Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Futility of Commenting on Denialist Blogs

I never comment on denialists blogs. Why? There are many reasons.

1. Denialists can often edit comments in an intellectually dishonest way, making you appear in a bad light, giving them the opportunity to play the martyr card.

2. The regular readers of denialists blogs are probably denialists as well, so the probability of convincing them is minuscule. The fence sitters probably do not read comments to begin with.

3. Denialists tend to be very steadfast in their position and they usually do not listen or respond to counterarguments. It is a futile discussion, since very little actual intellectual exchange is taking place.

So, what to do if you come across a post on a denialist blog that you want to take to task? You can post on a forum you enjoy visiting to equip like-minded individuals with your refutation (and they can help you as well with other arguments), or make a refutation on your own blog. This will work as a more lasting impression on the blogosphere and more fully develop your arguments with links and references without getting caught in the spam filters.

Sisyphean Arguments with Anti-psychiatry Proponents…

In response to the previous article discussing OCD and Involuntary Psychiatric Care, S. P. has decided to post a reply on his blog. He also used different proxies to comment on this blog, despite the fact that his comment privileges were removed several weeks ago because of his constant abusive behavior and unwillingness to address arguments. Unsurprisingly, S. P. engages in multiple personal attacks (calling me a zealot, claiming that I must be mentally retarded, a fascist and a pathetic useful idiot) and rehashing of the same old assertions that have been debunked before. Unlike S. P. I am going to be the bigger person and just address the arguments.

Details are not irrelevant!

It is clear that the personal story of S.P. was an important influence for the origin of his animosity towards psychiatry. In my previous post, I made a provisional conclusion that the story lacked crucial details. The major details S. P. gives us is that he has an exaggerated fear of contracting HIV through usual contact, that he was diagnosed with OCD and that he underwent involuntary psychiatric care in an unnamed European country. However, to investigate whether the decision to commit S. P. for involuntary psychiatric care was justified (an by extension the emotional underpinnings of his position), one needs to know the precise details of the conditions, such as severity and the level of functional impairment, as well as the identity of the European country (to be able to check the laws regulating it).

My general argument was that it seemed implausible that he was subjected to involuntary psychiatric care just because an exaggerated fear. I assume most people have more or less irrational fears: wasps, dogs, clowns, heights, spiders, snakes, lightning and thunder, flying and of course germs. But obviously the majority of people with irrational fears are not subjected to involuntary psychiatric care. The conclusion I drew was that there is more to the story that S. P. has shared. Now, I certainly realize that anxiety issues (as well as other issues related to mental health) are sensitive things and I obviously cannot force S. P. to share if S. P. does not want to. However, this does not change the fact that these questions are very relevant. How severe is the condition? How much functional impairment was there? What are the laws regulating involuntary psychiatric care in the unnamed European country?

Individual freedoms and laws regarding involuntary psychiatric care (Sweden v.s. the U. S.)

S. P. dislikes the Swedish laws that regulates involuntary psychiatric care. To summarize, Sweden require that the patient has a severe psychiatric condition, refuses voluntary care and cannot be taken care of in any other way that around-the-cloak psychiatric care. According to S. P., the U. S. requires that the life of the patient or a third person needs to be threatened. What S. P. fails to grasp is that the third condition in the Swedish law is related to whether or not the life of the patient is threatened, but is more specific and focuses on not being able to take care of him or her self, or by other people. This highlights an important difference between Sweden and the U. S. Sweden has a generous welfare system, but the U. S. generally does not. It boils down to how much do we think that the government should have to care about people.

I find it peculiar that S. P. considers the U. S. to value freedom. Is S. P. aware that the FBI regularly abuses the Patriot Act?

Accuracy of medical testing

I confronted S. P. on his belief that medical tests are generally 100% accurate. S. P. then says that he clearly did not mean 100%, but used a metaphor. I find this hard to believe because the argument is often used by opponents of science-based medicine and metaphor is really a form of analogy, so S. P. is using the term incorrectly. The general message of my argument was that medical tests that are not 100% accurate does not undermine the existence of the condition, or the biological basis of the condition. Read more of this post

Explaining OCD and Involuntary Psychiatric Care to a Denialist

There is a certain anonymous anti-psychiatry commentator who imaginatively goes by the name of Stop.Psychiatry (henceforth S.P.). He has been IP banned twice on this blog because of engaging in irresponsible character assassination, spamming, and repeating same old canards over and over without addressing counterarguments. Predictably, this person has started his own blog, from which he spews his pseudoscience on anti-psychiatry by compiling personal anecdotes, emotional manipulation and arguments that have been refuted thousands of times before. He has made a couple of posts, but most of them are just linking to videos on other websites without much original content. Two posts contain more written text; one of them called “My story” and the other called “Anti-psychiatry is not denialism”.

Let’s critically examine these blog entries and see if they have any merit.

1. The uniting feature of OCD: obsessions and compulsions

The first interesting section of the first entry comes when S.P. talks about his own mental condition:

During most of my adult life I have struggled with a condition that was diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD. The funny thing is that psychiatry dumps into this disorder all kinds of different types of mental distress. In my case it’s an exaggerated fear of contracting HIV through usual contact. However, psychiatry dumps under the same umbrella thinks [sic] such as repeated task checking or number counting. How is that these things are related escapes my understanding.

I empathize with S.P’s situation. Having a mental condition is a serious matter and should not be ignored, mocked or stigmatized. He is brave to talk about his situation. Furthermore, HIV is a virus with potent capabilities for harm, so it makes sense to be fearful of contracting HIV. It makes sense to use protection during sex and screen blood donations for HIV. However, as I have understood the situation, S.P. had or has an exaggerated fear of contracting the virus through usual contact. He does not specify what usual contact he was concerned about or what steps he took to avoid those forms of contact. These details are vital for an accurate understanding of the situation and I wish that he did not leave them out. Perhaps he will discuss them in a later blog post when he feels more comfortable talking about his condition in public.

So what is the connection between repeated task checking, number counting and an exaggerated fear of getting HIV? An OCD condition generally consists of two components (although it is possible for either to occur alone): obsessions (cognitive component) and compulsion (behavioral component). Here is how the Mayo Clinic describes the condition (Mayo Clinic, 2010):

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). With obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may realize that your obsessions aren’t reasonable, and you may try to ignore them or stop them. But that only increases your distress and anxiety. Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease your stressful feelings.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder often centers around themes, such as a fear of getting contaminated by germs. To ease your contamination fears, you may compulsively wash your hands until they’re sore and chapped. Despite your efforts, thoughts of obsessive-compulsive behavior keep coming back. This leads to more ritualistic behavior — and a vicious cycle that’s characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

On the symptom page, they describe it like this:

OCD obsessions are repeated, persistent and unwanted ideas, thoughts, images or impulses that you have involuntarily and that seem to make no sense. These obsessions typically intrude when you’re trying to think of or do other things. [...] OCD compulsions are repetitive behaviors that you feel driven to perform. These repetitive behaviors are meant to prevent or reduce anxiety related to your obsessions.

Now we can see how these different things tie together: they share in common a pattern of obsessions and compulsions. Read more of this post

Swedish Comedian Magnus Betnér Promotes Anti-psychiatry Nonsense about ADHD on TV

Magnus Betnér is a Swedish stand-up comedian that now has his own TV show called Betnér Direkt. His style is strongly reminiscent of giants like George Carlin and Bill Maher, but he is bald, brutal and takes no prisoners in his social criticisms of things like anti-immigration, religious and social conservatism and general societal wrongdoings. He almost always push the envelope, making volatile sex jokes and is one of the first Swedish comedians who has taken support of feminism to an art form.

However, just like George Carlin and Bill Maher, he sometimes stays from the path of evidence-based reason. In his later years, George Carlin gave partial support for 9/11 truth ideas and Bill Maher has issues with vaccines and the germ theory of disease. To be fair, both George Carlin and Bill Maher has strongly criticized anti-science sentiments as well. Mill Maher personally help threw out 9/11 truthers that disrupted his shown and George Carlin often made fun of creationists. Betnér has also mocked creationists and poked fun at supporters of Zeitgeist, so what I will be discussion below maybe be a rare exception, but statements that I think should be challenged.

In the latest episode of Betnér Direkt (episode 7 of the first season), in the segment called Betnérs bud (a monologue at the end of the program), Betnér makes the following claims (2:27 ->, my translation):

We must stop diagnosing our children. A study revealed that it is more common with ADHD the later in the year you are born. Among reasons to get the diagnoses, “run around and climb on things” and that “they do not like school or homework” is mentioned. I see. You mean that what it takes to get the diagnosis is that you are a child! And stop calling that which you get for ADHD medicine. The medicine that the government prescribes is amphetamine. That is not medicine, that is breakfast [picture of a Swedish celebrity that has been in the news for taking drugs eating white powder as breakfast cereal]. It is fucking obvious that children become more effective if they get amphetamine! Do you know who also gets more effective if they get amphetamine? Everyone!

In other words, Betnér makes the central claims that (1) ADHD is an invalid diagnosis and that (2) medical treatment for ADHD is amphetamine, not medicine. These are fairly common claims in the anti-psychiatry play book and I will be discussing them each in turn.

ADHD is a legitimate and science-based condition

Singh (2008) outlines the major positions that exists with respect to ADHD. The first is the notion that ADHD is primarily caused by interacting biological factors. This means that medical treatment is reasonable as it attempts to adjust for the neurological issues facing individuals with ADHD. The second is the position that both biological and social factors are important in explaining the cause of ADHD. From this perspective, the diagnosis does not yet capture the full range of heterogeneity or complexity of the condition and so medication is accepted, but it also emphasizes behavioral therapies. The third perspective is that the primary factors influencing the development of ADHD is environmental factors and support preventative interventions, rather than psychotropic drugs. While all of these three scientific positions accepted that ADHD is a valid diagnosis, there is a fourth position which rejects it all together. The main proponents of this fourth perspective are scientologists and certain sophisticated sociologists. Read more of this post

The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Eugenics

For the purpose of this article, eugenics is defined as “the belief that certain individuals should be killed, be forced to undergo sterilization or other be exposed to other coercive measures to prevented them from reproducing in order to protect the population from harm and to ensure the genetic quality of future generations”. I will occasionally attribute other beliefs to eugenics, such as beliefs in “racial purity” or that evolutionary beneficial implies moral, so let’s consider this a working definition for now. Yes, I am aware that there are people who support other forms of eugenics based on voluntarism etc. but those groups are not the target here.

As we shall see, there are many problems with eugenics. It is based on a multitude of scientific falsehoods, has huge practical problems, it is arguably not cost-effective and wildly unethical. Some of these points are somewhat overlapping, but they emphasize specific problems.

1. Eugenics is based on artificial selection, but this is in practice mainly useful for selecting genes with additive effects. However, most genes have interacting effects, making eugenics less efficient, although not impossible.

2. Eugenics is based on a naive view of development. There is hardly never a direct 1:1 relationship between one gene and one phenotypic trait. In general, most traits are polygenic (influenced by many genes) and most genes are pleiotropic (affect many different traits). It is more accurate to think of the situation as a huge, complex network of genes and gene products influencing each other. The heritability of personality traits and certain complex hereditary diseases tend to be moderate (calculated from twin and adoption studies). Using Genome-wide association studies to analyze hundreds of thousands of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), scientists have found that candidate SNPs can only account for a fraction of his heritability (“missing heritability problem”). This may be accounted for by rare gene variants that are unique for different populations, variation in copy number or genetic interactions.

3. Eugenics is based on a naive view of the power of genes. Genes tend to be risk factors for certain conditions, where environment can act as the trigger. A classical example is the condition know as phenylketonuria (PKU). The genetic risk factor is a mutated version of a gene coding for the enzyme known as phenylalanine hydroxylase that catalyze the hydroxylation of the amino acid phenylalanine to tyrosine. When this is non-functional, phenylalanine accumulates and is converted to phenylketones. This in turn causes mental retardation, brain damage and seizures. An incredibly successful treatment is a diet free of phenylalanine and monitoring of the blood levels of this amino acid. In this case, environmental interventions are more beneficial, cheaper and less unethical than eugenics.

4. If you imagine the general problem outlined in point 3, but instead think of it being hundreds of different genetic and environmental risk factors, then you have an approximate view of most complex human diseases.

5. Even for so called single gene disorders, an individual with one copy of the defect allele and one copy of the healthy allele may have a selective advantage. The classic example is that a person heterozygous for the allele that in the homozygous condition causes sickle-cell anemia has a higher resistance to malaria. The allele, although detrimental in the homozygous condition, is retained in the population by balancing selection. Eliminating gene variants that cause disease in the homozygous condition may lead to less prevalence of individuals with heterozygous advantage. Read more of this post


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