantes post. I’ll reiterate what I said on Twitter about this, which is that you should read my post alongside Coan’s, and make up their own minds about it.


But even granting that my post was the sort of rabble-rousing manifesto that Coan paints it as, that would not really help Coan’s case unless he could give examples where the unqualified rabble were actually running amok and causing real harm in psychology. Where are they?


In summary, I found little to actually disagree with in Coan’s post, because it mostly consists of general warnings about the pitfalls of debate – any debate – pitfalls which, in many cases, I’ve warned about myself, years ago. I don’t recognize the picture of ‘negative psychology’ as having yet fallen down into any of these pits, as Coan suggests, but since Coan gives no concrete examples, there’s not much to disagree with on that score either. Perhaps his concern is about a gestalt ‘overall impression’, rather than any one incident, but in that case we may be in the realm of the purely subjective.

When I said I don’t really disagree with Coan, I’m not being passive-aggressive. I found Coan’s post interesting, I think ‘negative psychology’ is a handy term, and I thank him again for being quick and gracious in correcting the post in response to minor issues I raised on Twitter. But I’m genuinely puzzled as to how Coan and I have ended up on ‘opposing sides’ here. As I see it, the one thing we scientists ought to oppose is error.

  • RiverOfLife

    It’s not just psychology. Just read the “comments” section of ANY news website. It used to be you could make a comment in the comments section and you MIGHT get flamed or you might get constructive discussion. Now, it’s 99% flame wars, with very little thought given to making any informative comments, just how to slam the opponent’s comment.

    • Richard McCargar

      “Now, it’s 99% flame wars, with very little thought given to making any informative comments,..”

      Do you have evidence to support your figures? Your comment suffers from a dramatic amount of hyperbole.

      • RiverOfLife

        I don’t need to “support my figures”, and I’m not interested in debating you. Just look at any message board on any news website. The tone of the comments is qualitatively more negative than 5-10 years ago.

        • Richard McCargar

          You completely miss the point. You made a comment that was nothing but exaggeration and hyperbole, while complaining about the content of comments.

          That you miss the irony speaks volumes.

          • RiverOfLife

            Richard, YOU are the support of what I was saying. You are arguing for the sake of argument. I expressed my opinion, and you want “support” of my figures. Instead of making any attempt at being informative, you are being argumentative. Case closed–thanks for proving my point.

          • Richard McCargar

            Now I see how you come up with 99%. You’re clueless.

            I’ve explained it to you, but cannot understand it for you, now, I’m finished with you.

          • RiverOfLife

            Is that a promise?

          • Serendipity

            Richard was KIDDING when he made the comment about evidence to support your figures. It went right over your head. {sigh}

          • RiverOfLife

            I was trying to post my agreement with the original article. It’s hard to read “irony” in someone else’s post. If Richard was just trying to be ironic, then my apologies.

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  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    without vigilante scientists, science loses what most people find charming about it: speaking truth to power. Given, an idea has come about that towing the line is the best and only way of doing science

  • shwnshts

    good article and good for you for directly addressing the negative psychology article.You do a great job of proving you really aren’t the antagonist. In responding you find a middle ground,not a negative psych battlefield of which Coan warns.
    Have you proved Coan’s point right and wrong? Was that intended?After reading Coan’s article I started to feel Coan losing me somewhere between his message and method. Coan dislikes that the wave of verbal venom from the internet-life has spilled into real-life; defined as Negative Psychology. Isn’t that term a little negative? Couldn’t he call it something else? Not a lot of words have negative connotations as obvious as the word negative. i seem to remember a time when the people who least agreed with me had the power to label me…oh yeah the playground. Coan submits an argument against playground politics while firing the first snark. The article had me bewildered.
    Coan makes valid points(as did you) about Neg Psych. He gives us a look at all the pitfalls-from the bottom of the trap! Basically it is common sense politeness/professionalism that he has relabeled Negative Psch.Prudently he tries to show how what might seem like internet trolling is infecting and affecting scientific debate and thus progress. Good points that need to be said but have little effect with no proof. Its like arguing determination vs dexterity in long distance runners while citing Aesop’s experiments with tortoises and hares. And amazingly Coan decides that the best argument against overly negative, critical, sensationalizing, finger-wagging methodology is a negative, critical, sensationalized finger-wagging. Yeabuwha? Wouldn’t the proposal be more effective in the form of a scientific study showing the practical benefits of positive thinking? Like when it came to science or the debate over result vs method? or something that encouraged bloggers like stats about unique hits on sites with positive vs negative tones/attitudes? These are just a few dumb ideas off the top of my head. Would that sentence have registered better with peers had I used “great ideas”? I don’t know because I am not a scientist. I do however have one attribute of which I am self aware. I know that I can be -more often than I’d admit in the mirror- the Debbie Downer armchair quarterback of the Boosville Negative Nancys(GO FIGHTING NANCYS!) So in other words Neuroskeptic, HI5! hats off congrats and respect;your article was mature and non-polarizing.

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  • Joanne Williams

    I think you’re right to highlight the current problems in psychology. In recent years there are too many underpowered studies chasing effects that are too small. Psychology isn’t alone in this, but there are also fields that are exploding right now (systems neuroscience springs to mind) where huge scientific advances are being made with none of the fluff and fudge.

  • Buzzy Kerbox

    I am a dedicated keyboard warrior participating in ‘negative psychology’, because I have suffered an incredibly debilitating auto-immune condition (well know as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) for over a decade after a serious bout of glandular fever combined with burning the candle at both ends and seen a school of psychiatrists (namely Wessely and his crew) peddle somatization theory for decades around the subject while ignoring all biological studies/evidence along with the opinions of experts in other fields and specialists treating the condition most of their professional life. The part that astonishes me the most is I have not in all my time seen any comment or statement from any psychiatrist in this area express even in the least there there may be something else going on here, biologically.

    Of course Wessely has also peddled somatization, CBT for Gulf War Syndrome and that the Camelford water poisoning incident which ruined many lives was also somatic.

    I actually have nothing against psychology in general, it plays a role in all our lives and can be very helpful under the right circumstances, but clearly in some areas it is massively flawed and nothing more than the prover proving what the thinker is thinking; symptoms present a certain way so it must be psychological. I also do not randomly bash and my area is confined to my condition.

    After 13 years I also only recently learnt I have mthfr genetic mutation, several months of transdermal B12, methyfolate, acetyl l carnitine, Vit C, paleo diet and I am 60-70% better. How many people in the population are walking around with similar mutations put on anti-depressants half their life who have folic acid sensitivity and methylation block? Who is interesting in studying this? No one, no patents needed.

    Just watch in the next 10-20 years, genetic testing, much improved immune testing (which is abysmal currently) and more areas of psychology will be in the dust bin of history, like so much which has already passed.

  • http://www.mightytravels.com/ MightyTravels

    Nice comeback :)

    Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

  • Pingback: Even positive replications are negative psychology | Neuropolarbear()

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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