Pugnaciously polite, poetic and pungent

Patrick Rabbitt reviews James Russell's 'Psychology as King of the Ghosts: A Personal Critique'.
This idiosyncratic biography of the scientific and personal life of a distinguished developmental psychologist is also an exorcism of 'Ghosts' who, like the depressed spirits during Aeneas’ day-trip to Hades, throng gibbering lured by any whiff of grant money. It is pugnaciously polite, funny and sometimes poetic. It deserves a wide readership but may be unacceptably pungent for readers and writers of The Psychologist who delight in Hygge between irreconcilable views.  
 
Jim studied Philosophy and Psychology in 1960’s Oxford where it was obligatory for all Psychology undergraduates to own at least one paperback by Ronnie Laing and to express an interest, bordering on reverence, for Schizophrenia – not a crippling illness but a stressful escape into an alternative, Socially Unconditioned Consciousness. He was rescued from this heady ethos by his obstinate seriousness, intelligence, and a red-tinged bouillabaisse of Kant, Wittgenstein, Kant, Hume, Piaget and Kant. His degree earned him a choice between more Philosophy at Oxford and a Psychology research studentship at Birkbeck where Judy Greene oriented and launched a more focused trip, with a new PhD to Glasgow, then Liverpool, then to a 28 years in Cambridge, the last two uneasy in PBST and now, we hope to comfort of an Emeritus Chair. These trip-advisor recollections make a scholarly and often funny read, with riffs of poetry and even (just a tad) of Socratic Dialogue, but the deeper aim is at the current state of our subject. 
 
Staff of contemporary psychology departments bustled by undergraduate hordes, abraded by Administration, wearied by Vain Pursuits of Grants and dispirited by evanescence of Tenure probably cannot imagine life in departments of the 1960’s and the 1970’s with finals undergraduate classes of 12 or fewer. Vanished institutions, resembling tiny seaside zoos penning shabby singletons of mutually infertile species throughout meagre, but safely tenured lives. Now we are in crowded, industrial concrete, reverberating with the din of p-hacking and camouflage-body-work for clapped out old Models. Where Neuro-mythologists stride proudly; Social Psychologists slink, furtive about replicability; Behavioural Memory Theorists plod endlessly branching paths until, at last, a chance vista prompts a post-hoc question. For Jim this is all respectable stuff. He has empathy-deficit for colleagues engaged in what he calls 'icy' sub-disciplines but respects intellect and integrity, saving anger for clever, articulate people peddling nonsense. He leaves individuals only vaguely discernible (as Ghosts should be), protecting them (and himself) with pseudonyms, but as a thriving species they are easily recognised. 
 
A problem in trying to do Psychology is that everyone has fixed ideas about what our subject should tell us. Some are appeased by claims by neuro-ghosts that expensive scans reveal precise brain areas controlling piety, or homosexuality or mendacity or by socio-ghosts that these conditions are symptoms of political malaise. Most of us fear that we are working on small areas of a jigsaw that can never dovetail into a sensible landscape and become humble about what we can offer. We may even, for instance, give up thinking that the Study of Choice Reaction Times is the Beginning of All Wisdom. Russell’s Ghosts reject meek lessons or believe that they achieve more vivid careers by ignoring them. Our problem is that those whose taxes fund us, and the media that misrepresents us to them, crave Truths to transform their understanding of themselves of the Societies in which we exist. Ghosts eager to feed this hunger are not always Bad (Silly) though they can be capable of claims that people who are rated, by a questionnaire, as having a low sense of personal power tend to see objects in the real word as being further away from them than they actually are. Nor are they all Bad (Evil) though, unfortunately, they often seem well aware of the confidence tricks they pull.
 
As a ghost-buster Jim has the strength of a distinguished reputation as an outstanding scholar and experimentalist, but also some disadvantages. He regards taking himself seriously as a boring symptom, not just of narcissism but of possible dissimulation. Yeats reminded us that “The Good are always merry, except for an evil chance”. Jim’s cheerful self-presentation leaves him vulnerable to many lines of wraith-attack. His fine book refutes them. Do read it.
 
- Reviewed by Patrick Rabbitt (University of Oxford). Psychology as King of the Ghosts is available from Knives Forks and Spoons Press for £12. Read more from Jim Russell.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber