A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: enneagram

10 Jun 2002
Your website page skepdic.com/enneagr.html makes a serious mistake in representing the enneagram as being "based on a belief in the mystical properties of the numbers 7 and 3". The numbering was done after the concepts within the enneagram system were devised. The enneagram is not based on the number pattern and is not based on belief in mystical properties of numbers. The numerical sequence is nothing more than a clever mnemonic. It is not claimed by serious users of the enneagram to have any explanatory role whatever.

Mozart said his music "came from God". Many inventors use such unscientific language to describe how their insights arose. But skepdic.com makes a major blunder, in confusing an inventor's description of his invention process with the actual invention itself. The descriptions of Ichazo's "visions" are clearly intended to denigrate him personally, rather than illuminate his contributions. The aim of skepdic.com ought to be focused on the ball, and not on the man.

Who cares how Ichazo described his mental state? If you continue that line, you'll make a mockery of Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, John Nash, Alan Turing, and many other of the world's great creators and thinkers. Skepdic.com should look at the products these people produced, and leave their mental states to writers of novels and screen plays.

If you could discipline yourself not to jump to conclusions based on your reactions to new-age language and numerological diversions, you'd be able to study the enneagram system dispassionately, and find that it contains profoundly valuable viewpoints about human nature.

Pejorative sweeping terms like "psychobabble" in skepdic.com indicate a too-ready willingness to pass judgment on scanty evidence, the very characteristic that skepdic.com accuses others of manifesting. The account of enneagram in skepdic.com can itself be considered as undergraduate-level psychobabble, containing errors of fact, personal attacks, selective use of the literature, and emotive language.

There is a useful role for sceptics in society, but scepticism divorced from objectivity is mere polemics. Sensationalism of the kind displayed by skepdic.com is to be deprecated.

The credibility of skepdic.com would be enhanced by a balanced reporting of the actual impact of the enneagram on people, for example in business and government, based on evidence, not supposition. It's all too easy to trawl through a few publications looking for quotes that can be taken out of context to support a predjudiced viewpoint. This is a trap that trained researchers are well aware of, a trap that skepdic.com has clearly failed to avoid.

The superficial, subjective, biased, and mocking treatment of the enneagram in skepdic.com is unscientific, to say the least, and would be good fodder for a review in skepdic.com. We will invite our students to review both the article in skepdic.com and this rejoinder. To show similar evenhandedness, you might like to publish this letter at skepdic.com.

Ian Oliver, PhD

reply: I assume Dr. Oliver realizes his comments suffer many of the same faults he attributes to me. I would prefer him to specify (1) which concepts he is referring to in the first paragraph and (2) what are the profoundly valuable viewpoints about human nature the enneagram contains.

Below is Dr. Oliver's reply:

I'm not going to attempt to answer your two questions, which are well canvassed in the literature. The fact that you need to ask me these questions underscores what I have already said. You don't know enough about the enneagram to be credibly making the kinds of comments your website makes. Don't judge a book by its cover.

Can I suggest you go back to the literature with the following question in your mind: "What can I learn here?" Many of the people publishing enneagram material have extensive academic training as well as practical experience. They are not the absolute fools your website tries to portray them as.

I'm sure you are quite capable of answering your own two questions, but only if you approach the enneagram in a spirit of dialogue rather than debate. Try to understand the concepts without dismissing them as insufficiently well-defined. Try not to find out what's wrong with the theory, until you've mastered what's right with it. Then you'll have the balanced perspective on the enneagram that I feel it deserves.

reply: I suggest you do the same with the Skeptic's Dictionary. Ask yourself, What can I learn here?

Let me expand a bit on these points, to put them in perspective. It sounds like you don't have a social science background, so I'll assume yours is in the "hard" sciences.

reply: Interesting assumption based on a hasty conclusion to support a false dilemma. My training and work as a teacher is in philosophy.

In the social sciences we don't have the luxury of getting close to a Unified Theory of Almost Everything. There are thousands of competing microtheories, that attempt to get a handle on human behavior, which is an incredibly difficult thing to study.

In the social sciences we have to be tolerant on occasions, of somewhat rubbery concepts and somewhat spongy methodology, less well-defined than any of us would like. Because of the difficulty of the subject matter, we would get nowhere if we waited until everything was absolutely clear cut, because it probably never will be. However, slightly-less-than-desirable precision doesn't mean that every social science finding is therefore absolutely wrong.

reply: Now you are creating a straw man. I don't know anyone who has said that since the social sciences aren't based on clear concepts, they are all absolutely wrong. There is something to be said, however, about people who use jargon like "microtheory" to describe the many attempts at explaining human behavior.

Validation of theories is a thorny issue in the social sciences. Some social scientists have traveled the positivistic route, and mimicked the hard sciences, but with only moderate success. Those of us who earn a living from successful application of microtheories tend to rely on "existential validation". Is a theory credible and useful to a sceptical audience? I'm talking here about senior managers, academics, professional people, and others who have well-developed bull-dust monitors.

reply: "Existential validation"? That expression is even more discomforting that microtheory.

Even the hard sciences rely strongly on existential validation, although it's not so obvious there. Unless there is a coalition of respected scientists who agree with a theory, that theory is considered speculative, or just plain wrong. Only when there is consensus with a theory, such as Darwinism, is it considered something close to a fact of life. As you will know, even a near-consensual viewpoint among scientists can be wrong - e.g. the steady-state versus big bang theories of the origin of the universe.

reply: Frankly, I'm not sure you know what you are talking about, but I suggest you study the difference between a consensus which validates a microtheory and a theory held by consensus because it is both based upon and explains empirical observations better than any other theory, isn't contradicted by the facts, relates intelligibly with other accepted theories, leads to new discoveries, and is empirically testable.

The oral tradition of the enneagram relies on existential validation. Yes, there are potential problems of bias, undue influence by leaders, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Nevertheless, a large body of intelligent, competent, productive and sceptical people believe the enneagram concepts have value in advancing our understanding of human behavior.

reply: The same can be said for Islam and Catholicism. If the criteria for accepting an idea are who and how many we may as well give up studying anything with a critical and skeptical attitude. You indicate above your awareness of the ad populum fallacy, so why appeal to "existential validation," which seems to be a buzzword for subjective validation and an appeal to authority and consensus?

Therefore, I commend your reviewing the enneagram, with a view to appreciating its place in the social science arena.

Ian Oliver

reply: I think you have done the most commendable job possible of helping my readers appreciate the place of the enneagram in the social science arena. However, I will comment that the fact that you are able to attract followers who are not fools and who believe they gain something positive from studying the enneagram is existentially unimpressive to me because I have found the same to be true of hundreds of beliefs I nevertheless consider to be most probably false and most unworthy of a rational person's assent.

24 Feb 1998
I have three words to say: Hill Larry Us. I have been studying the enneagram for years, taken classes, entered into some REALLY boring chat lines, and essentially wound up not too much better off than when I started, feeling like a schmuck (what type is that, again?). According to everything, though, I am a 4. Maybe we are bores on the links, I dunno, I never played (fours get such a bad press, man). Thanks for the laugh.
Adrian Koesters

15 Dec 1997
While doing some research on personality typing to better understand my 13-year-old son, I came across your comments on Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. They gave me a much needed skeptical viewpoint. I had been reading this stuff like gospel. Strange how it pulls one into categorizing oneself. It's almost like the minor decision close, "which one am I like?". Rather than, "but I have all these behaviors, just at different times"!

The fact that my psychotherapist subcribes to the Enneagram had made it very valid for me. Thanks for helping me to see it is not "science". I loved the extra enneagram types you did, especially my number (maybe) 5, The Despised (honesty).

14 Aug 1998
I read your page on the Enneagram. If you really think that there is nothing to the Enneagram, I suggest that you take a more serious look at it. It is the singlemost powerful tool for understanding personality dynamics that I have ever seen. I am continually amazed at the insight it contains.

reply: Why would I take a more serious look at something I think contains nothing? Anyway, I'll take your word for it that this is the the best you've ever seen and are continually amazed by it.

I myself have always been skeptical, and I do wonder how anything significant could come from an 9-pointed symbol with an odd line pattern in it. The idea certainly sounds ridiculous, and I don't know how it could be true, and I still view it with a grain of salt. I never would have gone for it at all had I not experienced, over and over, how the Enneagram teachings match what really happens in people's lives, and how they give people truly valuable suggestions for personal growth.

reply: I guess if a match to your life is what you're looking for and this is it, then you have to go for it. I would add, though, that just about anything can provide valuable suggestions for personal growth.

Of course I know that people can read what they need into things, and that this particular human foible has been used to support centuries of hocus-pocus. You don't know me, so I will just have to tell you that I am extremely sensitive to that particular foible, and have been fiercely resentful of people that would play on it, and I still believe that, in the main, the Enneagram teachings are for real, and are amazingly valuable. Perhaps because they originated from an unfettered spiritual orientation, they seem to be far more insightful and useful than most of today's surface-scratching psychological theories. If you want to be a complete skeptic, perhaps you should devote some serious skepticism to the claim that truth can only be perceived by objective scientific measurement... Some things are still better known in the heart.
Scott Joyce

reply: One thing at a time, please.

What was this "unfettered spiritual orientation" that the enneagram originated from?

Anyway, I'll grant you that the enneagram is probably more insightful than dozens of other types of therapies available in today's marketplace.

You might want to take a look at my entry on scientism.

Finally, I agree that many things are better known subjectively and personally, rather than objectively and impersonally. The enneagram is not one of those things, however.

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