Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Side of Science and Therapy, by Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski, Witkowski is a psychologist, science writer, and founder of the Polish Skeptics Club; Zatonski is a surgeon and researcher known for debunking unscientific therapies and claims in clinical medicine. Together, they turn a spotlight on research and treatment in the field of psychology. They uncover distressing flaws, show that many commonly accepted psychological principles are based on myths, argue that psychotherapy is a business and a kind of prostitution rather than an effective evidence-based medical treatment, and question whether psychotherapy should even exist, since in most cases it offers no advantage over talking to a friend about one’s problems, and in some cases can cause harm. (more…)
Posts Tagged psychotherapy
I am formally requesting that Cancer retract an article claiming that psychotherapy delays recurrence and extends survival time for breast cancer patients. Regardless of whether I succeed in getting a retraction, I hope I will prompt other efforts to retract such articles. My letter appears later in this post.
In seeking retraction, I cite the standards of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) for retraction. Claims in the article are not borne out in simple analyses that were not provided in the article, but should have been. The authors instead took refuge in inappropriate multivariate analyses that have a high likelihood of being spurious and of capitalizing on chance.
The article exemplifies a much larger problem. Claims about innovative cancer treatments are often unsubstantiated, hyped, lacking in a plausible mechanism, or are simply voodoo science. We don’t have to go to dubious websites to find evidence of this. All we have to do is search the peer-reviewed literature with Google Scholar or PubMed. Try looking up therapeutic touch (TT).
I uncovered unsubstantiated claims and implausible mechanisms that persisted after peer review in another blog post about the respected, high journal-impact-factor (JIF = 18.03) Journal of Clinical Oncology. We obviously cannot depend on the peer review processes to filter out this misinformation. The Science-Based Medicine blog provides tools and cultivates skepticism not only in laypersons, but in professionals, including, hopefully, reviewers who seem to have deficiencies in both. However, we need to be alert to opportunities not just to educate, but to directly challenge and remove bad science from the literature. (more…)
Hundreds of desperate combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are reportedly seeking experimental treatment with an illegal drug from a husband-wife team in South Carolina. The Bonhoefers recently published a study showing that adding MDMA (ecstasy, the party drug) to psychotherapy was effective in eliminating or greatly reducing the symptoms of refractory PTSD. It was widely covered in the media, for instance in this article in the NY Times. It was only a small preliminary study, and the treatment is not yet ready for prime time; but media reports have sparked enthusiasm not justified by the evidence. (more…)
No Time to Waste: Avoidant Coping Style Scrambles Circadian Rhythms in Breast Cancer Patients, warned the headline of an article in Clinical Psychiatry News. The article went on to claim
Even in the earliest days following a diagnosis of breast cancer, maladaptive coping styles are associated with a disruption in circadian rhythms –which are proven in metastatic disease to be a prognostic indicator of mortality. The surprising finding… holds potentially profound implications for the timing and tailoring of psychosocial interventions in newly diagnosed patients.
And it invoked psychoneuroimmunology for an authoritative sounding warning to breast cancer patients:
The fact that circadian disruption was significant in a subset of patients a mean 19 [sic] days after diagnosis suggests that there may be no time to waste in identifying and treating potentially maladaptive coping responses that could impact not only their adjustment, but also their prognosis.
Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, enroll yourself immediately in a stress reduction program or support group, if you want to stem the progression of your disease and prolong your life! If you have metastatic disease, maybe you can blame your “maladaptive coping,” your inept handling of the days and weeks immediately after your diagnosis. Such frightening messages to women who are vulnerable because they have just received their diagnosis should require high standards before being released. This article reeks of hype and distortion, starting with its emotional title, No Time to Waste and “Scrambles Circadian Rhythms,” continuing with claims of “profound implications for the timing of psychosocial interventions,” and ending with an exhortation to breast cancer patients that “early breast cancer patients certainly warrant paying closer attention to coping from Day 1.”
The issue is not just skewered science, because the article contains information that is easily misunderstood without a proper context. Breast cancer patients are urged to take get psychosocial intervention under the threat that if they do not, they are missing an opportunity to control the progression of their disease. This is an example of the irresponsible nonsense that I have been complaining in the past two blogs. There is simply no evidence that psychological interventions can slow progression of cancer or extend life. Claims to the contrary serve to burden cancer patients with an unrealistic responsibility for the outcome of their medical condition. Patients who experience progression to a terminal condition are provided with an irrational sense that they are to blame because they did not take the right steps, namely avail themselves of effective psychological interventions. This article implies that breast cancer patients with an unfavorable course have brought it on themselves by getting too stressed out.
It’s not clear whether journalist Betsy Bates Freed, PsyD. actually interviewed the authors of the study on which the story is based. Media coverage often offers direct quotes that appear to have been obtained directly from authors when they actually come from the scientific article. In this particular case, Freed provides a highly speculative direct quote that “circadian cycles regulate tumor growth” as if it came directly from the mouth of the lead author of the study. For the record, there is some evidence of an association between circadian rhythms and progression of metastatic breast cancer, but it is not clear that it is causal or affects”regulation” or in what direction any causal arrows run. Importantly, such findings have not been replicated with early breast cancer patients.
Clinical Psychiatry News is not some dubious CAM website, but an Elsevier published monthly newspaper with an advisory editorial board with recognizable scientist and clinician psychiatrists. It has largely free web access because of pharmaceutical company support. One has to question what editorial control over content is exerted before releasing articles like No Time to Waste.
What a wonderful world it would be if cancer patients could extend their survival time by mobilizing their immune systems by eating the right foods, practicing yoga, and venting their emotions in a support group. The idea that patients can enlist their immune systems to fight the progression of cancer is deeply entrenched in psychosomatic medicine and the imagination of the lay public, and evidence to the contrary has been sometimes bitterly resisted. Of course, cancer patients can use psychological techniques to relieve stress or find emotional relief in support groups and thereby improve the quality of their lives. But the prospect of being able to improve the quality of life pales in comparison to the promise of being able actually to extend life.
The hope that psychosocial intervention extends lives attracts philanthropic contributions to cancer centers and justifies research programs to determine just how psychological processes affect cancer. It is a lot easier to obtain funding if we promise to slow progression of cancer than if we merely claim to offer patients solace and support or to be study ways to reduce stress and improve emotional well-being.
No mechanism by which the mind can alter the course of cancer has been convincingly demonstrated. But the jury was still out until the late 2000s, when well-resourced, carefully designed trials — with survival as the primary endpoint — repeatedly failed to show that psychological interventions were effective. My colleagues and I asked at the 2006 European Health Psychology Conference whether we could “Bury the Idea…” that psychotherapy could extend lives of cancer patients, and this was followed by our systematic review of the available data, “The Conflict Between Hope and Evidence.” Investigators who had undertaken ambitious, well-designed trials to test the efficacy of psychosocial interventions echoed with “Letting Go of Hope” and “Time to Move on.” For some of us, to make claims in earshot of cancer patients that we could extend their lives with psychotherapy was perpetuating a cruel hoax.
My science writing covers diverse topics but increasingly concerns two intertwined themes in cancer and psychology. First, I bring evidence to bear against an exaggerated role for psychological factors in cancer, as well as against claims that the cancer experience is a mental health issue for which many patients require specialty mental health interventions. Second, I explore unnoticed social and organizational influences and publishing practices, which limit evaluation of the best evidence for theories and practices claiming to be evidence based, especially those recommended (and even mandated) by professional organizations and accrediting bodies.
I benefit from a great set of international collaborators, and my colleagues and I have repeatedly debunked claims that psychological interventions increase the survival time of cancer patients by improving their immune systems. Wally Sampson and Bernie Fox provided important inspiration for these efforts. A key source of such claims is the classic Lancet study by David Spiegel, which I will dissect in a later post for ScienceBasedMedicine.org (for now, see our published critique of Spiegel).
Antidepressant drugs have been getting a bad rap in the media. I’ll just give 3 examples:
- On the Today show, prominent medical expert Tom Cruise told us Brooke Shields shouldn’t have taken these drugs for her postpartum depression.
- In Natural News, “Health Ranger” Mike Adams accused pharmaceutical companies and the FDA of covering up negative information about antidepressants, saying it would be considered criminal activity in any other industry.
- And an article in Newsweek said “Studies suggest that the popular drugs are no more effective than a placebo. In fact, they may be worse.”
Yet psychiatrists are convinced that antidepressants work and are still routinely prescribing them for their patients. Is it all a Big Pharma plot? Who ya gonna believe? Inquiring minds want to know:
- Are antidepressants more effective than placebo?
- Has the efficacy of antidepressants been exaggerated?
- Is psychotherapy a better treatment choice?
The science-based answers to the first two questions are clearly “Yes.” The best answer to the third question is “It depends.” (more…)
Psychiatry is arguably the least science-based of the medical specialties. Because of that, it comes in for a lot of criticism. Much of the criticism is justified, but some critics make the mistake of dismissing even the possibility that psychiatry could be scientific. They throw the baby out with the bathwater. I agree that psychiatry has a lot of very dirty bathwater, but there is also a very healthy baby in there that should be kept, cherished, nourished, and helped to grow – scientifically.
Common criticisms in the media
- We are over-medicating our children, producing a generation of drugged zombies.
- We are using medication indiscriminately for people who don’t fit the diagnosis (i.e. antidepressants for people who only have normal mood fluctuations and life problems).
- Antidepressants lead to violence and suicide.
- Psychotropic medications all have terrible side effects.
- Antidepressants are no better than placebo.
- Psychotherapies are no better than talking to a friend.
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a barbaric, damaging assault with no redeeming value.
- And we all remember how Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields on the issue of postpartum depression.
Thomas Szasz: Mental Illness is a Myth
Thomas Szasz goes even further: he rejects the whole concept of mental illness and considers it a plot to interfere with people’s human rights. He says:
- Psychiatric diagnoses are not valid because they are based on symptoms rather than on objective tests. (Steve Novella has pointed out that there are other well-established diagnoses like migraine that cannot be verified by any objective tests.)
- Mental illness is a myth: unusual behavior does not constitute a disease.
- Psychiatric diagnoses are an arbitrary construct of society to facilitate control of individuals whose behavior does not conform.
- Involuntary commitment is never justified even for the protection of the patient: patients always have the right to refuse treatment even if that means they will die. (more…)