actual science and pseudoscience

The inability to distinguish between actual science and pseudoscience is one of the major problems we face. It’s not just ordinary people who find it difficult to distinguish between the two. Intellectuals seem to have even greater difficulty with the concept.

It’s really pretty simple. If you can prove it by experiment it’s definitely real science. If you can’t prove it by experiment but you can point to actual evidence, as is the case with historical sciences like geology and evolutionary biology, then it’s real science but you can’t feel quite so confident that all the details will be correct. If it’s based on a mixture of wishful thinking and deliberately dubious methodology, like climate science, then it’s probably pseudoscience. If it’s based purely on subjective value judgments, as is the case with sorcery and psychiatry, then it ain’t science at all.


psychiatry, the story of a pseudoscience

I’m having way too much to do with the mental health system at the moment. No, they haven’t sent the men in the white coats to take me away. Someone close to me is however having some major problems with the system.

The major problem of course is that the mental health system is constructed upon the assumption that psychiatry is real and that psychiatric diagnoses have some connection with reality. The truth of course is that psychiatry is about as scientific as astrology. The sacred text of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is best described as a work of imaginative fiction.

Which means that admitting a person against his will to a psychiatric hospital based on a diagnosis by a psychiatrist is really no different from locking someone up because they have Pisces rising or because of a very unfavourable conjunction of the planets. There’s no actual scientific basis to it, which means that the legal basis for such measures are built on non-existent foundations.

That’s not to say that mental illness isn’t real. It may be real. We don’t know. We have insufficient data. If psychiatrists and politicians were prepared to be honest enough to admit that they know very little about this subject it might be possible to do some good. But good can never be achieved when you’re basing policy and basing treatment on ignorance combined with arrogance.

There are of course lots of other problems. Psychiatrists are like cops. They stick together. They stick together very tightly when their actions are questioned by civilians. When a psychiatrist gets things hopelessly wrong (which is extremely frequent) it is very difficult to get that wrong reversed because the psychiatry code is that you don’t rat on a fellow psychiatrist. So even if you know that psychiatrist Dr Bill Smith is an incompetent buffoon who should not be allowed to practice as a horse doctor much less a psychiatrist other psychiatrists will tend to defend Dr Smith.

And of course there is the biggest problem of all. If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the mental health system you will discover that absolutely everything you do, no matter how reasonable and understandable, will be interpreted as a symptom of your mental illness. It’s like the old line that if you turn up late for an appointment with a psychiatrist it’s a bad sign because you’re trying to avoid treatment. If you show up early it’s a bad sign because you’re showing hostility. If you turn up on time it’s a bad sign because it shows you’re obsessive-compulsive. You can’t win.

If a heart specialist makes a ludicrously incorrect diagnosis it can and will be overruled by another more competent doctor. Once you’ve been incorrectly diagnosed once as being mentally ill your chances of having that diagnosis overturned are slim.

I’m not suggesting that al psychiatrists are idiots or malevolent. Some try very hard to do good. Some actually succeed. But psychiatry is an art, not a science. We should never make the mistake of treating a pseudoscience like psychiatry as real science.