Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Protecting Society From ‘Science’

Scientific research, published in influential places, can change the world. For ill as well as for good.

The New York Post ran a fascinating article this weekend, titled Stanford professor who changed America with just one study was also a liar. It’s written by journalist Susannah Cahalan, and is about her new book, The Great Pretender.

I haven’t read the book yet, the Kindle edition becomes available tomorrow, but she appears to be the real deal – a journalist who discovered something disturbing, unwelcome, and contrary to her expectations, yet told the truth.

The book is about a professor from a famous university. In 1973 he published a paper in a famous journal, Science. That paper changed history. It fuelled a backlash against institutions for the mentally ill, leading to their widespread closure.

Only now, more than four decades later, are we learning that David Rosenhan, who taught psychology and law, appears to have invented a great deal of what he described in that paper. That’s called fraud. He also suppressed contrary evidence.

The study claimed to describe the profoundly negative experiences of eight individuals who faked serious illness, were admitted to mental institutions, and then had a difficult time convincing the staff they were actually sane and stable. In the New York Post, Calahan tells us she

started to uncover serious inconsistencies between the documents I had found and the paper Rosenhan published in Science.

…I looked for the seven other pseudopatients and spent the next months of my life chasing ghosts. I hunted down rumors, pursuing one dead end after the next. I even hired a private detective, who got no further than I had.

After years of searching, I found only one pseudopatient who participated in the study and whose experience matched that of Rosenhan…

…The only other participant I discovered, Harry Lando, had a vastly different take. Lando had summed up his 19-day hospitalization at the US Public Health Service Hospital in San Francisco in one word: “positive.”

Even though he too was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, Lando felt it was a healing environment that helped people get better.

…instead of incorporating Lando into the study, Rosenhan dropped him from it…His data – the overall positive experience of his hospitalization – didn’t match Rosenhan’s thesis that institutions are uncaring, ineffective and even harmful places, and so they were discarded.

Fake news isn’t new. It turns up in prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journals. It gets spread far and wide by newspapers, magazines, and television news. It makes its way into textbooks and introductory college courses.

We have few defences against it, few ways to prevent society from being highjacked by ‘research’ conducted by people who have agendas as well as PhDs.

The Great Pretender is another cautionary tale. Skepticism. Always skepticism.


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The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission that Changed Our Understanding of Madness
Susannah Calahan
Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
Eugenie Samuel Reich



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This entry was posted on November 4, 2019 by in activist scientists, education, media, peer-review and tagged , , .
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