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Pseudoscience vs. Psychological Science: Straight, Inc. operated on pseudoscience

Straight, Inc. operated using pseudoscience (as do many of the current tough love teen programs)

I was definitely drawn to study psychology to try to get answers to the questions I had from the moment I ended up in Straight, Inc. back in 1982. Of course I had just turned fifteen years old at the time, but I knew that I had experimented with drinking and drugs less than most in my high school. I drank a few times and tried to smoke pot a few times, but I never understood the thrill of ‘partying’ and it wasn’t anywhere even close to being central in my life.

When I first realized that my parents had tricked me into an adolescent drug rehabilitation center thousands of miles from home I was angry, insulted and glad at the same time. My mother in particular always seem to think I was an awful person. I always remember wondering what she would think if she had some of the other kids I knew as her child instead of me. Upon realizing where I was I figured, “she’ll finally realize I’m not this terrible person that she seems to think I am,” since I knew no drug rehabilitation center would ever accept me.” I rather enjoyed the thought of how humiliated she would be for making such a ridiculous mistake. However, that obviously wasn’t the way this whole thing turned out.

Straight, Inc. operated in a perfectly pseudo-scientific fashion, with plenty of its own folklore and clichés on top of using theories that could not be falsified. For the quickest way to understand ‘falsifiability‘ and the important part it plays in legitimate sciences please see the  quick 2 minute video above this post. Those who were in any pseudo-scientific teen programs will instantly recognize how none of the theories posed in the programs were falsifiable. Those who weren’t there, will understand more as this story unfolds.

If “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” why do I also believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained”?

Click on this image to read a post about pseudoscienceStraight, Inc. definitely should have worn this label.


According to Merriam-Webster, pseudoscience is defined as a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific.

‘Psychology is a young science and is often in conflict with folk wisdom’ (Stanovich, 2010, p.18).

Often a person uses some folk proverb to explain a behavior even though, on an earlier occasion, this same person used a directly contradictory folk proverb to explain the same type of event. For example, most of us have heard or said, “Look before you leap.” Now there’s a useful, straightforward bit of behavioral advice—except that I vaguely remember admonishing on occasion, “He who hesitates is lost.” And “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is a pretty clear prediction of an emotional reaction to environmental events. But then what about “out of sight, out of mind”? And if “haste makes waste,” why does “time wait for no man”? How could the saying “two heads are better than one” not be true? Except that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” If I think “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” why do I also believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained”? And if “opposites attract,” why do “birds of a feather flock together”? I have counseled many students to “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” But I hope my last advisee has never heard me say this, because I just told him, “cross that bridge when you come to it.”

The enormous appeal of clichés like these is that, taken together as implicit “explanations” of behavior, they cannot be refuted. No matter what happens, one of these explanations will be cited to cover it. No wonder we all think we are such excellent judges of human behavior and personality. We have an explanation for anything and everything that happens. As British writer Matthew Parris (2007) has said, “Folk wisdom is such a cowardly thing” (p. 28) By this he means that it takes no risk that it might be refuted (Stanovich, 2010, p. 13-14).

Psychology is a scientific discipline

A lot of people misinterpret psychology as common sense, but contrary to popular belief psychology is a scientific discipline. ‘Psychology provides conclusions about behavior that it produces from scientific evidence. Practical applications of psychology have been derived from and tested by scientific methods’ (Stanovich, 2010, p. 6).

According to Stanovich (2010), the three most important principles of the scientific method are:

  1. That science employs methods of systematic empiricism.
    • Systematic empiricism is systematic, structured and controlled observations.
  2. That it aims for knowledge that is publicly verifiable.
    • Publicly verifiable includes peer review and replication
      • Peer review is having a group of experts in the field review your experimental methods and conclusions to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted.
      • Replication means you have completed an experiment in such a way that other scientists can perform the exact same procedure and preferably come away with the same results. If they come away with the exact same results, this strengthens the evidence of the theory, if they come away with different results then review and revision may be needed.
  3. It seeks problems that are empirically solvable and that yield testable theories.
    • The theory must have specific implications for observable events in the natural world; this is what is meant by empirically testable. This criterion of testability is often called the falsifiability criterion (Stanovich, 2010, p. 12).
    • I will dedicate a future post to further explanation of the falsifiability criterion.

‘Many people are drawn to the discipline because it holds out the possibility of actually testing “common sense” that has accepted without question for centuries’ (Stanovich, 2010, p. 18)


Stanovich, K. (2010). Psychology is Alive and Well (and Doing Fine Among the Sciences). In How to think straight about psychology (9th ed., pp. 1-18). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Published inStraight Inc

One Comment

  1. […] The website is designed for families and professionals who are in search of facts about treatment options, family support, interventionists, and clinical placement professionals for troubled teens and young adults. Unfortunately, even professionals have been duped by the pseudo-scientific programs in the past. I would fact-check everything to determine if all you have heard and read is true. I would find out what treatment methods they use and what evidence their therapy is based on. If they quote statistics, see if the statistics are real. Too often we ask the right questions, get the right answers and feel comfortable deciding on a particular program based on “hearing the right answers.” Keep in mind the right answers are NOT always the true answers. Your child’s life and well-being are at stake, dig deeper, ask for evidence, then look over the evidence and dig deeper again to see if you can find any evidence that what they are telling you isn’t true.  If they are legitimate, then they will completely understand your diligence in researching the facts. In fact, true professionals will welcome independent scrutiny of their facts. (See my post on pseudo-science vs. real science) […]

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