The Emperor’s Lab Coat

Why we shouldn’t be embarrassed to doubt people who are smarter than us

Bruno Bettelheim, famous psychologist and former director of the Orthogenic School for disturbed children, died in 1990. That was only the beginning of his troubles. As soon as his eulogies hit the papers, old patients began to write in with abuse allegations. “In person,” one said, “he was an evil man who set up his school as a private empire and himself as a demigod or cult leader.” The following year, scholar Alan Dundes published a paper demonstrating that Bettelheim had plagiarized extensively in his Freudian book on fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment. Dundes wrote, in apparent bafflement, that plagiarism “seems so unnecessary for a man of his stature and reputation.” The LA Times quoted another psychoanalyst as saying, “I cannot for the life of me imagine that this man (Bettelheim) would steal from other people.” Curiosities piqued by these revelations, various journalists began digging deeper. And they found that Bettelheim was not merely a bad doctor – he wasn’t a medical doctor at all. (He had a Ph.D. in Art History.)

The Story of a Freudian Fraud

When Bettelheim came to America from Austria during World War II as a Jewish refugee, he claimed to have a Ph.D. in psychology. In fact, he did not (though he had been a psychoanalysis patient). He claimed that he knew Sigmund Freud, and that Freud had said of him, “This is just the person we need for psychoanalysis to grow and develop.” In reality he had never even met Freud. Nobody checked his claims, however, and soon he was given the job of running the Orthogenic School for disturbed children in Chicago. He was on his way to becoming one of America’s most famous psychologists.

The deception was initially made possible by the war. As one biographer noted: “It was unlikely that the University of Chicago would dial up the University of Vienna when Austria was under German occupation to check his credentials.” So, the fact that he got away with it at first is not so strange. The strange thing is that Bettelheim continued to pass as an expert for decades – and not only passed, but became highly influential. He was a household name, an “icon of psychology,” who nevertheless “steadfastly refused to write his memoir.” Bettelheim was not just a psychoanalyst; he was one of the most prominent and influential psychoanalysts of the era. The New York Review suggested that perhaps people only brought their various complaints against him after his death because they were afraid to do it while he was alive, such was his stature (and personality).

In the assessment of Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh, Bettelheim “exploited American deference to Freudo-Nietzschean mind-sets and interpretations, especially when intoned in accents Viennese” and took advantage of “a time when the intellectual elite presumed that most parents, unless guided by specialists, mistreated their offspring.” The fact that Bettelheim could fool ordinary people into thinking he was an expert is not particularly noteworthy. But the fact that his fellow experts never smelled anything fishy should be a lesson to us. We shouldn’t believe anything someone says just because all their fellow experts agree they are an expert.

Emperors Dethroned

C.S. Lewis recalled that in his youth, the philosophy of Hegelian Idealism was so broadly accepted as to seem utterly unshakable. Then, almost overnight, it was dethroned and fell out of fashion. He writes:

And the interesting thing is that while I lived under that dynasty I felt various difficulties and objections which I never dared to express. They were so frightfully obvious that I felt sure they must be mere misunderstandings: the great men could not have made such very elementary mistakes as those which my objections implied. But very similar objections - though put, no doubt, far more cogently than I could have put them - were among the criticisms which finally prevailed.

Lewis’s point was that we shouldn’t ignore apparent problems in consensus views simply because it doesn’t make sense that nobody else would have noticed them by now. Maybe everyone else is just keeping quiet too – or being ignored.

Childish Objections

I can draw another example of what Lewis describes from my own experience and Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment. Bettelheim wrote:

In the fall of 1973, the comet Kohoutek was in the news. At that time a competent science teacher explained the comet to a small group of highly intelligent second- and third-graders. Each child had carefully cut out a paper circle and had drawn on it the course of the planets around the sun; a paper ellipse, attached by a slit to the paper circle, represented the course of the comet. The children showed me the comet moving along at an angle to the planets. When I asked them, the children told me that they were holding the comet in their hands, showing me the ellipse. When I asked how the comet which they were holding in their hands could also be in the sky, they were all nonplussed.

In their confusion, they turned to the teacher, who carefully explained to them that what they were holding in their hands, and had so diligently created, was only a model of the planets and the comet. The children all agreed that they understood this, and would have repeated it if questioned further. But whereas before they had regarded proudly this circle-cum-ellipse in their hands, they now lost all interest. Some crumpled the paper up, others dropped the model in the wastepaper basket. When the pieces of the paper had been the comet to them, they had all planned to take the model home to show their parents, but now it no longer had meaning for them.

Citing Piaget, Bettelheim interprets the children’s sudden disinterest as a demonstration of the “scientific findings” that young children are incapable of abstract or objective reasoning; they see the world concretely, subjectively, and self-centeredly. Bettelheim (still following Piaget) goes on to say that because children experience the world this way, they create gods – emotional projections modelled after their parents.

When I was first taught Piaget’s theories of cognitive development, and again when I read the above passage in Bettelheim’s book, I wondered if I was misremembering my own childhood. I had no memory of having ever had any trouble thinking abstractly or objectively. So if these experts were right, I must have been projecting my current modes of thought onto my child-self.

But as it turns out, Piaget was probably wrong. A 2003 review of cognitive developmental research says, “Piaget’s assumptions about the concreteness of children’s concepts have been challenged. Research now suggests that rather than being anthropomorphic, children’s earliest concept of agency is abstract.”

So maybe – just maybe – it was Piaget who had trouble remembering his childhood. And maybe the schoolchildren lost interest in their comets because an annoying psychologist was rubbing it in their faces that their comets were only paper models, not because they had ever failed to grasp anything about the difference between the comet in the sky and the one in their hands. (Has anyone met a “highly intelligent” third grader that stupid, anyway?) Maybe they had even unconsciously understood something Bettelheim couldn’t, something he was helping beat out of them – that the comet in their hands and the one in the sky were both predicated on the Idea of a Comet, which, though abstract, was a deeper reality than either.

Everyone probably remembers how in the tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a child in the crowd was the only one to speak up and say that the emperor was actually naked. This is usually interpreted as an allegory for humble, unpretentious people speaking truth to power. In Bettelheim’s case, however, a literal child could have pointed out the psychologist’s errors – and probably did, but he wasn’t really listening. Likewise, there are probably areas of scholarly consensus today that a child could dismantle. And you can, too – if you dare to.

Further Reading

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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