Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Anti-Psychiatry

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.

One form of anti-science activism that will be the focus of this mailbag installment is anti-psychiatry. It works virtually the same way that anti-vaccine pseudoscience does: it downplays or neglects the diseases or conditions (mental illness denial versus claiming vaccine-preventable diseases are not really dangerous), it attacks the treatments (rejects medication and therapy versus rejecting vaccines), rejects the mechanism (deny biological risk factors of mental illness versus denying herd immunity) and promote vile hatred of doctors.

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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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Truehope Threatens Critic Natasha Tracy with Frivolous Lawsuit

Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning mental health writers. She tested and critically evaluated an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus Advanced during a time period she was suicidal and out of evidence-based options. Turns out that EMPowerplus Advanced is just a mixture of minerals and vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants. They claim that it can replace psychiatric medication and that they have over two dozens scientific papers published showing that it is effective. In reality, most of those are either case reports written by clinicians who believe in the product or plagued by lacking controls, having massive dropouts, being open label, having non-random self-selected samples or relying on self-reporting treatment effects.

Tracy wrote a few critical blog posts about the product and the company (called Truehope Nutritional Support) behind it in late 2013. A few days ago, The Synergy Group of Canada sent her a letter threatening with a lawsuit (webcite) for “slander/defamation” unless she removes all of her critical writings and issue a public apology within a week. In other words, an alternative medicine company that sells a “treatment” (against a variety of psychiatric conditions) that does not appear to be supported by solid scientific evidence has now attempted to silence a leading critic by threatening with legal action. This, of course, is known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” or a SLAPP lawsuit.

Truehope and the Synergy Group thought they could bully a mental health writer who criticized their alternative “treatment” into silence by threatening her with a lawsuit. They were wrong. Debunking Denialism supports Natasha Tracy’s freedom to critically investigate and write down her thoughts and arguments for all to see. Debunking Denialism reject the intellectually dishonest and cowardly SLAPP tactic. Perhaps unwittingly, Truehope and the Synergy Group has now made sure that the skeptical spotlight will exposing their dirty laundry.

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Mailbag: Faith Healing for Schizophrenia is a Bad Idea

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into 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 form on the about page.

In a previous post, I explored the pseudoscientific belief that schizophrenia is the result of demonic possession. In reality, schizophrenia is a psychiatric condition that results from a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors. The Journal of Religion and Health (impact factor 0.8) had published a paper by M. Kemal Irmak falsely claiming that hallucinations are just misinterpretations of real sensory information caused by demons. What evidence did Irmak present for this astonishing view? None whatsoever.

In response to that post, Michael wrote me the following email (additional personal information has been redacted):

I came across your blog while researching the use of folk healing methods for believed possession states in light of the new DSM diagnosis for Dissociative Identity Disorder. Specifically I saw your response to Irmak’s paper attributing hallucinations by persons with schizophrenia as caused by demonic activity. I certainly understand your argument against the etiology Mr. Irmak is advancing. My question is more on the treatment side […]. If a Turkish patient with schizophrenia believes that their symptoms are caused by djinn/demons, sees a faith healer and experiences a treatment consistent with social-cultural-religious understandings, could it be argued that this is a good treatment if the person has a reduction in their symptoms? It seems that there is evidence these approaches have better “recovery” rates for chronic psychosis than the medication-heavy methods in the West. (I am not saying no one should take anti-psychotics. […])

In other words, can faith healing be a valid part of a culture competent treatment program for schizophrenia if it was associated with a reduction in symptoms?

I am not a psychiatrists, psychologist, psychotherapist or any other kind of mental health professional, so I cannot give any medical advice in regards to treatments for individuals with schizophrenia above the mainstream standard of care, which is not limited to antipsychotics, but include cognitive behavioral therapy, rehabilitation and other treatments.

Cultural competence is crucial for psychotherapists who work with culturally and ethnically diverse clients. Otherwise, there is a risk of miscommunication, collapse of the therapeutic alliance and treatment failure. This means taking into account how culture and ethnicity can influence affect and behavior, individual versus collective goals, culture-specific beliefs about mental health and psychiatric conditions, value systems, relationship between treatment provider and client and so on. At the same time, psychotherapists should not fall for simplistic stereotypes of clients from different cultures or of different ethnic backgrounds.

What role does traditional cultural treatments play in culturally competent psychiatric treatment? Can faith healing be a valid part of a culture competent treatment program for schizophrenia if it was associated with a reduction in symptoms? The following arguments are from the standpoint of scientific skepticism and should not be considered medical advice.

First, we need to examine precisely what is meant by “symptom reduction”. Read more of this post

Scientific American Publishes Anti-Psychiatry Nonsense

Anti-psychiatry at Scientific American

Imagine that Scientific American published a blog post promoting the idea that we should abandon a disease-centered perspective on autoimmunity because the simplified notion of “immunological imbalance” surely cannot explain all aspects of autoimmune conditions. Imagine that it argued that heart diseases are not really diseases since cognitive and lifestyle interventions can sometimes decrease symptoms of many heart-related conditions and because social factors like poverty and childhood experience also influence heart disease risk. Imagine that the post claimed that biological explanations of autoimmunity implies a deterministic worldview that stigmatizes patients with autoimmune conditions and that biological factors should therefore not be emphasized in the understanding of these conditions.

Most rational and scientifically-minded people would rightly dismiss such “arguments” as unscientific nonsense that was clearly based on several, profound misunderstanding of the results of basic medical research. A lot of them would also seriously consider unsubscribing from Scientific American content because of the massive credibility loss. Yet when it comes to psychiatry and psychiatric conditions, these ignorant claims are often prominently featured online by popular science magazines without any critical consideration.

Recently, Scientific American Mind published an anti-psychiatry piece written by clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman on their guest blog and it regurgitates a large number of commonly used anti-psychiatry tropes. It misrepresents mainstream psychiatric explanations of psychiatric conditions as “chemical imbalance”, when it is really about a complex interaction between many different biological, psychological and social factors. It dismisses biological explanations of hallucinations and delusions by pointing out that social factors also play a role, when both are clearly important. It misunderstands the nature of biological heritability by conflating it with immutable, when genes are risk factors, not absolute determinants. It erects a false dichotomy between medication and psychotherapy and claim that since psychotherapy can often be effective, biological explanations and medical treatments should be deemphasized. In reality, the best available treatment for a wide range of psychiatric conditions seems to be a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Scientific American tries to avoid responsibility by posting a disclaimer (not once, but twice) that the “views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American”, but the fact remains that Scientific American has an intellectual and moral responsibility not to promote flawed and pseudoscientific content. This incident shows that they failed that responsibility, and in doing so, join the ranks of bad science journalism that increasingly plague popular science spaces on the Internet.

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Mailbag: Eviscerating More Pseudoscientific Nonsense

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into 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 form on the about page.

It always amazes me that so many denialists continue to spew out the same old garbage over and over, despite the fact that it has been refuted thousands of times over. At the same time, they so arrogantly dismiss any criticism of their flawed understanding of science as unscientific. It has never been easier to selectively focus on information that only confirms your existing opinion. The Internet has created confirmation bias on steroids. This time, we are going to take on (1) a climate change denialist who deploys the global warming hiatus myth, (2) an anti-psychiatry proponent who tries (and fails) to refute the existence of schizophrenia with pure logic and (3) an anti-immigration proponent who promotes the “white genocide” conspiracy theory.

The global warming hiatus myth is based on cherry-picking intervals

Kevin King writes the following:

This article is cretinous in the extreme. The models tell us the global surface temperature will increase, as well as the ocean temperatures. For almost 20 years there has been no global warming, either on land or in the oceans that we can measure. Even a first year arts student could comprehend this. No you are the denialists and you all belong together in a mocked up moon landing studio somewhere out in the nevada desert with a bunch of creationists. Start using your brains and read some Richard Feynman. Because clearly you haven’t got a scientific bone in your body.

To illustrate how climate change denialists cherry-pick intervals to argue for the flawed notion of a global warming hiatus, consider the following graph:

escalator of doubt

Most denialists fixate at the starting point 1998. This is done because there was an especially powerful El Niño during that year, making the global temperatures quite high during that year in comparison with others. If you draw a trend line from 1998 to today, you can deceptively make it appear as if there has been no warming.

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