the ‘Pseudoscience’ Debunkers
P. Clinical Psychology Forum. [Division of Clinical Psychology. British
Psychological Society] 174. June 2007. 13-16.
The writings of those who claim to debunk pseudoscience may themselves be
unscientific and can be used oppressively in debates within clinical psychology
and the NHS.]
years have seen the emergence of a niche academic genre of ‘pseudoscience
debunking’. This features the writings of clinical (often American)
psychologists, who see themselves as mounting a campaign to rid clinical
psychology, and the therapy world generally, of assumptions, theories, and
techniques that this group regard as lacking in scientific validity (e.g.
Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr, 2003). I
offer some comments on this book and upon two papers recently cited within one
NHS Trust in an attempt to restrict the range of psychological therapies
the profession’s history, there have been psychologists who attempt to
establish their territory and authority, defining what is and what is not
allowed within the field, and what methods of enquiry and critical thought are
permitted. For example, Hans Eysenck, the original ‘debunker’, writing in 1949
about training in clinical psychology, declared that “therapy is something
essentially alien to clinical psychology … we must be careful not to let social
need interfere with scientific requirements” [p 173]. Unfortunately, the
writings within this new genre of debunkers are themselves often lacking in a
genuinely scientific outlook. These become potentially problematic when used to
buttress arguments about what kinds of therapy should, or should not, be
allowed within the NHS in Britain.
criteria for pseudoscience
the opening chapter of their edited collection, Lilienfeld, Lynn & Lohr
(2003) state: “One of the major goals of this book is to distinguish scientific
from pseudoscientific claims in clinical psychology. To accomplish this goal,
however, we must first delineate the principal differences between scientific
and pseudoscientific research programs.” [p 5]. Clearly they are here stating
an agenda of delineating territory and its boundaries. They then go on to
propose a list of 10 indicators of ‘pseudoscience’. These are:
- an overuse of ad hoc hypotheses
designed to immunise claims from falsification – where hypotheses are
‘pasted on’ to plug holes in the theory;
- an absence of
self-correction, with resulting
- evasion of peer review;
- emphasis on confirmation rather
- reversed burden of proof –
demanding the sceptics demonstrate that a claim is false;
- absence of connectivity to other
- over-reliance on testimonial and
- use of obscurantist language;
- absence of boundary conditions –
i.e. claims that a treatment method has a very wide range of applications;
- the ‘mantra of holism’ – that
phenomena are not to be studied in isolation from other phenomena.
problem with most of these criteria is that they depend somewhat on which pot
wishes to call which kettle black. For example, with regard to ‘obscurantist
language’, some of the most inelegant and jargonistic language is found in the
cognitive-behavioural literature – where facing your fears is called
‘exposure’, refraining from an activity is called ‘response prevention’,
learning to relax is called ‘stress inoculation’, and revising your thoughts is
called ‘cognitive restructuring’. Beck’s cognitive therapy not only lacks
‘connectivity’ to psychological findings regarding cognition and mood, but is
incongruent with it (Fancher 1995). As for ‘boundary conditions’, CBT seems to
be prescribed for almost everything these days, from chronic pain to
schizophrenia. Any novel theory or therapeutic approach, particularly of a
holistic nature, is likely to be dismissed as pseudoscience on the basis of the
above criteria. Case studies are always likely to be initial forms of evidence
– and, indeed, in many instances are the most appropriate kind of data [Roth
& Fonagy, 1996, p 16-17]. Although the principle of falsification is
important, it is not unreasonable also to cite evidence that is consistent with
the theory in question – confirmatory evidence is surely not irrelevant (Stove
1982). Any radically new approach is likely to display a relative lack of
connection to the dominant paradigm, but may have connections to more distant
fields of scientific enquiry. A new approach may also not yet have access to
established journals willing to consider papers that derive from an unfamiliar
paradigm. If a manuscript is sent to reviewers who are invested in a prevailing
paradigm they may be likely to reject it. Therefore it is often the case that
new approaches are presented first in the form of books, with case histories –
as with early accounts of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy, and some of
the recent therapies, such as Eye Movement Desensitisation, Thought Field
Therapy, and so on.
a negative impression
certain common styles and strategies that can be discerned in the writings of
the debunkers – one obvious feature of which is the use of disparaging terms
such as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘junk science’, as well as a tone of writing that
can appear distinctly sneering. This distortion of genuine scientific enquiry
has been carefully explored by Perkins and Rouanzoin (2002) in relation to EMDR
– and is also discussed in Mollon (2005).
Gaudiano & Herbert (2000) refer to various new psychological therapies
(such as Eye Movement Desensitisation [EMDR] and Thought Field Therapy [TFT]),
stating “these treatments are gaining widespread acceptance among mental health
practitioners despite their frankly bizarre theories and absence of scientific support”
(p 1 of internet version) – an introduction clearly designed to evoke a
negative impression in the reader. Then, referring to EMDR, they write that
this “involves a therapist waving his or her finger in front of the patient’s
eyes while the client imagines various disturbing scenes that are thought to be
related to the patient’s problems” [p 1]. Note the subtle disparaging phrasing
here: rather than simply say that the client thinks of his or her traumatic
memories, the authors write in a way that implies some speculative theory about
the relationship of ‘disturbing scenes’ to the ‘patient’s problems’, when in
fact the disturbing scenes are the patient’s presenting problem.
In a similar
paper, Devilly (2005) engages in disdainful comments about a number of new
therapies. For example, he introduces Traumatic Incident Reduction by
describing it as “a direct conversion from Scientology”  – an allusion
presumably designed to create a negative emotional impression in the reader. He
cites no evidence for this claim – and it is at odds with the TIR Association
website, where its originator states the background influences as predominantly
Freud, Pavlov, Carl Rogers, and cognitive therapy. The method is in essence to
do with allowing the client to review a traumatic incident from a position of
safety and relaxation – and it is puzzling why this should be regarded as
either unusual or controversial.
The slight of
hand style of misrepresentation continues when Devilly refers to a randomised
control trial of Emotional Freedom Technique (a derivative of TFT). Whilst
acknowledging that the results displayed a significant treatment effect of EFT,
he then claims that “at follow-up treatment gains had dissipated to a large
extent” . What the paper actually states is more or less the precise
“This immediate effect of EFT appears to be long-lasting.
This is especially clear in terms of improvement in avoidance behaviour. For
BAT (the behavioural avoidance test), the evidence was clear-cut; the follow-up
showed (a) substantial improvement compared to the pretest and (b) no evidence
of dissipation relative to the posttest. … Thus, converging evidence from four
interrelated sources leads to the same conclusion, namely that on the important
behavioural task, EFT produces an effect which lasts at least six to nine
months.” [Wells et al. 2003. p 956].
Disparagement of motives
others writing in this genre, engages in extensive disparagement of the motives
and integrity of those who develop the newer therapies. For example, in
referring to Thought Field Therapy, Emotional Freedom Techniques, and EMDR, he
makes various statements about how much trainings may cost. The implication
appears to be that such methods are essentially a means of conning
practitioners and the public out of their money.
referring to what he alleges to be a kind of manufactured sincerity, he
it is even harder to argue with someone who is seen as ‘gifted’ and affects
ostentatious compassion towards those in strife. Maybe they set up a
‘humanitarian’ (and tax exempt) offshoot, such as the EMDR Humanitarian
Assistance Program, or maybe all they do is sign all correspondence with the
word ‘hugs’ instead of ‘yours sincerely’, as in the case of the founder of
theory without acknowledging it as theory.
much of scientific method based on the presentation of falsifiable hypotheses,
even quoting Popper to remind the reader of this principle. He states that the
major difference between science and pseudoscience is “that empirically
supported practices build upon a scientific theory and state the terms under
which this theory could be falsified.” 
goes on to present a broad social psychological theory to answer the question
“how did these interventions obtain such a widespread following of
practitioners?”. Disregarding the more obvious and simpler hypothesis that the
methods become popular because people find that they work very well, he
proposes a theory of the “social influence strategies .. commonly used by those
peddling pseudoscience”, involving speculative hypotheses about the mental
processes of the developers and practitioners of the newer methods. An example of
Devilly’s hypothesising is as follows. It concerns the thought processes that
might lead a psychiatrist to take a further level of training in a particular
method, having already attended an introduction:
“In effect, the target (e.g. psychiatrist)
rationalises that they must be interested as they have already invested
substantial time and money into the practice. It is also no accident that these
trainings are held at plush, five star hotels, which convey a sense of
credibility whilst at the same time pairing a positive affect with the
more or less 4 pages to outlining this theory – but presenting it as if it were
a simple description of social reality. Despite his own emphasis upon
falsification, it is actually difficult to see how his theory - with its many
embedded assumptions and hypotheses about motives, thought processes, and
mechanisms of defence - could be disproved. Whilst appearing cautious and
scientific at one moment, when criticising the studies published by practitioners
of methods he does not like, at other moments Devilly presents wildly
speculative and sweeping generalisations about large-scale social phenomena.
The kind of
writing and reasoning found in Devilly’s paper, and others of its genre, may be
regarded as journalistic rather than embodying genuine scientific enquiry. It
may create a superficially plausible impression, but is not actually helpful in
fostering a thoughtful enquiry into the inherent ambiguity and complexity of
clinical phenomena and their treatment.
strategies of debunking
rhetorical strategies seem common in the ‘debunking’ literature:
- A subtle misrepresentation of the
target – seemingly designed to create in the reader a negative impression
of the target.
- Comments that appear designed to
disparage the motivations of the developers of the target approach.
- Citing research in such a way,
through subtle distortion and selective attention to detail, as to imply
that it provides scant support for the target method.
- The selective citation of
references so as to support the author’s narrative.
- Seemingly cautious attention to
scientific detail and methodology at certain points is combined with
sweeping and unsubstantiated generalisations at other points.
- Presenting a theory (or theories,
or sets of hypotheses) regarding [a] the mode of action of a therapeutic
method, [b] the appeal of the method to its practitioners (including their
motives and cognitive-emotional processes), and [c] the motives and mental
processes of the developers or promoters of the method – but without
making clear that these are hypotheses or theories.
- A dogmatic assertion of what is
and what is not to be termed ‘science’.
common factor running through these features is prejudice – an aggressive
assertion of ‘knowing already’ without the humbling necessity to find out. This
state of believing oneself to know already is, I suggest, a profound obstacle
to free thought and enquiry. When it is harnessed to political and economic
pressures towards degraded and depleted versions of cognitive-behavioural
therapy, under the guise of ‘evidence-based practice’, the outlook for the once
vibrant and unruly creativity of clinical psychology could be bleak indeed.
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