Category: Pseudoscience

‘Rethinking Psychology’ is now available

Alright, there really is no humble way of putting this. My new book [*blush*], having been trailed as “imminent” for several months, is now officially available. In all good booksellers, as they say (and they actually do say this).

I’ll be having an initial launch event in Galway in late April (details to follow). But in the meantime, here are all the formal bits and pieces you need to know…


Imprint: 2016
Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience
Author: Brian M. Hughes
Publisher: Palgrave, London

ISBN-10: 1137303948
ISBN-13: 978-1137303943

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From the cover: Psychology is one of the most popular subjects in universities across the world, offering unique insights into the human condition. However, its very popularity threatens to undermine its value as a discipline, and it often attracts those who lack scientific rigour. Taking a fresh look at common practices and pitfalls, Brian Hughes examines the relationship between psychology, science and pseudoscience, and explores the biases impeding many psychologists from being truly rigorous.

Brian Hughes has written an important and engaging book exploring the relationships between science, pseudoscience, and psychology. He argues persuasively that psychology itself can properly be considered to be a true science but one that is marred within by pockets of pseudoscience. This book should be read by anyone with a serious interest in the subject.” — Professor Christopher French, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Hughes provides a timely and comprehensive reminder of the critical role of science in both academic and professional applications of psychology. It covers an impressive breadth of topics with incisive clarity and illustrates clearly the integral role of scientific approaches to understanding psychological phenomena.”Dr David Hevey, Trinity College, Dublin



Chapter 1 What is Science and Why is it Useful?
Chapter 2 What is Pseudoscience and Why is it Popular?
Chapter 3 The Scientific Nature of Psychology
Chapter 4 The Scientific Nature of Psychology
Chapter 5 Examples from the Fringes: From Healing the Mind to Reading the Body
Chapter 6 Examples from the Mainstream: Biological Reductionism as Worldview
Chapter 7 Examples from the Mainstream: What Some People Say about What They Think They Think
Chapter 8 Biases and Subjectivism in Psychology
Chapter 9 Religion, Optimism and their Place in Psychology
Chapter 10 Psychologists at the Threshold: Why Should We Care?


Who let the dogmas out?

Have you ever noticed how irrationalities (a) tend to cluster, (b) tend to offer hope to the desperate, and (c) tend to appeal to folks with strongly held dogmatic beliefs? No? Well here’s an interesting example of the genre:


December 2015 edition (Original image posted by petepuskas to r/ireland)

Get a load of Alive!, a FREE Catholic newspaper produced in Dublin, Ireland. The magazine has a reputation for being, shall we say, a tad conservative (even by Catholic standards), having famously in the past spoken out against against marriage equality, feminism, the European Union, and what Wikipedia describes as “the veracity of global warming [and] the perceived anti-Catholicism of the environmental movement in general.”

For good measure, Alive! has a big problem with people like me:


…as opposed to god-fearin’ psychology (Pic: Wikipedia)

In fact, by and large, the publication has some interesting (and at times hilariously so) views on education:


And this is where the science (or rather lack of it) comes in. Take another look at the December 2015 cover and you’ll see the headline “Children with autism given their voice.” This reports on a technique known as the Rapid Prompting Method, which purports to enable previously uncommunicative children with autism to convey their views and feelings. Here is Alive!‘s own description:

Dramatic changes in children’s lives have been brought about by a revolutionary new teaching method for people with autism. Rapid Prompting Method was introduced to Ireland by a group of Mayo parents…They discovered it online and brought trainers here from the USA to try it with their children, holding the first RPM workshop in 2013.

There the trainer showed that [the parents’ child who has autism] could understand normally and could already spell. By the end of the workshop he was communicating with his parents for the first time.

RPM holds that autism is not a lack of intelligence in a child but a difficulty in motor control and a lack of speech. The child is taught to point to letters on a letter-board and spell his or her answers. Eventually pupils learn to spell on a keyboard or an iPad that speaks for them. It is very successful with people with autism who have no, or limited, speech.

All of this sounds great, of course. The problem, however, is that RPM is a scientifically controversial practice. Readers may be familiar with an already disgraced method of doing more or less the same thing, known as Facilitated Communication. Facilitated Communication was shown to be misleading because the helpers doing the facilitating were succumbing to “a subtle process in which well-intended facilitators were answering questions themselves – without any awareness that they were doing so.” As a result, the American Psychological Association published a statement dismissing Facilitated Communication as a bogus treatment.

RPM is effectively Facilitated Communication repackaged for the iPad generation.

Here is a link to a paper published in the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Despite running to nine pages, the paywall-savvy authors neatly frame their conclusion in the title of their review:

The only study investigating the rapid prompting method has serious methodological flaws but data suggest the most likely outcome is prompt dependency

That’s some title. (You can tell these folks are communication experts.)

Here’s another paper where the authors describe RPM as a “strategic rebranding…and repackaging” of Facilitated Communication. Moreover, the approach comprises

old tactics that capitalize on confirmation bias, pseudoscience, anti-science, and fallacy

and because it perverts the values of independence and dignity of people with autism, it

suppresses self-determination, usurps voices, and obstructs the development of a personal identity of people with disabilities.

That paper is not behind a paywall and can be downloaded in full from here.

And here’s a short article that classifies RPM as a “questionable autism approach,” concluding that:

Both Facilitated Communication and Rapid Prompting Method are unsubstantiated and — due to the need for facilitators — expensive attempts to help nonverbal children with autism learn academic materials and communicate independently. Both methods should be avoided by parents, especially in light of available AAC strategies that do not introduce the opportunity for facilitator co-option. Ensuring that our children’s gains are honestly their own and that the communication they engage in is genuine should be every parent’s and educator’s priority.

In short, the Rapid Prompting Method is not just an ineffective means of finding out what persons with autism might be thinking, it is an exploitative and undermining technique that demeans the person being facilitated. It offers false hope to parents and caregivers (“It’s like meeting your child for the first time,” said one parent in Alive!). And by purporting to reveal ‘hidden’ intelligence that would otherwise go unrecognized, it bolsters the view that ‘low’ intelligence in one’s child is somehow unacceptable to countenance. As such, it perpetuates a stigma against persons with authentic intellectual disability.

The strange thing is how such a method becomes a popular cause for particular interest groups. Already, in Ireland, RPM has been championed by a popular gospel singer and a prominent right-wing conservative parliamentarian, as well as getting front-page coverage in Alive! 

Maybe it’s because stuff like this happens. Here’s Alive! again:

[One child] did his first workshop in August 2014. “Now we realise that he can spell and read, even though he was never taught,” says his mother…He can tell his parents when he is in pain and how he feels after a seizure…He has expressed deep faith in God and that it was his belief in Jesus that sustained him during his long years of silence.

And what exactly did the mother — using RPM — discover this child wanted to say?

“I believe Jesus is just waiting. Go to him. Spend time with Jesus. Mother Mary is only wishing with all her heart that you love Jesus. The moment you start to roam you might regret leaving this loving person.”

Hmm. For the record,

[this child’s] parents were told he had a mental age of 2.

Presumably they were told that by those pesky secular psychologists…

What’s the deal with that Swiss government homeopathy report?

A letter in today’s Irish Times bemoans a recent column on homeopathy. The column had drawn attention to a report by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council that was dismissive of homeopathic treatments. But according to our letter-writer

The report of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) ignored any positive research on homeopathy, including the Swiss government report, a five-year study which found in favour of homeopathy and recommended its inclusion under its health insurance. This Swiss report concluded that, “There is sufficient evidence for the preclinical effectiveness and the clinical efficacy of homeopathy and for its safety and economy compared with conventional treatment.”

The Swiss government, eh? I keep hearing about it. So, what’s the deal with their homeopathy report?

Well, this is the deal with their homeopathy report:

swiss med wkly


From the introduction:

In 2011 the Swiss government published a report on homeopathy. The report was commissioned following a 2009 referendum in which the Swiss electorate decided that homeopathy and other alternative therapies should be covered by private medical insurance. Before implementing this decision, the government wished to establish whether homeopathy actually works. In February 2012 the report was published in English and was immediately proclaimed by proponents of homeopathy to offer conclusive proof that homeopathy is effective. This paper analyses the report and concludes that it is scientifically, logically and ethically flawed. Specifically, it contains no new evidence and misinterprets studies previously exposed as weak; creates a new standard of evidence designed to make homeopathy appear effective; and attempts to discredit randomised controlled trials as the gold standard of evidence. Most importantly, almost all the authors have conflicts of interest, despite their claim that none exist. If anything, the report proves that homeopaths are willing to distort evidence in order to support their beliefs, and its authors appear to have breached Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences principles governing scientific integrity.

So basically more of the same ol’ homeopathy mumbo-jumbo.

The full critique is worth a read. Check it out here.

But our letter writer goes on:

There was no representation for homeopaths and no expert on homeopathy on the NHMRC. Would this be acceptable, for example, in oncology or orthopaedics?

Well, would it be acceptable in oncology or orthopaedics? No, I dare say it wouldn’t. But this is because oncology and orthopaedics are pretty ordinary enterprises. They are not controversial. They are not famous for making claims that are described by scientists as laughably implausible. They are not known for their ridiculous assumptions about the way nature works, or for flying in the face of not only medical science, but that of physics and chemistry too. Homeopathy, by contrast, is controversial. And massively so.

(Also, a review of either oncology or orthopaedics would require expertise in medicine and, critically, in research methods relevant for medicine. Let’s just say homoepaths are not exactly famous for their expertise in methods.)

So, indeed, it would be quite unacceptable for a review of homeopathy to be conducted by a bunch of homeopaths. In fact, it would be quite scandalous. Like with that Swiss government report which, let’s face it, has been discredited for some time now. Not that that stops the homeopaths going on about it.

A bit like homeopathy itself, really.

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