THERAPEUTIC & OTHER HOAXES
How they hurt people
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.
Three examples from the distant past were:
||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.
||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.
||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:
||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
||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
||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.
The hoax gradually faded in the late 1990s, although not
without inducing the suicide of many patients.
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.
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
||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.2
New hoaxes will probably continue into the indefinite future, generating still more
social panics. We hope that:
||educators will eventually realize the important of helping students develop healthy,
skeptical, analytical techniques.
||psychology and social works faculties will develop compulsory courses about
psychological hoaxes of the past.
||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.
Impact of hoaxes:
As a result of some of today's hoaxes:
||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.
||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
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.
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.
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
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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Martin Gardner, "Primal Scream: A persistent New-Age therapy,"
Skeptical Inquirer, 2001-MAY/JUN.
Sandra Boodman, "Three Approaches to Mental Health Treatment That
Stretch the Boundaries -- and, Sometimes, Credulity," Washington Post,
2004-JUN-29, Page F4.
"Mesmer," Twin Cities Public Television, 2002, at:
"The Three Faces of Eve," Science in the Cinema transcript,
"Psychiatrists find cure for untreatable mental illness," SWAF
News, 2006-OCT-11, at:
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