“Smell psychologists and the uncritical journalists who love them get a lot of mileage out of calling smell the most primitive sense.”
First of all, the only “smell psychologist” I know of is Rachel Herz and I am rather certain this is not a title awarded by any university. I am more inclined to believe Herz was dubbed as a “smell psychologist” by those ‘uncritical journalists’ you mention. I am not familiar with Herz’s work, meaning that she is not an author cited in any of my books nor have I come across any of her articles in the peer-reviewed journals I read. I am in no position to defend her – nor do I wish to. According to Wikipedia however, the university of Toronto does seem to have awarded her a PhD, “she won a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Post-Doctoral Award and took her research to the University of British Columbia.”, “she received the Ajinomoto USA Inaugural Award for Promising Young Scientists and joined the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia as an Assistant Member.” and “In 2000, Rachel Herz joined the faculty at Brown University, where she first was a member of the Psychology Department and is now a visiting professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, of Brown University Medical School.”. I am not unquestioning of anyone, much less of someone whose work I’ve not had personal experience with, but based on the information above, I’d hazard a guess that she is not a total quack.
As for psychologists “calling smell the most primitive sense”, can you actually provide a citation for this offensive claim? Yes, a google search will bring up many positive results, but I am not talking about newspaper or magazine articles that dub the sense of smell as such. I am talking about scientific journals confirming to APA guidelines or psychology handbooks used by major universities. Psychologists are certainly not to blame for this unflattering characterization. I suspect the reason why journalists have dubbed it so is that olfactory information is the only type of sensory information that does not first go to the thalamus for processing before being sent as output to the cerebral cortex. Olfactory information goes from the olfactory receptors to the olfactory bulbs and then directly to the cortex, without passing through the thalamus for processing.
“But as with all of the work of evolutionary psychologists, the conclusions that support our desires and reinforce our prejudices are those of which we should be most wary.”
I simply fail to grasp the meaning of this, especially in the context of the paragraph. Are you actually saying that we should be wary of ALL of the work of evolutionary psychologists? Certainly there are fallacies to be avoided, such as the naturalistic fallacy and the deterministic fallacy, but that does not mean that a whole field of psychology should be condemned in one fell sweep. Many of the theories of evolutionary psychology can provide theories for explanations of human behavior which can be really helpful, especially when seen in the context of other theories which support them. In any case, that is the turn that psychology is taking at the moment. Human behavior is too complex to explain by just a single theory. Many psychologists are taking a multi-systems approach, integrating theories into grander theories that help shed light and improve our understanding.
“Psychologists seem particularly fixated on sex as the engine that secretly drives our every choice and action.”
Errm. No. Are you thinking of Freudian psychology? Not even Freudian psychology is so simplistic, but first, Freudian psychology is not accepted as scientific and is looked down upon by psychologists today and second, psychologist are not by any stretch of the imagination “fixated on sex as the engine that secretly drives our every choice and action.” There are many theories on behavior, from many different schools of psychology. The closest theory to what you are describing is central-state theory of drives, according to which, different drives correspond to neural activity in different sets of neurons in the brain (Stellar & Stellar, 1985.) To identify the functions of specific nuclei and tracts, psychologists either damage them or stimulate them and assess the effect this has on behavior. The most studied drive is possibly hunger, but certainly not sex.
“This point of view never cost a psychologist his or her job or interfered with book sales, and offers the irresistible premise that biology releases us from the responsibility to make choices. Pop psychologists love smell. Smell is supposedly about sex and deeply buried memory, a sense that bypasses the rational mind, thwarts all efforts of language to describe it, and reaches sneaky neural wiring directly into regions beyond thought—for example, forcing you to be sexually attracted to or threatened by the perspiration of basketball players or generating forceful hallucinations of childhood triggered by smells of floor wax. It's the fondest hope of every perfume firm that the psychologists should be right, and that human beings should be sniffing each other to say hello and see who's been where and with whom.”
Can you at least TRY to differentiate between what you refer to as pop-psychologists and psychologists? Since there seems to be little difference in your mind between the two, I’ll assume you are referring to actual psychologists with the above statement. According to psychologists, like other animals, we do have specialized glands that secrete odorous substances, and some of these substances are steroid molecules that resemble substances known to serve as pheromones in other mammals. Most species of mammals have a structure called the vomeronasal organ in their nasal cavity, which contains receptor cells specialized for responding to pheromones (Gray, 2002.) But also according to psychologists, even though we humans do have a vomeronasal organ, the evidence to date is inconclusive as to whether it actually functions in our species or is vestigial (McClintock, 2000.) In many experiments, men and women have been exposed to various secretions taken from the other sex and have rated the attractiveness of the odor or changes in their mood. Again, to date, such experiments have failed to yield convincing evidence that we produce such hormones (Hughes, 1999; McClintock, 2000.) This certainly does not fit at all with your comment that “It's the fondest hope of every perfume firm that the psychologists should be right, and that human beings should be sniffing each other to say hello and see who's been where and with whom.”, does it? In fact, according to psychologists, all this makes absolute sense: “Sex-attractant pheromones are valuable for animals that mate only at certain times of the year or only when the female is ovulating, as a means of synchronizing the sex drives of males and females to maximize the chance of conception. (...) Humans have taken a different evolutionary route, such that sexual drive and behavior are not tied to a season, cycle or variable physiological state. For that reason, perhaps, there is little or no need for us to advertise by scent our readiness to mate (Gray, 2002.)” There is some solid evidence for pheromones in our species, but since this does not concern sex and attraction, I will not digress from the subject.
“Psychology is supposed to be a science, and science makes profits predictable.”
You seem to be doubting the fact that psychology is a science. Currently science is defined in terms of the approaches used to study the topic. Specifically, three criteria must be met for an investigation to be considered scientific: systematic empiricism, public verification and solvability (Stanovich, 1996.)
Psychology conforms to those conditions; in fact much of the study is devoted to methodology, experimentation, international guidelines, verification and statistics. It is possible that Philosophy will come up with a new way to define science sometime in the future. Until then, I guess you’re stuck with accepting the fact that Psychology is, indeed, a science.
I am truly disappointed. I simply can’t understand how Luca Turin would allow his name to be on a publication that is potentially slanderous to a whole field of science. I really enjoy Turin’s articles on NZZ Folio and will continue reading them. I admire the fact that he does not hesitate to show his presence on perfume blogs and perfume communities to answer questions and even to defend his views, something noone, least of all he is obliged to do. I want to believe this somehow flew under his radar. However, I am angry at Sanchez’s disdain towards my field of choice. Tania, if you value science so much, the least you can do is at least provide some citations next time. You certainly did a good job of writing exactly like all those ‘uncritical’ journalists you do not care for. Sweeping generalizations, a refusal to go any deeper than a cursory perusal of the surface, sensationalist claims that no doubt boost sales and appease the public that wants to hear exactly what you just gave them. You did it all.
Images: The Abduction of Psyche by William Bougueraeu, commons.wikimedia.org
Letter Psi, www.husson.edu