The pursuit of pseudoscience

Psychology Today/July 1, 2001
By Monique Cuvelier

"EMDR is being touted as a breakthrough therapy," Lohr says. "But as more and more objective testing is performed, the treatment proves less and less effective."


Since the days of cure-all elixirs that promised miraculous healing powers, people have been looking for immediate relief from their ailments. who can blame them? Unfortunately, the desire to find a panacea often draws people to unreliable treatments.

"People want quick results, and they want them yesterday," says Jeffrey Lohr, Ph.D., professor of psychology al the University of Arkansas."You can't fault people for wanting substantive relief, but you can fault the scientists who can't see through a worthless treatment."

Lohr is on a crusade to help clinical scientists identify bogus therapies, part of his job as president of the Science and Pseudoscience Review Special Interest Group of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy. Most recently, he cowrote an article in the Clinical Psychology Review on Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This treatment boasts not only liberation from post-traumatic stress disorder but also recovery in a matter of weeks.

The therapy is based on research showing that rapid eye movement helps process memories. EMDR developers theorized that inducing rapid eye movements while a patient remembered a traumatic event would help the subject quickly process and come to grips with that memory.

"EMDR is being touted as a breakthrough therapy," Lohr says. "But as more and more objective testing is performed, the treatment proves less and less effective."

Gimmicks set pseudoscience apart from empirically supported treatments. Scott Lilenfeld, Ph.D., founding editor of Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, a new journal scheduled to appear in late 2001, has developed a keen eye for unsubstantiated treatments.

"You can usually tell [what is pseudoscience] because there's a lot of marketing around these treatments," he says, "but there's no controlled evidence. Support consists of almost all anecdotes and personal testimony."

Lilenfeld cites Rebirthing Therapy, a controversial procedure that aims to heal painful memories by physically recreating the birthing process. The treatment proved lethal to 10-year-old Candace Newmaker in Colorado last year. She suffocated as her body was pushed against pillows and wrapped in blankets to simulate the womb.

"There's no evidence whatsoever that this works," says Lilenfeld. "We know for a fact that individuals cannot remember anything before age 2."

By promoting solid research and questioning shaky-and potentially deadly-theories, Lilenfeld and Lohr hope to build a base for better research. "We have to train good clinical scientists," Lohr says. "And to do that, we need to know what bad clinical science is.

"Eventually," says Lohr,"people can avail themselves of services based on the best treatments and get better."

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