Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Before the Fringe: Do Today's Unconventional Beliefs Have Common Ancestors?


A member of a Facebook discussion group recently speculated on whether there was a connection between the concerns of Christian groups in the ‘80s and ‘90s about abortion, and the “Satanic panic” of the ‘90s, which featured stories about how devil-worshippers conducted unholy rituals that killed babies. I don’t know the answer to this problem, but the question itself points up the possibility of connections between unorthodox beliefs and other religious or political principles and practices. These connections could involve ideas whose popularity was high long ago—a sort of  ”trailing edge” phenomenon--  or current beliefs which either affect each other directly or which are brought about by a shared predecessor.

I understand that historians don’t like this kind of search for connections, and I can see how it might be thought of as cherry-picking. Nevertheless, I think it may be useful to see whether the predecessors of today’s unconventional beliefs were also the “fringe” of their own times, and how they connect with other “fringes”..

Some aspects of current unconventional thought may be the “trailing edge” of Transcendentalism, a philosophy of the mid- 19th century that stressed the unity of physical and mental processes, the role of Nature in human life, and the importance of traditional Asian beliefs as guidance for Western thinkers.  Bronson Alcott (“Grandfather” of Little Women) was a Transcendentalist who tried to keep his family on a farm, “Fruitlands”, through a New England winter, living on oatmeal and apples and wearing only cotton and linen so as not to exploit animals; his wife finally persuaded him that the younger children needed milk as well, and after a while the family moved back to Concord.

This is simplifying a bit, but by the 1880s Transcendentalism had given rise to the New Thought, a system that emphasized the power of thought over physical events. The New Thought included approaches like Christian Science, a belief system that stressed physical health as it might be influenced by thought, and one which hangs on as a somewhat conventional, minimally evangelical religious group in the United States. The influence of the New Thought is still apparent in some current Internet and print  publications about Attachment Therapy, in which it is claimed that children can voluntarily vomit, defecate, or even die, out of their desire to disturb and humiliate their adult caregivers.

But although Transcendentalism and then the New Thought seem to be precursors of some alternative psychological beliefs, it’s difficult to bring those older beliefs into alignment with other “fringe” ideas--  especially those that have to do with physical facts and the history of the universe. In a 2012 book, The pseudoscience wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the birth of the modern fringe, Michael Gordin discussed a number of beliefs that emerged between the 1940s and the 1970s and that seem to provide a foundation for more recent alternative beliefs. I want to summarize those and see if there is any evident connection between them and other unorthodox beliefs, whether about alternative psychotherapies or about Satanic ritual abuse.

Gordin concentrated on issues of pseudoscience and the demarcation problem of discriminating between science and pseudoscience. (This is a more difficult task in the physical sciences than in psychology or medicine, where the occurrence of injury as the result of an assumption provides a brighter demarcation line.) He organized this discussion around the 1950 publication of Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, a former psychoanalyst. Velikovsky’s book collated accounts of events in the Bible and other texts that could support the idea of planetary catastrophes having occurred within recorded history--  for example, the story of the sun having “stood still” for hours during an Old Testament battle. Using such examples, Velikovsky put forward the claim that changes in the planet and solar system have not been gradual and uniform as is assumed by geologists and astronomers. Instead, Velikovsky argued, a comet that later became the planet Venus brushed Earth with its tail, causing disasters but also creating the manna that fed the Jews in the desert (the explanation for this last bit was provided, but I really can’t get into it). The present form of the solar system was thus less than 5000 years old.

Worlds in Collision was published by Macmillan, the leading scientific textbook publisher of the time, after having been reviewed by someone who was only peripherally involved in astronomy. Its publication was followed by severe criticism of the publisher, not so much for having accepted the book at all, but for allowing it to be presented as if it were a scientific undertaking. (The author himself was at times quite willing to have it regarded as history.) Concerns about how the public might be deceived by Worlds were exacerbated by summaries and serializations of the book in the popular magazines Harper’s and Collier’s. Scientists who spoke critically of Worlds were, however, also concerned about the reality or appearance of censorship of scientific work; these worries were based on the current political witch-hunting of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the recent history in the Soviet Union of suppression of modern genetic work in favor of the anti-Darwinian view of inheritance, Lysenkoism.

Velikovsky did not go away. He continued to write and developed a small but devoted following who by the 1970s became part of what Gordin called “counter-establishment science”. The counterculture, with its commitment to the Free Speech Movement of a few years before, helped establish several journals that gave serious consideration to Velikovsky’s proposals. As time went on, college courses examined his work as a breakthrough that went beyond the existing system of thought. Even quite recently, as Gordin pointed out, the whole 2012-Doomsday scenario included references to Worlds in Collision. Referencing Randolph Weldon, author of Doomsday 2012, Gordin noted: “Weldon supplements Velikovsky’s account with a mechanism that disturbed the solar system in antiquity, issuing the comet that became Venus… This hidden force was what the Mayas had calculated would return at the end of the Long Count, and a new force will soon terrorize and destroy Earth.” 

Where does this lead us with respect to alternative beliefs about psychology? Did such beliefs share ancestors with Velikovsky’s theory of the solar system? Except for the fact that Velikovsky had trained as a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalytic concepts of the unconscious and of repressed memory have been important parts of alternative psychologies and psychotherapies, it is difficult to see any direct connections—but there are commonalities between the psychological “fringe” and the physical science “fringe”. There are also unshared characteristics.

  1. Do the physical and the psychological “fringes” both appeal to nonmaterial forces as explanations?... Velikovsky’s arguments were supportive of a “young earth” approach and therefore of creationism with its strong spiritual emphasis, and he drew evidence from sacred writings of various kinds, treating them as historical evidence. Nevertheless, his explanations were as entirely material as one sees in conventional science. Lysenkoism used a material explanation too. In alternative psychologies and psychotherapies, however, it is common to see appeals to supernatural phenomena like telepathy or to the effects of unknown energies.
  2. Have physical and psychological “fringe” material been presented to the public in the same ways?... Velikovsky’s publication of Worlds in Collision with a well-known scientific publisher was something of a fluke. Most such material has been published by specialty presses and has not been widely advertised. The same has been true of psychological “fringe” material until the late 1990s and later, when there were publications of such material by the Child Welfare League of America, Academic Press, and Wiley. 
  3. Have physical scientists and psychologists responded in the same ways to ‘fringe” materials?... Gordin’s book discussed the confused response of physicists and astronomers to Worlds in Collision. Physical scientists wanted to argue against Velikovsky without falling into the censorship trap; some focused their criticisms on the publisher, whose approval of the book seemed to imply that it should be included in their respected natural science list. Others ignored Velikovsky’s arguments, or, like Albert Einstein, were friendly but would not give the support Velikovsky wanted. Psychologists have on the whole ignored issues about alternative psychologies and psychotherapies; the American Psychological Association has even in recent years given continuing education credits for study of alternative treatments. A possible explanation of this indifference comes from a comment by Martin Gardner on the work of Wilhelm Reich, a direct predecessor of today’s alternative psychotherapies: “The reader may wonder why a competent scientist does not publish a detailed refutation of Reich’s absurd biological speculations. The answer is that the informed scientist doesn’t care, and would, in fact, damage his reputation by taking the time to undertake such a thankless task” (quoted by Gordin).
  4. Have countercultures supported both physical and psychological “fringe” ideas over time?... The role of the ‘70s secular counterculture in popularizing and maintaining interest in Worlds in Collision--  even bringing it into college courses—is clear. The religious counterculture that supports creationism has also played a role. These countercultural phenomena were not just anti-science in a general way, but fought the authority of science by declaring their own sources of authority to be paramount. Aspects of the secular counterculture are also apparent as supports of some alternative psychologies and psychotherapies--  for instance, the countercultural appeal to “Asian tradition” as a source of knowledge shows up in the energy therapies of different kinds.  The idea of repressed memory is also fostered by the secular counterculture’s stress on emotion as a more trustworthy guide than thought. Religious countercultures like the charismatic movement have supported alternative approaches that focus on adoption issues or posited prenatal experiences of interaction with the mother; these concerns relate clearly to positions on abortion and extramarital sex.


It’s hard to come to any clear conclusion here. Alternative beliefs about the physical world and about psychological phenomena share some but not all concepts and histories. The one factor that seems to me to be most important in encouraging the “fringe” is the existence of countercultures that can increase their own power and prestige by advocating for a “fringe” belief. But perhaps an equally important point is the fact that as Martin Gardner said, “the informed scientist doesn’t care.”

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