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In Memory of Robyn Dawes: 1936-December 14, 2010

December 21, 2010

Robyn Dawes: 1936-2010

For me, one of the qualities that distinguishes a brilliant person and seminal thinker from merely a highly intelligent person is the ability to challenge and meticulously deconstruct commonly held assumptions that most people take for granted, but nevertheless aren’t so. Psychologist Robyn Dawes was such a person.

His obituary on the Carnegie Mellon website states:

PITTSBURGH—Robyn Dawes, the Charles J. Queenan Jr. University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who helped establish the field of behavioral decision research and made a significant impact in several areas of psychological sciences, died Dec. 14 at age 74.

When I think of all the people who have influenced my views on mental health, Robyn Dawes definitely makes my short list. For those who despise the views they read on this blog and in my other writings, where I have challenged sacred cows such as expertise without sound scientific basis or licensure as a license to be automatically regarded as legitimate and never questioned or criticized, you can blame a good part of this on Robyn Dawes (although Scott Lilienfeld and Eileen Gambrill must also share some of the blame or credit, depending on how you view these matters). Dawes is the author who, through the meticulous case he lays out in his book, House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, has had a profound influence on my thinking and views of the mental health profession that have not been the same since reading that book.

Some of his chapter titles included:

2. Psychotherapy: The Myth of Expertise

3. Prediction and Diagnosis: More Myths of Expertise

4. Experience: The Myth of Expanding Expertise

5. Licensing: They Myth of Protecting the Public

6. A plethora of Experts and What to Do About Them

7. Why the Myths Are Believed

Have I gotten anyone intrigued? If so, I highly recommend buying and giving this book a very careful, thoughtful reading, several times. It’s that good.

I regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting Robyn Dawes. This is a positive example of what I pointed out previously, that it is not necessary to meet the author to critically evaluate a person’s writings. It was just a few months ago, that I recall having a conversation with someone that it is time for a second edition of House of Cards, which was published in 1994. The proliferation of questionable therapies via the internet would have provided plentiful material for such an edition. I had even contemplated writing to him and inquiring about this possibility but alas, I never got around to it. Let that be a lesson. If you have something to say appreciative to someone, if you want to thank someone, do not put it off because as cliche as this sounds, the truth is that you never know how long that individual will be around.

  1. Hi Monica,

    Just wanted to say thanks so much for posting this. I haven’t heard of Robyn Dawes before but moments after reading this I was downloading the book on Amazon and am finding it a brilliant read.

    Many thanks again!


  2. Stumbled on this. . . I have a 21-year-old son who has grown up with Tourette’s, major depression, anxiety along with symptoms of ADHD, OCD, complicated by involvement with the child welfare system (due to both poverty issues such as housing, and difficulties with getting appropriate responses from the service system). When the child welfare involvement started, I was a math grad student (something I eventually had to give up because of my son’s needs). The psych department was in the basement of the same building, and I’d glean copies of professional and academic journals from the piles professors would leave in the hallway after office-cleaning. I read a review of House of Cards, was intrigued, and later found the book in the library. I’d heard of C-M having the only mathematical psychology program in the country. As a math person who felt a huge culture class between myself and the B.S., B.A., M.S.-level professionals my son and I dealt with in the service system, Dawes’ work helped me understand that clash (not that the house of cards falls down–which is what the math person in me always thinks should happen!) Sad to hear of his passing.

  3. Lawrence P permalink


    Sad to see Dawes go, he did a lot of good things.

    He put a lot of effort into criticizing pseudoscience, whilst many academics just kept quiet, often knowing full well that various treatments and theories were junk science.

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