Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Tag Archives: anti-psychiatry

Scientific Reality Versus Anti-Psychiatry: Once More Unto the Breach

Related: Entertaining the Denialism of Yet Another Anti-Psychiatry Troll.

anti-psychiatry

Why should scientific skeptics care about refuting anti-psychiatry? Compared with other forms of pseudoscience, such as creationism or climate change denialism, anti-psychiatry has received considerably less skeptical attention. Yet anti-psychiatry is a dangerous pseudoscience that causes real harm. Like alternative medicine quacks, anti-psychiatry exploits vulnerable people and by denying the existence of psychiatric conditions or dismissing them as harmless, proponents of anti-psychiatry deny the suffering of human beings.

After debunking the claims made by the anti-psychiatry proponent Tin, this person continued to make a long list of assertions about psychiatry. When your opponent blasts you with multiple, long texts, it is very difficult to ensure that you responded to every single assertion (I am sure I accidentally missed some in this post, and I’m sure I will be hearing about it too). To a certain extent, that is the goal of this kind of shotgun approach (sometimes called the Gish Gallop in honor of the young earth creationist Duane Gish who frequently used this technique): make as many flawed and unsupported assertions as possible in an attempt to overwhelm the opposition. If any claim is forgotten or not decisively refuted due to time or space, declare victory. This is also related to what is known as the asymmetry of pseudoscience: it takes a few seconds to make a pseudoscientific claim, but anywhere from ten minutes to several hours to research and refute one of the claims in detail. In that sense, scientific skepticism is always an uphill battle. However, once the refutation is out there online, anyone who comes across a similar claim can find it with a search engine and review the material in the references. So although I have little hope that the arguments and evidence I present will convince a ingrained anti-psychiatry proponent, it is still worth doing. Read more of this post

Entertaining the Denialism of Yet Another Anti-Psychiatry Troll

anti-psychiatry category

Out of all the pseudoscience that are criticized on this website — from creationism and the anti-vaccine movement to anti-GM sentiments and alternative medicine — no subject has attracted more malicious attention from denialists trolls than the articles refuting anti-psychiatry. I often respond and end up in never-ending debates where they simply repeat the same arguments over and over again despite having had their errors explain to them in great detail with references to the scientific literature. When they fail their misguided war of attrition, they resort to verbal abuse by calling me fascist, pig, dickhead, Führer etc. and claim that I must consider individuals with mental conditions who receive evidence-based treatment to be “roadkill” (I do not). After a while this comes very tiresome, so those individuals have their comment privileges removed for violating the comment guidelines. However, they do not let this stop them from spouting their nonsense. They simply use proxies, new names and email addresses to continue with their behavior (while keeping the assertions exactly the same). Some even try to impersonate me. I ban the new identities or turn off comments. This makes things calm down for a while, but it starts back up again the next time I publish a post debunking anti-psychiatry.

Recently, a previously banned user now going by the name of Tin attempted to post an anti-psychiatry diatribe on an argument describing some common anti-psychiatry archetypes that scientific skeptics are likely to come across when they take on anti-psychiatry proponents online. Although using a new name and IP, he still used the same email address as he did when he was banned the first time, thereby giving it away and so the comment got caught by the spam filter. Usually I would not bother to write anything about it and just empty the spam queue, but some of the claims he made in that comment was absurdly wrong on so many different levels that it could be useful for other scientific skeptics to have access to a detail refutation of those assertions.

In his comment, Tin confuses a debate about the scientific details with a debate on the validity of the entire field and tosses in appeals to false balance. He also makes a number of other flawed arguments, such as calling Psychology Today an academic journal, when it is really just a magazine and blog website. He also asserts that antidepressants are not better than placebo despite the fact that meta-analyses taking publication bias into account show that they do outperform placebo in a clinically significant way. Tin even fails to understand that ICD-10 also has an ADHD diagnosis and that ADHD is diagnosed outside the U.S. Finally, the five papers that allegedly show that anti-psychiatry is based on evidence either do not support his position, directly contradicts his position or is irrelevant to the discussion. The rest of this article examines those anti-psychiatry claims in additional detail. Read more of this post

Some Common Anti-Psychiatry Archetypes

Debunking anti-psychiatry

The anti-psychiatry movement resembles the anti-vaccine movement and HIV/AIDS denialism in many ways. Whereas anti-vaccine cranks claim that vaccine-preventable diseases are not that bad and HIV/AIDS denialists often deny the causal link between HIV and AIDS, anti-psychiatry cranks typically deny the existence of mental conditions outright (claiming they are made up or that they are “natural” states) or blame the individuals for “attracting” the illness into their lives with “too much negative thinking”. All three groups attack the underlying scientific models (e. g. mechanisms for vaccine-induced immunity and herd immunity, that HIV cause a reduction in CD4+ T helper cells, the biological basis and neurological mechanisms of mental conditions), the efficacy of the medical product, pharmaceutical companies, the government and the scientific community.

This post is an attempt to summarize seven of the most common clusters of characteristics, beliefs and approaches taken by various types of anti-psychiatry cranks: the creationist, the alt med zealot, the new age ignoramus, the “sophisticated” mysterian, the selective “skeptic”, the conspiracy lunatic and the scientologist. These archetypes are not based on published scientific studies, but rather on experience with debating anti-psychiatry cranks. Some of them overlap and not all features of a given archetype always occur. An interesting observation is that anti-psychiatry can be found across political, religious and philosophical spectra and divides. Even though a lot of the assertions made and rhetoric deployed is consistent across archetypes, different archetypes have different motivations and a slightly different focus.

The Creationist: the anti-psychiatry creationist represents the worst of two worlds: both a rejection of modern cosmology, geology and biology as well as a rejection of modern neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry. These individuals reject psychiatry and related fields because (1) neuroscience considers the mind to be a function of the brain, which is incompatible with the anti-psychiatry creationist’s faith that an immaterial soul is the entity responsible for the mind and (2) treatments of mental conditions does not involve a consideration of original sin, but focuses on medication and therapy. Although not all creationists are anti-psychiatry, those that are reject additional fields of science in order to keep their religious beliefs afloat. Depending on the individual anti-psychiatry creationist, he or she may reject the existence of mental conditions as medical conditions or go so far as to provide a religious description of mental conditions as demonic possessions or gifts from a deity.

The Alt Med Zealot: the alt med zealot embraces anti-psychiatry because he or she wrongly believes in the efficacy and safety of so-called “alternative” treatments for mental conditions. In reality, these alleged “treatments” are quackery and almost never gives any practically significant benefit above placebo. Most of the time, these individuals accepts the medical reality of mental conditions. However, they tend to shuns positions supported mainstream science, usually by ignorantly dismissing it all by shouting about “evil, multinational pharmaceutical corporations” (apparently without realizing the irony that a lot of “alternative medicine” is being produced and sold by large corporations) and accusing all critics of their beliefs of being pharma shills. Read more of this post

David Brooks: Not Beyond Neuroscience Denial

Related: The Failure of Mysterian Complaints about Neuroesthetics, Naive Philosophical “Criticism” of Reductionism in Science

David Brooks and Neuroscience

Through the shining light of rational science, most reasonable people have stopped attributing epidemics of infectious diseases and natural disasters to deities or demons. Instead, they have come to accept the scientific reality of disease-causing microorganisms and natural processes such as earthquakes and tropical cyclogenesis. Again and again, scientific explanations have replaced alleged mystical or religious claims in fields as diverse as cosmology, astronomy, geology and biology. Although mysterian beliefs about the world has largely cracked under the evidence and retreated from the natural sciences, some people still cling to the misguided notion that the human mind exists independent of and above-and-beyond the brain. These individuals, called mysterians, often come in one of two flavors. The religious flavors rejects mind-brain physicalism because if it was true, that would mean the end of both souls and deities (as they are considered brainless minds). The secular, non-religious flavor rejects mind-brain physicalism because if it was true, they (falsely) believe that it would mean end of moral responsibility, human appreciation of art and beauty, freedom and equality.

Although careful not to go into details about neuroscientific research, journalist and social commentator David Brooks made a similarly unpersuasive case against mind-brain physicalism in his op-ed column called Beyond the Brain. It starts with a straw man of neuroscientific research, claiming that neuroscientists consider it a theory of everything and that humans are viewed as nothing but neurons. It continues to list some important limitations and current neuroscientific research. It finishes off by drawing the unjustified and preposterous inference that these limitations imply that the mind is not the brain.

Scattered through the article are a couple classic anti-psychiatry and neuroscience denialist talking-points, such as the rejection of mind-brain physicalism and the claim that addiction is not a brain disease. Read more of this post

Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne Promotes Anti-Psychiatry

This blog post continues the skeptical investigation of the unscientific and wildly inaccurate claims that the alleged psychic Sylvia Browne makes on her Facebook page. Previous installments include her denial of the germ theory of disease, her public failure regarding the prediction that Amanda Berry was dead and an analysis of some of the tactics Browne and her true believers use in their promotion and support.

This time, Browne blindly charges into the field of psychiatry and makes the following ignorant claims about the origin of specific phobias (and another case of germ theory denialism as an added bonus):

Sylvia Browne talk nonsense on specific phobias

The number of scientific errors and unsubstantiated claims in these three sentences is gigantic.

The existence of supernatural entities

Throughout her facebook post, Sylvia Browne asserts the existence of a number of supernatural entities such as a creator deity, a holy spirit, a soul. She also makes implicit claims that reincarnation occurs, that deities respond to human prayer and that prayer is an effective treatment of many illnesses and specific phobias.

She provides no evidence whatsoever for any of these and there is therefore no reason to take any of those claims seriously.

Continued germ theory denialism

Brown repeats her germ theory denialism that was refuted in a previous post. Before, she asserted that most illnesses starts in the mind of the individual, but now she apparently thinks that illnesses are the result of cellular memories or subconscious memories from a past life. These two positions are deeply contradictory: do illnesses start in the mind of individuals in this life, or the result of cellular memories from a past life?

Rejection of the mainstream scientific view on specific phobias

Mainstream psychology indicate that factors that influence specific phobias and other anxiety conditions include evolutionary preparedness, genetic risk factors, highly reactive autonomic nervous system, conditioning (both classical and operant), learning by observation and so on (Passer et. al. 2009).

Instead of accepting the science behind phobias, Browne asserts that phobias are the result of subconscious or cellular memories from a past life. However, she provides no evidence that past lives exists in the first place. Read more of this post

Mailbag: More Nonsensical Ravings from an Anti-Psychiatry Troll

email icon

I rarely get email via the contact form, but when I do I like responding to them in the mailbag series. This time, a troll by the curious name of You are a moron (I will henceforth refer to this individual as “Moron” for short) sent me an angry email. I previously declined to publish a comment written by Moron on How Skepchick Rebecca Watson Misuses Statistics that containing anti-psychiatry nonsense and I suspect that Moron is one of the resident anti-psychiatry trolls that has been posting comments for many months through many different proxies to evade bans. Moron tends to use emails such as “dsm@dsmisascam.com” and similar.

For those who wonder if Moron has anything intellectually productive to say, I must be upfront and say that you will be greatly disappointed. The general aim of this post is to (1) demonstrate the breathtaking inanity of some trolls and (2) to expose the specific fallacies and errors in the assertions made by this particular troll.

Kamil, I have been following very intermittently your blog.

Apparently not often enough to get my name right. This is a common tactic used by trolls in order to depersonalize the individual.

You are the prime example of why self proclaimed “skeptics” are perceived as jackasses -whose most likely problem in fact might be a lack of an interesting sexual life.

Notice how Moron decides not to engage any arguments I have made against anti-psychiatry but rather make the assertion that self-proclaimed skeptics are jackasses. However, it does not logically follow that an argument is wrong just because it is presented by a person who is perceived as a jackass. This is the genetic fallacy, where an argument is dismissed because of its origin and not its intellectual merits.

It is also interesting that this troll attempts to condescendingly dismiss scientific skepticism by attempting to associate it with “lack of an interesting sexual life”. This is based on the stereotype of skeptics as humorless and boring men who cannot get laid. In addition, it is a pathetic attempt by Moron to introduce an irrelevant personal aspect (sex life) as a way to rationalize why Moron’s nonsensical ravings are not being taken seriously. Finally, Moron does not present any scientific evidence for the notion that a “lack of interesting sex life” (how should “interesting” be operationalized in this context?) is associated with being perceived as a jackass. Read more of this post

Responding to Incoherent Anti-Psychiatry Drivel

crank comment

A person going by the name of Alan David Anderson decided to post a few comments loaded with anti-psychiatry drivel on an older blog post I wrote. It is a garbled mix of assertions, such as that I am stupid and an ignorant fool, that psychiatrists have worthless educations, that anti-psychotics and anti-depressants are used to euthanize elderly that lack a balanced diet and that people with mental conditions are just obese.

Normally, I would have responded in the comment section of that blog post or just deleted his crap. However, it is the holiday season, I am feeling particularly charitable. Not that I think this will change his mind, but hopefully will give my readers something informative and perhaps something to chuckle at. Also, it is free blogging material for me at a time when I have more important things to do. Therefore, I will give his assertions a fair hearing in a new blog post. As we will see, they do not fare well.

The first comment

Mr. Anderson started his objections to psychiatry by posting the following:

wonderful sight thanks for leting me clear up the fact that you have no education that is legit it in this subject. psychiatrists have worthless educations. psychiatrists drugs are not needed under any circumstances. they give synthetic drugs that resemble things that are naturally produced. why would we need them? you simply do not need them at all. you ignorant fool. you cannot win an argment with me. you HAVE NO EDUCATION ON THE SUBJECT.

Mr. Anderson is correct in that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. I have no formal training in any of these subjects. However, that says nothing about the credibility of the arguments I put forward. Arguments stand on their own evidential and logical merit and their truth does not depend on who puts them forward.

Throughout his three comments, Mr. Anderson makes no effort to engage in the arguments I actually do put forward. This shows an unwillingness to have an honest discussion about the reasonableness of those arguments. Mr. Anderson does not appear interested in a reasoned debate, but rather to spread his bare assertions. Nowhere in his comments does he provide any empirical evidence for his assertions or links to any sources.

Contrary to what Mr. Anderson claims, psychiatrists do not have a worthless education. In the United States, a psychiatrist must first complete an M. D. and then spend four years as a psychiatric resident (American Psychiatric Association, 2012). Thus, psychiatry is like any other medical specialty in terms of educational requirements. This is hardly a “worthless education”.

While mental conditions are not quite as simple as “chemical imbalance”, treatments that modify neurochemistry in individuals with some mental conditions has shown to be very effective. I have written at length about this in other blog posts, such as here and here.

Mr. Anderson calls me an ignorant fool, yet provides no evidence to why we should believe him. He repeats his claim that I have no education on the subject and triumphantly claim that I cannot win an argument with him. Actually trying to convince someone who has sunken so deep into pseudoscience as Mr. Anderson has is very difficult and largely a waste of time. However, my goal here is not to convince him that he is wrong, but to convince fence sitters of the rationality of scientific skepticism and science-based medicine as well as giving supporters of these two concepts useful things to read. Read more of this post

Anti-Psychiatry in the Atheism+ Forum?

balance scale

I find my self slightly unsettled to watch the slow infiltration of anti-psychiatry into the various skeptical movements. This is probably facilitated by political ideology. Some left-leaning liberals have a suspicion of psychiatric medication because they are provided by large multinational corporations. Some libertarians are susceptible to anti-psychiatry because the government helps to finance psychiatric care. This is the kind of situation that made me have careful qualifications about new aspiring social movements in my post Crossing the Chasm. Even though there is a broad agreement on social values, there can be a strong disagreement on what empirical methods are best used to fulfill these values. I am carefully optimistic about Atheism+ and I support many of its values, but I first want to see where the movement is going in practice.

Recently, a thread appeared on the Atheism+ forum discussing mental health issues. Right now, it is just one thread and we should not overestimate the size of the problem. We should also not approach the ideas of a few as if they were a majority position. I am not saying that any particular forum poster is necessarily anti-psychiatry and I am also not saying that Atheism+ has been corrupted by anti-psychiatry. After all, anti-psychiatry proponents can probably be found in every movement. I am also not telling marginalized people to stop telling their stories. With those qualifiers out of the way, I do note that arguments commonly put forward by anti-psychiatry proponents has started to appear on the Atheism+ forum. I do not want to make accusations against any individual poster, but I feel it is important and worthwhile to address the claims being put forward. I could have done it the forum thread itself, but as anti-psychiatry is a topic that this blog covers, I thought I might as well make a blog post about it.

The thread is called Mental Illness Support. It starts out completely reasonable where the opening poster is inviting others for discussing things like how mental conditions affect group participating in the atheist movements and what can be done to help those coping with mental conditions become more involved in the movements. I think these questions are highly relevant. In passing, the opening poster apfergus mentioned that a new medication had been beneficial for him or her. For those of you experienced with debating anti-psychiatry proponents, you know what happens next. 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

“That’s Just a Brain Disease!” – The Poverty of Anti-psychiatry Dualism

While having the same basic ideological base as vaccine rejectionism, anti-psychiatry has received considerably less attention in the skeptical community, some even going so far as to embrace it. It is hard to explain, but maybe it is the combination of the stigma associated with mental conditions, the complex and interdisciplinary nature of the area and political ideology, although like vaccine rejectionism, anti-psychiatry is not associated with any particular politics, but smeared out over many different groups.

A fairy standard tactic of anti-psychiatry is to outright deny the existence of mental conditions by claiming that there is no biological basis for their existence. They may preface their rejection of modern psychiatry by stating that, of course, they do not deny the suffering of the individuals, but that it is really no basis for psychiatry. While it is true that psychiatry is not as evidence-based as, say, physics or cardiology, it is still an area we should not neglect or dismiss out of hand. To be sure, there are improvements to be made, but don’t let us throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Anyways, the equally standard rebuttal by proponents of science-based medicine is to point to evidence of the biological basis of many of these conditions as well as discussing other conditions such as Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s that produce real psychological symptoms and detailing the biological background. Surely, we think, this would be enough to disprove their position.

Alas, this is where things start getting even more bizarre than normal: Read more of this post

Stefan Molyneux’s Unfortunate Spiraling into Anti-Psychiatry

Stefan Molyneux is an atheist and anarchist philosopher. He is the host of Freedomain Radio, which is one of the most popular podcast series on philosophy on the internet. He is an author of many books such as “Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”, “Against the Gods” and “How (Not) To Achieve Freedom”. He is also a popular speaker on many libertarian festivals and gatherings such as New Hampshire Liberty Forum, Libertopia and many others. His arguments about religion, problems with many government programs and peaceful parenting are very persuasive and worth taking a look at. However, dark clouds appeared on the horizon back in early August.

I explored some of the problematic claims that Molyneux put forward on the topic psychiatry a while back in a post entitled A Critical Examination of Stefan Molyneux’s Claims about Antidepressants, where I attempted to correct what I thought where flaws in his arguments about medical psychiatry. While I did not consider him to be anti-psychiatry at the time, one of his latest videos on the topic has made me reevaluate that stance. In a video spanning almost 50 minutes called There Is No Such Thing As Mental Illness, he lays out his case against psychiatry, arguing not only that there is no such thing as mental illness, but that medications against these mental conditions (such as antidepressants and anti-psychotics) are not only ineffective, but actually harmful. He finishes off by asserting that psychiatry is a pseudoscience and should not be taken seriously.

Let us get one thing straight at the start, Molyneux is not claiming that the conditions that the scientific establishment labels as mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety, do not exist. On the contrary, he admits that the anguish and suffering is very real. His problem lies in the notion that these are classified as mental illnesses. He rather thinks it is a reaction to a sick and harmful society. He makes a large number of other claims, that I will be examining in this blog post, one by one.

I also just want to emphasize, yet again, that I am not a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist. I am just a guy on the internet. Because of that, I fully accept that I can be completely mistaken in everything I say. But hopefully I can present persuasive evidence for the arguments and claims I make in this entry. I will also list the timestamps for the specific claims made so that readers can make sure that I did not falsely characterize his arguments and positions. With that said, let’s get started. Read more of this post

Confronting Jerry Coyne on His Stance on Medical Psychiatry

Another couple of months has passed since Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, made his latest claims about psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. I have dissected many of his unreasonable claims about psychiatry on two occasions previously, in Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and in the follow-up post Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants. Since I feared that Prof. Coyne had started to slide down that dangerous path into denialism and pseudoskepticism, I decided to send him an email with a few critical questions against his stance to see what he thinks about them. Could it be that he has changed his mind, or has he become frozen in his views?

The email is too long to cite in its entirely (used a lot of references and such, which can be found in the two posts linked above), so I will just summarize my 6 questions. I identified additional problems besides these six, but I feel that these are the main questions I would like to see what Prof. Coyne thinks about at this time.

1. Why does Prof. Coyne describe the mainstream explanatory model for depression as “chemical imbalance”, when most descriptions in elementary level psychology textbooks emphasize a large number of interacting biological, psychological and environmental factors that are each important in their own right?

2. Why does Prof. Coyne think that the fact that the genetics of mental illness is rife with uncertainties undermine the notion that many mental illnesses have genetic predispositions when studies on identical twins and adoption studies show that the heritability is often moderate? Surely, there is a different between knowing that a genetic predisposition exists and knowing the exact mechanism on a molecular level? To take an analogy: even though we may not have all the details of how common descent happened (is this taxon more related to that taxon than this other taxon?), we can be pretty sure of common descent. Read more of this post

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