Friday, January 20, 2012

The Map is not the Territory: On Scientology, Intelligence, and Critical Thinking

Regular readers of my random ramblings no doubt note that I'm a lover of diversity. I also strive to be respectful of a variety of beliefs. There are limits. I've apparently found one of mine.

"Everything in moderation including moderation" --Oscar Wilde

My clinical psychology practice is in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. It's hard to spin around on Massachusetts Avenue without knocking over another psychologist. There are a lot of us concentrated along red brick sidewalks. This dense grouping of psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists apparently makes the square a good place for the occasional protest by anti-psychiatry and anti-psychology forces within Scientology.

I've been working in Cambridge for the better part of eight years now. From time to time the folks from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights New England canvass the streets and put leaflets on the windshields of the cars lining the streets. I recently got this flyer pictured on the left when I was parked in front of a senior citizen housing complex.

I'm all for having full throated and complex discussions about all sorts of different ideas. The neighborhood around my office is populated by communists, cults, political protesters (the Falun Gong folks have put on some amazing street performances/protests), and of course there is the endless supply of people wanting me to save the whales, children, environment, etc.

Most of what is presented in Harvard Square is one sided. The information from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights is no different. I actually enjoy encountering this sort of material--and enjoy when a young (or old) client brings it with them into an appointment. Almost every autumn, for example, a teen comes into my office with their latest discovery from the LaRouche youth movement.  Together we look at the information with a critical eye. We think of ways to get different viewpoints. We think of ways to fact check. I create a space where the teen can come to their own opinion, in their own way, in their own time. 

This sort of dialogue has had transformative and far reaching effects. A young person (or any person, really) starts looking at their own life with a critical eye: they explore, fact check, try out different viewpoints, and eventually find a more expansive understanding of their inner (and outer) lives.

Sometimes however, the one sided nature of the debate turns nasty. Sometimes it's even dangerous.

There are important issues to consider with the over use of psychiatric medications (look here to check out Robert Whitaker's blog Mad in America and here to check out Daniel Carlat's blog for two excellent places to start your own research). The "Whistleblowers of Elderly Psychiatric Abuse", however, really got me frosted the other morning.

What frosted me about the flyers left in front of the senior housing is that it preys on fear and peddles that fear on a vulnerable population. The claims made in the flyer, in some ways, are not outlandish. There are serious concerns that patients and doctors need to sort out together about the use of psychiatric medications.  Likewise, there are also serious concerns to consider when a patient is contemplating electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

To explore ECT more, click here to check out the Mayo Clinic's information page about the procedure,  here to read another overview, or here.

Leaving propaganda on cars surrounding a senior housing complex is just too much. Of course many senior citizens are perfectly capable of doing their own critical thinking. Some however, are not. Some just get scared, aren't equipped to have a good dialogue with their physician, and are left to suffer needlessly.

Rather than leave the propaganda behind anonymously, why not really engage people in a multi-sided dialogue about psychiatry, medication, mental health treatment, and health care decision making?

On a lightly related issue, the folks leaving the anti-psychiatry propaganda also left behind a coupon to visit the local Scientology church. To have your IQ, personality, and aptitude testing.

I have to admit, I'm curious about this one. Much ink has been spilled about what constitutes "intelligence." No one really has an answer for it. The best we have is our performance on specific tasks that are statistically compared to the performance of large populations of people who take the same test.

"The map is not the territory" -- Alfred Korzybski

I wonder how long this is going to take us all to figure out? In the end, I think that's what this somewhat rambling blog post brings me. Whether we are talking about psychiatry, anti-psychiatry, religion, or intelligence, we collectively seem intent on thinking one group or another has direct access to a final statement of what reality is. In the end the best any of us can ever do is have access to our own perceptions to a set of beliefs or ideas.

Madness. Religion. Intelligence. We've created many different abstractions to understand these phenomena. They are all just that: abstractions or reactions we derive from our perceptions. None of them, on their own, are representative of reality.

I think this makes our world so much more interesting and exciting. It also makes it possible for us to all look together at one thing and marvel and all the different ways we experience and understand the phenomena around us.

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