Monday, January 07, 2013

Immunised Hypothesis

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Special Pleading; double standard; Moving the Goalposts.


The advocate forwards a claim that in practice (or even in theory) cannot be falsified. That is, the proponent might forward a testable hypothesis initially, but then, when evidence is brought to their attention which contradicts their claim, they continue to add on ad hoc explanations; generally refusing to even entertain the idea that their original claim may actually be false (thus exhibiting Simple-Minded Certitude).


Reilly Liebe-Mann is a "emotional healing dream counsellor". He believes that he can interpret dreams to find hidden meanings in a patient's subconscious. He is in the middle of a session with one if his "patients", Turner Knott, who only sees Reilly to humour his parents. They are discussing one of Turner's recent dreams.

Turner continues: “…and the snake was slithering around the floor of my car.”

Reilly offers his interpretation: “Snakes represent transformation, knowledge and wisdom. A snake in a dream is indicative of self-renewal and positive changes.”

Turner points out: “Well things are really stable at the moment. And me? Knowledge? Wisdom? I’m hardly the sharpest knife in the cutlery draw. I don't buy this interpretation.”

Reilly: “Well you didn’t let me finish. The snake also represents hidden fears and worries that are threatening you. Your dream may be alerting you to something in your waking life that you are not aware of or that has not yet surfaced.”

Turner replies: “That really doesn’t sound right at all. Things couldn’t be any better at work, I'm super relaxed…”

Reilly: “Your not thinking along the same lines that I am…, It’s so obvious to me know. Snakes are phallic and symbolise dangerous and forbidden sexuality...”

Turner interrupts: "Can you please get your hand off my thigh?"

Reilly: “Uh, sorry. I was lost for a moment thinking about your dream."

Turner: "Well I actually own a python as a pet. Maybe I was just dreaming about Monty?"

Reilly: "No, I’m sure I’m right about your dream. It’s just that I haven’t yet taken into account the car…”

At this point Reilly continues with ad hoc interpretations. He says excitedly: “Don’t you see! The snake and the car are actually in the dream as red herrings, to throw us off the real message. Herrings are a type of fish, and I had a dream about ice fishing the day before last. But ice fishing represents breaking through a hardened emotional barrier, which is definitely not you. However, fish swim in water, and water is the first part of ‘watermelon’. Pregnant women or women on the verge of their menstrual cycle often dream of such fruits. It all makes sense; your dream is a subconscious cry for help; that you really want to be a young and fertile woman and bare children!”

Turner: "Seriously, how many times do I have to ask you to keep your hands to yourself? And can you please put your shirt back on?”


Reilly has continued to interpret the dream in a way that favours his initial hypothesis; Turner is in denial about his true self. No matter what evidence Turner produces to counter this claim, Reilly spins explanation after explanation until his hypothesis is so convoluted that it should be treated with utter disdain. He is in a win-win situation. If Turner never agrees or is never "healed", Reilly can claim Turner is living in denial. His dream interpretations are always correct. It's just that not all patients are open to accepting who they "really are".

However, if it does turn out that Turner is in denial, and he eventually does change we have no reason to assume that the dream he had, and Reilly’s interpretation, was actually correct. It could just be a coincidence, or more upsettingly, with enough "therapy" Turner might be convinced to change, a victim of folie à deux.

It could be argued that the above rejection of dream interpretation - that it is nothing but a waste of time and doesn’t reveal underlying psychological issues - is itself an example of an immunised hypothesis. That no matter what the evidence for dream analysis, we would rejected it as pseudoscientific bunk. But any resemblance between this rejection of dream interpretation, even when it seems to work, and the fallacy Immunised Hypothesis, is a coincidence.