The 3-pound Exemption (disembodied woo)

You gotta feel sorry for Topeka, Kansas. The state’s capital city is not only home to the infamous Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, and has recently been the battleground for Intelligent Design vs Evolution counter-counter-legislation by the school board (currently with the majority ruling pro-science), but now the capitol is host to the paranoid propaganda by the CCHR. CCHR is the Citizens Commision on Human Rights, which despite the generic name is really just a front for Scientology. Their exhibit is titled, “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death” (well, no hidden biases there). Correspondent for the Kansas City Star newspaper, David Klepper, writes that the “the Capitol sees its share of traveling displays and wandering weirdness”. He notes that any group that can pay the fee is allowed to put up a display as long as it is not obscene, and describes the content thusly:

Among the claims: up to 25 percent of psychiatrists rape their patients; overmedication kills thousands and enslaves many more; and 10,000 people die from electroshock therapy every year.

Essentially, the multimedia show also asserts that psychiatry is to blame for (among other things): Hitler and the Holocaust, the 9/11 terrorist acts, shootings at schools, and are planning world domination. Wow. Granted, there are justifiable complaints about historical abuses and current malpractice in psychiatry, but it is an argumentum ad absurdum — aw heck, an outright Reductio ad Hitlerum — to declare that anything and everything ever associated with psychiatry is the ultimate in evil. (Even the psychiatric-survivor advocacy group MindFreedom International wants nothing to do with the CCHR.)

Like other denialists, Scientologists make bizarre assertions, such as things like ADHD or various illnesses and disorders due to chemical imbalances and other causes simply don’t exist. But aside from the whole mass of denial and absolutism, plus the usual dread trinity of fear, hate and loathing that are typical of cults and cult-like organisations, there’s an interesting aside to such claims. (That’s “interesting” in the sense of horrified fascination.)

What mystifies me about so many different kinds of groups, is the false dichotomy between brain and body. What is so special about this spectacular mass of neurons? How is it that neurons in the skull are not considered to be just a part of an organ system, just as neurons in the torso or limbs generally are?

The brain is what you use for your sensory processing, perception, attention, cognition and emotions*, as well as a variety of other “housekeeping” functions related to running a body, such as coordinating the actions and feedback of moving about, or maintaining temperature homeostasis. The latter is the “boring” stuff that most of us don’t care about except when it quits working right. But even though the former list of mental functioning seems more like a “black box” of uncertainty, it is neither magical nor mystical. Consciousness and all the other functions are fascinating, complex, and only partially understood, but in the end the brain still works by the basic rules of genetics and biochemistry.

So how can people claim that diseases caused by chemical imbalances and other causes in one part of the body are real, but diseases or syndromes caused by chemical imbalances and other causes in another part of the body are not real?

At the end of Klepper’s article is the quote,

Psychiatrists shrug at the allegations, saying Scientology has a long history of bizarre claims about the profession.

“They aren’t really able to support their position with any scientific data, which they tend to ignore,” said Michael Burke, president of the Kansas Psychiatric Society. “The public seems to be able to look right past the Scientology hoopla.”

Well, we can sure hope so.

There is no shortage of medical quackery out there that claims to treat or cure most anything (or everything), but even those who are more inclined to stick to evidence-based medicine for most somatic issues will veer off into the realms of pseudoscience and utter bullshit when treading into the territory of the psyche. By virtue of being the organ where thinking (supposedly) occurs, the brain magically becomes a 3-pound exemption to medical science. The brain gets disembodied from biology.

I guess we just have to chalk it all up to cognitive biases. Or maybe we should call them cognition biases.

* For all you students out there, those five functions spell out the mnemonic SPACE. I guess if one of those goes wrong, then you’re a space-case. (Bad puns R us.)


  1. Ms. Clark said,

    15 February 2008 at 19:40

    What I think is as bad (or worse) than the division of Brain and Body as exemplified by the case of thinking a brain “can not get sick” (or out of whack) as opposed to a liver or kidneys or skin and the rest of the body which can get sick (or out of whack), is the notion that the brain has nothing at all interesting to tell us, it’s a black box, who cares what it’s doing… so all you have to do is watch behaviors and punish the ones you want to eliminate and reward the ones you want to increase. Don’t bother asking the person what he wants to do or needs to do or anything, just decide for that person what he or she needs to do and enforce it.

    In which case Alzheimer’s is not about the brain it’s about old people developing bad behaviors. Ivar Lovaas apparently has Alzheimer’s (really) so if they just reward him when he remembers things and shock him through his bare feet when he forgets, then it doesn’t matter if he has something called “Alzheimer’s” or not, it’s all about behavior.


    I think the “chemical imbalance” thing is over-used but I think it helps people to be willing to take an antidepressant that could really help them. “You have a chemical imbalance, I have chemical that can reset the balance,” sounds better than “you have a mental illness, I have a pill for that.” In some disorders I think they can make a case for something that looks a lot like a real “chemical imbalance” like you can have too much mono-amine oxidase and that can inactivate a neurotransmitter too fast so that the neurotransmitter can not function. The imbalance is too much of mono-amine oxidase.

    BUT, you can also have people unwilling to look at things like child abuse and spouse abuse and so forth, things that cause depression. It’s easier to say “chemical imbalance” than “this person needs to be respected and loved and then he or she won’t be nearly as depressed or wouldn’t be depressed at all.”

    And lots of parents seem to be willing to drug their autistic kids into a stupor rather than try to find out what is causing them to melt-down in some situations. Not that no autistic kids should ever be given psych drugs, but I can’t imaging that they are actually “needed” in nearly as many cases as they are used.

    As for Scientologists…. scary business.

  2. LisaDroesdov said,

    28 January 2008 at 22:56

    Have you seen the Anonymous War on Scientology? Probably not much will come of it, but it’s good for a chuckle!

  3. Patrick said,

    28 January 2008 at 18:58

    Bravo for both Joe and Andrea, I am tending to strongly agree with your views.

    I beleive that the established psych/med/research community has failed greatly in determining the bio/chemical underpinnings of many of the disorders for which Amanda’s A B C observation applies to.

    Before I knew about the Aperger/Autism community I was diagnosed as having a personality disorder with hypomanic/schizoid/paranoid features.

    After having been through several years of (mis)diagnostic treatment I now find myself a bit better understood. I have severe obstructive sleep apnea, aspergers, and major depressive disorder diagnoses at this point. There are other conditions I have not gotten properly identified for treatment (YET).

    At this time I am doubtful that all of the recent trend towards genomic research will actually make it into medical/psych practice within my lifetime, but I hope that they do.

    Some of the current diagnostic practices are (as usual, in my opinion) extremely imprecise. Until the ‘treatment community’ has much better chemistry tests (including gene sequence and bio/chemistry assays here too) I feel there are innumerable ‘patients’ who are not properly identified/diagnosed/effective treatment modalities being made available to them.

  4. qw88nb88 said,

    26 January 2008 at 19:38

    Amanda, you raise some very good points.

    Firstly, I had not intended to imply that various diseases & conditions are due solely to “chemical imbalances”. I just went back and amended the wording to include “and other causes”, which was something I had meant to add when editing that post, but forgot (for which I will blame chronic sleep problems). But yes, saying that everything is caused by chemical imbalances is nonsense.

    As for the subsequent treatments of various problems by pharmaceutical means, that is an interesting conundrum. There is certainly no lack of both successes and terrible failures.

    I think that beyond the whole horrible mess of paternalism / disablism that permeates the field and “allows” or “justifies” all sorts of treatments, there is a fundamental error in many treatment approaches.

    Nearly all illness, syndrome, condition or difference diagnostics related to mental issues are descriptive diagnostic based up subjective qualifiers and behavioural effects. There are very few ways of objectively quantifying and diagnosing such problems, in contrast to blood sugar levels for diabetes, for example. I can see three immediate ways that this screws up the treatment process:

    Firstly, the diagnostic frames of reference are produced in the individual clinician’s mental constructs, which introduces a host of cognitive biases and errors.

    Secondly, the diagnostics (whether from the DSM or the ICD) are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. For example, we know that there are a multitude of different genetic and developmental combinations that can result in what are referred to as the various pervasive developmental disorders. The names and codes assigned simply describe the results, rather than lead to understanding about what sorts of interventions (if any) may be useful to the client.

    Thirdly, we know all too well that there are many different things that can produce the same behavioural effects. So where a particular medication may be useful for a person who has “S” due to “X”, it would not do anything for a person who has “S” due to “Y”, and can easily harm a person who has “S” due to “Z”.

    What we need, in addition to resolving as many of the disablist issues as possible, are better ways of identifying particular problems, and identifying what kinds of treatments, if any, are useful.

    For example, I have AD/HD. Research has demonstrated that the ADD brain does not function in the same way as the “typical” brain. That different functioning is not always dysfunctioning — it depends upon what the person is trying to do. More recent research shows that some of what we call AD/HD is mostly just developmental slowness compared to other children of the same age cohort; these are the kids that “grow out of” AD/HD. Some people find stimulant medication helpful, and others don’t. Some find it helpful for a period of time, as it enables them to better identify and build into their understanding and routines the adjustments that enable their lives. Personally, I find that the medication makes a world of difference, but I had to try several to find one that did not result in significant side effects. An important point is that I am choosing this. (General FYI: if you don’t want medication, don’t visit a psychiatrist! See a psychologist if you want to work on mental issues.)

    But ADD & ADHD are identified behaviourally, and those effects are perceived or not due to individual familiarity and biases. The descriptions for AD/HD, like those for autism, also tend to pick up on more males than females, because the descriptions reflect the way that males “present” with such issues much more than females do. I believe that the M:F 4:1 ratios cited are due to diagnostic bias as well as a likely genetic differences between X and Y chromosomes.

    In any regard, simply throwing one drug after another at people diagnosed with something is poor science, and is overly-emphasized due to the aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies (they are not wholly evil, but they are often very irresponsible, and I think that doctors need to be much more careful).

    Hope that clarifies,


  5. 26 January 2008 at 8:24

    Andrea: You know by now I’m not a Scientologist, but actually the “chemical imbalance” thing probably is more fiction than fact.

    I mean… okay.

    You’ve got this industry that has a whole lot of different conditions under its name. Not really because they all have anything to do with each other, not even because they’re all legitimate divisions of humanity, but because they’re all things that get people classified as crazy in one way or another (note that epilepsy used to be in that category but now isn’t).

    Then they start experimentally throwing drugs at various things.

    And then if the drugs either (a) work, (b) seem to work, or (c) make psychiatrists’ or mental health workers’ jobs easier, they take a look at the drugs.

    If the drugs work on a particular neurotransmitter or set of neurotransmitters, they say that whatever the condition they are supposedly treating is, is a chemical imbalance in that neurotransmitter.

    What are the odds that just about everything that they treat with drugs is a “chemical imbalance” in one thing or another?

    Even when, as in schizophrenia, at least one form of the “condition” is made far worse or even mimicked by the effects of the drugs they’re using to “treat” it?

    None of this makes sense. There are a lot of ways that drugs could be useful without there being a “chemical imbalance” in those particular neurotransmitters, and there are a lot of times that the drug isn’t actually doing as much good as is claimed (and this is eventually figured out, but not usually in the “hey wow what a new wonderful drug” phase).

    It also doesn’t make sense, in terms of odds, that this would be true of so many conditions. Many other conditions have drug treatments that affect the brain, without being called “chemical imbalances”.

    And there’s no actual proof of most of these things.

    And I didn’t get any of this from some sort of Scientology talking points, I’ve been wondering it for a long time.

  6. Club 166 said,

    26 January 2008 at 6:23

    For too many years people understood virtually nothing about how the brain worked, so it was either believe the speculations of psychiatrists or make up your own reasons for why people acted the way they did.

    Now that there are explanations for some things, and there is a clearer picture that many disorders are chemically based, a general anti-science bias (couple with a lack of resolve to put forth the effort to understand the explanations) leads to people continuing to believe old myths (or new ones) regarding why people do the things they do. Because psychiatrists were wrong about many things in the past (and continue to be wrong on some now) it is easy to paint all of psychiatry with a broad brush and call all of it rubbish.


  7. shiva said,

    26 January 2008 at 5:25

    Don’t even start me on Scientology. They are to psychiatry as Stalin-defending totalitarian “socialists” are to capitalism; a so-called “opposition” that actually functions as an easy way to discredit any realistic attempt to oppose them by being even worse than the thing they’re opposing.

    They are total hypocrites; if you read any of the information available online about the actual inner workings of Scientology, one of the most striking things is the extremely close similarity of the 1984-style totalitarianism of the way “lower-ranking” Scientologists are treated within their hierarchy to the way that psychiatric patients are treated.

    How an otherwise intelligent and insightful writer such as Thomas Szasz (whose only other major blind spot is his uncritical support for the “free market” system (there’s one for your oxymoron list)) was hoodwinked into collaborating with them in the formation of the CCHR, i truly don’t know (although it kind of reminds me of the same “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend” mentality as people who support whichever bunch of totalitarian fundamentalists are currently on the US’s enemy list simply because they oppose US imperialism (eg Saddam’s Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea), while turning a blind eye to the just-as-bad-if-not-worse nature of their own regimes).

    For a true critique of psychiatry i would recommend Kate Millett’s The Loony Bin Trip. Amanda at Ballastexistenz also links to a lot of good anti-psych-from-a-neurodiversity-POV articles (if memory serves me right, i think she’s written somewhere about being accused of being a Scientologist). Writhe Safely is a good blog as well…

    I still have Szasz on the anti-psychiatry section of my link list, but have been meaning for absolutely ages to write a libertarian socialist critique of him…

%d bloggers like this: