Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Many Excuses for Ignoring Science – Where Did SARS-CoV-2 Originate?


The COVID origins story started off with a bang last weekend.  Woody Harrelson gave the monologue on Saturday Night Live comparing pharmaceutical companies to drug cartels and COVID vaccinations to illicit drugs. He was conveniently able to ignore the fact that these vaccinations have saved an estimated 20 million lives and could have saved more if vaccination goals were met. By way of contrast there are about 30,000 drug related homicides in Mexico every year, several thousand per year in the US, and tens of thousands dead from overdosing on illicit drugs. A stark contrast to the way this monologue was presented. There was plenty of commentary on the monologue – mostly focused on Harrelson’s antivaxx stance in the past including a post that he had to remove at one point. Elon Musk enthusiastically supported the monologue – but didn’t say if it was for the comedic or scientific genius. Harvey Levin praised producer Lorne Michaels for not censoring Harrelson, but didn't comment on editing for comedic content. Nobody recited the simple facts listed above.

The monologue was followed Sunday by a more detailed story without much more scientific credibility in the Wall Street Journal (1).  The authors of that story discuss a 5-page report by the Department of Energy stating the opinion that a lab leak was the likely cause of the pandemic but that theory was given a ‘low confidence’ rating.  They describe the DOE as having many relevant scientists.  Other than controversial headings and fueling partisan debate – what good is a low confidence theory?  The FBI has the same theory with “moderate confidence.” They explain that the US has an 18 agency intelligence community implying that there is adequate expertise there for these low to moderate confidence lab-leak theories. Is this the same intelligence community that was confident that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and who seemed vaguely aware of Chinese balloons invading US air space?  They might have better things to do than speculate about pandemic virus origins and rate those speculations.  Protecting US infrastructure against cyberattacks and criminal activity would seem to be at the top of that list.

I would like to see that 5 page report at this point – to see if there is any reference to a recent consensus statement from the virology community on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 (2).  The full text of that report is available online.  If you read that report a few points jump out at you.  First – these are the professionals with the most expertise in viral genetics and evolution. It is their full-time job and they do active research in the area.  Second – beyond claiming expertise virologists have been very successful at reducing the disease burden through their efforts.  They get results. Third – while emphasizing neutrality they point out that the zoonosis hypothesis (wild origin) has the most supporting data and that there is “no compelling data” to support either a lab leak or intentional contamination hypothesis. Fourth they point out that “gain-of-function” is an inexact term but within the field it also means modification for therapeutic purposes.  The term has been used by some politicians to suggest “nefarious” activity. Fifth – they review the extensive oversight of their research.  They conclude that millions of people are alive today because of their research and that there is adequate oversight. All of that clearly stated before the start of Congressional hearings on these issues.

 There is pre-existing research on viral origins from other groups and wild origin is the most likely scenario (3, 11, 12).

In an interesting twist of events the celebrity gossip show TMZ (10:34 to 18 minute mark) ran with the story.  They started out with the Harrelson monologue followed by Harvey Levin’s characterization that the lab leak theory “blossomed” with the Wall Street journal article.  To their credit they brought on Michael Worobey an evolutionary virologist with a previous description of the wild origins of SARS-CoV-2 in Science (4).  Dr. Worobey pointed out that he wrote a letter in 2021 that the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis had to be taken seriously, but since then then there has been “really strong scientific evidence” of a wild origin of the virus and no real scientific evidence of a lab leak.  Just from a probability standpoint he pointed out that all of the cases were in the area of the Wuhan market, there were animals present that carried coronaviruses, and there is really no other explanation for that degree of localization in a city of 12 million people. He also pointed out the severe social media backlash that he received as a result of following the evidence but encouraged a systematic approach to the research.  He suggested taking the DOE report with a “grain of salt”.

A final comment on the DOE report was made on the public radio show All Things Considered.  Michael Osterholm from CIDRAP was interviewed (5).  He describes himself as being agnostic towards the lab leak versus zoonoses but clearly sees the preponderance of data supporting the wild origin.  He goes on to suggest that people want certainty when a high degree of certainty is not possible and that has led to definitive headlines (about lab leak for example) when hard evidence is lacking. He adds the following characterization and challenges the DOE to present their data:

“…. again, there is a very different type of theater being played out here. It's not one that's based on science.”

He also describes a very plausible scenario of a new virus occurring in the Caribbean and how that could be spun into a ‘lab leak’ from the CDC in Atlanta.

Expect a lot of political demagoguery on the issue with Congressional hearings in the months to follow. Unless there is any data as good as the references I have posted - keep an open mind.  In a postmodern world – people with no or vague expertise make unfounded claims about scientific evidence.  The strongest evidence by far is with the experts and scientists listed in this essay. And that is a wild origin of the virus – just like previous coronaviruses. Anyone suggesting otherwise needs to show up with some data and not excuse making or political theater.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Gordon MR, Strobel WP. DOE Says Lab Leak Is Likely Origin of Covid-19 ---New intelligence about China outbreak spurs assessment; finding is given 'low confidence'.  Wall Street Journal.  Wall Street Journal.  February 27, 2023.

2:  Goodrum F, Lowen AC, Lakdawala S, Alwine J, Casadevall A, Imperiale MJ, Atwood W, Avgousti D, Baines J, Banfield B, Banks L, Bhaduri-McIntosh S, Bhattacharya D, Blanco-Melo D, Bloom D, Boon A, Boulant S, Brandt C, Broadbent A, Brooke C, Cameron C, Campos S, Caposio P, Chan G, Cliffe A, Coffin J, Collins K, Damania B, Daugherty M, Debbink K, DeCaprio J, Dermody T, Dikeakos J, DiMaio D, Dinglasan R, Duprex WP, Dutch R, Elde N, Emerman M, Enquist L, Fane B, Fernandez-Sesma A, Flenniken M, Frappier L, Frieman M, Frueh K, Gack M, Gaglia M, Gallagher T, Galloway D, García-Sastre A, Geballe A, Glaunsinger B, Goff S, Greninger A, Hancock M, Harris E, Heaton N, Heise M, Heldwein E, Hogue B, Horner S, Hutchinson E, Hyser J, Jackson W, Kalejta R, Kamil J, Karst S, Kirchhoff F, Knipe D, Kowalik T, Lagunoff M, Laimins L, Langlois R, Lauring A, Lee B, Leib D, Liu SL, Longnecker R, Lopez C, Luftig M, Lund J, Manicassamy B, McFadden G, McIntosh M, Mehle A, Miller WA, Mohr I, Moody C, Moorman N, Moscona A, Mounce B, Munger J, Münger K, Murphy E, Naghavi M, Nelson J, Neufeldt C, Nikolich J, O'Connor C, Ono A, Orenstein W, Ornelles D, Ou JH, Parker J, Parrish C, Pekosz A, Pellett P, Pfeiffer J, Plemper R, Polyak S, Purdy J, Pyeon D, Quinones-Mateu M, Renne R, Rice C, Schoggins J, Roller R, Russell C, Sandri-Goldin R, Sapp M, Schang L, Schmid S, Schultz-Cherry S, Semler B, Shenk T, Silvestri G, Simon V, Smith G, Smith J, Spindler K, Stanifer M, Subbarao K, Sundquist W, Suthar M, Sutton T, Tai A, Tarakanova V, tenOever B, Tibbetts S, Tompkins S, Toth Z, van Doorslaer K, Vignuzzi M, Wallace N, Walsh D, Weekes M, Weinberg J, Weitzman M, Weller S, Whelan S, White E, Williams B, Wobus C, Wong S, Yurochko A. Virology under the Microscope-a Call for Rational Discourse. mSphere. 2023 Jan 26:e0003423. doi: 10.1128/msphere.00034-23. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36700653.

3:  Garry RF. The evidence remains clear: SARS-CoV-2 emerged via the wildlife trade. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 Nov 22;119(47):e2214427119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2214427119. Epub 2022 Nov 10. PMID: 36355862; PMCID: PMC9704731.

4:  Worobey M. Dissecting the early COVID-19 cases in Wuhan. Science. 2021 Dec 3;374(6572):1202-1204. doi: 10.1126/science.abm4454. Epub 2021 Nov 18. PMID: 34793199. (see also the map of SARS-CoV-2 origins)

5:  Contreras G, Brown A, Shapiro A, How an infectious disease expert interprets conflicting reports on COVID-19's origins.  All Things Considered.  February 27, 2023.


6:  Worobey M, Levy JI, Malpica Serrano L, Crits-Christoph A, Pekar JE, Goldstein SA, Rasmussen AL, Kraemer MUG, Newman C, Koopmans MPG, Suchard MA, Wertheim JO, Lemey P, Robertson DL, Garry RF, Holmes EC, Rambaut A, Andersen KG. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Science. 2022 Aug 26;377(6609):951-959. doi: 10.1126/science.abp8715. Epub 2022 Jul 26. PMID: 35881010; PMCID: PMC9348750.

7:  Pekar JE, Magee A, Parker E, Moshiri N, Izhikevich K, Havens JL, Gangavarapu K, Malpica Serrano LM, Crits-Christoph A, Matteson NL, Zeller M, Levy JI, Wang JC, Hughes S, Lee J, Park H, Park MS, Ching Zi Yan K, Lin RTP, Mat Isa MN, Noor YM, Vasylyeva TI, Garry RF, Holmes EC, Rambaut A, Suchard MA, Andersen KG, Worobey M, Wertheim JO. The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. Science. 2022 Aug 26;377(6609):960-966. doi: 10.1126/science.abp8337. Epub 2022 Jul 26. PMID: 35881005; PMCID: PMC9348752.

8:  Bloom JD, Chan YA, Baric RS, Bjorkman PJ, Cobey S, Deverman BE, Fisman DN, Gupta R, Iwasaki A, Lipsitch M, Medzhitov R, Neher RA, Nielsen R, Patterson N, Stearns T, van Nimwegen E, Worobey M, Relman DA. Investigate the origins of COVID-19. Science. 2021 May 14;372(6543):694. doi: 10.1126/science.abj0016. PMID: 33986172; PMCID: PMC9520851.

This is an important reference form May of 2021 signed by Dr. Worobey suggesting that a more thorough investigation of the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus needs to be done.  Per the above assay and several references - he has concluded that the virus originated in the wild rather than lab leak since this letter. I think this letter also addresses the censorship comments.  Clearly the suggestion by this group that the lab leak had to be reinvestigated illustrates there was no censorship on the science side. 

9:  Chait J.  The Surprisingly Contrarian Case Against Lying About Science.  The Intelligencer.  February 28, 2023  https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/02/lab-leak-hypothesis-lying-about-science-is-bad-for-liberals.html 

10: Garry RF. SARS-CoV-2 furin cleavage site was not engineered. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 Oct 4;119(40):e2211107119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2211107119. Epub 2022 Sep 29. PMID: 36173950; PMCID: PMC9546612. 

11:  Pekar JE, Magee A, Parker E, Moshiri N, Izhikevich K, Havens JL, Gangavarapu K, Malpica Serrano LM, Crits-Christoph A, Matteson NL, Zeller M, Levy JI, Wang JC, Hughes S, Lee J, Park H, Park MS, Ching Zi Yan K, Lin RTP, Mat Isa MN, Noor YM, Vasylyeva TI, Garry RF, Holmes EC, Rambaut A, Suchard MA, Andersen KG, Worobey M, Wertheim JO. The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. Science. 2022 Aug 26;377(6609):960-966. doi: 10.1126/science.abp8337. Epub 2022 Jul 26. PMID: 35881005; PMCID: PMC9348752.

12:  Worobey M, Levy JI, Malpica Serrano L, Crits-Christoph A, Pekar JE, Goldstein SA, Rasmussen AL, Kraemer MUG, Newman C, Koopmans MPG, Suchard MA, Wertheim JO, Lemey P, Robertson DL, Garry RF, Holmes EC, Rambaut A, Andersen KG. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Science. 2022 Aug 26;377(6609):951-959. doi: 10.1126/science.abp8715. Epub 2022 Jul 26. PMID: 35881010; PMCID: PMC9348750.

13:  Wu Y, Zhao S. Furin cleavage sites naturally occur in coronaviruses. Stem Cell Res. 2020 Dec 9;50:102115. doi: 10.1016/j.scr.2020.102115. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33340798; PMCID: PMC7836551.

14:  Xiao, X., Newman, C., Buesching, C.D. et al. Animal sales from Wuhan wet markets immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sci Rep 11, 11898 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-91470-2

15:  Lenharo M, Wolf L. US COVID origins hearing renews debate over lab-leak hypothesis. Nature. 2023 Mar 9. doi: 10.1038/d41586-023-00701-1. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36890328.

"Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who has studied genetic evidence from the early days of the pandemic, told Nature that he found the proceedings “shockingly unscientific” and that they do not bode well for the overall investigation. “Not one of those witnesses had any scientific record of investigating and publishing peer-reviewed research on the origins of this virus in quality journals,” he said."

16:  Cohen J.  Science takes a backset to politics in first House hearing on origin of COVID-19 pandemic.  Science.  March 8, 2023.  doi: 10.1126/science.adh5155

Very useful essay that points out little science is occurring and the intelligence is very sketchy.

17:  Rutledge PE. Trump, COVID-19, and the War on Expertise. The American Review of Public Administration. 2020 Aug;50(6-7):505-11.

This is a good reference to keep in mind because it points out that President Trump and his administration actively promoted the lab leak theory of the pandemic dating back as far as May 2020.  All of the pundits decrying censorship of the lab leak hypothesis should ask themselves how censorship is possible when the theory is being actively promoted by the Executive Branch. 

18:  Maxmen A. Wuhan market was epicentre of pandemic's start, studies suggest. Nature. 2022 Mar;603(7899):15-16. doi: 10.1038/d41586-022-00584-8. PMID: 35228730.

This study links to three preprints describing the origin of the virus in the wild with spillover to humans.  As far as I can tell these preprints became the 2 papers listed below as well as reference 12 above:

19:  Pekar JE, Magee A, Parker E, Moshiri N, Izhikevich K, Havens JL, Gangavarapu K, Malpica Serrano LM, Crits-Christoph A, Matteson NL, Zeller M, Levy JI, Wang JC, Hughes S, Lee J, Park H, Park MS, Ching Zi Yan K, Lin RTP, Mat Isa MN, Noor YM, Vasylyeva TI, Garry RF, Holmes EC, Rambaut A, Suchard MA, Andersen KG, Worobey M, Wertheim JO. The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. Science. 2022 Aug 26;377(6609):960-966. doi: 10.1126/science.abp8337. Epub 2022 Jul 26. PMID: 35881005; PMCID: PMC9348752.

20:  Mueller B.  W.H.O. Accuses China of Withholding Data on Pandemic’s Origins.  New York Times March 17, 2023.

21:  Cohen J. Anywhere but here. Science. 2022 Aug 19;377(6608):805-809. doi: 10.1126/science.ade4235. Epub 2022 Aug 18. PMID: 35981032.

22:  Cohen J.  Chinese researchers release genomic data that could help clarify origin of COVID-19 pandemic.  Science 2023 March 29; doi:10.1126/science.adi0330.

Supplementary 1:

The director of the FBI came out in the media today (02/28/2023) and reiterated that the FBI has concluded the virus most likely originated as a lab leak but provided no additional data. As far as I know at this point the FBI and DOE data has not been released to the public.

Supplementary 2:

How is science ignored?  I realize after reading the post it contains historical information but nothing explicit about how science is ignored.  Here is the short list:

1:  Science is a process of serial approximations to reality or more to the point - an empirically acceptable model of reality.  Politics, journalism, and entertainment clearly are not. As a result the scientifically informed realize this is often series of hypothetical steps and missteps until a widely agreed upon model is accepted in the scientific community.  That contrasts sharply with a long series of provocative headlines and opinion pieces.  

2:  Science deals with probability statements - politics, journalism, and entertainment exists largely on the plane of dichotomous thinking.

3:  The probabilities on the probability statements can be adjusted in either direction.  As is the case in the Dr. Worobey references above - his probability of a "lab leak or nefarious activity" hypothesis was adjusted drastically downward over time as the probability of a wild origin was adjusted upward to the point where it became most likely.  This adjustment of probabilities is often seen as a "mistake" or "lie" by the nonscientific community. Within the scientific community it can be difficult to change your mind.  Neither of those considerations invalidates the process. 

4:  There are still scientific standards that acknowledge expertise and peer review. Although peer review is criticized by authors it has resulted in conventions that probably limit grand pronouncements like a newspaper headline.  The evidence should be in the 'limitations' section of any scientific paper.  In the postmodern world expertise is seen as relative by those in many nonscientific endeavors - to the point that anyone who can Google is considered an expert. This is also the predominate social media method of operation. 

5:  The legal/political model of ascertaining the truth or reality is highly flawed - and the evidence is obvious in studies of racial profiling, unjustified violent encounters with law enforcement, wrongful convictions, unequal treatment based on economic considerations, fallible eyewitness testimony, and highly flawed interrogations. Focusing only on coronavirus - the interrogations of Dr. Fauci by Sen. Paul is an additional example. And yet - this is the process that is going to be used by the government to decide on the origins of the virus.  Unless the DOE or the FBI have concrete scientific proof - it will be an exercise in rhetoric.

6:  If not science what? Typical analyses presented in the media can occur at several levels that cut science out of the mix. Anytime you hear an analysis by a group of journalists, politicians, regulators, administrators or consultants who lack the requisite expertise to analyze the problem take a close look at that final product. Ask yourself if there is anyone with scientific expertise who should have looked at it.  Be very skeptical of analyses that are not disclosed because they are proprietary or classified.

Supplementary 3 (Updates):

Update 03/02/2023:  As expected the COVID origins appearance of controversy was still whipping up the media today.  TMZ continued with their fractured analysis – continuing to focus on the FBI and DOE reports as a game changer and not mentioning at all what the evolutionary virologist Michael Worobey told them yesterday.  They played a brief John Stewart tape and suggest that he was now “vindicated” for suggesting early in the pandemic that this was probably a lab leak. Harvey Levin pointed out that Stewart was not crowing about being correct in the brief clip that they played and how could he? How can a guy who knows nothing about epidemiology or pandemic viruses and has no information about what transpired in Wuhan suggest there was a lab leak?  The excerpt that I saw had Stewart talking about the need to have both sides represented.  TMZ did touch on the most important aspect of this debate and that was rhetoric and how President Trump’s racist polarizing rhetoric led to conflation of the viral origin hypothesis with racism and that created significant backlash from the left. But we are still dealing with a non-scientific argument and ignoring Dr. Worobey. Harvey Levin seems stuck on these events as primarily a free speech issue.  To me that is obviously not a problem given the degree of bullshit and demagoguery that occurred around this issue.  There was probably no more “free speech” exercised at any other time in the history of the country. Watching TMZ the last two days just illustrates that they can avoid science as rigorously as anyone else – even after talking to a top scientist in the field. As some level the free speech argument just becomes a rationalization.

New York Times political columnist Jonathan Chait wrote a piece in the Intelligencer entitled “The Surprisingly Contrarian Case Against Lying About Science”.  He claims the DOE analysis has weight because there is a division there that is supposed to assess bioweapons threats. To me that just deepens the nonscience of it all. From a rhetorical standpoint we have gone from an appeal to emotion to an appeal to authority.  He goes on to analyze the rhetoric starting with the need to shift blame away from the Trump administration and their “mishandling of the epidemic.”  He is the first journalist I have seen who writes about how China unleashing the virus on their own people (one suggestion) is absurd.  I would add even considering the coronavirus as a bioweapon is equally absurd. In his analysis of Peter Hotez Tweets he gets it wrong.  Dr. Hotez characterizes the antiscience aggression of certain elements of the media and Congress as: “The best defense is a good offense”.  Chait’s response is:

 “I’m neither a professor, a doctor, nor a Ph.D., but I know enough to state confidently that the ethos of the scientific method is not “the best defense is a good offense.”

What about the ethos of journalism and politics? I am confident that is what Hotez is referring to.  He ultimately makes the argument that the left is not skilled enough to parse the anti-science rhetoric of the right and as a result lump legitimate scientific discussion with anti-science crankery and this is not a good thing. He concludes that ideology cannot be used to settle scientific debate. Some good points and some bad points. I will add it is pretty obvious to anyone who knows a thing about science that real scientific debates cannot be settled in the media and every scientist I know has had bad experiences with the media because they are trying to tell the story they want to tell.  My classic example was television interviews that I was asked to give around the Christmas holiday when I was a young psychiatrist. I knew the reporter was trying to sell the story that there were more suicides at Christmas and no matter what I said there would be that suggestion. I finally just told them – no more interviews. After all – in this case what is the more provocative headline ‘COVID is a bioweapon leaked or intentionally released’ or ‘COVID is a coronavirus that jumped from animal populations to humans like all human coronaviruses before it – including the 4 normally circulating coronaviruses that are considered common cold viruses.”  Rhetoric is a very strong component here and if the press wanted to really be useful, they might point out that on a timeline basis.  The arguments are largely rhetorical rather than scientific and factual.  All the press would have to say about the science is that it is not settled and digress a little into how scientific decisions are made. But I have never seen that happen.     

Update 03/03/2023:  The following document reviews some of the history of the controversy and points out that there really is no definitive proof of the viral origins at this point.  In the last few paragraphs the scientists who see zoonoses/spillover as the most plausible scenario are looking for falsifying data but have not found it.

Robertson L.  Still No Determination on COVID-19 Origin.  FactCheck.org 03/02/2023: https://www.factcheck.org/2023/03/scicheck-still-no-determination-on-covid-19-origin/

Update 03/06/2023:  TMZ was at it again today.  They put up a weekend poll on the origins of COVID and posted 2 possibilities -  wet market or lab leak.  The vote went like this:

wet market - 12%

lab leak - 88%

Harvey Levin's analysis was that this showed censoring the lab leak hypothesis at the outset was the problem.  This analysis is incorrect at two levels. First, there are endless headlines from 2021 where Republicans like Senator Rand Paul accused Dr. Fauci of lying about gain-of-function and labs leaks.  The demonized Dr. Fauci about this to the point that he started getting threats and needed protection for himself and his family. The same sequence of events happened to many public health officials who became objects of right wing scorn.  Secondly - I don't know what you expect when you are hyping unscientific proclamations about lab leak for the past week. Let's not pretend the media is a disinterested party here. TMZ chose the story about "censorship" when there was none and chose to suggest that was a better explanation for why two government agencies were suggesting a lab leak over the expert they interviewed last week. Just another clear example of the title of this post. 

Supplementary 4:

House Committee on Oversight - COVID origins:

Here is the web site - not the current references to Fox News and the New York Post - both obviously the farthest information from science:


Graphics Credit:

Eduardo Colon, MD photo is much appreciated.


Monday, February 20, 2023

The arbitrary and often absurd rhetorical attacks on psychiatry


I drew the above graphic (click on it to enlarge) to highlight a few things about popular psychiatric criticism, but mainly that it is absurd.  I have commented on antipsychiatry rhetoric many times in the past and how it has a predictable pattern.  But this goes beyond antipsychiatry to include critics in the press, authors selling books (or being paid for lectures or appearances), and even critics in the field. I thought it might be useful to try to crowd as much of this rhetoric into one diagram as possible for easy reference.

Why is rhetoric so important?  Rhetoric is all about winning an argument.  The strategies are all well documented and you can read about them and the common fallacious arguments in any standard rhetoric or logic text.  My goal is not to teach rhetoric.  For the purpose of this post, I want the reader to understand that there is more rhetoric leveled at psychiatry than any other medical specialty. There is always a lot of speculation about why that might be – but nobody ever seems to come out and say the most obvious reasons – gaining political advantage or financial renumeration. There is also dead silence on the questions of facts and expertise - since practically all of the literature out there including much of the rhetoric advanced by psychiatrists is an overreach in terms of psychiatric knowledge and expertise.  When absurd rhetoric about psychiatry makes the New York Times or even prominent medical journals it is simply accepted as a fact. There is no marketplace of ideas approach or even a single alternating viewpoint. Some of the statements in the graphic are taken directly out of newspaper articles and they are absurd. 

I happen to believe that the best critiques of the field come from people who are experts and usually do not deteriorate into ad hominem attacks against the field or other experts in the field. I was trained by many of those experts who consistently demonstrated that a lot of thought and work goes into becoming a psychiatrist and practicing psychiatry. I have known that for 35 years and continue to impressed by psychiatrists from around the world who contact me every day.     

I sought feedback from psychiatrists through several venues about absurd psychiatric criticism, by showing them a partially completed table and asking for suggestions.  One suggestion was making a grid to evaluate plausible, implausible, and unproveable. I do not think that is the best way to analyze these remarks. There seems to be a lot of confusion about rhetoric versus philosophy and a tendency to engage in lengthy philosophical analysis and discourse. It turns out that a lot of what passes for philosophical critique of psychiatry is really rhetoric.  That rhetoric generally hinges on controlling the premise and arguing from there. For example – the statement that the DSM is a “blueprint for living” is taken directly out of a New York Times article where the author – a philosophy professor was critiquing the 2015 release of the DSM-5 on that basis. Never mind that no psychiatrist ever made that claim or even had that fantasy – there it was in the paper written like the truth. A reading of the first 25 pages of the manual would dispel that notion but it is clear nobody ever seems to do that. 

I seriously considered modifying the diagram based on a division proposed by Ron Pies, MD (1).  That would have involved dividing the area of the graph into a zone of “legitimate criticisms focused on problematic areas in psychiatry” versus “fallacious and baseless attacks ... aimed at delegitimizing and ultimately destroying psychiatry.”  As I attempted to draw that graph – I realized that I could not include any of the current statements in a legitimate criticism zone.  In order to do that I will need to find an equivalent amount of legitimate criticism and include it in a new graph.

This rhetoric has much in common with misinformation, except it has been around for decades. It is not an invention of the Internet or social media. An important aspect of rhetoric is that since it does not depend on facts it can be continuously repeated. That is the difference between the truth and facts versus rhetoric. The classic modern-day example is the Big Lie of the last Presidential campaign. Former President Trump stated innumerable times that the election was stolen by election fraud and at one point suggested that there was enough proof that it allowed the Constitution to be suspended. All that rhetoric despite no independent corroboration by any judiciary or election officials from his own party.  Major news services began reporting his claim as a lie.  Recent news reports revealed that the stars of the news outlet that Trump was most closely affiliated with - did not believe the election was stolen. Many of the statements leveled at psychiatry in the table are equivalent to the Big Lie.

Rhetoric typically dies very hard and that is why it is an integral part of political strategy. A current popular strategy is to use the term woke as a more pejorative description of politically correct. It creates an emotional response in people “You may be politically correct but I am not.”  The term is used frequently to describe many things including the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. Repetition alone has many Americans believe that CRT is being taught in public schools and that is something that they should actively resist. The fact is – CRT is not taught in public schools and yet the effect of the rhetoric has been enough to leave many people outraged and susceptible to political manipulation. The rhetoric itself is difficult to correct by a long explanation about CRT.  That approach will not win any arguments. The best approach is to characterize it for what it is at the outset – absurd rhetoric that is not reality based. But there is a good chance that will also not have much impact.

When I talk with psychiatrists about the problem of not responding to rhetoric – I typically encounter either blank stares, the rejoinder that “there might be a grain of truth there”, or  the suggestion that we should just ignore it and it will go away. Physicians in general seem to be clueless about the effect of politics and rhetoric on medicine and psychiatrists are no exception.  When you are trained in science and medicine, there seems to be an assumption that the scientific method and rational discourse will carry the day.  That may be why we were all shocked when the American people seemed to be responding in an ideological way to public health advice during the pandemic and they were so easily affected by misinformation. 

Rhetoric in science predates the pandemic by at least a century.  It has been suggested that Charles Darwin used natural selection as a metaphor for domestic animal breeding (1) in order to convince the predominately religious people and scientists of the day.  He had to argue the position that unpleasant natural states were intermediate steps leading to a more advanced organic state.  Without that convincing argument Darwin’s theory may not have received such widespread acceptance in the scientific community. It is useful to keep in mind that just presenting the facts is not necessarily enough to win an argument especially in the post truth environment that exists in the US today.

The “grain of truth” rhetoric is typically used to classify, generalize, and stereotype and may be more difficult to decipher than straightforward ad hominem attacks. A typical “grain of truth” argument in the graphic concerns pharmaceutical money being paid to psychiatrists and other physicians. Some psychiatrists are employed by pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical trials and other business, some provide educational lectures, and more are passive recipients of free continuing medical education courses.  All of this activity is reported to a database where anyone can search how much reimbursement is occurring. From this activity it is typical to hear that psychiatrists are on the pay roll of, get kickbacks from, or are brainwashed by Big Pharma and KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders).  The reality is most psychiatrists have no financial conflict of interest and they are not free to prescribe new expensive medications because those prescriptions are controlled by for-profit PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers). Further – the entire issue was highlighted by a No Free Lunch movement that provided essentially rhetorical information about conflict of interest and how it affected prescription patterns.  Those arguments have a very weak empirical basis. 

What about just ignoring this rhetoric? Ignoring it has clearly not been a successful strategy.  Any quantitative look at antipsychiatry rhetoric and literature would clearly show that it has increased significantly over the past 20 years – to the point that papers written from this standpoint are now included in psychiatric journals and you can make money doing it.  Recent cultural phenomena including the Big Lie rhetoric of the last Presidential election, the partial recognition of climate change (despite firsthand experience with increasingly severe weather most do not believe it is due to human activity), and the multilayered problematic response to the coronavirus pandemic sends a clear signal that rhetoric must be responded to and not ignored. 

The American public has been fed a steady diet of absurd criticisms about psychiatry for decades. If you do not believe that – study the table and compare it to what you see in the papers and across the Internet.  And never take anything you read about psychiatry at face value.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary 1:  As noted in the above post I am interested in graphing legitimate psychiatric criticism in the same format used in the above graphic. If you have critiques and references - feel free to post them here.  I have some favorites from Kendler, Ghaemi, and others. 



1:  Pies R.  Four dogmas of antipsychiatry.  Psychiatric Times May 5, 2022:  https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/four-dogmas-of-antipsychiatry

2:  Herrick JA. The History and Theory of Rhetoric. 7th ed. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis, 2021: 221-223.  – I highly recommend this book on the historical and current importance of rhetoric. A lot of what passes for philosophical criticism of psychiatry is really rhetoric.

Saturday, February 18, 2023



“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” – Socrates


I have always considered myself to be a citizen of the world but I don’t know why.  I was born and raised in an isolated place on the northern margins of the United States.  The overriding ethos was “mind your own business”.  I don’t know if that just fit my personality well or if my personality was molded to fit that rule but I was and am very good at it.  Despite that trait my exposure to people from other cultures and ethnicities through sports, school, the Peace Corps, and work went very well largely because I saw them as people with the same day to day problems that I had. Everybody’s trajectory through the world is unique and common at the same time. We all grow up in families and at some point, have families of our own. We all strive for continuity over time.  We get up in the morning, go to work, and expect to come home to the safety and support of our families at night. We all know that despite our efforts – disagreement, illness, accidents, disability, and death are major obstacles that we are going to encounter along the way.  There is no way around them.  It is universal human experience.

I had that idea about people in my neighborhood and people I read about from all over the world. It made sense when I heard from the leaders of the protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s.  It made sense when I heard Muhammad Ali talking about why he objected to the war in Vietnam. It makes perfect sense when I hear from people protesting about gun violence and women’s reproductive rights in the United States. In every case, these protests are about people who are not minding their own business and who are not mindful about the challenges that we all face. Why would you want to perpetrate an unnecessary war, take away women’s rights, and make gun violence a norm when people are just trying to make it home every night and survive?  In my lifetime, the United States has been involved in three unnecessary wars – 2 in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.  The one in Afghanistan was the longest and third most expensive war in the history of the country.  That expense minimizes the total cost of lives lost, disability, and infrastructure destroyed in these countries.

And yet everywhere currently – the world is in a crisis. The multiple crises are not precipitated by average folks like you and me but by a small number who seem intent on inflicting their will on the rest of us. I like the term megalomaniac.  It has nothing to so with psychiatry – but it connotes a person obsessed with their own power. When that exists, it is rare to not see the megalomaniac exercise that power often with horrific results.  The context that the power is exercised is also critical.  Autocrats and dictators who have absolute control of the military are probably the worst-case examples and history is full of them.  On the current world stage – Putin is probably the clearest example. The estimate of his net worth from various sources is anywhere from $1.7 to $200B.  At a time when most people are working toward retirement, he launched as assault on Ukraine based on the fictitious claim that it had to be “denazified”.  He is systematically destroying the infrastructure and killing people. He has also alluded to using nuclear weapons, based on further exaggerations of NATO being a threat to Russia.  At this point he is the clearest example of a leader out of control.  He is holding the world hostage in order to get control of Ukraine.  This strategy benefits only Putin and not the Russian people.

The most recent crisis that prompted me to complete this piece was the balloon over US airspace that originated from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The timing coincided with a scheduled visit to China by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The visit was cancelled because of the balloon. As I type this the United States has added six PRC businesses to an Entity list to restrict them from buying US technology.  That decision was made based on inspection of the retrieved wreckage after the balloon was shot down by a US fighter jet over the Atlantic.  The United States also claims that US spy plane flybys confirmed that this was a surveillance balloon capable of eavesdropping on communications at US nuclear installations.  When I first heard about his development I thought the obvious concern would also be the dispersal of some kind of weapon at high altitude.  At any rate, it is a clear violation of US air space by a hostile government, despite denials by the PRC and their failure to communicate directly about this incident over a hotline between Washington and Beijing.

What does all of this mean for cosmopolitanism?  It leads to an obvious level of analysis that nobody ever seem to comment on. Is the average person in Russia, the PRC, or the US involved in all of these decisions?  Are they cheering their governments on? Are they keeping scorecards on who is winning?  I have no reason to believe that they are. At some level people around the world realize that their counterparts in other countries are facing the same challenges that they are and just trying to make it through the day.  At that level of analysis – all of these actions by their governments are detached form that simple reality. I some cases, so detached that nuclear war is being threatened. Nuclear war is really a euphemism for the end of civilization as we know it. Even a limited number of nuclear explosions can put enough debris into the atmosphere to destroy the crop growing environment and cause mass starvation. What citizen of the world wants that?

That disconnect between people and the governments who are supposed to represent them endangers the entire planet and it is unnecessary. There are very few places where this disconnect is not evident, but in some cases it is obvious. Iran comes to mind.  The Iranian government is clearly not sensitive to the day-to-day concerns of its people especially women, but at the same time is actively exporting weapons and terrorism across the globe. It illustrates a qualitative difference in governments that directly impacts cosmopolitanism captured in this quote (1):

"Only a state which understands its role as a governmental mechanism, rather than as having claims to particular truths, is likely to be able to play the enabling role that cosmopolitanism needs."

There are clearly many governments across the world that see themselves as much more that a “governmental mechanism” and instead insist that people under their rule live a certain way. Theocracies work out of the assumption that a certain religion is superior.  Autocracies do the same for a particular ideology.  In both cases large segments of their population can be suppressed, persecuted, or in extreme cases killed for non-adherence to these doctrines. There are many obvious historical and ongoing examples.

Reviewing some of the literature on cosmopolitanism it is typically criticized for being too idealistic and impractical. How can large numbers of people practically adhere humanistic principles when they are fractionated by governments and in many cases oppressive governments opposed to humanism? Some authors write about socioeconomic status of cosmopolitans – seeing the very wealthy classes as being the most likely cosmopolitans while others see refugees as having that status of necessity. Critical features that are not mentioned are humanism and empathy. Both need to be emphasized at an international level to attempt to move the threshold for more appropriate international behavior in the right direction.  Citizens of the world recognize that their counterparts around the world have the same problems and the same goals every day. They hopefully have some input into the mechanism of government in their geographic locations, but that is obviously not universal.   

One of my favorite modern philosophers Massimo Pigliucci (2) examined the issue of cosmopolitanism from the standpoint of tension between altruism and selfishness.  He suggests that this may be a false dichotomy.  Pigliucci is an expert in Stoic philosophy and the developments that group added to cosmopolitanism.  He explains that the Stoics as intelligent social beings had an expanded concern for humanity and thought that free people flourish in a cooperative society, therefore caring for others assures that you will also flourish. 

This is an excellent individual philosophy that may not translate well at the international level.  Part of the problem seems to be that entire nations do not operate on cosmopolitanism – at least not predominately.  There are certainly elements like international assistance in the event of natural disasters and catastrophes where it may occur.  But countries are more likely to operate out of a vaguely defined self-interest. That self-interest may lead to the vilification of average people in other countries rather than understanding that we all share similar struggles and problems in living. In some cases that vilification may extend to factions in the country of interest for not supporting government propaganda and aggression.

A recent review of the current situation in Russia by Hill and Stent (3) is illustrative. They describe the 23-year reign of Vladimir Putin in Russia and how his absolute power is basically unchecked.  The clearest evidence is prosecuting a war against Ukraine based on his fantasies about what Russia should be and making mistakes that would have led to his removal in any country where there was personal accountability. In addition to the ruthless attacks on Ukraine and its people – he is equally ruthless on the home front. The authors describe deserters from the army being murdered and the videos of those murders released.  He has assassinated businessmen who do not support the war against Ukraine.  He has sent poorly trained and equipped inmates from Russian prisons to the front lines to fight. He has basically inflicted a tremendous amount of suffering on both the Russian and Ukrainian people. And yet at this point he continues to maintain absolute control over the country.

Many countries in the world today are run by similar autocrats.  Autocrats have also been a part of human history and the amount of suffering they have caused is beyond biblical proportions. Why does that cycle continue to repeat itself?  I think a lot of it has to do with the human tendency to simplify issues by tribalism. There is significant anthropological study showing that very early humans have a tendency to get into all out wars at the tribal level and then successively higher levels of organization. That suggests that it is easier to mobilize for a violent conflict than to think about or conduct negotiations. It also implies that there is very little thought given to the fact that the purported enemy is facing the same uncertainties and problems as the aggressors. Wartime rhetoric suggests that the enemy is the cause of the problem.

What are the potential solutions?  If cosmopolitanism is a tough sell – it can potentially guide solutions. The first necessary step is to make all the people of the world aware of the process. Education is a first step.  If you are a citizen of the world, you must be aware of the similarities of all people and how they differ from governments. There must be a sense of empathy for fellow citizens across the globe. That must be true for people of different regions within the same nation.  The only way to be a global citizen is to be see yourself as like everyone else in your geographic location as a first step.   A second step is to notice how politics attempts to affect that basic inclusiveness. Politicians everywhere thrive on pointing out the differences between people, suggesting that they are irreconcilable, and then proposing a plan for winning against the marginalized group. Recent events suggest that this process is very common in democracies including the United States where we witnessed an insurrection against the government and a significant increase in hate crimes against ethnic groups as a direct result of extremist rhetoric from a specific political party and their members. Cosmopolitanism cannot get off the ground in those conditions, but there is a chance that exposure to those principles may harden the population against demagoguery.

Cosmopolitanism after all is a very humanistic approach to relationships. That runs counter to recent human history where the focus has been on episodic warfare and violent confrontations. It would seem to set the baseline conditions for peace and peace is not a common word these days.  It only comes up when the direst of conditions exist and lately with the threat of nuclear weapons from the Kremlin. Peace and cosmopolitanism, need to occupy a much higher position on individual and collective agendas.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Kendall G, Woodward I, Skrbis Z. The sociology of cosmopolitanism: Globalization, identity, culture and government. Springer; 2009 Apr 28.

2:  Massimo Pigliucci. When I Help You, I Also Help Myself: On Being a Cosmopolitan.  November 17, 2017.   https://ordinaryphilosophy.com/2017/11/17/when-i-help-you-i-also-help-myself-on-being-a-cosmopolitan-by-massimo-pigliucci/

3:  Hill F, Stent A.  The Kremlin’s Grand Delusions What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Putin’s Regime.  Foreign Affairs February 15, 2023.

Graphics Credit:

Image of Chinese surveillance balloon over Billing MT 

Chase Doak, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Even More Epistemic and Hermeneutical Injustice......

My latest foray into the philosophical was reading a paper by Bennet Knox (1) called “Exclusion of the Psychopathologized and Hermeneutical Ignorance Threaten Objectivity”. In it he argues for inclusion of persons affected by mental illnesses or at least as they are defined in the DSM into the scientific process of revising the DSM. He prefers the term psychopatholigized that he shortens to pathologized to other terms used in the philosophical literature. He makes the argument against a severely truncated form of psychiatry that he can conveniently describe as hermeneutically ignorant while characterizing a brief comment by Spitzer as hostile. His argument hinges on a concept of social objectivity that necessarily means all viewpoints of the psychiatrically involved including those who want to burn the profession down are valid and must be considered.

As I have stated before on this blog (and given examples) – this is a standard philosophical approach to criticizing psychiatry while ignoring what actually goes on in the field and how psychiatrists are trained. So, I will start there.

Let me start with the concept of “social objectivity” since the early claim by the author is:

“Further, insofar as the objectivity which psychiatry should aspire to is a kind of “social objectivity” which requires incorporation of various normative perspectives, this particular form of epistemic injustice threatens to undermine its scientific objectivity.”

I am not completely sure of how philosophers use the term normative here so I am assuming that it means – what other people approve of or endorse.  The other people here would be the pathologized.  He uses examples of the pathologized in this paper as members of the Hearing Voices Movement and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN).  He states that social objectivity is defined in two books by Helen Longino but does not include an operational definition.  Instead, he comments throughout the paper on how various circumstances do not meet these criteria.  He openly acknowledges that his argument is deficient:

“Although I can provide only a limited argument for embracing the social objectivity model in psychiatry here, my main goal is to show fellow proponents of social objectivity that the particular kind of hermeneutical ignorance I describe presents a significant obstacle to achieving it in psychiatry.”

I agree that the argument presented is very limited.  If that is the case, why should it be achieved in psychiatry?  Will it be theoretically useful in some way? 

His introduction to the need for social objectivity and objectivity in general in psychiatry is based on the philosophy of psychiatry.  More to the point non-empiricist philosophy. If that is considered, an empirically adequate model is all that is required.  Instead, he introduces three models that all suggest that values play a role in psychiatric diagnosis. He acknowledges that dysfunction is a value free criterion for diagnosis but then goes on to separate out a category of mental disorder that also contains judgements about dangerousness.  He lands on the DSM definition of dysfunction but explains it away as “there is reason to believe that it is impossible (and undesirable) to uncover dysfunctions in mental processes without reference to values.”  He goes on to explain how “a scientific process is more objective insofar as it engages a diverse array of points of view with different normative background assumptions in a process of “transformative criticism.”

There are multiple points of disagreement with this viewpoint starting with a basic misunderstanding of what psychiatry is and how psychiatrists work. The key element in the DSM that is ignored here are all of the qualifications for subpopulations ranging from cultural differences to gender differences that include a moving threshold for the diagnosis of disorders and recognizing that in some cultures or subcultures varying degrees of psychopathology are tolerated (or not) and that also includes a tendency to stigmatize individuals with that psychopathology. Breaking that down – psychiatry parses scientific objectivity and normative perspectives when it comes to diagnosis and treatment planning. That not only occurs in psychiatry but in all of medicine and it may actively include the outside input from philosophers on ethics committees.  Here are a couple of clear examples.

Example 1:

Bob is a 65-year-old married man admitted for hepatic encephalopathy from alcoholic cirrhosis. The Internal Medicine team requests psychiatric consultation for further diagnosis and referral.  The psychiatrist assesses the patient as improved (less delirious) and competent.  No other psychopathology is noted. He discussed treatment options for the alcohol use disorder and the patient is willing to listen.  He has never attended an AA meeting or been in treatment in the past. The family (wife and adult children) enter the room and are all adamant about taking the patient home with no treatment. They are angry and state several times “If he wants to drink himself to death it is none of your business doctor. Let him drink himself to death.”  The family and the patient are approached by social workers and the Internal medicine team over the next two days but he is discharged home with no treatment.

All of the people in this case were white 4th or 5th generation Americans. There are no assumed cultural differences, but they are implicit. Patients and families affected by substance use disorders have known patterns of adapting and some of them are not functional adaptations. Was an attempt at involuntary treatment needed in this case? The psychiatrist knew that hardly ever happens by local probate courts in substance use disorders unless there was an actual suicide attempt or the family supported civil commitment. Should adult protection social workers have been involved?  Referrals could have been made to county social workers who might invoke a societal level value judgment on this situation but instead dialogue was established with the family and they agreed to call if problems occurred and take referral numbers for additional assistance. They were also informed that the patient had a life threatening alcohol use disorder and severe complications (including death) could occur with any future episodes of drinking.

To the point of the article this example points out that DSM diagnosis (alcohol use disorder, delirium plus dysfunction) were the objective considerations. It also illustrates a point about social objectivity and that is that it needs to be elaborated for every individual patient, family, and culture/subculture specifically. Suggesting that physicians or psychiatrists don’t have the capacity for recognizing these exceptions and planning according is not accurate. Suggesting that the patient and family were ignored or that their opinions were not considered is also inaccurate.  The entire treatment and discharge plan was based on those opinions - even after the recommended treatment was rejected and the high level of risk was explained.

Example 2:

Tony is a 28-year-old man seen in hospital following a suicide attempt. He shot himself through the shoulder and is on the trauma surgery service. When interviewed by psychiatry he says” “I did not shoot myself. Sure, I had the gun pointed at myself but it just went off.  I am not suicidal and I want to leave.” He gives the additional explanation that he was using large quantities of alcohol even though he has been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning in the past. When the psychiatrist points out the dangers of alcohol poisoning including death he says “Look I already said I was not suicidal.  I was just trying to get high.  I get to the point where I don’t care if I live or die but I am not trying to kill myself.”  He has had multiple admissions for depression and suicide attempts in the past.  He is currently on a 72-hour hold pending a court hearing at that time. The psychiatrist requests a review from the Ethics Committee composed of a number of local philosophy professors. They decide that the patient should be released despite the recommendation to the court for extended treatment of the substance use disorder and depression.  During the hearing the psychiatrist testifies that he has seen this type of treatment work and that he considers the patient to be at very high risk.  The court releases the patient. A week later he is found dead from acute alcohol poisoning.

Again, there are no major cultural differences in this case but clear subcultural differences based on the patient’s family and social history.  The psychiatric diagnoses are clear and indisputable.  The clinical judgment of the psychiatrist based on risk factors was also clear. The value judgments introduced here are the probate court and Ethics Committee as a proxies for society’s charge to balance a persons need for autonomy against their need for protection.  Those decisions were spread over multiple people and agencies outside of the field of psychiatry.  

These basic case examples (I say basic because they are encountered in acute care psychiatry every day and multiple times a day) illustrate a few facets of social objectivity.  First, it is poorly defined.  Second, it is impossible to achieve primarily because is consists of an infinite number of subsets that cannot be averaged if the expected result is to achieve active input into the field of psychiatry. Third, for social objectivity to be useful it needs to be recorded as unique for every person that comes into treatment and handled as it was in the above vignettes.  That way the relevant considerations of every unique history and constellation of signs and symptoms can be evaluated in the proper context. It turns out that technique has been around in clinical psychiatry for as long as I have been a psychiatrist and it is called cross cultural psychiatry.

For 22 years, I practiced on an acute care unit where we had access to professional interpreters who were fluent in both the language and cultures of several countries as well as the hearing-impaired population who used American Sign Language to communicate.  There were 15 language interpreters who spoke a number of African and Asian languages in addition to Spanish. Professional interpreters do a lot more than translate languages - they also interpret cultural and subcultural variations as well as normative behaviors. We had access to telephone interpreters in any language if we encountered a patient outside of the hospital staff expertise. The interviews were lengthy and often incorporated family members, community members, and in some cases local shaman. Without this intensive intervention attempting to assess and treat these problems would be a set up for the epistemic and hermeneutical injustices the author refers to. In fact, treatment would have been impossible. In completing these assessments there was not only an elaboration of the stated problem, how the relevant community conceptualized that problem, a discussion of how it may be treated psychiatrically and the rationale for that treatment, as well as whether the family wanted the patient treated in general or more specifically in the hospital and whether their shaman or medicine man would be involved.

These are just a few examples of how social objectivity is approached in clinical psychiatry.  The result is that values are incorporated that are important to the patient and their family even if they affect diagnostic thresholds and treatment planning.  That is also clearly stated in the DSM.  It is a much more practical and personalized approach than trying to incorporate all of those opinions into the DSM diagnosis and it gives a voice to many more people than would be involved in that process. It also considers a multitude of local factors (budgets and attitudes of social service agencies, budgets and attitudes of local courts, community resources, etc.) that all factor prominently in values-based decision making.

The other important aspect of an all-inclusive process for social objectivity is that the normative thinking of some - may result in exclusion rather than inclusion. Normative thinking based on beliefs can be political thinking and in the past two years we have seen that lead to fewer rights for women, the banning of books, a widening scope of gun permissiveness in a society rocked by gun violence, gross misinformation about the pandemic, and an attempt to overthrow the elected government of the United States. These are all good examples of how including normative thinking outside the scope of medical practice could lead to disruption of the entire field. The author suggests that the opinions expressed do not need agreement - they only need to be aired. That strikes me as the basis for a very bad meeting. Unless there is basic agreement on the values and rationale for a diagnostic system – I think Spitzer has a point that opinions for the sake of stating an opinion is a futile exercise especially if it is not in basic agreement with medical and psychiatric values and ethics.

The author defines hermeneutical ignorance in psychiatry somewhat clearer. He suggests that marginalized groups (like the pathologized) develop their own conceptual resources that are not shared with other groups.  The example suggests that willful hermeneutical ignorance results when the marginalized group does not share the conceptual resources and the dominant group (inferring psychiatry) are unaware of the resources or dismiss them.  There are numerous examples of how this is not the case with psychiatrists.  Obvious examples include Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups as well as community psychiatry programs that actively use advocates and develop resources with the active input from people with severe mental illness who are affiliated with specific programs. Psychiatrists see a general knowledge about non-psychiatric resources as necessary to provide people with additional assistance.  In many cases that can include discussions of how to better utilize the resource and what to expect.  

There are several additional points of disagreement with the author on many points where he seems unaware of how psychiatrists actually practice or he is unwilling to give credit where credit is due. The best example is his description of Spitzer’s brief commentary (2) on a paper written in Psychiatric Services. He was responding to a lead paper (3) on including patients and their families in the DSM process. The author characterizes Spitzer’s general attitude toward the idea as hostile and characteristic of injustices that he writes about but important context is not given.  Spitzer was the major architect of DSM criteria and studied the process for decades. He wrote a comprehensive defense of psychiatric diagnosis in response the Rosenhan study that has been discredited. He was also responsible for removing homosexuality from the DSM and he did that by directly engaging with activists who presented him with clear information about why it was not a diagnosis. Critics like to use the homosexuality issue as a defect with psychiatry while never pointing out it was self-corrected and that correction happened decades before progress was made at societal levels.  Even now there is a question about whether societal progress is threatened by the normative thinking and agenda of conservative groups. Spitzer was responding to the political aspects of the process with political rhetoric. 

The best argument against inclusion in the original paper was:  “The DSM process is already compromised by excessive politics.” by several groups who are not psychiatrists.  That argument has been expanded in the past 18 years to the point where it is a frequent criticism in the popular media. Even in the original paper the authors suggest that these political processes may have stifled innovation and scientific progress.

Psychiatry has not “escaped” from considering values – as noted in the above examples they are incorporated into clinic practice when the specific social and cultural aspects that apply to a certain patient are explored and considered.  Contrary to philosophical opinion – the pathologized are not a marginalized group to psychiatrists. It is who we are interested in seeing and treating.  Our interest in treatment goes beyond what is typically considered evidence-based medicine. We are interested in any modality that might be useful and that includes using resources developed or available to the people who need them. It is clear that the DSM has been overly politicized and it is routinely mischaracterized in the media. Adding  additional elements - some that have strictly political agendas that include the destruction of the field - adds nothing to improving that process. There are existing avenues for that input and they are readily available outside of the DSM process in day-to-day psychiatric practice.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA




1:  Knox B. Exclusion of the psychopathologized and hermeneutical ignorance threaten objectivity. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology. 2022;29(4):253-66.

2:  Spitzer RL. Good idea or politically correct nonsense? Psychiatr Serv. 2004 Feb;55(2):113. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.2.113. PMID: 14762229.

3:  Sadler JZ, Fulford B. Should patients and their families contribute to the DSM-V process? Psychiatr Serv. 2004 Feb;55(2):133-8. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.2.133. PMID: 14762236.

4:  Dawson G. More on epistemic injustice.   https://real-psychiatry.blogspot.com/2023/01/more-on-epistemic-injustice.html

5:  Dawson G.  Epistemic injustice is misapplies to psychiatry.   https://real-psychiatry.blogspot.com/2019/07/some-of-greatest-minds-in-psychiatry.html