Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Anti-Psychiatry at OISE


Barbara Kay and the National Post are concerned about a new scholarship at OISE for research into “anti-psychiatry.”

“Critics,” says the Post. “worry the university is endorsing an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual exercise”

“’This is a case where academic freedom should be quashed,’ Edward Shorter, a U of T professor and expert in the history of psychiatry, states bluntly.”

A neurosis, I say, on both their houses. Here again is a case where neither side seems close to the truth.

It is entirely proper to question psychiatry. If it were a real science, questioning its premises would be what it is all about. Science is not a body of unassailable dogmas: it is a method for testing any dogmas. It proves nothing; it only disproves. The essence of science—ask Francis Bacon—is taking nothing on authority, testing everything with the direct evidence of experience. Kay and the Post, like just about everyone these days, stand this basic scientific principle on its head. They claim one is “anti-science” if one is not ready to simply take the word of those identified as “scientists.” The obvious current example is “climate science.”

This is not science, but “scientism.” It is a modern religion based loosely on science, including a sacred priesthood held to be above all suspicion. It is not in touch with the real world. It is a great way for a small educated elite to get away with murder.

“To be fair to Barstow,” Kay concedes, “her distrust of psychiatry is not unfounded. For decades, psychoanalysis —often confused with psychiatry, but not a scientific discipline or necessarily premised on a prior medical degree—was wrongly regarded with near-religious awe as a panacea to humanity’s ills. Many analysts did no harm, but others exploited their prestige to promote bizarre theories and, eventually, make psychoanalysis a sidebar in the treatment of mental illness.

Psychiatry, which does require a medical degree, is another story...”

Oh well then. That makes all the difference. If someone has a medical degree, what they say must be true.

Bacon must be ralphing in his grave.


“True disciplines spring,” Kay explains reverently, “from pure intellectual curiosity, not the pursuit of social justice. They build on collaboration with similarly engaged scholars. Fact is piled on fact, theories are debated, evidence is adduced, lively debate ensues, and eventually a body of credible knowledge is established. Real scholarship is ‘for’ truth.”

That is a pious recitation of the scientistic faith. So touchingly naive it pulls tears. It assumes anyone well-educated must be beyond base motives of any sort.

Has she never been to grad school? I only wish it were true.

But then, two wrongs do not make a right. That ought to be her argument: two wrongs do not make a right. The present scholarship implies a point of view no better than the one it challenges.

“For Burstow to claim there is ‘no proven biological basis for mental illness,’” writes Kay, “is demonstrably untrue. Countless studies have proved beyond any doubt that there is a genetic basis for all major psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression.”

No, Barstow is exactly right on this point. Kay is far behind the curve. Back in the early nineties or so, psychiatry was insisting that mental illness is all a matter of genetics and of “chemical imbalance,” and announcing that they were on the verge of isolating the mechanism and the gene. It was fashionable then. For one thing, it justified cheap and relatively effective chemical treatments, coming available. It suited govenments, because it promised a cheaper treatment option. Dare I mention, it suited the drug companies, who were putting a lot of money around as a result? It suited the physicians, because it offered a purely physical cause for mental illness. And none of the claims have been substantiated by further research; even as our knowledge of the human genome grows exponentially.

It is high time to plainly admit that it has all been a chase after uncivilized geese.

Psychiatry as a whole begins as a philosophical error. It is a typical academic field in this regard. The pursuit of truth? Academics has only a tangential relation to truth. Careers and entire new disciplines are usually—usually--premised on some intellectual error, even a fairly obvious one. Sooner or later, when this is revealed somehow to be so, it is in too many vested interests to deny the new information. Even the most obvious error must wait for en entire generation of professors to die off to be accepted. Obvious case in point: Marxism was pretty completely discredited by the 1950s, let alone the collapse of the East Bloc in the 1980s. Yet it continues to thrive—guess where?

Unfortunately, human lives can be in the balance. This is clearly the case with psychiatry.

Psychiatry is at base an attempt to reduce the soul (psyche) to some kind of materialistic basis. This was Freud’s agenda; it was the behaviourist agenda; it is still more the modern “chemical imbalance” agenda. This is intrinsic to the field—otherwise it is no province of “physicians.” Yet this is almost automatically slef-contradictory: it is a field that does not even recognize the real existence of its object of study. How likely is that to work? It is like a branch of zoology dedicated to the scientific study and classification of mythological creatures.

The very concept of “mental illness,” therefore, is a metaphor taken literally.

Suppose, instead, that the soul exists?

As it inarguably does. As Berkeley, among others East and West, points out, we are immediately aware of and certain of the soul’s existence. It is the existence of the physical world, of the body, that is debatable.

There is a second, disastrous fundamental error in the field. If you are going to talk about “mental health”--a metaphor, remember, not a reality, and one that may or may not be useful--what constitutes “health”?

Easy to determine in a physical system like the body, imagined as a machine. Does it work, or does it not?

But the metaphor does not work with the soul. What constitutes “working properly”? What exactly is the right functioning of the soul? How is one soul qualified to judge this of another?

Unfortunately, psychiatry has fixed on t he idea of “normalcy.” The soul is functioning correctly that functions like every other soul. The soul is fit to judge that is properly average.

This is obviously highly debatable. In fact, it disagrees sharply with all the world’s major religions. This ought to be an immediate problem in terms of any public funding.

Any of the world’s great religions would say that the average soul is spiritually lacking. So would any of the great philosophers.

Moreover, anyone of any unusual intelligence, creativity, morality, or talent is necessarily abnormal. Anyone with a new idea is abnormal. Accordingly, the basic premise of psychiatry is destructive of science itself, of human progress, of ethics, and of human freedom. Not to mention the health of the soul. All very well so long as one stays out of the gears of the psychiatric system, but deadly to anyone who is unlucky enough to get “diagnosed.”

So Barstow starts with a very good case. Inside or outside of the academy, we need an “anti-psychiatry” movement. Nor is this new. I studied at Syracuse University, home turf of the late, great Thomas Szasz. At Queen’s, I heard a visiting lecture from R.D. Laing. Has Kay not heard of them? Since when has this academic possibility to doubt psychiatry as a whole been shut down?

Unfortunately, Barstow screws it up completely, and probably boosts Kay and the psychiatrists, by saying wild things like:

“The long history of psychiatry is the long history of pathologizing women … It is also an institution that pathologizes blacks, lesbians and gays. This intersectionality analysis is readily available through an antipsychiatry lens.”

So psychiatry is okay so long as only white men are oppressed? It’s all politics? This allows Kay to point out that, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it is clearly the male tendency that is oppressed. So no problem, then. 


Making it all about politics is almost as materialist as making it all about chemicals: that is just replacing Freud’s materialist pseudo-science with Marx’s “dialectical materialism.” It is just as intolerant. And it has no chance of overtaking the chemical solution, if you will pardon the pun, because it is obviously much less practical to implement.

Barstow’s stated goal is to “spur alternate ways of arranging society so that we aren’t inventing diseases.”

Rearranging society is a big project. By itself, it is ominous, it implies a loss of freedom. Instead of submitting only our most eccentric to the absolute power of some arbitrary elite, we would be submitting everyone. And, if ever possible, that is surely the long way around--a longer way around than drugging up the individual sufferer.

Yes, the world is hopelessly screwed up. But that is not news, that is not a temporary condition. Any religion will tell you: it is the inevitable human condition. So long as people are not perfect, some people will be bad to other people. And you cannot perfect human beings. In fact, you do not even have the right to try.

We must accept that fact, and find our peace within it.

The proper solution has, of course, been known for millennia: religion exists, specifically, as the real psychology. Psychiatry harms, more than anything, by blocking this necessary treatment. Marxist politics harms in the same way.

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