In recent months, I have come across the use of the term “pseudoscience” several times in advocacy for and against the parental alienation belief system. One blog post declared (but did not provide a rationale for the view) that parental alienation (PA) beliefs are pseudoscience. A little earlier, William Bernet, a well-known proponent of PA, declared in a journal article that critics of PA are pseudoscientists. The PA proponents Linda Gottlieb and Steven Miller have taken Bernet’s position in print and in testimony.
This conflict has quickly descended to the mutual finger-pointing, tit-for-tat, “I know you are but what am I?” level. “Pseudoscience” is not just an insulting term; it has a real meaning, which I will talk about here.
I would suggest, as a definition of pseudoscience, the following: pseudoscience is the claim that certain ideas have been supported by empirical data collected and analyzed by methods approved by members of the most closely related scientific discipline—when no such data collection and analysis have actually occurred. Please note that I do not say there has been no data collection at all (though that can happen), but simply that the methods used are not the ones agreed upon by members of the appropriate discipline.
To elaborate on this definition, I am going to discuss some hallmarks of pseudoscience as considered in the 2019 Cambridge University Press book Pseudoscience in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, edited by Stephen Hupp. The introductory chapter of this book (by Hupp, Mercer, Thyer, and Pignotti) notes a few common characteristics of pseudoscience:
1. 1 It involves exploited expertise, where someone who is a genuine expert in one field provides testimony in an area where he or she lacks training. For example, Steven Miller, a prominent figure in parental alienation discussion, is in fact an emergency medicine physician. Warren Farrell, who has testified about his observations of children in PA cases, is a political scientist who has written about fathers’ rights.
2. 2 There is no research support (as in the claims made by Craig Childress and Dorcy Pruter) , but the promoters of the treatment have financial interests in the treatment.
3. 3 There is inflated research support; “exaggerated claims are made on the basis of poorly designed or conducted research or research published in journals with very low scientific standards”. This is the case with the well-known research reports of Richard Warshak or of Amy Baker, reports which present weakly-designed and implemented research as if it met high standards.
4. 4 An important mechanism of the treatment is implausible based on current scientific knowledge, as is the case with PA claims about brainwashing.
5 Pseudoscience often includes references to established biological or physical concepts that are irrelevant to claims made and appear to have no purpose but obfuscation and a “veneer” of science. Reports about PA methods supposedly associated with polyvagal theory would be included here, although polyvagal theory itself is very much open to similar criticism.
Proponents of the PA belief system claim, pseudoscientifically, that they have empirical research evidence for their concepts, even though they have in no case complied with the evidence base standards set in medicine and in psychology over at least 20 years now. In addition, as I have just shown, their claims share hallmarks of pseudoscience. It is for them to correct these failings if they do not wish to be called pseudoscientists. Incidentally, addressing a topic other than PA, the developmental psychologist Lawrence Steinberg recently discussed the pitfalls of claims of cause and effect in outcome studies with nonrandomized or other correlational designs – highly relevant to PA issues (nytimes.com/2021/10/10/opinion/Instagram-facebook-mental-health-study.html).
What, then, about the statement that opponents of PA are pseudoscientists? This is absurd on the face of it, because opponents have done only a very few empirical investigations of matters associated with PA, and none of PA itself or of the proprietary PA interventions. PA opponents on the whole do not offer claims of scientific evidence, so what they do offer is not pseudoscience. Instead, PA opponents have offered commentaries and critiques of PA claims that are designed to show weaknesses of PA concepts and of PA outcome research. If PA proponents paid attention to these critiques and made serious efforts to develop acceptable empirical work on this topic, there would be benefits for children and parents. Such benefits, however, do not seem to be a major goal of PA advocates.