We all know that social media can be a breeding ground for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience. But how dangerous is it really? Well, according to a new book by two psychologists, the spread of pseudoscientific mental health “therapies” represents a real problem that needs to be addressed.
The threat of pseudoscience
The internet is awash with various mental health apps, mood-boosting supplements, energy therapies, and every variety of nostrum, tincture, and remedy that claim to improve mind, body, and spirit. While some of these are harmless, if not a bit odd, there are others that are more worrying, according to psychologists Jonathan Stea and Stephen Hupp in their new book Investigating Clinical Psychology.
“This is the age of health misinformation,” the authors note in a statement sent to IFLScience. “It is everywhere. It is in our social media feeds, promoted by celebrities and influencers, and permeates the legacy news media. We are bombarded with advertisements pushing unsupported therapies and practices. Health misinformation has also worked its way into TV shows, movies, and books. And, increasingly, it is embraced and promoted by prominent politicians.”
Within psychotherapy, the situation is even more concerning.
“There’s an estimated 600 brands of psychotherapy circulating in the world of mental health and that number is growing. Many haven’t been tested so we don’t know if they work; and many are pseudoscientific and could be harmful,” Stea told IFLScience. “More broadly, many pseudoscientific treatments are also promoted in the wellness industry under the guise of “alternative medicine.”
Common examples of this type of pseudoscientific industry include naturopathy – a catch-all term that encompasses homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, and acupuncture. There is also the energy medicine or energy healing market, Stea explained, which includes things like Reiki, so-called therapeutic touch, and “tapping” through emotional freedom techniques (EFT).
“All of these examples are unequivocal instances of pseudoscience and remain scientifically implausible because their theoretical rationales are divorced from the broader scientific literature. For example, energy medicine proposes that there exists a kind of 'human energy field' that can be manipulated and balanced to produce better health—but scientific evidence of such an energy field doesn’t exist.”
More than a theoretical issue
To be sure, this is an issue with real consequences.
“The assessment and treatment of mental health concerns is a serious enterprise, whereby the potential negative consequences can mean continued suffering and in extreme cases, even death," Stea stressed.
“The late psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld articulated exactly why pseudoscience can be harmful: it can directly produce harm, it can indirectly tax time and financial resources from evidence-based services, and it can further erode the scientific foundations and trust of health professions that promote its use.”
Moreover, if a person is unwell, they may self-diagnose themselves with a condition that is not recognized by the medical community but is endorsed on social media. This could easily lead them to seek implausible or harmful treatments through their search engines.
A tool to avoid the questionable
In this new book, Stea, Hupp and various other experts in the field have come together in a series of expert-led deep dives into the world of clinical psychology with the aim to debunk and differentiate between pseudoscientific- and scientific approaches.
The book covers various topics, including crystal healing, detoxing, animal-assisted therapies, hypnosis, and energy medicine.
“There have been many important contributions to clinical psychology that have flourished in the last century, but there has been an equally powerful but harmful rise in pseudoscience,” Hupp explained in the statement. “It is great that more people are talking about mental health – but it must be linked to scientific evidence.”
The book also looks at historical examples of popular pseudoscientific psychology with the aim of helping readers learn how to identify spurious ideas. For example, they cover primal scream therapy (PST) developed in the 1960s and designed under the belief that repressed childhood trauma could be excised by screaming.
They also look at aspects of psychoanalytical therapy, such as dream interpretation, as well as the limitations of popular psychological tools such as Rorschach Inkblot Tests, hypnotherapy, and the Myers-Briggs Personality tests.
At their essence, many of these pseudoscientific practices rely on anecdotal evidence (and, increasingly, celebrity endorsement) rather than empirical research, which is often deployed with nonsensical language designed to appear scientific.
There is also a tendency to favor “confirmation rather than refutation,” Stea added, plus “explaining away negative findings”, “evasion of peer review”, “absence of self-correction”, and a tendency to “apply the claims to an endless list of health conditions.”
To counter the rise of pseudoscience, the book suggests establishing firmer regulations of mental health services and better-quality scientific studies into the efficacy of popular treatments. The authors support a system where treatments cannot be offered to the public unless they meet strict criteria, including consistent results across a large range of studies that demonstrate functional outcomes and lasting effects.
But importantly, the main aim is to help improve our ability to discern between legitimate scientific ideas and those that fall short of this standard.
“I would say the key takeaway is that we want to plant seeds to increase the likelihood that the general public is able to differentiate between pseudoscientific and evidence-based approaches in clinical psychology; and to provide a useful resource for clinicians to help them distinguish between science and pseudoscience in their practice,” Stea concluded.
“Our intention with our book is not to make sloppy claims about what is and what is not pseudoscience—rather, the intention is to educate about the nature of science versus pseudoscience and to help stimulate critical thinking about health decisions, especially with respect to mental health.”