Tomasz Witkowski
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Historia pewnej prowokacji...O mnieZakazana psychologiaLapidariumKsięga gościEnglish version
Fashionable nonsense still in fashion. Psychological Sokal-Style Hoax
Zgodnie z życzeniami niektórych czytelników, zamieszczam poniżej przybliżony tekst swojego wystąpienia wygłoszonego podczas XIV-ego Europejskiego Kongresu Sceptyków. Jak tylko zdobędę inne materiały z Kongresu niezwłocznie je tu umieszczę.

   In 1996 Alan Sokal, a physicist from New York University, published a paper in Social Text – an influential academic journal of social sciences. The paper was entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Shortly afterwards, Sokal revealed that the article constituted nothing more than a hoax – a parody of works published by the journal. The article was larded with nonsensical yet authentic quotations from renowned French and American intellectuals, and disclosed how these thinkers had misused notions from quantum physics and mathematics. Sokal showed that such postmodern thinkers as Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Baudrillard and Deluze had rapeatedly juggled with these concepts without understanding them. His other goal was to satirize cognitive relativism. In common view, Sokal's parody ridiculed intellectuals who attempt to sound very "deep" but who discuss concepts that they do not always comprehend.
   To clarify the motives behind the parody and its consequences, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote a book entitled Intellectual impostures. The book detailed the parody, paragraph by paragraph.In the United States their work is known under the title Fashionable nonsense.
  • Have social scientists given up the habit of creating links with quantum physics and mathematics in their theories?
  • Can we still take Lacanian mathematical topology seriously?
  • Are psychologists still using hard sciences analogies to seduce readers with the depth of their brilliance?
   Unfortunately, my experience in the field of psychology, and especially my observation of therapeutic methods, suggest that many psychologists have not learned much from Sokal’s lesson. What is worse, they also do not hesitate to apply questionable methods in such a sensitive sphere like therapeutic practice. Many editors of popular science journals contribute to these questionable efforts by publishing texts of doubtful quality. I decided to test my observations in an “experiment” equally unorthodox as the one performed by Sokal. Only my goals were different.
   In October 2007, I published an article dedicated to a new type of non existent psychotherapy. The article was entitled, Wiedza prosto z pola (Knowledge straight from the field) and appeared in the Polish popular science journal Charaktery. I wrote it under the pseudonym Renata Aulagnier. The article contained nothing but falsehoods and fantasies with no scientific basis, and included plagiarized fragments added by the editors themselves.
   Why did I decide to invent a new therapy?
People who experience personal problems or who deal with health issues often desperately seek the help of a therapist or a psychologist. However, reaching for this type of assistance is often not easy. People looking for such help must overcome the natural resistance to reveal their weaknesses to others. They have to face the possibility of a painful disclosure of personal problems in the presence of a therapist or a group. Therefore, before deciding to adopt such a solution, many people try to handle their own problems. The range of self-help options available today has expanded immensely. Bookshops offer long rows of guidebooks that seduce the reader with promises of solving all types of crises and comprehensive life transformations.
   Journals propagating health awareness and popularizing psychology are yet another source of information on the range of specific therapies. Moreover, one click of the mouse brings a huge number of Internet-based interventions.
   How to choose the right one? Is it by following temptations that sound like promises? Or by seeking more rational reasons, such as the scientific basis of therapeutic systems? There is much risk attached to this process. At best, a bad choice may mean a loss of time and money; at worst - the deepening of a crisis or serious psychological problems. In the most pessimistic scenario, bad therapy may result in death. Having all this in mind, how can people make wise choices?
   At present, the European Association for Psychotherapy, which represents more than 120 thousand psychotherapists, has registered 32 therapeutic modalities. New modalities are still added to the list. A substantial number of these therapies do not have verified scientific basis and they are far from evidence based practice, for example: neuro-linguistic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis.
   Apart from the modalities from official lists, there are many more pseudo-therapies developing within the market of psychotherapeutic services. In 1959, Harper identified 36 different therapies; in 1981, Corsini counted over 250, and in 1986 Goleman wrote about more than 460. Today, this number is certainly much higher. Whether these pseudotherapies will survive and be put on official lists depends on the silent approval of the academic world and the level of interest among licensed psychologists. If a potentially harmful therapy wins such support and is put into practice, it is only a matter of time before it seduces many desperate patients. I invented my own therapy primarily to check to what degree popular science journals – at least one prominent in Poland - protect their readers against such threats. In addition, I intended to provoke a broad discussion on how pseudoscience and parascience permeate universities, the academic community and scientific institutions.
   Why did I choose Charaktery?
Primarily because this monthly magazine, dedicated entirely to psychology, boasts a scientific committee. At the time the article was under review there were eight professors of psychology and one PhD on it. The editorial team of Charaktery included four Ph.Ds. All in psychology. These facts are strengthened by the editors' in their declarations. They emphasize that the monthly is a popular but science magazine. This image may lead readers to conclude that the content of the journal is valid, verified, and supported by solid scientific research. Nevertheless, after a detailed analysis of the journal's texts, I drew opposite conclusions. In recent years before my hoax the monthly has published highly questionable content that sells just as easily as science. Charaktery were popularizing neurolinguistic programming, Bert Hellinger’s family constellations therapy Carl Simonton’s cancer healing and many more questionable treatments.
   Another argument that supported my choice was the fact that the journal reaches a very specific and wide audience - over 50,000 readers. It includes psychologists, students of psychology, and therapists with little or no educational background in psychology. For many of them the journal is the key source of information about psychology and psychotherapy. This target group is also composed of many former, present, and prospective patients. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine a better carrier for therapeutic news in Poland than Charaktery.
   Since April 2010 the editors of Charaktery have been acting at the same time as editors of the Polish version of German magazine Gehirn & Geist and American Scientific Mind.The title Psychologia Dziś literally translated means psychology today and has nothing in common with the American magazine Psychology Today.
    For the purposes of my experiment I created a virtual person named Renata Aulagnier. I decided that she would be a psychologist and a psychotherapist specialising in neuroscience. I registered an e-mail account for her and that was all. Renata Aulagnier never existed. Probably no one from the editorial team did anything to check who she was and what her qualifications as an author of popular science articles were.
    Using this virtual identity, I wrote a four page manuscript based only on my fantasies and a concept of morphogenetic fields formulated by Ruper Sheldrake in the seventies. I sent the text to Charaktery. In response they said that they were interested in publishing Renata’s article. But, to my surprise, their reply came with my manuscript enlarged to already 12 pages! Later on I realised that the editor had worked intensively on the text and added many fragments. Soon thereafter I discovered that the added passages had been plagiarised from another paper published online. I asked the editors twice to put the name of the editor working on my text as a co-author of the paper but they refused. After a number of editorial changes, the 8-page manuscript including the plagiarised passages was published in the journal.
   There were three main reasons to choose Sheldrake’s concept as the theoretical background for my hoax. Firstly, it is a pseudoscientific concept which has existed on the fringe of science or even outside for over 30 years. Secondly, it is sometimes used in psychotherapies as a model of explanation for observed changes. If you type the expression “morphogenetic fields” into any Internet browser, you will get hundreds of thousands search results, with the majority of links leading to Web-sites related to paranormal events or bizarre therapies, such as, for example, Bert Hellinger’s family constellations therapy. Had the editorial team bothered to check relevant information, even on Wikipedia, they would have quickly obtained enough data to form an opinion of the concept. They could have found out, for instance, that neither biologists nor physicists treat the concept seriously and reject it because of the lack of scientific evidence. They could have also learnt that the concept was being developed mainly by science-fiction writers. The truth is that no researchers have confirmed either the existence of morphogenetic fields or morphic resonance yet.
   The third and last reason for choosing Sheldrakes concept were its links with quantum physics. Sheldrake claims that characteristics of the morphogenetic field are the same as those of the quantum field. This false assumption seemed to me a very good opportunity to check whether representatives of social sciences have learned anything from Sokal’s lesson. It is difficult to imagine a better and, at the same time, a worse theory to provide grounds for my hoax.
   In the article I also made a reference to a French psychoanalyst - Jacques Lacan: Jacques Lacan, an outstanding French psychoanalyst, also made a valuable contribution to the concept's application in psychotherapy. He was the first to come up with the idea of using mathematical topology in structure analysis of mental illnesses. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Lacan, knowing nothing about present methods of brain mapping as we use them today, laid the mathematical foundations of mental illness analysis based on those methods.
    Apart from the fact that Jacques Lacan was French, worked as a psychoanalyst, and wrote on the link between mental illness and mathematical topology, all the rest is rubbish. Lacan did not lay any mathematical foundation for the analysis of mental illness. I invoked his name with the assumption that there are certain names in social sciences, which should immediately ring a bell in the mind of a well-read intellectual. Lacan, together with other figures of postmodernism, was discredited as a result of Sokal hoax. To my surprise, this bait left deliberately in the text did not catch the attention of its editorial team.
   Let me say something about my therapy. The following fragment best illustrates the essence of the non-existent therapy made up for the needs of the hoax: The patient lies on a 21st-century version of a couch. But instead of the psychoanalyst sitting at the headrest, we see a person in a white lab-coat who gazes intently at a computer screen connected to a huge CT scanner. The patient's head rests inside the machine and is currently being scanned using the fMRI method – functional magnetic resonance imaging – which means that the patient’s brain activity is being mapped on a real-time basis. This is the first step of a new therapy – therapy of the future. Its goal is to diagnose disturbances of the morphogenetic field and thus determine what therapeutic measures should be used to induce the desired morphic resonance. For instance, the therapist will be able to prescribe the correct music treatment and to recommend how much music, what kind and in what social circumstances (e.g., inside a theater or at a full football stadium) should the patient be exposed to.
   Moreover, the text consisted of a detailed description of the therapy and methods of measuring the morphogenetic field. I enriched it with examples of animal behaviour and showed how the theory may be applied in learning languages. To emphasise the value of my therapy I additionally showed its connections with quantum physics in the concluding part of the article.
   While waiting for the publication of my text, I wrote another article as continuation of the first one. The new article explained the phenomena of empathy, altruism, Werther effect, mysterious animal suicides, as well as paranormal abilities.I sent it to Charaktery and after some corrections they tentatively accepted it for publication. Because in my opinion I had sufficiently confirmed my hypotheses, I decided not to delay revealing my hoax until the publication of the second article. Extending the hoax would not contribute anything more relevant. I also concluded that I could not allow further deception of readers.
   Having revealed my hoax to the editorial team, I offered assistance to them in preparation of corrections and clarifications. According to the Polish law, such corrections and clarifications should have been published. The editors refused to cooperate and they have not published any correction to date. Only a letter from the editor-in-chief was published in the subsequent issue, in which he explained that the editors had been deceived by me. The plagiarisms added by the editorial team in the text were called “an obvious technical mistake.”
   My hoax has revealed a range of important questions. Some of them were specific and connected with the hoax only, others were of a more general nature related to science. I will discuss briefly only two specific problems – the differences between Sokal hoax and mine, as well as certain ethical issues raised by the hoax. On the same day that I revealed my hoax, it was immediately judged and compared with Sokal parody. I did not see Sokal’s experiment  as an example to imitate. My aim was to show how pseudoscience found its way to the public. That is why, contrary to Sokal, I chose popular science magazine, not a scientific one.
The publication of one article and the easy acceptance of the second one suggested that I could easily circulate this knowledge and get away with it. Moreover, I could even advertise my therapy in the journal, and, consequently, practise it. This, however, would go beyond intellectual provocation. Probably, there is no scientific journal that would offer such opportunities for promoting new therapies.
   In addition, I intended to highlight problems related to propagating pseudoscience beyond the scientists themselves. I wanted ordinary people, students as well as present and prospective patients to see how pseudoscience can sneak into popular science press. I believe that my hoax and its revelation in a magazine of this type were simple and clear enough to reach this group. My web-site with the reveleation of the hoax were visited by more than 30 thousand readers.
   Another question are ethical issues related to the hoax. Provocations, mystifications, and hoaxes have always raised doubts of an ethical nature. My critics have also put forward such accusations. Some of them stated that sending the article to Charaktery was nothing more than wasting the editors’ time, abusing their trust, misleading the readers, and so on. These accusations are worth analyzing in terms of the specific status achieved by popular science press.
   It enjoys the privileges and recognition that are due to scientific journals, at the same time taking little responsibility for the published content. Members of academic boards and editorial teams of popular science journals bear no specific scope of responsibility for publishing-related decisions. There is likewise no mechanism intended to verify their scientific value of the journals themselves.
    In my opinion, this creates a significant threat to readers of such magazines, especially those devoted to health issues. Editors of a popular science journal, in particular on mental health practices, are responsible for the welfare of their readers. Hence, as a reader of this type of press, I believe I have every right to expect the editors to protect me from harmful recommendations, false statements, and misinformation. I also think that I am entitled to stigmatise failures of editors and members of scientific board to accept this responsibility.
   A complete list of all issues is too long to discuss separately. Nevertheless, there are some crucial ones that are worth discussing.
  • Are representatives of scientific psychology responsible for how it is popularised and what type of knowledge is popularised?
  • What is the difference between the tolerance of editors, therapists, and scientists for various forms of practising science and conducting therapy, and their indifference to abuses in this sphere?
  • Should we, as psychologists, abandon the market of psychological services to the rules of the free market?
  • How much nonsense published in popular science and scientific magazines remains forever hidden, begins to live a life of its own, and exerts influence on people struggling with mental or health problems?
    I also included a detailed account of this discussion in my book Zakazana psychologia (Forbidden psychology. Between charlatanry and science). Ladies and gentleman, for those of you, who are interested in the issues I’ve talked about, can read more in my article entitled Psychological Sokal-Style Hoax. It will be published in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice in the autumn or winter issue. 
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me. Thank you for your attention.
Budapest, 18 September, 2010.
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W obronie rozumu - blogHistoria pewnej prowokacji...O mnieZakazana psychologiaLapidariumKsięga gościEnglish version
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