Debunking Denialism

Types of Pseudoscience That Deserve More Skeptical Attention

During the past decade, a lot of skeptical activism online has involved topics such as vaccines, GMOs, and evolution. There are thousands of videos, articles and blog posts destroying creationist delusions about bacterial flagellum, the Cambrian radiation and transitional fossils, countering fear-mongering about biotech applications and explaining the benefits of vaccines. Yet some forms of widespread pseudoscience receive considerably less attention in the skeptical community. This posts looks closer at some such cases, possible reasons for why these have been neglected and why they should be given more attention.

Anti-psychiatry:

The opposition to modern psychiatry takes various forms. Alternative medicine proponents think that psychiatric conditions are caused by fungal infection or chemtrails and can be cured with homeopathy, spices or organic potatoes. New age believers think that depression is caused by people attracting it to their lives, and therefore have themselves to blame. They usually think that everything can be cured with positive thinking. Sophisticated mysterians are often non-religious journalists who decry any scientific discussion of psychiatric conditions with accusations of “determinism” or “scientism”. They typically believe that science will never understand art, beauty or consciousness. Even people who are otherwise skeptical of pseudoscience have bought into anti-psychiatry, often displaying the common denialist tactics. There are also conspiracy lunatics who think that psychiatric medication brainwash people and that it is all a government ploy. Some scientologists think that psychiatrists kidnap, torture and kill their patients.

There are not so many skeptics that confront anti-psychiatry. Debunking Denialism has written a little over 20 critical posts refuting different aspects of anti-psychiatry. Steven Novella, Amy Tuteur and Harris Hall has written several detailed treatments. There are probably other skeptics that have covered it as well, but they have not gotten enough exposure. Despite this, it is essential to counter the actions of anti-psychiatry movements because psychiatric conditions affect so many people. According to WHO, depression is quickly becoming one of the biggest causes of disability in the world with around 350 million people directly affected. They and their loved ones are vulnerable to this kind of quackery and charlatans must not be allowed to exploit people.

Why has anti-psychiatry and mental illness denial been neglected among skeptics? There are probably several factors at play. There is a lot of stigma and ignorance about psychiatric conditions. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable and some have bought into the dangerous prejudice that individuals with mental illness are generally dangerous people (they are not). Perhaps by watching movies about psychopaths such as Hannibal and murderous borderline people like Sharon Stone’s character Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct or reading news headlines about paranoid schizophrenics escaping from prison and killing children. To some extent, anti-psychiatry is probably related to the suspicions against large pharmaceutical companies found among some sections of the political left. However, this cannot completely explain the neglect of anti-psychiatry, as this trope (or similar ones on the same theme) can be found when it comes to oppositions against vaccines, HIV science and GMOs as well.

Homebirth quacktivism:

This pseudoscience is based on the notion that giving birth at home is safer than giving birth at a hospital. This is, of course, an absurd idea. Giving birth at home is considerably riskier, both in terms of neonatal death rates and complication rates, than doing it at a hospital (even for low-risk births). They also have a deep antagonism against obstetricians, Caesarean section and epidurals. The homebirth quacktivst movement has an obsession with “doing things naturally” and is also considered to be the “gateway to all other forms of health woo” because it intersects with vaccine rejectionism, alternative medicine and conspiracy theories at a very crucial time in the life of a child and a young mother.

Tuteur (2014) that was linked above suggests that the reason that skeptics have neglected this pseudoscience is that many skeptical movements have a high proportion of men and it is the women who usually make decisions when it comes to childbirth. Major reasons to put more effort into debunking homebirth quacktivism is that is a gateway to woo and because it is more dangerous than hospital births with essentially no real medical benefit.

Physical punishment of children:

Convincing research has shown that children who are subjected to physical punishment (often minimized by being called “spanking”) have worse mental health outcomes, have poorer relationships with their parents, are not long-term compliant and more likely to hit loved ones. This remains a fact even when controlling for baseline level of aggression. Surprisingly, it does not even promote short-term obedience (compared with time-out) once you take into account baseline level of compliance. This is discussed in additional details in Gershoff (2013).

Why is the physical punishment of children not criticized more by skeptics? Perhaps it is due to the fact that people who have been subjected to spanking are more likely to be favorable towards it and the U. S. has historically had a high rate of spanking. Perhaps it, like homebirth quacktivsm, is due to most active skeptics are men. Because of the well-known negative effects of physical punishment of children, skeptics should give more attention to the flaws underlying this notion.

Concluding thoughts

There seems clear that some forms of pseudoscience that are much more covered by skeptics than others. For sure, skeptics cannot be everywhere all of the time, but several forms of pseudoscience, such as anti-psychiatry, child abuse and homebirth quacktivism deserves more critical attention.