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Psychology as Art; Psychology as Science; Psychology as Pseudoscience (1992)

Psychology as Art; Psychology as Science; Psychology as Pseudoscience (1992)

©1992, 2013 by Dallas Denny and Holly Boswell







Source: Denny, Dallas. (1992). Psychology as art; psychology as science; psychology (unfortunately) as pseudoscience. Chrysalis Quarterly, 1(4), p. 48.

Source: Boswell, Holly. (1992).  A recent study of transgender causation. Chrysalis Quarterly, 1(4), pp. 47-48.

Source:  Humphrey, Glenn W. (1989). Men who cross-dress: The attempt to retain the comforting object. Dissertation. California School of Professional Psychology, San Diego. University Microfilms, Inc., 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106.


Holly Boswell did a good job of critiquing Glenn Humphrey’s doctoral dissertation. I was outraged enough by Humphrey’s work to critique it myself. I was not gentle.


View Chrysalis Quarterly Pages (PDF)


Psychology as Art; Psychology as Science;

Psychology (Unfortunately) as Pseudoscience

Commentary by Dallas Denny


I was initially reluctant to publish Holly’s critique of Glenn Humphrey’s dissertation because I knew that if I did so I would feel compelled to write this comment, and I feared what I might say. It was, after all, not a major study, and hardly worth the risk of offending Dr. Humphries or anyone else. But no moral coward am I; here it is, and damn the torpedoes.

Despite what its critics think, psychology can be as much of a science as any other field with complex, subtle variables. I am trained in applied behavioral analysis, a discipline often maligned and certainly misunderstood. Applied behavior analysts use known characteristics of organisms to modify their behavior in an applied setting. It is useful in a variety of settings, including prisons, amusement parks, and banks, but its most dramatic and obvious effectiveness has been in the training of persons with severe mental retardation. Through the use of single-subject, repeated-measure experiments replicated across behaviors, settings, and subjects, applied behavior analysts have, in the past 35 or so years, built a small but effective armamentarium of techniques which increase and decrease behavior. There is no disputing the effectiveness of these techniques, for they have been demonstrated and replicated, and replicated again. Times may change, but data does not. This is the essence of science.

Psychology can also be an art. The Freudian psychoanalyst inhabits a world in which behavior is explained in terms of theoretical constructs like castration envy and Oedipal conflicts, which give way to measurable symptoms like denial, sublimation, and repression. The clinical psychologist deals with real-life problems of real-life people, using a skill called clinical judgement to deal with complexities which our science is as yet too crude to quantify and qualify. This work is critically important, for it helps the substance abuser, the juvenile delinquent, the exhibitionist, the agoraphobe in ways in which applied behavior analysis and its less scientific cousin behavior therapy sometimes can’t. It is an art, a healing gift that requires empathy and that can be learned only with difficulty, and only from an expert.

My problem begins when this art is disguised as a science, as it is in Glenn Humphries’ dissertation, for doing so misleads and blinds (yes, with science) the onlooker to the intellectual sleight-of-hand that is being pulled, and leaves even sophisticated observers breathless and impressed. And it is in this way that much evil is done.

Witness parent-blame theories of autism, homosexuality, and transsexualism. How many mothers and fathers have castigated and punished themselves because they were judged and found guilty by the Bruno Bettelheims and Robert Stollers of this world? And how many transsexual people have believed themselves to be seriously and hopelessly flawed because of Leslie Lothstein, Ethel Ovesey, Lionel Person, and their followers? How much suffering have they caused to people who were already suffering? (And, the behavior analyst in me cries, “Where are their data?”)

And now Glenn Humphries adds another howling voice to that of the wolf pack. He categorizes transgendered people as having borderline personality disorder. How can this be? Do people with borderline personality disorders fly airplanes, command armies, deliver babies, write plays, climb Mount Everest? What is borderline about such endeavors? How does one distinguish between a borderline personality graduate student and a nonborderline personality graduate student? By doing a panty check? Is borderline personality disorder a synonym for transgenderism? Let us hope not, or else all those people out there washing the windshield of your car at mid-city traffic lights may be surprised to learn that they should be dressing up or on hormones.

Humphries would have done better to have spent more time on his experimental design and less on searching the DSM III-R for an additional stigmatizing label to place on transgendered people. Why did he not compare post-operative transsexual male-to-female people to genetic women? Why did he compare them instead to crossdressers (men, the other gender)? Are other women not the appropriate group against which to measure people who have become in every sense women? Is it any wonder that someone would find clothing which is appropriate for their social role and anatomy soothing? Would any woman not find clothing soothing? And in the absence of an appropriate control group, what the hell has Humphries’ study done except to place another stone (borderline personality disorder) on the shoulders of transgendered people?

I’m not meaning to be overly critical of Dr. (now Doctor, because he has libeled us!) Humphries; he was undoubtedly just trying to get out of graduate school. He was required to play an intellectual game, and he did it only too well. He’s not morally culpable or a bad psychologist simply because he perpetuated—doubtless with help from his doctoral committee—a fallacy. My complaint is about what his dissertation is symptomatic of and what the “scientific” literature is full of—character assassination of an entire class of people by those sworn to “do no harm.”