Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Tag Archives: anti-psychiatry

Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Misinformation About Clinical Significance


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standardized effect sizes) and create smokescreens about the clinical significance of antidepressants by selecting outdated and arbitrary cutoffs, when clinical significance should be based on the totality of evidence and the scientific context.

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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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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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Harbingers of Doom – Part II: Anti-Psychiatry and Teleportation

Here be dragons?

Can we make superintelligent humans by repeatedly selecting embryos in a test tube? Will we soon be able to live for 200 years or longer? Can we arrest or reverse the biological processes that characterize aging? Is the mind a neurobiological phenomenon, or does consciousness partly resides outside of the body? Will you soon be able to scan your body and teleport it to the other side of the planet in a matter of hours and survive, despite the permanent destruction of your body? Can you upload your consciousness to a server and live thousands of years inside computer hardware? If you cryogenically freeze your head, will you be able to preserve it for hundreds of years or longer, only to be reawakened in the future when scientists have cured death?

Previously, in the first installment of this series, we explored the historical question of whether medieval maps really had dragons designating unknown and dangerous places, assessed the risk of the development of biological weapons of mass destruction, criteria for science funding by the Swedish Research Council, meat intolerance as a solution to climate change, and science as the best defense against biological WMDs.

In this second installment, Häggström falsely claims that shyness has been medicalized as social anxiety disorder by referencing a book review despite the fact that scientific research has tested and refuted this notion. The suggestion that smartphones have vastly improved cognitive and communication skills is not as straightforward as it first seems: brain games are probably not more effective than playing a video game like Portal 2 and distractions from smartphones deteriorate human conversations. Worse, however, is the mischaracterization of heritability as an objective context-free measure of the importance of genes and the biological ignorance about e. g. antagonistic pleiotropy and missing heritability underlying his discussion of iterated embryo selection for IQ. Mistakes of similar magnitude are committed when Häggström tries to discuss aging (but confuses models for aging with definitions of aging, as well as the hallmarks of aging with the causes of aging), destructive teleportation and uploading the mind to computers (where he claims that you can survive the physical destruction of the body) and cryogenics that involves curing death and restoring function to a chemically fixated brain.

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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.


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.

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


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

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