When Pop Psychology Goes Wrong!

Before we get to the main attraction: I’ve submitted my PhD for examination. I am now a man of leisure (a man of leisure who is trying to stop Saren from taking over the galaxy). I’ll probably write something about the whole “Submitting a PhD” in a few weeks when the nervous tension has subsided.

The main attraction. On Sunday (UK time) this piece by Nick Cohen saw print in The Guardian. It’s a critique of both WikiLeaks as a movement and Julian Assange as an individual, and it concludes with the following character assassination:

We need also to question the motives of the wider transparency movement. Anti-Americanism is one of its driving inspirations and helps explain its perfidies. If you believe that the American “military-industrial complex”, Europe or Israel is the sole or main source of oppression, it is too easy to dismiss the victims of regimes whose excesses cannot be blamed on the west. Assange’s former colleagues tell me that the infantile leftism of the 2000s is not the end of it. Never forget, they say, that Assange came from a backwater Queensland city named Townsville. He’s a small-town boy desperate to make the world notice.

The grass or squealer usually blabs because he wants to settle scores or ingratiate himself with the authorities. Assange represents a new breed, which technology has enabled: the nark as show-off. The web made Assange famous. It allows him to monitor his celebrity – I am told that even the smallest blogpost about him rarely escapes his attention. When he sees that the audience is tiring, the web provides him with the means to publish new secrets and generate new headlines. Under the cover of holding power to account, Assange can revel in the power the web gives to put lives in danger and ensure he can be what he always wanted: the centre of attention.

Now, I’m no fan of WikiLeaks (like the general idea, but hate the execution) and I think there’s an awful lot of WikiLeak apologetics (and excuses for Assange’s behaviour in general) which rest upon appeals to claims like “America is the Great Devil.” However, criticising WikiLeaks and Assange with the kind of pop or folk psychology Cohen has engaged in is really not helping.

One of the topics I didn’t cover in my PhD is “conspiracism” (mostly because it’s a psychological thesis rather than an epistemic one ((You could, I suppose, construe it as a form of fallacious reasoning, at which point you could provide an epistemic analysis as to why conspiracism is a pathology of reasoning, but that would have been a slightly different thesis to the one I wrote and I’m not even sure that conspiracism is as big a problem as some of my peers believe. I might write about that in the next week or so.))). “Conspiracism” is a thesis about seeing conspiracies everywhere and that such conspiracies are the explanation of notable events in the world in which we live. Many conspiracy theorists are dismissively labelled as suffering from conspiracism (Daniel Pipes, for example, does this) and thus the explanations of such conspiracy theorists are taken to be unwarranted and symptomatic of some kind of paranoia. This move by many conspiracy theory skeptics is often problematic because charges of conspiracism are sometimes politically-driven rather than derived from an understanding of the agent’s psychological states and sometimes even a paranoid person is going to be right about the existence of some conspiracy. Making claims about the psychological state of an agent does not, necessarily, speak against their particular beliefs or actions.

Cohen is playing the psychological card against Assange: the notable founder of WikiLeaks is a small-town boy and thus he’s an upstart with ideas above his station. Cohen’s piece confuses an argument against WikiLeaks as lead by Assange with an ad hominem argument. Maybe Assange is a small-town Australian with grandiose ideas not in keeping with his origins (although, I have to say, only an Englishman would actually think that was an argument, seeing how class-based that criticism seems to be) and maybe he does note every pass reference on the ‘net (in which case: “Hello, Julian. I’m not sure we could ever be friends.”) in a way that some might find ego-centric, but Cohen doesn’t know this. He might be able to infer some of it and, if he’s a qualified psychologist, then maybe he can even remote analyse Assange, but, and “buts” like these are big ((I’m so, so sorry about that joke.)), it still doesn’t speak against the work Assange has done (especially since, as Cohen admits, the push to release the unredacted cables came not just from Assange but also other senior members of WikiLeaks.

What’s worse, I think, for Cohen, is that if you remove the appeal to Assange’s psychological states from the column, then Cohen is not saying anything new or interesting at all. Everything prior to those two paragraphs is simply rehashed information we already knew.

Poor form, Nick Cohen. Poor form.