Have the Lunatics Taken Over the Asylum? Part 1

This article was written for the superb new skeptic’s magazine site The 21st Floor, where a wealth of fascinating and humorous information can be found. Go there!

It’s nice to be able to speak in the same language. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its 4th Edition (DSM-IV), gives psychiatrists and clinical psychologists the chance to do just that, being as it is a list of every psychiatric disorder currently known, categorised into useful diagnostic criteria. Well, I say ‘useful’.

Each time a new version of the DSM is in production, a tsunami of controversy rolls across the brain sciences, as researchers into particular mental disorders battle to have their particular interpretations included in the ‘official’ text, which clinicians will then use to diagnose their patients. Now is one of those times – the 5th Edition (DSM5) is on its way, drafted here, and a movement to fill it with rigorous, evidence-based disorders which are more than merely psychiatrist’s figments. Past embarrassments, such as the inclusion in previous editions of homosexuality as a disorder (now thankfully expunged from the manual), constantly come back to haunt the DSM’s writers, and as you can see from articles such as this one decrying the new draft, you can’t please all of the psychologists, all of the time.

There is legitimate criticism of some of the DSM criteria, and there is nonsense. In this 3-part post I’ll first sort the scientific wheat from the desperate, bizarre, anti-psychiatrist chaff. In parts 2 and 3, I’ll discuss a couple of pertinent issues for the DSM5 writers – the validity of a syndrome everyone knows about (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and the validity of an entirely new creation (Coercive Paraphilic Disorder).

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What Dungeons & Dragons Tells Us About Your Brain

April 1, 2010 7 comments

Allow me to be deeply geeky for a moment here: it seems Dungeons & Dragons was only half right.

Those slavering, lonely sad sacks among you who are familiar with creating characters in this role-playing, roll-dicing game will know that, when you generate your in-game avatar, you are confronted with a list of attributes (such as Strength, Wisdom, and Charisma) from which you choose if you’d like to be a charmingly pathetic weakling, a musclebound oaf, or anywhere in between. You then pick a class (such as Fighter, Wizard, or Thief), which describes how you’ll deal with your exciting adventures – hack ‘n’ slash with a big axe, or cower at the back with Magic Missile.

So the overall message is this: people vary a lot, but you can still put them into a taxonomy of ‘classes’, ways in which they’re comfortable with dealing with the world. And now, as I hit rock bottom in the ‘tortured metaphor to open a blog post’ stakes, I will assess how close  a fit the D&D system is to real human psychology.

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Is There a Vaccine Against Denialism?

December 14, 2009 48 comments

I’m surprised the incidence of claustrophobia isn’t higher amongst scientists. Whether it’s know-it-all alternative medicine advocates, religious fanatics, or militant anti-environmentalists, science really is beset on all sides by a rogues’ gallery of knuckle-dragging bullshitters.

It’s a strange fact, however, that sometimes the knuckles of these bullshitters appear entirely unscuffed – that is, even the cleverest of writers can occasionally throw out an opinion of such shocking absurdity that one must step back in disbelief. This has, I am sad to say, recently been the case with critic and essayist Clive James, who has converted to the church of climate change denialism. Here, I’ll attempt to chop down the gnarled and pathetic-looking tree which James is barking up.

But that’s not all. Last Saturday I encountered a species of anti-sciencer rather more, shall we say, gauche and unlettered than Clive James. A mighty twenty-five of Edinburgh’s most indefatigable anti-vaxxers converged on the Scottish Parliament to express their opinion that ‘SWINE FLU IS A HOAX!’.

So which is the biggest hoax – climate change or swine flu? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!!!

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Putting the ‘Demon’ in ‘Demonstrably Underwhelming’

November 26, 2009 4 comments

You know that phrase, ‘things that go bump in the night’? It doesn’t sound very scary, really. I would be more frightened of ‘things that go shriek in the night’, ‘things that go “AWOOOOOOOOOO” in the night’, or perhaps even ‘things that stalk you in the dark in order to rend your innards like spaghetti… in the night’. Less snappy, perhaps, but certainly more chilling than the latest cinema hypefest Paranormal Activity, in which the dismal attempts at scares are almost invariably of the ‘bump’ variety.

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Bible Bashing

November 10, 2009 6 comments

This post is originally an article written for today’s The Student newspaper. The editors of the Comment section ripped out all the offensive remarks about religion (fair enough – their paper, their choice, and I’m grateful they printed it), so here’s the original. This has been talked about in more detail by Mike, PZ, and The Freethinker.

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Hybridise This

October 9, 2009 2 comments

Suppose that, tomorrow, we find living examples of the ‘Hobbit’, Homo floresiensis, living in a secluded and cave on Flores Island. We’d have several options on what to do. We could ship them off to the nearest zoo, perhaps exhibiting them next to the chimpanzees and bonobos. Undoubtably this is what creationists would be forced to do, their arguments logically requiring them to deny that we have any relation to the ‘Flores man’. The more enlightened amongst us would see an interesting dilemma, however. Paleoanthropologists have discovered that H. floresiensis could use quite complex tools, so despite their small brain size it’s clear that they had a lot in common with us (or at least, us 16,000 years ago) cognitively and, maybe, socially. Would we give them human rights, land and legal protection? How far do we have to go? Is this a slippery slope to arguments like those of the Great Ape Project, who want rights for our closest living relatives?

These are related, though far more improbable, dilemmas to the one discussed in an event hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s worst most interesting new society, our nemeses friends the Life Soc*. They have an interest in the debates over abortion, euthanasia, stem cells and other related matters, like human-animal hybrids. To discuss this latter issue, they brought in Dr. Callum McKellar**, who is part of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, a body which advises the Scottish parliament, no less. His talk was refreshingly nonpartisan (I had expected Life Soc, bless ‘em, to wheel out some religious bigot who used the phrase ‘playing God’ every ten seconds), and was a simple outline of the main techniques of hybridisation and the issues associated with them. Here I shall attempt to synthesise a hybrid of his thoughts and mine. Or something.

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The Invention of Vaguely Amusing Rom-Coms

I’m a bit of a sucker for superhero films. Iron Man? Tip-top. The Dark Knight? Magnificent. Daredevil? Well, actually, that one was godawful. But the point is, there’s something about being able to perform wondrous feats that everyone else can only dream of which tickles the human psyche. Now, Ricky Gervais is hardly the most likely candidate for a superhero. But in his latest film, The Invention of Lying, his character discovers that, relative to everyone else in the alternate universe he inhabits, he has an amazing power: the ability to ‘say things that aren’t’. This is because, as is explained in the introduction, humankind has not ‘evolved the ability to lie’, leading to a world with no fiction or, importantly as it turns out, religion.

(This review necessarily contains spoilers. I’m not sorry.)

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