Psychology’s Ulysses wins through

A review of: Playing with Fire: the Controversial Career of Hans J. Eysenck by Roderick D. BUCHANAN (University of Melbourne)

Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. ix + 475. ISBN 978-0-19-856688-5.

Reviewed by By: Chris BRAND (author of The g Factor, 1996), Edinburgh, 17 ix 2010.

“One of the troubles of dying,” said Douglas Fairbanks Jr (to Katharine Hepburn), “is that it gives writers the chance to say the bad things about you that they were afraid to say when you were alive.” Such was equally the view of Sybil Eysenck, who gets Playing with Fire off with a bang by telling its author that she had “a professional firm” destroy all her husband’s records after his 1997 death. Without consultation with Hans Eysenck’s friends or colleagues (who themselves were not asked to surrender correspondence), this act of intellectual vandalism was presumably undertaken at the behest of Hans himself – fearing that wet-leftist, usefully-idiotic ‘historians of science’ would otherwise have the same field day that they had rummaging through the ‘fascist’ links of Labour-knighted Cyril Burt and the socialist-pacifist-vegetarian Raymond Cattell.

For better or worse, this is the only bang that this book has. Though impressively industrious, Roderick Buchanan does little but flesh out antipathetically the details of Hans’ well-known academic career. With the help of timorous tittle-tattle and snide pseudo-accusations on every wearisome page, Buchanan portrays Hans as an over-competitive image-builder whose chosen empiricist ‘rebellion’ against pretentiousness culminated in the ‘tragedy’ (in his seventies, after a lifetime short of grants) of lifting £1 million from the tobacco companies to explore possible links between personality and cancer (from which Hans himself died).

Cutting through Buchanan’s pusillanimity and spite, the facts are simple. Hans (like Isaac Newton and Winston Churchill) had a rotten childhood -- in Berlin, with a Nazi-backing father and a celebrity Jewish mother who left him to be looked after by his Jewish grandmother. By age 8, Hans (like David Copperfield) bit a bullying teacher and concluded adults were mainly mad and that he should make his way by scholarship (soon proving the German patriotism of WWI Jews by their rate of Iron Cross awards) and by getting to England to fly with the RAF.

Sadly for the young Hans, but luckily for psychology, Hans was not allowed to study physics at London University because the liberal Germany of his childhood had not taught him enough Latin. By 1950, at the feet of Burt, Hans, 34, had established himself as identifying objectively six main independent dimensions of human psychological variation: general intelligence (g), neuroticism (N), extraversion (E), conservatism (C), tender-mindedness (T) and psychoticism (P). With whatever minor complications over the years – leading Eysenck himself to associate P (in his last great 1995 book) with independent-mindedness and genius – Hans pursued his six orthogonal Platonic dimensions (his hundreds of high-grade students at the Maudsley jokingly giving each other the sign of the Cross) through the vagaries of behaviourism (‘reciprocal inhibition,’ ‘protective inhibition,’ ‘incubation effects’ etc.) to the solid ground of hereditarianism, underlying cognitive differences (notably in mental speed) and the acknowledgment of racial differences.

In the course of what Buchanan considers an unbelievably high-minded concern for due process, Hans found time to champion modern psychology’s only major therapy for human ills (‘behaviour modification’ – albeit owing eventually as much to grandmothers’ ‘count-up-to-ten-before-swearing’ advice as to Pavlov), to put the boot into left-wing authoritarianism, to support streamed education, to back drug control of hyperactivity and to have fun arguing empiricist cases for astrology and dietary improvements for intelligence.

Buchanan thinks Hans’ career a ‘tragedy’; but actually it was a triumph which justifiably put Hans head, shoulders and torso above the pygmies of the rest of psychology. The only tragedy was that Hans failed to link with Anglo-Scottish Cattell who, in post-War America, came to identify the same ‘Big Six’ independent psychological dimensions – though unhelpfully preferring his own ‘oblique’ (inter-correlated) ‘Sixteen Personality Factors.’

Unsurprisingly, the mealy-mouthed Buchanan is unable, despite his many feints, to lay a finger on Hans, who emerges through Buchanan’s verbal barrage as the Greek god that he was. It might have been more fun if Buchanan had taken the trouble to talk to Cattell, Glenn Wilson, John Raven, Bill Yule, Derek Corcoran, Dick Passingham or Peter Caryl – all unmentioned in the Index (though occasionally in Buchanan’s copious footnotes). Hans, blessed with a stable-introvert and largely academic personality (though he inherited delight in occasional showmanship from his Master-of-Ceremonies papa), was a keen scientist whose only fault was to take the psychology (though not the psychoanalysis!) of his young days too seriously.

Fortunately, he always kept trying to find new understandings and therapies; and he was able (in liaison with his student, Art Jensen) to break out and back to twentieth-century psychology’s most solid and predictive variable, little 'g'. It was here that, from 1967 onwards, Eysenck did his most lastingly important scientific work (‘choice reaction time’) – his earlier efforts at least being replicated by the Cambridge experimentalist, Donald Broadbent.

Sadly for his till-then-fantastic public reputation, g was to lead Hans into trouble. But Eysenck could not have known that the Burt Affair and race would prove such landmines in his path: far from Buchanan’s idea of Eysenck seeking to provoke, trouble came naturally to theoretician Hans in spades. He did not ‘play with fire.’ He played the scientific game by every rule in the book; he simply saw ‘the big picture’ (as Buchanan sometimes admits); and was, as in his own words, a Rebel with a Cause – especially against the moaning minnows of his day.

Buchanan will help shuffling historians and provide detail for Hans’ diminutive denigrators; but – with the hindrance from Sybil – he will not advance understanding of Eysenck as a man or scientist. There was nowt wrong with Hans. “Going for the largest game, creating an intellectual sensation, striking a posture, sometimes at the expense of truth, generally enjoying the fun of going against the grain”; “the unifying thread of his work was provided by his own personality.” These were descriptions offered (respectively in the 2010 London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement) not of Hans but of Britain’s late great historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper -- Lord Dacre of Glanton, to mention one of the many titles which Hans was denied by petty fellow-travelling ‘psychologists.’


Re Cattell, see review of William TUCKER, The Cattell Controversy, here (scroll down)

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