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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Parental Alienation and “Science Claimers”, or, “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue”


In a webinar (“Parental Alienating Behaviors and Coercive Control: The One and the Same” [sic]) sponsored by the “family access” organization on Nov. 21, Jennifer Harman, the parental alienation proponent, named a number of critics as Science Deniers (her caps). I was one of those who received this label, among whom were Bob Geffner, Joan Meier, Madelyn Milchman, Linda Neilson, and Joy Silberg.  

The statement that we are Science Deniers, as she puts it (with initial caps), is yet one more example of the “reversing” pattern of addressing criticism so characteristic of parental alienation proponents. Like abusers, who respond to accusations with DARVO tactics (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender), the PA group has come to the point of using criticisms they receive as allegations against their critics. You say they don’t understand demand characteristics, they respond that YOU don’t understand demand characteristics. You refer to PA ideas as a belief system, PA proponents refer to your positions as a belief system (Harman actually did this). This reversal is reminiscent of the playground response, “I’m rubber, you’re glue, what you say bounces off me and sticks to you”, or to the kid-witty rejoinder “I know you are, but what am I?”.

 The Science Deniers label is presumably a “reversal” response to the many published and presented criticisms of research work otherwise claimed to support the parental alienation belief system. For a number of years, critics of PA have been pointing out that there is no established way to identify (much less quantify) parental alienation, and that as a result there is no way to compare children’s attitudes before and after a PA intervention like Family Bridges or Turning Points. In addition, when PA proponents have attempted outcome research on the effects of their intervention programs, they have always used designs yielding low levels of evidence, so that their conclusions cannot be given the weight that is assigned to evidence-based treatments like Coping Cat or PCIT.

Nevertheless, Harman and other PA proponents have continued to claim that PA interventions and evaluations meet the Daubert or Frye  standards for admissibility of scientific evidence. As critics contradict this claim, PA proponents like Harman do not argue point by point why their work is adequate, nor do they address the specific criticisms supplied, or attempt to design research that meets higher standards. On the contrary, they simply re-assert that their work is “scientific”, and like Harman a few days ago, declare that anyone who is critical is therefore a Science Denier ( and to be classed with people who do not accept the reality of global warming). Thus, they seem to state, they are rubber and we are glue, and our criticisms of research failings prove that we refuse to take a scientific stance on PA issues.

It seems to me that there is no problem here of anyone “denying science”. The problem is that Harman and her colleagues are Science Claimers. They assert that their views “are science” and therefore anyone who rejects those views is “denying science”.

Harman, as a Science Claimer, said not a word about the nature of the scientific enterprise, about research design, or about any of the reasons why PA evaluation or outcome research should or should not be regarded as meeting scientific criteria. She did not for a moment address the criticisms of PA work that have been widely discussed by psychologist, psychiatrists, social workers, lawyers, and judges. Instead, she spent much of the presentation instructing her audience about professional journals and wowing them with how complicated it is to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. She introduced and contrasted peer-reviewed scientific journals and scholarly journals, asserting that she and other PA proponents have published scientific work in highly-rated journals, and comparing impact factors and other metrics in a way that was probably of little interest to her audience (but did sound important.)

Harman spoke with pride (as indeed she deserves to do) of publishing an article in Psychological Bulletin, a major professional journal with a high impact factor. She denigrated critiques of that article on the grounds that they were late and were published in less prestigious journals. She did not, however, note that her article was not “scientific” in the usual sense, in that it did not report or analyze any new empirical data. Harman’s article was a review or commentary article, discussing other people’s empirical work, just as were the published critiques of the Psychological Bulletin paper. Harman also failed to address any of the criticisms of her article’s claims and conclusions. For example, rather than discussing the criticism that her comparison of parental alienating behaviors to family violence should be considered an analogy, she stated firmly that in her “scientific opinion” the equation of the two was a correct and real one rather than a matter of reasoning by analogy. The two terms, she said, meant the same thing, had the same referent. She equally firmly restated her conviction that abused children protect and do not reject their abusive parents, a common assertion of PA proponents but one that has been critiqued and should be discussed in all its complexity and implications. Although there are both empirical and logical factors that Harman should have addressed if she wanted to support the PA belief system as scientists do, she failed to speak to any such points. She simply acted as a Science Claimer.

Of course, I am using the term Science Claimer only to mirror the term Science Denier. There is already a perfectly good word to describe the act of saying that one has scientific evidence for a position when there is in fact no adequate evidence. This is called pseudoscience. Identifying a set of claims as pseudoscience is not denying science, but clarifying the difference between an evidence-based position and one that is largely speculative but is asserted to be otherwise.