© 2012 Joost van der Leij
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a controversial method for improving people’s lives. Some call NLP a pseudoscience, but they themselves seem to lack the scientific standing to make such a judgement. The easiest way to counter any accusations of NLP being pseudoscience is to make it clear that NLP is not scientific. There are many valuable activities that are non-scientific like, for instance, philosophy. Although NLP practitioners claim that NLP help people to improve their live and many get paid to do so, everything is fine, as long as these NLP practitioners work on a no cure, no pay basis where the client gets to decide whether he finds talking to the NLP practitioner has been worth paying for. This doesn’t mean that these NLP practitioners won’t make unscientific statements. But as long as they refrain themselves from calling this a science it is okay. People make unscientific statements all the time and a great deal of unscientific statements in religion for example seem to improve some people’s lives. Nor is anything lost by saying that NLP is not scientific. Something classifying as not being scientific only means that it hasn’t properly been researched scientifically yet.
There are those of course who think that it has been scientifically proven that NLP doesn’t work. But this is a misrepresentation of research that has shown that there is no scientific support for certain claims made by NLP practitioners. The lack of scientific support for claim A doesn’t imply that there is scientific support for not A as evidence against one hypothesis doesn’t imply evidence for a different hypothesis. It simply means that claim A, for now, is non-scientific. Besides the misrepresentations there is also the suggestion that such research has been flawed:
“The 6 categories of errors found in the literature include lack of understanding of the concepts of pattern recognition and inadequate control of context, unfamiliarity with NLP as an approach to therapy, lack of familiarity with the NLP meta-model of linguistic communication, failure to consider the role of stimulus-response associations, inadequate interviewer training and definitions of rapport, and logical mistakes”
All in all this makes NLP an interesting case for a conceptual analysis of pseudoscience, non-scientific and unscientific. Especially because Hollander, a prominent Dutch NLP practitioner, is claiming to have scientifically proven that NLP works. This article will argue that Hollander’s endeavour is exactly the kind of behavior that substantiates claims that NLP is pseudoscience and that he ought to refrain from such activities. I will first investigate what the characteristics of pseudoscience are and how it relates to non-science and unscientific. Based upon these findings the article of Hollander will be analysed to see how it measures up against the criteria for pseudoscience. We will see that it fits the bill unfortunately. Finally, I will conclude that it is better to refrain from such pseudoscientific activities as they are neither helping science nor the field of NLP.
it is not scientific, and
its major proponents try to create the impression that it is scientific.
Pseudoscience is distinctive from non-science and unscientific. Non-science is a subject matter that has not (yet) been investigated by scientists. A certain remark is unscientific if science has proven something that contradicts it. Many NLP practitioners make unscientific remarks. Nevertheless this has no bearing on the scientific status of NLP. So far there are no scientific proofs that contradict NLP practices. If only for the fact that even though NLP is no science, sound NLP practitioners hold the principle that nothing in NLP ought to contradict science and if something is in NLP is found to contradict science it has to be removed from NLP. Even critics of NLP claim: “NLP may be seen as a partial compendium of rather than as an original contribution to counseling practice and, thereby, has a value distinct from the lack of research data supporting the underlying principles that Bandler and Grinder posited to present NLP as a new and magical theory”. So NLP is not unscientific but non-science. It only becomes a pseudoscience once major proponents of NLP create the impression that NLP is scientific while NLP is not scientific. It is precisely what Hollander does with his “scientific proof” of NLP.
There are a number of criteria to recognize pseudoscience. Something might lack falsifiability. “A sentence (or a theory) is empirical-scientific if and only if it is falsifiable”. But these criteria do not cover all pseudosciences as some are falsified by science and are thus unscientific and still continue to present themselves incorrectly as a science. Furthermore, it is important to take paradigm changes into account because normal science may think that a revolutionary science is not falsifiable or has even been falsified by bad science. Nevertheless, pseudosciences still differ from science: “particular failures did not give rise to research puzzles, for no man, however skilled, could make use of them in a constructive attempt to revise the [pseudoscientific] tradition”. Basically, this means that failures within a field ought to give rise to interesting puzzles. Puzzles which will inspire other researchers to revise their theories or practices. One valuable addition is that science doesn’t concern itself with a single research, but only with much larger research programs.
- universalism, the idea that scientific claims should be impersonal and not depending on the qualities of the researchers.
- communality, the idea that scientists are part of a scientific community and not isolated individuals
- disinterestedness, the idea that a researcher has nothing to gain personally from the results of his research.
- organized scepticism, the idea that scientist ought to remain skeptical unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
- Belief in authority: It is contended that some person or persons have a special ability to determine what is true or false. Others have to accept their judgments.
- Nonrepeatable experiments: Reliance is put on experiments that cannot be repeated by others with the same outcome.
- Handpicked examples: Handpicked examples are used although they are not representative of the general category that the investigation refers to.
- Unwillingness to test: A theory is not tested although it is possible to test it.
- Disregard of refuting information: Observations or experiments that conflict with a theory are neglected.
- Built-in subterfuge: The testing of a theory is so arranged that the theory can only be confirmed, never disconfirmed, by the outcome.
- Explanations are abandoned without replacement. Tenable explanations are given up without being replaced, so that the new theory leaves much more unexplained than the previous one.
To see whether Hollander’s research and publication make NLP a pseudoscience we need to establish that he is a major proponent of NLP who creates an impression that his NLP research and publication are scientific while they are in fact not. Hollander is in fact a prominent proponent of NLP. He has his own Wikipedia page which describes him as a well known national representative of NLP in the Netherlands and writer about NLP. He is founder of his own training institute, Institute for Eclectic Psychology which is one of the biggest NLP training institutes in the Netherlands.
If his research and publication turn out to be not scientific he then creates the impression that it is scientific while it is not. Not only is there the claim on the frontpage of the website of his training institute that references his research as the scientific proof of NLP, but his article is also structured according to guidelines for scientific publications. His article has an abstract. It makes references to scientific like methodologies such as Outcome Rating Scale (ORS), p-values, SPSS ARIMA and SPSS ANOVA. They all sound like terribly impressive scientific methods, thereby creating the impression of science and scientific research. The article has a list of references which is formatted according to scientific standards. In his biography he presents himself as the head of the research department of the Institute of Eclectic Psychology. If his research and article turn out not to be science at least he has done everything in his power to create the impression of them being scientific. To stress this even more he has submitted the article to a scientific peer reviewed journal, but it has been a long time since he has offered his article for publication without it being published. There is no update on whether his article has been rejected or what causes the delay in publication. It does give the first clue that something might be wrong with the science of the article.
The lack of sound science
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