Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Category Archives: Anti-Psychiatry

Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Misinformation About Clinical Significance

Mailbag

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

Anti-psychiatry is a form of pseudoscience that is based on at least three false core beliefs: the denial of the existence or severity of metal illness, the rejection of mainstream treatments for mental illness (including medication and therapy) and the demonization of psychiatrists. There are many different kinds of anti-psychiatry activists. This includes some religious extremists who deny the intimate connections between the mind and the brain, some new age believers who wrongly think that it is just a matter of positive thinking, some alternative medicine proponents who falsely claim that it is due to eating too much acidic foods and so on.

In particular, anti-psychiatry activists spread misinformation and hate about psychiatric medications in much the same way that anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists fearmonger about vaccines and genetically modified foods. Many anti-psychiatry researchers make obvious statistical errors (by wrongly calculating standardized effect sizes) and create smokescreens about the clinical significance of antidepressants by selecting outdated and arbitrary cutoffs, when clinical significance should be based on the totality of evidence and the scientific context.

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How Anti-Psychiatry Researchers Attack Antidepressants With Faulty Statistics

Generic pill image

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that downplays or rejects the existence and severity of psychiatric conditions, denies the efficacy of established treatments and demonizes medical doctors. Not all anti-psychiatry activists are committed to all of these three positions, but they are common beliefs within the movement. It is thus very reminiscent of anti-vaccine activists who wrongly think that vaccine-preventable diseases are natural and not very harmful, reject vaccines and demonize pediatricians. In terms of debating tactics, anti-psychiatry activists make use the same standard denialist toolkit: quoting scientists out of context, cherry-picking data, misunderstanding basic science and so on.

A recent paper by Jakobsen and colleagues (2017) claims to have shown that the antidepressant class SSRI has questionably clinical efficacy. It turns out that they base this claim on a piece of highly deceptive statistical trickery: they erect an arbitrary and evidence-free effect size threshold for clinical significance and then reject all treatments that do not fulfill it.

Because the threshold they picked was so large, they would be forced to reject both psychotherapy and a considerable portion of medications used in general medicine as well. The researchers cite National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as support for their criteria, but NICE dumped this criteria as flawed around eight years ago. In the end, SSRIs are effective and a useful treatment for depression (but do not work perfectly for everyone) and clinical significance is a spectrum and not a black-and-white issue.

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Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Fallacies and Falsehoods

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

Anti-science activism takes many forms. They can oppose specific scientific models such as climate change or evolution. They can oppose entire aspects of medicine, such as alternative medicine or cancer quackery. They can promote conspiracy theories on specific historical events such as 9/11 terrorist attacks or the Holocaust. They can oppose specific products developed by researchers such as vaccines or genetically modified crops. They can even be corrupted by specific ideologies such as natural birth quackery or race pseudoscience.

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Astral Parasites, Chakra Balancing and Other “Occult” Nonsense

Astral bullshit

New Age woo is a convoluted mixture of eastern mysticism and pseudoscientific abuse of modern scientific research, primarily medicine and physics. This includes misunderstandings of crucial concepts such as energy, vibration, frequency as well as the flawed claim that diseases are caused by negative attitudes that attract bad things in life. This post will survey some contemporary discussions among New Age and “occult” circles on the Internet by looking at some of the topics discussed on the r/occult subreddit.

These range from being laughably absurd to being potentially hazardous for your health. It might be entertaining to read about New Age speculations about he next step in evolution, whether this or that spirit can make you more witty or people who think they are being followed by the number 13. However, it is very troubling to read about astral parasite delusions that causes self-harming, tarot cards against suicidal depression, or people wanting to find ways to protect themselves against astral rape or the negative psychic energy by the people around them.

Being infected with astral parasites?

One poster described a very disturbing situation where he or she had been dealing with several malicious astral parasites that had led to several hospitalizations and even to almost convince him or her to cut off a finger:

I have been dealing with at least 4 very intelligent, very cunning, and very manipulative astral parasites for about 2 years now. They’ve tricked me time and again into having me think they are actually here to help me and not harm me. Finally, after all this time I do realize their true nature, but I have no idea how to get rid of them at this point. I can go into much more detail about all this, but my first question is has anyone had full success in ridding themselves of these things? They’ve put me in the mental ward 4 times now, and the last episode they almost convinced me to cut off my pinky finger. You could say things are getting pretty serious. And the nightmares they give me are just absolutely horrendous. I made the mistake of trying to befriend them, to appeal to some consciousness they apparently don’t have. I’m also constantly fatigued just about every day now. Thanks for reading. All advice and any questions are very much welcome and needed.

Although it is hard to speculate and one should generally avoid making judgement of a psychiatric nature on the Internet, this may indicate some form of psychiatric condition involving delusions, such as schizophrenia. The delusions seem durable and fixed and this has been going on for multiple years with several stays at a mental ward. On the balance of the evidence, this is much more likely to be a psychiatric problem than anything involving supernatural “astral parasites”. Some comments with more information from the original poster explained that he or she was also suffering from nightmares and night-time paralysis.

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The 1942 Kennedy-Kanner Debate in American Journal of Psychiatry

Kennedy-Kanner Exchange

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that denies the existence of psychiatric conditions, denies the efficacy of psychiatric medications and psychotherapy and considers psychiatrists to be evil and totalitarian monsters. Not all proponents agree on all details, but the beliefs and debating tactics is very similar to anti-GMO or anti-vaccine activists.

One common trope promoted by anti-psychiatry activists is to claim that if you support the benefits of modern medicine, you must support all aspects of medicine in history. This is, of course, nonsense, since you can accept life-saving treatments while rejecting bloodletting for infectious diseases without a contradiction. The same apply to psychiatry.

Anti-psychiatry proponents also abuse the scientific literature, trying to misrepresent it to further their own ideological goals. One such misrepresentation, in conjunction with the above tactic, occurs for the Kennedy-Kanner debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1942. Despite it being 74 years ago and completely irrelevant to modern psychiatry, anti-psychiatry activists attempt to taint modern psychiatry with the beliefs expressed by the neurologist doctor Kennedy, despite the fact that the psychiatrists Kanner debunked most of the claims put forward by Kennedy.

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Anti-Psychiatry and The Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic

Anatomy of an Epidemic

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that is based on denying the existence of mental illness, rejecting the efficacy of mainstream science-based treatment and demonizing medical doctors who specialize in psychiatry. The anti-psychiatry movement is very diverse and include individuals with very different views on economy and liberty and not all anti-psychiatry proponents agree with all three core beliefs.

Some creationists reject the notion of psychiatric conditions because they think that mental illness is a form of satanic contamination of an immaterial soul and scoff at mainstream treatments do not involve a scriptural perspective on original sin. Some people who embrace alternative medicine or new age belief systems think that depression is just a result of too much negative energy and that if they just think positively or take homeopathy, they will attract good things in life. Even some secular atheists have jumped on the anti-psychiatry train, either by shrieking about “reductionism” or buying into irrational and evidence-free conspiracy theories about how psychiatrists supposedly regularly kidnap, torture and murder their patients.

Robert Whitaker is an anti-psychiatry journalist and author who has written many articles and books arguing against mainstream psychiatry, including a paper in the bottom-of-the-barrel quack journal Medical Hypotheses that was not peer-reviewed at the time. His general approach is to mischaracterize how modern psychiatry looks at the causes of mental illness and spread misinformation about psychiatric medications by misusing old studies while ignoring their flaws and ignoring hundreds of studies that contradicts him.

E. Fuller Torrey is an American psychiatrist with a special research focus on schizophrenia. He runs Stanley Medical Research Institute and founded Treatment Advocacy Center. A while back Torrey wrote a scathing review of the latest anti-psychiatry book written by Whitaker. That review, called Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic: How Robert Whitaker Got It Wrong, will be discussed in additional detail in this post, because it is one of the best refutations of anti-psychiatry claims available on the Internet.

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Bracket Fungus as Fake “Treatment” for Suicidal Thoughts

Reishi undercover journalism

Americans spend around 34 billion dollars from their own pockets on alternative medicine every year according to the National Institutes of Health. Almost all of these products are either supported by weak research, no research or directly contradicted by large-scale high-quality scientific studies. What is worse is that this kind of quack “treatments” have seeped into academia and created several centers for “integrative medicine”.

It has also invaded public perception, with alternative health stores popping up all across major cities around the world that sells all kinds of quackery, from colloidal silver to allegedly healing mushrooms. What is truly terrifying is their aggressive marketing of these products for medical conditions they certainly do not effectively treat, thereby conning innocent and sick people for money while giving very little, if anything in return in terms of health benefits. In particular, there seems to be a growing trend to sell alternative medicine products for psychiatric conditions and symptoms such as depression, anxiety and suicidality.

A local department of the Swedish public television (SVT) decided to make a critical investigation (webcite) into one of these alternative health stores called Clearlife and a product they sold called Reishi. What they found was that the company recommends powdered mushroom in hot water as treatment for recurring suicidal thoughts. Utterly unscientific, unethical and likely illegal.

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Deconstructing a Flawed Defense of EMPowerplus Quackery

False Hope

Alternative medicine proponents defend their pseudoscientific quackery by a number of different means. Sometimes they claim that their alleged “treatment” is actually science-based and put forward studies that make trivial errors when it comes to experimental design, statistical analysis or the appropriate interpretation of the results in the wider medical context. However, this is typically rare since it requires a very deep level of intellectual self-deception. Other methods include claiming that although the preparation is just placebo, it is still very powerful through some mystical mind-body process that science can never understand. Quite often, however, they do not even make a serious attempt at sounding reasonable and instead merely claim that it “works for them” and that it is therefore unreasonable and immoral to object to alleged “treatments” that either has no evidence of safety or efficacy or has evidence of harm.

This article examines one such attempt to prop up an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus (by Truehope) for psychiatric conditions such as autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety and bipolar conditions. However, these claims have never been evaluated by the FDA and the company uses the classic quack Miranda warning that their product is “intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” There is no credible scientific research supporting efficacy and safety of the product (the only RCT was terminated before completion and results were never reported), it has potentially dangerous drug interactions, the company makes invasive follow-up calls, and even promote the notion that Candida infection causes diseases in otherwise healthy individuals. Not only that, but the company tries to recruit friends and family to manipulate the patient to stay on the “treatment”.

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