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

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pseudosymmetry: Adoption, Attachment, Vaccination, and Misinformation

Pseudosymmetry is a useful word, invented by the anthropologist Christopher Toumey some years ago, and used to describe a maddening journalistic phenomenon. It’s a way of reporting news that gives the false impression that opinion is divided on topics that have little or no scientific support on one side and plenty on the other. “Symmetry” suggests that there are arguments of equal weight on both sides; “pseudosymmetry” suggests the practice of making arguments appear equal when they are actually far from equally supported.

We wouldn’t put up with pseudosymmetry in areas where there is immediate danger and where it makes a good deal of difference whether we make one decision or another. What would you think of an article about the Japanese nuclear reactors that described bad possible outcomes, but added that some nuclear scientists thought there was no problem? There well may be some such people-- suffering from dementia, or recently too ill to have seen what is happening-- but it would be deceptive to suggest that their existence means there is any real disagreement about the reactor problems. We would lose all confidence in a news source that gave this false impression.

When the danger is less immediate, though, we are not surprised when a news source gives the “other side” even though few knowledgeable people accept it. In those cases, some may even give credit for high moral standards to people who strive to tolerate someone’s right to unsupported beliefs. Any report about global warming in the popular media will be attacked for unfairness if it omits to say that there are non-believers-- even though the proportion of global warming believers to non-believers among scientists is probably 1000:1 at best.

We are also used to seeing “controversiality” (a word that is a red flag for pseudosymmetry nearby) introduced in any media report on child development. I remember being asked by a reporter at the time of the Candace Newmaker trial, after the child died under the ministrations of Attachment Therapy practitioners: “what do you think about this controversial therapy?” I replied, “it’s not controversial”, and I explained that it couldn’t be controversial if practically no clinical psychologist had ever heard of it, and those who had heard of it rejected it wholeheartedly. “Controversy” is a term that suggests that there are two schools of thought of equal weight, and therefore two opinions that are equally legitimate. When this is not true, “controversy” is a word that gives a false impression-- but it’s so often used by reporters who don’t want to be told they’re unfair, and do want to convey excitement about their topic. Saying something is controversial when it isn’t is a kind of pseudosymmetry.

I suppose one of the reasons for pseudosymmetry in discussions of early development is the idea that it will be a long time before children grow up. Therefore, we needn’t worry about any immediate problem even if we give the wrong impression about an issue-- if we suggest that a well-supported statement is only tentative by including an unsupported opinion shared by a very small number of people. Journalists may decide in these cases that to appear fair by including unsupported beliefs is more important than taking care not to delude readers or judging the likelihood of one of two opinions.

I have pseudosymmetry on my mind because of a recent e-argument with an organization in upstate New York. I won’t name names because, although I believe these people are in the wrong, they politely listened to my concerns and made an effort to discuss a pseudosymmetrical matter. Here was the deal: a communications professor at a small college became involved in the development of a series of public education videos about adoption. Professor knew nothing about the topic and depended on contributors to make the content acceptable. One contributor, an adoption agency staff member, provided an interview on attachment with an “adoption therapist” as a segment on attachment issues in adoption.

The attachment segment is the part of the series that brings up the issue of pseudosymmetry. The “adoption therapist”-- a marriage and family therapist whose information on the Internet suggests that he is also a homeopathic practitioner—concentrated on the role of grief in adoption and attributed this to the emotional attachment he believes to occur prenatally; this view, of course, is quite opposite to the conventional and evidence-based idea that emotional attachment of infant to adult occurs at some time in the second six months of life. The therapist also alluded to the existence of auras as an indication of personality and emotional concerns, a belief that is certainly no part of conventional psychotherapy or personality study. While none of the therapist’s practical suggestions were harmful or out of line with ordinary practice, the belief system he communicated was one with implications that could well lead adoptive parents to wrong assumptions and expectations.

So, why do I connect this matter with pseudosymmetry? Why don’t I just say they were wrong and should not have been spending public money this way? Here’s what the professor told me in an e-mail: “We decided that this issue was one that appears to have some validity in spite of the perspective and that [the therapist] didn’t present the matter as though there was only one, valid perspective. [Our medical adviser] pointed out that a similar situation exists in the medical field in regards to immunizations.”

In other words, professor believes that the presentation is acceptable because it does not present the matter as if there is only one, valid perspective. The fact that indeed there is only one substantiated perspective, and that the other material presented was factually incorrect, is seen as irrelevant. To top off the pseudosymmetrical efforts, he quotes an individual who draws a parallel between this and views of vaccination, an area in which there is one perspective with clear scientific support and another that is factually incorrect and rife with fraudulent and self-aggrandizing counterclaims. Pseudosymmetry apparently demands that we give equal time to opponents of vaccination and to reliable evidence supporting vaccination, and uses that model to declare that unsupported claims about the thoroughly-researched subject of attachment should be included along with evidence-based information.

To be tolerant and kind to other people who have different ways from ours is a good idea-- indeed, we would do well to do more than tolerate, and encourage those cultural differences. But that is a far cry from tolerating the promulgation of claims that are well-known to be wrong. What is it all about, anyway? Why is pseudosymmetry so beloved of journalists and others? Part of it, I’m sure, is the belief that it’s “not nice” to criticize or to suggest that someone else’s work or beliefs could use some fine-tuning. Another part-- and a far less admirable one-- may be plain old mental laziness. Why try to think through a difficult problem when it’s easier to avoid it and you also get moral credit that way? It’s hard work to examine the facts, and it’s also hard to summon the ego strength to deal with others’ objections to your decision that one idea is more supportable than the other.

Pseudosymmetry is an easy way out of the dilemma, if you don’t mind thinking that adoptive families may have troubles, or children may die of contagious disease, because you have created a false impression.


  1. I love the concept of pseudosymmetry, especially when applied to science reporting. Sure, give the anti-vax nutters equal time with those promoting life-saving vaccinations, Primal Wound with sound early childhood psychology, Creationist myths with evolution. It's all good when it is all show biz and sensationalism, not sound science. And who does it all hurt? Kids, those who die of infectious diseases that could have been prevented, those subjected to questionable "adoption therapy", those ignorant of real science and history of the natural world.

    No, all ideas are NOT equal. All beliefs about the real world are not equally valid. Being "open minded" is not the same as having a hole in one's head.