Anti-psychiatry; an example of polarized debate between anti-science fringe and orthodoxy

Reading on the internet has probably already introduced you to the anti-psychiatric movement, which appeals to the dislike people have for the “disease model” and fear of medication for mental illness, which relates to their fears of being out of control of their own minds. Although they will have already experienced this as human beings, if not also as sufferers of particular disorders, they may not have accepted it any more than people can accept the fact of their future death.

In short, the anti-psychiatric movement, and specifically its anti-psychopharmacological message, appeals to the folk rejection of the mind or “soul” people think of as their unitary self being in some way integrated or derived—to some debatable degree—without conscious control, and being subject instead to the evolution, development, oddities and dysfunctions of a physical electrochemical brain, a compound, complex adaptive system. Despite mountains of scientific evidence, folk beliefs about the brain prefer to believe it is merely the seat of consciousness. This is just as true of secularists, who won’t use the word “soul,” but still believe in a metaphysical notion about the mind, falsely distinguishing the experience from the brain from which it emerges.

Figureheads of the movement like Thomas Szasz also portray psychiatry almost exclusively as a soulless industry abusing and controlling patients and selling destructive “medicine” they don’t need for imaginary ailments, rather than as a non-monolithic medical field which is generally less problematic now than some of its earlier history, but still muddling through, like its patients, not without problems, errors, and differences of opinion. The evil-psychiatry portrayal is mixed with a lot of disprovable medical ignorance and some brazen lies, but as is well known on the internet, most readers are not diligent in their fact-checking and not particularly critical about sources.

If any of them know, I have never seen one of the many people who reference the anti-psychiatry quack Thomas Szasz ever mention that his group, the so-called “Citizens Commission on Human Rights,” is a front for the Church of Scientology.

Scientologists have to be wise to their need for fronts like this to promote their views, which will otherwise be received as if they come from a science fiction cult—because they do. They have an agenda to disparage medical science, psychopharmacology, all psychiatric and psychological theories and treatment options—effective and ineffective, appropriate and inappropriate alike—to promote their own brand of quackery instead. This isn’t news, but I imagine that it will be useful for some readers on the internet, who have been taken in by some of the false arguments figureheads like Szasz have promoted, to learn about their associations with Scientology.

That was enough reason to make this post, but I would also like to briefly connect it to a larger pattern I have repeatedly noticed in dialogues about contentious science.

One unfortunate effect of anti-scientific criticism you will see is the gradual elimination of other positions with sensible criticisms of the establishment, in the fight between two absolutes.

One analogy to the environment created between the pro-medication (many would say, over-medication) psychiatry and anti-psychiatry camps (the latter essentially dismissing the science behind psychopharmacology, the former exaggerating its precision and utility) can be found in the environment created by vaccine critics attacking the vaccine establishment. Advocates like Paul Offit end up claiming vaccines can virtually never do any harm just to counter baseless claims that vaccines never did any good (polio, anyone?), or caused autism, or poison people, or spread HIV. Meanwhile, the fact that different vaccines vary widely in their effectiveness and safety, and evidence that both a great deal of industry money and centralized regulatory and public health information systems do distort both approval of vaccines and public perceptions of vaccines, are largely ignored.

Scientists become more shrill, dogmatic, and devotional, and adopt more politically-calculated positions, in response to bizarre anti-scientific positions attacking them which are shrill, dogmatic, and devotional from the beginning.

This also reminds me of what happened between the anti-Darwin positions (Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates) and the establishment academic positions on evolution. Prominent evolutionary scientists and advocates were increasingly pushed not only into a reactionary atheism but a reactionary neo-Darwinism, with some even intolerant or dismissive of valuable gadfly Steven Jay Gould.

The extremity of the debate sets the tone for a shallower discussion and understanding of science in which there is a temptation to underplay, distort, or ignore facts on *both* sides, to refuse to yield ground and to refuse ammunition to “the other side”—for there erroneously will appear to be only two, to the combatants.

One conclusion I would draw is that the partisan involvement of the public in a scientific field makes science less scientific. It’s not only the lure of public funding that can corrupt scientists, as in the Climategate IPCC scandal. It’s also that the rancorous mentalities of public debate with non-scientists frequently erode the essential scientific mentalities of openness and impartiality that require careful construction and maintenance. Scientists are humans too, and they become defensive about their turf just as readily as others. The public is understandably concerned about the effects of applied science, but interference with the aim of altering scientific conclusions to become more acceptable to preconceptions (the true bane of science) seems to corrupt scientists reacting to it more than they realize.

Even more so, public dialogue and understanding about contentious scientific subjects becomes corrupted, and polarized.

UPDATE: Thanks to Evi Numen for this excellent supplementary exposé of Szasz, Scientology, and the destructiveness of applying mind-body dualism to medicine: Dr. Stephen Wiseman takes on Dr. Thomas Szasz and Scientology’s “Citizens Commission on Human Rights”


5 responses to “Anti-psychiatry; an example of polarized debate between anti-science fringe and orthodoxy

  1. Pingback: Anti-psychiatry; an example of polarized debate between anti-science fringe and orthodoxy « Attack the System

  2. Unfortunately, this polarization is compounded by the stupidity of people like yourself who are ignorant of the work of Szasz and thus set up the ‘straw man argument’ solely in order to ‘polarize’ an argument. You may want to read his book ‘Anti-Psychiatry – Quackery Squared’.

    • Sure, he’s not “anti-psychiatry”; he’s just anti- the very model that modern psychiatry is based on. He’s a news flash: when other people say “psychiatry,” they don’t mean antique materialistic neurology of the sort that believed that diseases must have lesions to be real; they mean exactly what he criticizes. And when the rest of us say “anti-psychiatry,” we include everyone who rejects modern scientific knowledge of mental disorders, including him.

      I suppose he also just happened to enter into an association with a cult with well-known anti-psychiatry positions, making use of their money and connections by chance and in complete ignorance. Very believable. And it really puts him in a good position to claim psychiatry is all about coercion, because Scientology was never known for that, or anything.

    This sums up the -already pretty obvious- connection between Szasz, CCHR & Scientology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s