Thomas Teo, a Professor of Psychology in the Historical, Theoretical, and Critical Studies of Psychology Program at York University, Toronto, Canada, has spent his 20+ year career challenging the status quo in academic psychology. His unique approach to research has been described as both critical and meta-psychological. He often takes the discipline of psychology itself, including its methods and assumptions, as the target of his analysis.
In a chapter recently published in the book Psychological Studies of Science and Technology, Teo takes a critical approach to Western science more generally, examining a tendency for scientists to promote certain values about knowledge and truth at the expense of others. Such values, he says, are not merely abstract principles; they become part of how scientists understand themselves through the work they do.
As Teo explains:
“Epistemic values become personal virtues once they are considered positive and embodied in concrete subjectivities. Scientists, implicitly and explicitly, have committed to various epistemic virtues over time. Traditional values may include academic freedom, honesty, transparency, truth, or objectivity, while critical researchers may emphasize truthfulness and social, economic, and environmental justice as ideals of research.”
While the traditional scientific values described above are, of course, not necessarily problematic on their own, Teo proposes they serve as mere idols if broader factors related to culture, ecology, and economics are ignored in their pursuit. This can also have unintended effects on the lives of non-scientists who are affected most by certain fields of research.
Teo describes this scientific idolatry as a form of epistemic grandiosity, where scientists act as if their knowledge is somehow infallible or universally true. This can be contrasted with epistemic modesty, which would involve acknowledging the inherent limitations of the methods they use to produce knowledge.
There are four idols of Western science that Teo identifies as playing especially important roles in encouraging epistemic grandiosity, as such. These include:
- (a) idols of the narcissistic halo
- (b) idols of ideology
- (c) idols of bullshit
- (d) idols of ignorance
The first of these four, idols of the narcissistic halo, occurs when “scientists who are recognized experts in one area . . . appear or present themselves as competent in other knowledge areas as well.” Examples Teo points to include the history of scientific racism, where scientists have used their platform to support racist political agendas, as well as more mundane attempts to achieve celebrity status beyond their field of expertise.
This is closely connected to what Teo describes next in terms of idols of ideology, where “the promotion of certain knowledges . . . are used to justify the status quo as natural and inevitable.” This can also include how scientific racism supported more general beliefs about the superiority of white people.
A more specific example, however, is the way psychologists’ presence during “enhanced interrogations,” which essentially amounted to torture, carried out by the U.S. military was used to claim that no torture in fact occurred.
Then, there are what he describes as idols of bullshit, where subtleties of a particular issue are glossed over by broad and often meaningless statements that, while not necessarily false, obscure the complex realities of the situation. This can include the use of vague phrases like “correlation does not mean causation” and “nothing has ever been proven definitively” to discredit theories with a solid empirical basis.
An example Teo provides is how the concept of heritability is sometimes used in psychology to claim that an individual has inherited a certain physical or psychological trait from earlier generations. This is a misrepresentation, he says, because heritability is typically measured by population statistics rather than individual behaviors.
Finally, the term idols of ignorance refers to practices in science that serve to perpetuate ignorance rather than produce knowledge. These can be difficult to identify, he explains, especially “when the bullshitter starts to believe that what they are promoting is true, and when bullshit morphs into ‘truth.’” An example he points to is how psychologists attribute certain qualities to some abstract ‘individual’ while ignoring the ways society, culture, and economics shape how we think about ourselves and others.
This last point, according to Teo, has direct implications for how we think about mental health. As he explains later in the chapter:
“The idea that all change begins with individuals, or the focus on individuals, ignores research on inequality that identifies the many negative consequences of inequality for the mental health of individuals.”
Again, Teo points to the way unquestioned habits within science have direct consequences, whether through policy proposals or psychiatric treatment, in the lives of those outside of science. Going further, he explains that:
“If mental health issues are embedded in inequality, which is a social and structural category, not a psychological category, then it is ignorance-producing to suggest that one can solve mental health issues on an individual, psychological level. Of course, this finding requires modesty as well.”
For Teo, to truly understand the idols outlined about it is necessary to account for the relationship between psychology, science, and neoliberalism. It is no accident, he explains, that the values underlying scientific research mirror those of capitalism, given how the ability to conduct research in our society is often dependent on securing (often private) grant funding.
Teo’s work demonstrates the practical relevance of questioning epistemology—a term that is typically reserved for philosophers who theorize about the status of human knowledge. This comes at a time when clinical psychologists and researchers are, more than ever, questioning the theoretical and empirical foundations of the work they do.
The importance of such reflexive exercises is made even more evident in some of Teo’s earlier work. In a 2010 paper published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, for instance, Teo identifies how certain habits of psychological research constitute a form of epistemological violence, where those represented by the research are characterized as somehow less than human. Here, “the subject of violence is the researcher, the object is the Other, and the action is the interpretation of data that is presented as knowledge.”
This draws on the work of postcolonial researchers such as Gayatri Spivak, who gained widespread acclaim for her 1988 essay titled “Can the subaltern speak?” Her concept of epistemic violence has served as a basis, more recently, for Teo’s theories about sub-humanism, which he describes as the psychological reaction one has to a group of others that leads to them being considered less than human.
In a spotlight interview that will be published in subsequent weeks on this website, Teo will talk about the future of his research. He introduces the concept of “die-ability,” or the degree to which it is generally considered more acceptable for members of certain groups—e.g., low-income earners or immigrants—to die than others.
Teo, T. (2019). Academic Subjectivity, Idols, and the Vicissitudes of Virtues in Science: Epistemic Modesty Versus Epistemic Grandiosity. In K. C. O’Doherty et al. (eds.), Psychological Studies of Science and Technology, Palgrave Studies in the Theory and History of Psychology. (pp. 31-48). (Link)