Is Jerry Coyne a pseudo-skeptic about psychiatric medicine?
Recently, Jerry Coyne, Ph.D. Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True, posted on his regularly updated website (also called Why Evolution Is True) his concerns on the anti-depressants vs. placebo 'controversy' in a post titled Is medical psychiatry a scam?
I posted (as 'Wonderist') several comments on the ensuing thread (which is very active and worth a read), trying to express the implausibility of Dr. Coyne's apparent suspicions, and hoping he would look deeper into the matter. I also sparred with various other posters who support the anti-psychiatry viewpoint.
One of the comments that didn't make it through, I kept because I thought it was important enough to keep just in case. It was initially a response to one of the commenters defending Dr. Coyne's post. I've amended it to make it more general to the topic as it stands. Here it is:
He does not simply question whether people are getting the right treatment, he throws the whole of medical psychiatry under the bus:Jerry A. Coyne wrote:These articles, and the data presented by Angell, have convinced me more than ever that medical psychiatry is largely a scam, a rotten-to-the-core coalition between psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies. Now I know that many psychiatrists are deeply motivated to help their patients, for mental disorders are among the most frustrating and recalcitrant conditions faced by doctors, and many patients indeed need urgent medical or therapeutic attention. But the way it’s being done now is not only ineffective, but positively harmful—although lucrative for doctors and drug companies. The few researchers and psychiatrists crying out against the madness, as in the three books under review, are largely shouting in the wilderness.
According to Jerry's post, modern psychiatry is "not only ineffective, but positively harmful". This is at best a false statement. At worst, it is a false statement that will influence some people by raising unfounded pseudo-skepticism (based on fear and uncertainty, rather than skeptical curiosity), and confirming prior pseudo-scientific biases against psychiatry and pharmacology.
This, going against the large body of scientific research supporting SSRIs, is--I hate to say it, for I greatly respect Jerry and don't wish to criticize him unnecessarily--an anti-scientific view. I hope Jerry does some more investigation into this issue, not just reading a "few researchers and psychiatrists crying out ... in the wilderness," but examining also their critics, and the positive research and evidence which shows the effectiveness of SSRIs not only against non-active placebo, but also against active placebos. If he does this investigation, and finds out that SSRIs are truly "ineffective" and "harmful", and shows us the evidence that this is the case, then I'll recant and apologize.
However, I do not expect that outcome. More so, I expect that he will realize his error in judgment and temper his future public statements on the issue accordingly.
I am still rather shocked at Dr. Coyne's post, coming as it is from one of the best defenders of science and evidence-based reasoning in the 'controversy' of so-called Intelligent Design versus modern evolutionary science. I regularly read Coyne's website and will continue to do so (and will also continue to highly recommend his book, Why Evolution Is True). And in time I do actually expect he'll follow the evidence more thoroughly on psychiatric medicine (links to some of which I've posted in various comments to his post), but for the moment I guess it just underscores how even extremely intelligent and usually rational people can on the one hand rightly dismiss fallacies and biased viewpoints on one subject, and yet somehow fall into those exact same fallacies and biases on a different subject.
Another commenter on that thread, by the name of Emil Karlsson, posted an interesting comparison of some of the flawed thinking that goes into anti-psychiatry pseudo-skepticism with other forms of pseudo-skepticism and denialism, in Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong About Medical Psychiatry.