Science and Pseudo-Science in Psychotherapy: How to Distinguish Fake Treatments and Why It’s Important to

Psychology’s Pseudo-Scientific History

I’ve been hesitant to write this article for months because of the backlash that I know will ensue. After wrestling with the idea for some time, I’ve decided that it has to be written because prospective clients deserve to know what they are signing up for, because whether they’re paying a copay or full-session price, there’s a decent chance that they’re being ripped off.

Pseudo-science has been a staple of psychotherapeutic practice since Freud first espoused his ideas about penis-envy, the Oedipus Complex, resistance to accepting psychoanalytic truths, and the part of the brain (which he truly believed existed in an objective way) that he called the unconscious mind. Freud’s evidence was anecdotal (rather than empirical) and entrenched in a particular period, in a particular setting, with a particular race of people. (Below, I’ll provide a link to an article about an author who’s spent a great deal of his life examining Freudian theory, and subsequently debunking it, as I’m nowhere near as qualified as he is to challenge Freud.)

So, when entering any particular psychoanalytic training institution, you’ll discover that, rather than scientific method, its members resemble clergy, with its director acting as a high priest, whose doctrine is to remain unchallenged, unless one wishes to be diagnosed with pathological resistance.

Despite limited evidence of the effectiveness of psychoanalysis and its underlying theoretical foundation, and the virtual inability to attempt to falsify any of its purported defense mechanisms, it continues to captivate the minds of academics and lay-people alike, thriving as a psychotherapeutic treatment model in several corners of the world, mostly major cities brimming with intellectuals.

But what makes it so captivating?

As with many other forms of the occult (of which psychoanalysis can be considered to be one), psychoanalytic theory provides us with a deep mystery which teaches us that we’re more than just our bodies. Despite stopping itself short of claiming the existence of a soul, it offers a powerful, secular solution to the mind/body problem that garners its strength by upholding the sense of psychological mystery which all of us crave.

We’re an interesting species: on the one hand, we crave for answers to life’s biggest questions; on the other, we choose to ignore them if they don’t provide us with astounding explanations of who we are. Being evolved creatures is simply not good enough.

A Modern Form of Pseudo-Scientific Therapy

And then there’s Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EDMR), psychotherapy’s recent incarnation of the anti-scientific form of treatment. According to clinical psychologist Todd Kashdan:

…the laundry list of problems that Francine Shapiro (the founder of EMDR) claims can be treated with this so-called breakthrough therapy: pain control, grief, delusions, ritual abuse, phobias, generalized anxiety, paranoid schizophrenia, learning disabilities, eating disorders, substance abuse, pathological jealousy, rage, guilt, multiple personality disorder, cancer, AIDS, somatic disorders, couples therapy, and for children as young as two.

If this treatment method sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is.

EMDR can best be summed up as standard exposure therapy, in which a client exposes herself to her trauma in a retelling of the traumatic event(s), with the addition of having a therapist wave his finger (or something else) in front of her as her eyes follow it. Yes, this is really a thing!

The problem here is three-fold:
A. This isn’t a breakthrough therapy.
B. Its treatment outcomes are no better than those of standard exposure therapy.
C. Research indicates that the addition of waving a finger in front of someone’s face doesn’t contribute to the efficacy of treatment.

In a denunciation of EMDR and other pseudo-scientific treatments, clinical psychologist and skeptic, James Alcock writes in his book, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling:

There are more than five hundred varieties of psychotherapy, with new ones being added on a regular basis. However misguided or foolish many of these techniques may be, and despite lacking valid evidence of their effectiveness, they continue to be employed in the mistaken belief that they work.

So, Why Does It Matter?

If psychotherapy is to be a respected form of science, we have to go wherever the evidence takes us. For the sake of truth and our clients, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re providing the best available treatments, reporting to them what the evidence indicates. For, our integrity as clinicians depends on it.

Freud wasn’t wrong about everything, and some of his ideas, like that of the unconscious, continue to persist in a modified form, and rightfully so. But others need to be done away with. And, we have to be okay with accepting that we were wrong; it’s the touchstone of maturity.

All of us need to be therapists and scientists; otherwise, we might as well be performing palm readings.

Why Are Deepak Chopra & EMDR Important for Science and Life? – Todd Kashdan

Why Freud Survives – Louis Menand


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