There is a wonderful scene in Small World, David Lodge’s satirical novel about academic conferences, where a junior researcher poses the most awkward question a group of literary theorists could ever be asked, and it’s this: what follows if everyone agrees with you? This is not a gratuitous insult of research in the arts and humanities, but some of its more navel-gazing aspects do seem to exist solely so that there can be a debate over issues that frankly, even if resolved, would have not the remotest bearing on either the practicalities or the pleasures of life.
I believe that the same question can be asked with profit about a lot of scientific enquiry as well, not least within Psychology. Take the case of that old battleground, the nature-nurture debate. We have been told for generations that this is tantamount to a holy war or at least something that we are expected to get worked up about. For those who are familiar with the area, names like The Bell Curve, The Burt Scandal, and Hans Eysenck cannot be recalled without a frisson of emotion at the furore they caused. However, frankly, is it really worth all the fuss that has been lavished on the subject? Yes, appalling things were done by Hitler in the name of eugenics and yes, some of his influence came from the work of psychologists. But does anybody honestly believe that Hitler would have acted one jot differently if psychologists had not been around? Psychologists flatter themselves if they think they are all that important. Politicians (particularly those of a dictatorial variety) only listen to social scientists when it suits them. We have only to consider how hard it is to get politicians to listen to psychologists when they are pleading cases of genuine social need to see the accuracy of this argument.