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When I was in college, my first major was Psychology. I was planning to become a counselor like psychologist in my high school who helped me work through some issues (sure, not all of them, but you should have seen me then). One semester was enough to tell me this was not my field. A lot of work was done to reach conclusions that just seemed too obvious to me, and although I do respect those that work in the field to serve the needs of individuals, the overarching view by some that psychology/psychiatry provides a method for improving society is tenuous in my mind.

And so today I find in one of my favorite weekly columns in the Wall Street Journal, the “Five Best” (five books recommended by someone of interest and covering a common topic) to be offered by Paul McHugh, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. The books mentioned are touted as “factions and follies of psychiatry”. Sadly, I could not find an electronic posting of the list at

Interesting in that his list focuses on Psychiatry, which is the medically related segment of the spectrum (so, surgery, drugs, etc.). I’m sure there are similar lists related to Psychology (more counseling related), but this list is fairly interesting.

  1. Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness by Eliot S. Valenstein. This book reviews the history of the use of lobotomy as a form of treatment.
  2. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity by Daniel J. Kevles. Covers the the history of Eugenics, especially in the early part of the 20th century. Includes reference to Buck v Bell, Nazi work in this field prior to the mass extermination of Jews, and the current efforts in screening for genetic defects and using abortions to manage genetic purification even in the 21st century.
  3. Remembering Trauma by Richard J. McNally. This book covers the topic of repressed memories, and the popularity of this now heavily disputed form of diagnosis and associated treatment.
  4. Stolen Valor by B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. Uncovers the political and popular drivers behind how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder became such a widely diagnosed and treated malady even for those that never faced combat. Not to take away from the impact that facing war and death day-to-day has on people, but to bring some understanding to the political anti-war drivers that are tending to over state this impact.
  5. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens by Susan A. Clancy. This book provides details around a study by the author to understand why so many people believed they needed treatment as a result of being abducted by aliens. Interesting to see how easy it might be to convince people of this.

Take a look. I plan to purchase all 5 this week… might take a while to read through. Without a doubt, this looks like a good set of content to see many of our historical mistakes in trying to manage society with psychology/psychiatry. Again, not intending to criticize the disciplines as a whole, just to see where our desire to control through any means can lead to disastrous failure.

Updated: Reader Richard Perlman, obviously more adept at finding content on the Wall Street Journal web site, graciously provided me with the link to Paul McHugh’s Five Best reviews.  Thanks, Richard, for the assistance!

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