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Strange belief systems seem to capture the imagination of the public, therapists, religious leaders and other groups. Sometimes, they are minor and harmless, like the false belief in alligators in the New York sewer system, or the false belief that a child has nuked a cat into a microwave oven, etc. But sometimes, they expand out of control and create popular movements; these can create victims out of innocent individuals.

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Past hoaxes:

Three examples from the distant past were:

bullet A belief during the days of the Roman Empire that Christians were engaging in sexual orgies, as well as kidnapping, ritually killing, and eating infants. This resulted in a major public outcry against the Christians and gave a legal and moral justification to the Roman government's attack on the early Christian churches and their membership.
bullet A belief in western Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that Witches and other heretics were devoting their lives to worshiping Satan, killing children, destroying crops, etc. This gave the Catholic Church the justification to seize innocent people, torture them until they broke down, record their confessions, and burn them at the stake.
bullet The execution by hanging of about two dozen innocent people in Salem MA some three centuries ago largely on the basis of spectral evidence of Witchcraft. In addition, one man was pressed to death.

In more recent years:

bullet Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician and theologian developed a theory called "animal magnetism." He felt that it could cure many physical and mental illnesses by channelling invisible magnetic fluids to his patients. King Louis XVI asked the French Academy of Sciences to investigate Mesmer's claims. One of the members of the investigating committee was Benjamin Franklin. They found the theory to be without merit. Still, it took about a century for beliefs in animal magnetism to finally die out. 3
bullet Jean Martin Charcot, a great French neuropsychiatrist of the 1880's believed that he had discovered a new mental illness at the Salpetriere hospital in Parish. He called it hystero-epilepsy. It was actually an artificial disorder created by combining in a single ward patients suffering from two unrelated problems. Some were emotionally unstable -- described as hysterical in those days. The others suffered from epilepsy. Over time, the emotionally unstable people began to imitate the behavior of the epileptics. The phenomenon disappeared when the two groups of patients were separated into different areas of the hospital, and Charcot was replaced. 4
bullet A mini-epidemic of Multiple Personality Disorder (a.k.a. MPD, Dissociative Identity Disorder, DID) was triggered by the book "The Three Faces of Eve" which was adapted as a movie in 1957. The hoax disappeared after a few years, only to reappear after the publishing of a similar book "Sybil." MPD took a new turn towards Satanic Ritual Abuse with the appearance of the book "Michelle Remembers" in 1980. About two dozen  clinics were established in North America to treat a iatrogenic (physician induced) disorder that did not exist outside of the therapist's office. 4 The hoax gradually faded in the late 1990s, although not without inducing the suicide of many patients.

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Present hoaxes:

One would expect that the western cultures would be on the lookout for the new hoaxes and would nip them in the bud. But this is not the case. Some of the past hoaxes have been dusted off and reborn in slightly different forms.

Many modern-day hoaxes are in the field of physical and mental therapy.

bullet As Marvin Gardner has written: "Alternative medicines and curious treatments for physical ills are flourishing as never before around the world. The same is true of alternative mental therapies. Every year it seems as if new and outlandish forms of psychiatry appear in books and articles, along with thousands of satisfied patients who provide glowing testimonials about how completely they have been "cured" by the new techniques." 1
bullet In an interview in the Washington Post, Scott O. Lilienfeld, associate professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, estimates that there area about 200 alternative medical treatments on the market. The article states: "Some, such as relaxation exercises and yoga, are widely used as part of specific physical and mental health treatments and have been subjected to at least some scientific study. But others, including past life therapy and dolphin-assisted therapy, have little or no grounding in science. While alternative psychological treatments have always existed, experts say, the Internet has been a boon to alternative practitioners, enabling them to reach vast audiences easily....Lilienfeld and other critics say the growth of many alternative therapies contravenes the move in psychology toward evidence-based treatments.

The majority of unorthodox therapies, Lilienfeld said, amount to pseudoscience; they are based on unvalidated theories and bolstered by anecdote. Few have been subject to peer review and most have never been validated by studies that randomly assign patients to receive different treatments and control for factors such as the placebo effect -- improvement not attributable to treatment -- that can skew the results.

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Future hoaxes:

New hoaxes will probably continue into the indefinite future, generating still more social panics. We hope that:

bullet educators will eventually realize the important of helping students develop healthy, skeptical, analytical techniques.
bullet psychology and social works faculties will develop compulsory courses about psychological hoaxes of the past.
bullet professional organizations of psychiatrists and psychologists will discipline any members that engage in experimental therapies without informing their patients in advance of the hazards.

When this happens, we can hope that future hoaxes will be laughed out of existence before they have a chance to develop.

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Impact of hoaxes:

As a result of some of today's hoaxes:

bullet Untold numbers of individuals are involved in useless forms of medical treatments. Some are avoiding legitimate medical care; some of them will needlessly die because they did not receive well established medical treatments.
bullet Many millions of homosexual youth and adults are living lives of misery because of popular notions of the origins of sexual orientation. Greatly elevated suicide rates of gays and lesbians have resulted. Some are being exposed to untested, experimental and apparently worthless reparative therapy to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
bullet Thousands of people have been convinced that they are victims of some terrible form of childhood abuse; some have been disabled by false memories of abuse. Many are destroying their families of origin on the basis of memories of events that never happened.
bullet Hundreds of thousands of Neopagans are living in fear of attacks by some very devout, very well-meaning, but terribly misinformed religious folk who have been perpetuating the Inquisition's propaganda about Witches into the 21st century.

Fortunately, the latter three phenomena appear to be dissipating.

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Preventing hoaxes:

With many previously emerging therapeutic techniques, like Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) and Multiple Personality Disorder/ Dissociative Identity Disorder (MPD/DID), promoters first recommended these therapies without any hard data on their efficacy and safety. Many years later, when long term studies were actually made, they were found to be without value, and dangerous -- both to the client and their family of origin.

In 2006, the mental health community appears to have done things properly. Researchers started with a hunch about a new treatment called Schema Therapy which might help people with a mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder.

According to SawfNews:

"Patients with the disorder live life on the edge: they're typically impulsive, unstable, exquisitely sensitive to rejection, have regular outbursts of anger, and live daily life with extreme emotional pain. They often self-mutilate and make repeated suicide attempts."

This disorder is found in about 1 to 2.5% of the general population. It is over-represented among young adult women. It had been treated, but with a poor success rate, by Transference Focused Psychotherapy (TFP). The researchers then conducted an outcome study on Schema Therapy that resulted in reliable data on its efficacy and safety. They are now recommending its wide use.

Researchers found that Schema Therapy leads to a complete recovery in about 50% of patients and to produces a significant improvement in two out of three patients. The findings of the study are published in a recent issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry published by the American Medical Association. 5

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Martin Gardner, "Primal Scream: A persistent New-Age therapy," Skeptical Inquirer, 2001-MAY/JUN.
  2. Sandra Boodman, "Three Approaches to Mental Health Treatment That Stretch the Boundaries -- and, Sometimes, Credulity," Washington Post, 2004-JUN-29, Page F4.
  3. "Mesmer," Twin Cities Public Television, 2002, at:
  4. "The Three Faces of Eve," Science in the Cinema transcript, 1998-AUG-20, at:
  5. "Psychiatrists find cure for untreatable mental illness," SWAF News, 2006-OCT-11, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics > Hoaxes menu > here

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Copyright 1997 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published on: 1997-SEP-5
Latest update: 2010-MAY-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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