Freud, Fraud and the Delusion of Experience. Part 2

by | Last updated May 23, 2020 | Published on Nov 17, 2011 | Bias in Science

One of the few reasons for taking notice of Freud’s ideas and influence is the fact that they illustrate, yet again, how easy it is to do bad science and to pull the wool over the eyes of those not well-versed in the scientific method — think climate change in the present era.

Freud’s way of investigating, reporting, and thinking embodied much of what is antithetical to scientific methodology and to scientific probity.

Nothing is new (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), it has all been going on a long time, since before phrenology, 200 years). The extra-ordinary history and influence of phrenology has close parallels to Freud’s practices and ideas. The influence of magnetism and electricity in early medicine survives now in various updated guises, as does hypnosis. These threads share themes with the ideas of Pierre Teilhard in his 1950s book, “The Phenomenon of Man”. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest whose book enjoyed extensive influence. Sir Peter Medawar dissected and exposed Teilhard in an essay in which he asks [1]: ‘how was it that people came to be taken in by Teilhard’s book, The Phenomenon of Man?’

Besides strongly recommending you read the whole of Medawar’s essay [above link] I must quote his answer to his own question of why people were taken in:

‘We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.’

In other words, educational systems generally do not teach people how to think critically and analytically. That also applies to medical education, which explains why, although doctors are supposed to be scientifically educated, they not infrequently embrace pseudo-scientific explanations and systems of thought (like acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic etc). Sadly, many doctors have been educated beyond their capacity to undertake critical analytical thought.

Thus, the Jesuitical pseudo-profundity of Teilhard’s opaque and tortuous text fooled many ‘intellectuals’. That should be no surprise, he was after all a Jesuit priest and the word ‘Jesuitical’ has not acquired its implications of dissembling and deceit without reason: he was even elected to the French Academy of Sciences. There are not many critics who can see through someone who is even half-competent in what I call ‘the art of intellectual obfuscation’.

The art of intellectual obfuscation is what Teilhard and Freud practised.

Although Freud is still widely known and prominent in the public psyche it is reassuring to note that in the academic ‘psychological’ literature he is universally ignored, e.g. see: An empirical analysis of trends in psychology

Freud’s Cult

As with so many of these guru-worshipping semi-secret cult-like groups — which psychoanalysis certainly was — they developed all sorts of odd rituals and ideas and cultivated paranoia concerning other people’s supposed attempts to suppress their (well Freud’s, he was autocratic) wonderfully insightful breakthroughs.

Exaggerating the hostility that the rest of the world appears to exhibit towards your group is a sure way of increasing the groups’ cohesion and loyalty, especially if you are Jewish (almost all of them were) and sensitised to persecution. Freud’s secret committee of selected acolytes were presented with a Greek intaglio mounted in a gold ring. That was at best puerile, at worst, the groundwork for a cult. To my mind it is more reminiscent of children’s books like ‘The Secret Seven’; did they cut their fingers and seal it with blood?* It is notable that some people closely associated with Freud at that time used the word ‘religion’ to describe what Freud was doing with his ideas and followers [2, 3].

*Interestingly, I note Shorvon (7) also used the “The Secret Seven” analogy in his review.

As with all religions, schisms rapidly followed.

Freud was not excommunicated from the scientific community — he maneuvered himself into the position where he operated outside of the academic and scientific establishments of his day: he actively discouraged his adherents from having university appointments and little, if any, of his own work was overseen, peer reviewed, or part of the wider scientific discourse.

Freud turned his enterprise into a self-contained independent movement and from then on it became the story of the prophet, his followers (implicit faith in the prophet being a sine qua non), and his persecutors.

All such groups, if they are to endure, need a place of pilgrimage where the revered objects and texts are safeguarded and venerated. Freud’s disciples (it is difficult to find a more apt word to describe them) made sure that such a place was maintained. First of all, when he left Vienna around the beginning of the war, he recreated his rooms, down to the last detail, in his new residence in the UK. That in itself is a somewhat odd thing to do. After his death his daughter Anna inherited the Crown, as keeper of the archives; she ordained various of his papers were not to be made available till sundry future dates, evidently extending into the 22nd century. These papers of course are kept secret, except to the anointed few. Freud himself burnt many of his patient case notes and other papers at various times — why would you do that?

Whatever one calls Freud’s enterprise, it was not science, nor was it even remotely related to science.

A journey into the literature on this subject will soon make you think that you are reading scholarly tracts or polemics on the origin and meaning of the sacred texts of one of the world’s many religions. You will become lost in endless debates and schisms about meaning, interpretation and truth.

Forget about it: get a life!

Freud’s Fringes

There was also a more dubious and darker side to his acolytes’ analytic eccentricities. Many of its early proponents, Wilhelm Reich to give but one of many possible examples, became variously obsessed with the occult, parapsychology, telepathy, and other beliefs near and beyond the fringes of reality and morality.

Reich finished up in jail in America for selling his machine that gathered sexual orgasm energy — it being illegal to sell orgasms across US state boundaries. Freud himself dabbled in those areas, but there at least his acolytes outshone him, providing a positive Catherine-wheel display of crazy ideas and bizarre thinking. Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) was another such psychoanalyst who produced feeble thinking and irrational ideas in his best-selling book ‘Worlds in Collision’. A doctor/analyst writing about astronomy! that must be the ultimate in ultracrepidarianism. Velikovsky, like Teilhard, also took-in vast numbers of supposedly educated people.

It seems that there is something in the mindset of those inclined to psychoanalytic ideas which predisposes to, or co-exists with, inherently woolly and faulty thinking and a tendency to take on irrational notions. That tendency frequently goes hand-in-hand with the manifest inability to either understand or implement the scientific method. My experience of analysts during my training in London in the 1970s was that I had never met such a bunch of neurotic and disordered people, most of whom were worse than the poor patients they were treating.

It is abundantly clear that Freud himself was a mixed up and disordered fellow, his most remarkable faculty was for self-delusion. He was certainly a heavy cocaine user for a long time: that alone would preclude him from being allowed to practice medicine in any civilised country. He could not stop himself smoking cigars even when he was having some 20 or more operations for mouth cancer. There must have been multiple childish jokes circulating about the symbolism of his cigar, but thankfully they do not seem to have survived (except ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’, which he probably never said, it sounds more like Groucho Marx). He also pressured, or bullied, his acolytes into smoking cigars.

On several recorded occasions, when getting emotional in arguments with Jung, he pissed himself (lost control of his bladder): an odd thing for a mature adult to do. His household included his wife’s sister, whose bedroom could only be accessed via Freud’s bedroom.

Altogether, a picture of an odd unpleasant man.

He was a failure for much of his professional life until he reached his early 50s [2]. One failure happened after his visit to Paris to see Charcot’s theatre of hysterical performing prostitutes — his lecture on this, on his return to Vienna, was widely ridiculed. The public were allowed into the Salpetriere hospital to watch Charcot’s demonstrations involving scantily clad females. These were so popular that there was often a traffic jam of carriages in the streets around the hospital. The women were paid for their performances and I suspect for other things besides. The shows were a source of vicarious titillation.

It would be an inexcusable omission not to mention the fascinating story of Blanche Marie Wittman. She was Charcot’s long-time ‘Queen of hysterics’ who featured ‘dishabille’ (in various stages of undress — competition for the ‘Folie Bergères’) in demonstrations (was she Charcot’s lover? Shorvon concluded thus in his review). Blanche’s symptoms rapidly disappeared after Charcot’s death, and after many years in hospital she suddenly functioned well enough to become assistant and close friend to Madam Curie (of Nobel prize fame)! There is a famous painting of Charcot and Blanche, by Brouillet, a lithograph of which Freud had hanging above the couch in his consulting room. I suspect that, then and now, some would raise an eyebrow, or worse, if their wife/daughter was attending a therapist with such a suggestive/seductive painting so displayed immediately above the patient’s prone form on the couch.

A further air of eastern decadence was added by what Freud referred to as his ‘Smyrna’ rug, which covered the couch (10).

As a collector of antiques and curios — it has been said, apparently wrongly, that he was a discerning collector of rugs — he did not know about Persian carpets, or geography (Smyrna is on the west coast of Turkey — the carpet is clearly Persian, a Qashqai, located 3,000 km to the east).

Of the writings of this Charcot school of Parisian neurology, the BMJ commented it was ‘… somewhat unsavoury reading by the introduction of long pages of the obscene ravings of delirious hysterical girls and descriptions of events in their sexual history’.

To have been attracted to and taken in by this theatrical charade tells us about Freud’s personality and his lack of critical acumen — perspicacity was clearly not his middle name. The lecture he gave on his return to the faculty in Vienna was a disaster. He was reprimanded by Professor Meynert, the department head. Indeed, he was such failure professionally — he was shunned even by many of the predominantly Jewish doctors in Vienna — that he may never have got anywhere if Breuer had not taken pity on him and saved him by referring to him young middle-class Jewish hysterics [2]. At that time Freud’s practice was so slack that he was contemplating taking a job as a quack at a health spa [4].

He seems always to have felt that he was pre-ordained to make his mark in the intellectual world — a problematic messianic streak. It is understandable that he would be keen, even desperate, to find some means of achieving notoriety, perhaps at any cost. That probably helps us to understand why he needed to be so disingenuous and even fraudulent in his distorted reporting of cases and in much of his other conduct.

In short, his revelations and beliefs (they were not scientific observations or theories) were built on inventions, distortions and deceits: did he deceive himself before he deceived others? or was it grandiosity (and paranoia) fuelled by his cocaine use?

Remember, he had hoped that his early (naïve) ideas about cocaine were to be his route to stardom.

As Crews said damningly in the NYRB (8/12/2011)

Freud imagined himself a second Darwin, but he had more in common with Walter Mitty.”

There is a wealth of information concerning all sorts of aspects of his behaviour, odd and otherwise, in books, journals and on the Internet, so I shall not comment any further on it. It is not ad hominem material, it is relevant in so far as a critical informed judgement about the potential truth, objectivity, methodology and value of his work must necessarily include an assessment of the nature, background and probity of the man who wrote it, i.e. its trustworthiness and reliability. Without such an assessment one cannot decide if it is likely to be worthwhile investing the effort of the many hundreds of hours that would be needed to read and study his material. On such measures Freud fails to impress. If he had lived in the modern era he would have been recognised as a self-aggrandising plagiarist, fraud, and liar: to be fair, that is probably how many of his contemporaries regarded him; their opinions are just less prominently recorded by history.

He was charging Sw.Fr. 40 an hour in the 1930s — he certainly cannot be accused of underestimating his own worth. Five sessions a week, for between 4 to 6 months — that equates to something like 150 to 200,000 American dollars for a course of treatment.

Finally, note that medical science did not divorce Freud, he purposefully and calculatingly divorced himself from the educational institutions of science and medicine and set up his own institutions that he could control, both intellectually, socially, and financially. Disagree even slightly with Freud and you were finished, as Oberndorf discovered (Sulloway, p 270).

I will close by quoting Freud himself (letter to Wilhelm Fliess, Feb. 1, 1900), in what may have been a fleeting moment of insight.

‘I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador–an adventurer, if you want it translated–with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort’.


1. Medawar, P., The Phenomenon of Man in “The strange Case of the spotted mice”. 1st published in New York Review of Books Jan 23 17, 1969.

2. Shorter, E., A history of psychiatry: from the era of the asylum to the age of Prozac. 1997: Wiley.

3. Sulloway, F.J., Reassessing Freud’s case histories. Isis, 1991. 82: p. 245-275’sCaseHistories(Isis-1991).pdf.

4. Masson, J.M., The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1985: p. 378.

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