The Psychology of Totalitarianism - A book for burning?
On January 25, 2023, Ghent University banned the use of my book The Psychology of Totalitarianism in the course “Critique of Society and Culture”. That happened in the aftermath of a media storm that erupted in September 2022 following my interviews with Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones. I already wrote about that in a previous Substack essay.
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Following these media appearances, Ghent University launched an investigation into my scientific integrity and the quality of my teaching materials, which eventually led to the banning of my book. Why did they actually start this procedure? Concerns about the quality of education, I hear people say. I agree that scientific integrity is of crucial importance.
In fact, the Faculty had been having difficulties with me for quite some time. Actually, for about fifteen years. Because, for example, I think the quality of current scientific research in the field of psychology is very problematic and I say so out loud. But mainly because of my critical voice during the corona crisis. Because of this, I’ve had several interviews with the Research Director and Dean of faculty in 2021. They always emphasized my freedom of speech, but also that they were concerned about me. I appreciate their attempts to engage in dialogue, but I want to ask them this: isn't concern about dissent opinions one of the most grievous symptoms of our times?
I continued articulating my own opinion anyway, but not without consequences. I was kicked out of the consortium for clinical psychology of the Faculty of Psychology in 2021. The rationale was that my colleagues no longer wished to associate with me due to my public statements about mass formation during the corona crisis. That was pretty honest and straightforward language: excommunication for dissent opinion.
In September last year, another step was taken. This was when the Faculty of Psychology decided to investigate my scientific integrity and whether the teaching material I use in the course “Critique of Society and Culture” is of adequate quality.
This procedure against me, which eventually led to the banning of my book in January 2023, is quite complex. It reads a bit like Franz Kafka. Several councils and committees were involved and it is not easy to describe this bureaucratic tangle in a way that does not become utterly boring. I'm going to try it anyway on a later occasion, but first I'm going to focus on the capstone of the logic of the process.
The most serious accusation against my book is that it’s full of errors and sloppiness. When I asked about those errors and inaccuracies, I was referred to a number of critiques circulating online. This is of crucial importance: the verdict on my book largely rests on the quality of those critical reviews.
A closer inspection of those reviews revealed to me that the style was frequently rather offensive, insulting, and in some cases downright vulgar. Why did Ghent University only select these extremely negative reviews of my book to assess its value? Why none of the dozens of positive or more neutral ones?
Extremely negative and emotional reactions are rarely accurate. That's why I usually don't respond to them. Sometimes the best response is silence. However, in this situation I will respond. What is at stake is no small matter. It is about the question on what grounds a university decides to ban a book.
The critical reviews of my book that were taken into account by Ghent University were written by different authors. Discussing all the texts would be a titanic task, so I’m going to start with the most crucial one.
The critical review of Professor Nassir Ghaemi was the most important one. One of the committee reports referred it several times. I will attempt to discuss this criticism in a dry, technical manner. It might not be much fun for you to read, but anyone who really wants to know the grounds of the accusations that led to the banning of my book might find it worthwhile.
Professor Nassir Ghaemi's criticism can be found in an article called “Post-Modern Anti-Science Ideology: The Real Source of Totalitarianism” and on Youtube, in a recording of a special session at the 43rd annual meeting of the Karl Jaspers Society of North America. (See minutes 31 to 52 for Professor Ghaemi's contribution and several other, shorter statements he made in response to other contributions.)
It was not easy to find a format to respond to the tangle of criticisms. I decided to first assess all points of criticism that were concrete, objective in nature, and that could be unambiguously judged on their correctness in that regard. Together with one of the proofreaders of my book, I found seven such critiques in the article and the video recording. We discuss them below. At a later stage we may also discuss the more substantive criticisms of Professor Ghaemi.
1. Professor Ghaemi claims that I’ve completely misquoted (probably deliberately) John Ioannides' article “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” when I state that 85% of medical studies come to wrong conclusions (~33:57).
Professor Ghaemi's fierce, accusatory tone is striking from the start. He also cites several arguments from authority before giving substantive arguments. The criticism is more specifically about this paragraph in Chapter 1 of my book (p. 18-19):
“All of this translated into a problem of replicability of scientific findings. To put it simply, this means that the results of scientific experiments were not stable. When several researchers performed the same experiment, they came to different findings. For example, in economics research, replication failed about 50 percent of the time,14 in cancer research about 60 percent of the time, 15 and in biomedical research no less than 85 percent of the time.16 The quality of research was so atrocious that the world-renowned statistician John Ioannidis published an article bluntly entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” 17 Ironically, the studies that assessed the quality of research also came to diverging conclusions. This is perhaps the best evidence of how fundamental the problem is.” (The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Chapter 1, p. 18-19).
Professor Ghaemi makes a significant error here. He mistakenly believes that I refer to Ioannidis' “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” to support my claim that 85% of medical studies are wrong. However, the text and accompanying endnote (#16), in fact, refer to a different article, published in 2015 by C Glenn Begley and John Ioannidis in the journal Circulation Research.
In the Begley and Ioannidis article, “Reproducibility in Science: Improving the Standard for Basic and Preclinical Research,” you will find the following paragraph (text marked bold by me):
“Over the recent years, there has been an increasing recognition of the weaknesses that pervade our current system of basic and preclinical research. This has been highlighted empirically in preclinical research by the inability to replicate the majority of findings presented in high-profile journals.1–3 The estimates for irreproducibility based on these empirical observations range from 75% to 90%. These estimates fit remarkably well with estimates of 85% for the proportion of biomedical research that is wasted at-large.4–9 This irreproducibility is not unique to preclinical studies. It is seen across the spectrum of biomedical research. For example, similar concerns have been expressed for observational research where zero of 52 predictions from observational studies were confirmed in randomized clinical trials.10–12 At the heart of this irreproducibility lie some common, fundamental flaws in the currently adopted research practices. Although disappointing, this experience should probably not be surprising, and it is what one would expect also theoretically for many biomedical research fields based on how research efforts are conducted.”
This paragraph confirms my statement that 85% of the studies published in biomedical sciences are wrong. So, the 85% refers to the corpus of biomedical research, observational and randomized controlled trials (RCTs) included. I do not make any statements whatsoever in my book about whether the margin of error differs in those two types of studies, as Ghaemi emphasizes again and again.
Professor Ghaemi’s discourse goes all over the place in an attempt to undermine this paragraph in my book. He adds all sorts of things that I'm not saying. Not only does he turn this into a curious discussion about the difference between observational studies and RCTs, he also makes it a discussion about the vaccine studies. How odd then that the words “observational study,” “randomized controlled trial” and “vaccine” appear nowhere in that entire chapter of my book. Nowhere do I distinguish between different types of research, nowhere do I give separate error rates for the different types of research and nowhere do I mention the vaccine studies in this chapter.
Anyone who reads the paragraph in my book will see that I, like Begley and Ioannidis in the paragraph above, speak of biomedical research in general. Professor Ghaemi thus provides here a prototypical example of a straw man argument. He distorts the contents of my book and then criticizes his own misrepresentation of it.
2. Professor Ghaemi then puts me in Heidegger's camp (~47:00). Like him, I would take an anti-science stance. I therefore frequently quote Heidegger according to Ghaemi (48:53).
I do not quote Heidegger in my book, not even once. It is possible that Professor Ghaemi is simply misspeaking here and actually meant to say “Foucault.” That's not clear. It should be clear, however, that I am not arguing against science anywhere in my book; I argue against the mechanistic scientific ideology, which in my discourse is the exact opposite of what real science is. The third part of my book is entirely devoted to that. Did Professor Ghaemi miss this entire part?
3. Professor Ghaemi claims that I invented the term “mass formation”; the term, according to him, has never existed in the history of mankind (sic) and I made it up completely (sic) (~58:43)
These are the (harsh) words in which Professor Ghaemi posits this bold statement:
“And by the way, one more big picture point I forgot to make: the concept ‘mass formation’ has never existed in human history. You will not find it anywhere in Gustave Le Bon’s writings. You will not find it anywhere, as far as I can tell, in any social psychology writings. You will not find it anywhere in any of the psychiatric literature for the last 200 years. The term ‘mass formation’ is completely made up by this person and his friend who goes on a Joe Rogan podcast and talks about it to a couple millions of people. … This concept of ‘mass formation’ has no scientific basis, no conceptual basis that anyone else has ever written about, no theoretical basis that anyone else has written about. People have talked about mass psychosis, mass hysteria, but again, these are just metaphors, there’s no scientific basis to it. … But this concept of ‘mass formation’, I just want to make that point, and he doesn’t point this out at all in the book, has no basis in anybody else’s thinking.” And in his review (p. 90) he writes the following about it: “The term ‘mass formation"’ is an anti-COVID neologism - with unclear meaning in English and no meaning at all scientifically - that has no roots anywhere in the psychiatric literature and none in the social psychology literature either.”
This is perhaps the most bizarre criticism of Ghaemi. Let us first briefly consider the use of the term itself. Is it true that the term has never existed in the history of mankind? In German, the term is “Massenbildung”, in Dutch “mass formation”, in English usually “crowd formation”, but sometimes also “mass formation”. Below is a selection of the undoubtedly much wider number of examples of the occurrence of the term “mass formation”, whether it is translated into English as “crowd formation” or “mass formation”:
· The word “mass formation” appears on the back cover of the Dutch translation of Elias Canetti’s book Masse und macht(Massa en Macht, 1960) and the term is used twice in the text of the book. In the English edition, the word is translated as “crowd formation.”
· In Freud's text Massenpsychologie und ich-analyse (1921) the term “Massenbildung” is used nineteen times. In the Dutch edition, it is translated as “mass formation” and in the English edition, it is translated as “crowd formation”.
· Salvador Giner uses the term “mass formation” in his book Mass Society (1976).
· The Dutch edition of Kurt Baschwitz’ book on the history of mass psychology Denkend mensch en menigte (1940) frequently cites the term “mass formation”.
· The Dutch edition of Paul Reiwald’s book Vom Geist der Massen (De geest der massa (1951)) mentions the term “mass formation” around forty-six (!) times.
· And so on…
Even if, in a moment of extreme benevolence towards Professor Ghaemi, we were to assume that he specifically means the term “mass formation” and not the term “crowd formation”, his statement that the term does not occur would therefore still be incorrect. And what is certainly incorrect is the claim that there is no conceptual basis for the phenomenon of mass formation. It hardly needs to be said that Professor Ghaemi gets carried away here. Is there really anyone who doubts that conceptual research has been done on the phenomenon of mass formation? The criticism is so blatantly absurd that it is almost equally absurd to respond to it. Purely as a sign of goodwill, I will do it anyway, with special thanks to Yuri Landman, who has helped to give an overview of the literature both on social media and in private communication:
The scientific study of mass formation started sometime in the nineteenth century, with the work of Gabriel Tarde (Laws of Imitation, 1890) and Scipio Sighele (The Criminal Crowd and Other Writings on Mass Psychology, 1892). Gustave Le Bon famously elaborated on this work in 1895 with “La psychology des foules” (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind). Sigmund Freud published his treatise Massenpsychologie und ich-analyse in 1921, in which he frequently uses the term “Massenbildung,” literally translated as “mass formation” in Dutch. The mass formation theory is endorsed and supplemented by Trotter (Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, 1916), McDoughall’s Group Mind (1920), Baschwitz (Du und die masse, 1940), Canetti's Crowds and Power (1960) and Reiwald (De geest der massa, 1951). In the interwar period, founders of modern propaganda and public relations management, such as Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman, relied on the literature on mass formation to psychologically direct and manipulate the population. The philosopher Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (The Fear of Freedom, 1942), the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1946 ), the philosopher Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951) also made important contributions to the thinking about the phenomenon of mass formation. In addition, the entire secondary literature based on these seminal writers can be quoted, almost endlessly, when it comes to illustrating that, in radical contradiction to what Professor Ghaemi claims, there is indeed a conceptual basis for the term “mass formation” that continues to be developed today.
4. Ghaemi claims that I say that all science is fraudulent.
He repeats this a number of times (p. 88 & 89 in his article and throughout the video), to reinforce his (erroneous) opinion that I am an ‘anti-science extremist”. My book, however, clearly states: sloppiness, errors, and forced conclusion are common, but “full-fledged fraud was relatively rare, however, and not actually the biggest problem” (Chapter 1, p. 18).
Again, you can clearly see the 'wild' and unfounded character of the serious allegations launched by Ghaemi.
5. Ghaemi claims in his article (p. 89) that I state that “95% of COVID-19 deaths had one or more underlying medical conditions, and thus did not occur due to COVID-19.”
I don't draw any such conclusions. In the context of the relativity of numbers, I do pose the legitimate question: How do you determine who dies from COVID-19? “If someone who is old and in poor health ‘gets the coronavirus’ and dies, did that person then die ‘from’ the virus? Did the last drop in the bucket cause it to spill over more so than the first?” (Chapter 4, p.54).
Again, Ghaemi fundamentally distorts my argument and then criticizes that distorted argument.
6. Ghaemi states in his article (p. 89) that I claim that the pursuit of money is the main reason for hospitals to hospitalize COVID-19 patients. He puts it like this: “Referring to a 2021 Belgian newspaper article composed by the journalist Jeroen Bossaert who claims that hospitals increased the numbers of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations for financial gain, the author of this book seizes the opportunity to express his view that generating profits is the PRIMARY purpose of these COVID-19 hospitalizations.”
In fact, that’s not what I'm saying (again, a straw man argument). What I do say is that monetary incentives are one factor that artificially inflate the number of admissions and thus distort those data as well. Nowhere does my book state that it’s the primary or only factor. Here is the relevant paragraph in my book (Chapter, p. 54):
“This was not the only factor that distorted hospital data. In the spring of 2021, Jeroen Bossaert of the Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws published one of the few thorough pieces of investigative journalism of the entire coronavirus crisis. Bossaert exposed that hospitals and other healthcare institutions had artificially increased the number of deaths and COVID-19 hospitalizations for financial gain.6 This in itself is not surprising, since hospitals have been using such methods for a long time. What was surprising is that, during the coronavirus crisis, people refused to acknowledge that profit motives played a role and had an impact on the data. The entire healthcare sector was suddenly graced with quasi-sanctity. This, despite the fact that prior to the coronavirus crisis, many people critiqued and complained about the system of for-profit healthcare and Big Pharma. (See, for example, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime by Peter Gøtzsche.7)”
7. Professor Ghaemi asserts I am deceiving the reader by stating that there are scientific descriptions of people with greatly reduced brain volume who still score higher than 130 on an intelligence test. According to Professor Ghaemi, the patient I refer to scored no more than 75, and so I (intentionally) inflated that number.
This is what Ghaemi writes in his article (p. 91): “Clear falsehoods abound in this book. One irrefutable falsehood of fact is found in the author’s interpretation of a 2007 study that was published in the Lancet. I reviewed the cited paper, ‘Brain of a white-collar worker’ (PT165). The paper describes a .44-year-old man with hydrocephalus since age six. He was a married civil servant, with reported normal social functioning, but his IQ was 75, which is in the borderline mental retardation range. However, in the lead-up to this case presentation, the author states that the man had an IQ above 130, which is in the genius range. The author's presentation of the case is factually false.”
A closer inspection shows that a number of things went wrong here. The English translation apparently mistakenly omitted a reference, which is there in the original text (De Pyschologie van Totalitarisme, Chapter 10, p. 219): “Voor alle duidelijkheid, ik spreek hier niet over obscure beweringen, maar wel over wetenschappelijke observaties waarover gerapporteerd werd in tijdschriften als The Lancet en Science (bijvoorbeeld Feuillet et al., 20076; Lewin, 19807)”versus the English translation, which says (The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Chapter 10, p. 165): “For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about obscure assertions but about scientific observations reported in journals such as The Lancet and Science.6.”)
In other words, the original text not only refers to the article “Brain of a White-collar Worker” (by Feuillet) but also to an article by Lewin that talks about a patient of Lorber—a different patient than that of Feuillet—who scored 126 on an IQ test. However, there is no uniformity in the literature about this last figure as other publications state that this patient (of Lorber) achieved scores of 130 and even 140 on IQ tests. In other words, different sources mention different numbers (one time 126, the other time >130). In my estimation, one reference to the patient in question was sufficient, and I unknowingly selected the reference that mentions an IQ of 126. Here, I include the relevant extracts from the other publications below. Among other things, a review by Nahm et al., entitled “Discrepancy Between Cerebral Structure and Cognitive Functioning, A Review,” states the following: “The aforementioned student of mathematics had a global IQ of 130 and a verbal IQ of 140 at the age of 25 (Lorber, 1983), but had ‘virtually no brain’ (Lewin, 1982, p. 1232).”
Additionally, this paragraph from a contribution by Lorber and Sheffield (1978) to the “Scientific Proceedings” of Archives of Disease in Childhood proves this: “So far some 70 individuals between 5 and 18 years of age were find to have gross or extreme hydrocephalus with virtually no neopallium who are nevertheless intellectually and physically normal, several of whom may be considered brilliant. The most striking example is of a young man of 21 with congenital hydrocephalus for which he had no treatment, who gained a university degree in economics and computer studies with first class honours, with an apparent absence of neopallium. There are individuals with IQ’s of over 130 who in infancy had virtually no brain and some who even in early adult life have very little neopallium.”
Although Ghaemi unjustly throws heavy accusations at me and my statement is in fact correct, he does have a small point here: a reference should be added, more specifically to one of the articles cited above that reports IQ scores of 130 and more.
We can draw a first preliminary conclusion about this process. We all know that people with different subjective preferences interpret a discourse differently. This will be no different for Professor Ghaemi. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Professor Ghaemi is very often wrong on points that can be objectively verified. Yet the decision-making process of Ghent University clearly shows that Professor Ghaemi’s criticisms have been of decisive importance in their assessment of my book.
Since Ghent University asked me to correct the text of my book for errors and sloppiness as they were indicated, among others, by Professor Nassir Ghaemi, I hereby sincerely ask them whether they can still identify one clear error after reading the above text, or indicate any inaccuracies that Professor Ghaemi claims to detect in my book (except for that one correction regarding those references). On the other hand, I can point out several errors in Ghaemi's critique alone. More on this later.
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Life imitates art. In the 21st century, life specifically imitates Kafka, Huxley, Orwell and others like them.
We are so grateful for you, Mattias Desmet, and for your work.
So great to see you on Substack Mattias! I first came across your content and posted threads on twitter about it before it became mainstream. Sorry to hear about the book, but this is great advertisement, and a pure display of totalitarian behavior in practice to try and eradicate "dangerous information" that threatens the "empire" archetype structure.