Friday, April 10, 2020
Nonsense, Pseudoscience, and Parental Alienation
My other blog, which I’m afraid I’ve neglected for years, is called The Study of Nonsense. This phrase is a quotation from some brilliant person who has not been clearly identified. He said, memorably: “Nonsense is always nonsense, but the study of nonsense is scholarship”. I strongly agree with this comment and think it’s not well known how much scholarship is really needed to identify nonsense and show it to be what it is. If you don’t know what makes sense in a field, it’s hard to say what nonsense is. Nonsense can look perfectly plausible if you don’t know established relevant information and if you don’t examine arguments for plausibility.
Telling sense from nonsense is especially difficult when a topic involves many complex and interacting factors, which is the case for “parental alienation” (PA). The concept of PA is that when a child of divorced parents avoids contact with one parent, chances are strong that this occurs because the other, preferred, parent has manipulated or persuaded the child into taking that negative position. It would be foolish to argue that this never happens considering what very strange and undesirable things people actually do—but it would also be foolish to claim that a parent’s alienating behavior was the only cause for avoidance, even if such behavior were present. PA advocates do make that claim, however, even though one (Richard Warshak) acknowledges that there can be “false positives” in which a child is thought to have been “alienated” when this is not the case.
The nonsense associated with PA can be hard to understand or explain because of these complicating factors. It may thus be more appropriate to talk about PA not in terms of ordinary nonsense, but in terms of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is the name given to assertions that claim support from systematic scientific investigation, but do not in fact have such support. The issue here is “truth in advertising”, or, not to put too fine a point on it, the possibility of fraud. Pseudoscience is thus nonsense, but presents even more dangers to the public than forms of nonsense that do not make such claims.
There are a number of traits that allow us to recognize pseudoscience, and PA proponents have included most of them in their arguments.
· Exaggerated claims of effectiveness are made without support by adequate research
· Findings are misrepresented
· The way a treatment is said to work is not congruent with well-established existing knowledge
· Treatments have not been shown to work by a discipline’s usual standards of evidence, but are claimed to be effective anyway
· Treatments have not only not been tested adequately, but are also based on implausible conceptual frameworks.
· Treatments are potentially harmful, either directly or in terms of side
· Technical terminology is used to obfuscate rather than to clarify the discussion
I can provide examples for each of these as it applies to PA publications, but instead of doing that in this space I want to comment on an aspect of pseudoscience that is not often mentioned but that is quite relevant to the PA discussion. This is the addition of irrelevant information to material purporting to discuss PA issues. Tversky and Kahneman in 1981 demonstrated clearly that thinking is confused when people are presented with irrelevant as well as relevant information. For example, study participants who could effectively decide the probability that a person in a group was male or female after being told the proportions of each sex in the group, were nevertheless unable to solve the problem when additional information (like professions or hair color) was added-- even though the relevant information stayed exactly the same.
In a recent article supporting PA concepts,. Harman, Lorandos, Biringen, and Grubb (2019) gave an extensive list of mental and physical problems resulting from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) without presenting any evidence that “alienation” by a parent was in any way equivalent to any of the ACEs. They thus coupled claims about PA with irrelevant (and frightening) material. Childress (2015) included in his self-published book many references to family systems therapy as discussed by authors like Haley and Minuchin, even though the treatment he recommended is not a form of family therapy and is stated to be successful even when many of the so-called “alienating” parents do not have any contact with their children until the children reach the age of 18. Childress also included in his discussion references to Tronick’s work on broken and repaired communication sequences but did not mention that the research involved infants and their mothers rather than the teenagers who are usually the focus of PA claims. The California psychologist Randy Rand, reported to be the originator of the PA treatment program Family Bridges ™ , claimed that he was asked to create this program by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, with the purpose of reuniting internationally-abducted children with their American parents—a point of historical interest, but irrelevant to evidence supporting identification or treatment of PA.
The use of irrelevant information to confuse the audience is thus characteristic of PA publications and may be considered an aspect of pseudoscience.
When pseudoscientific thinking is part of the presentation of proprietary treatments for sale, the question of fraud arises. Whether a charge of fraud could be made to stick, of course, would depend upon whether a PA advocate actually believed in his or her assertions, and whether a victim could show that he or she had been harmed by PA practices.