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New word of the month: Biobabble


As in psychobabble, but more likely to be uttered by a journalist writing for a pop science mag.

In “Psychiatry’s Legitimacy Crisis” (Los Angeles Review of Books, August 9, 2012), a review of All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders Andrew Scull says something quite interesting,

Why is psychiatry forced to rely on a grab bag of symptoms to make its diagnoses? Because, fundamentally, it has nothing else to offer. The cause of the overwhelming majority of psychiatric disorders remains as obscure as ever. Periodic weightless claims, endorsed by credulous science journalists, that schizophrenia is triggered by a newly discovered gene or by a dopamine deficiency in the brain, or that people suffering from depression have a shortage of serotonin, which can be reversed by taking a Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) such as Prozac to immerse their synapses in a serotonin bath, are so much biobabble – scientific nonsense that has proved good marketing copy for Big Pharma but is otherwise worthless.

Worse, hard up for a perspective, the authors, Allan V. Horowitz and Jerome C. Wakefield,  adopt the goofiest one going – evolutionary psychology. But wait. Reviewer Scully is not just rolling over for a dog biscuit. He writes,

Psychiatry has indeed lost its way and seems increasingly unable to resist pathologizing ordinary life. But before the reader gets to that case, he or she will have to plow through the seemingly endless and tedious pages of evolutionary psychology that make up the key sections of the book’s first three chapters. Here one finds claims about genetic endowments that were built into human beings at the time of cave-men and hunter-gathers, and persist as part of our mental constitution. These inheritances from the past are invoked to explain our contemporary fears and anxieties, even ones of quite specific sorts. The alleged features of normal human nature and the supposed hold our genes have over our behavior are as speculative as most neuro-maniacal accounts of modern man. More importantly, they are unnecessary, and get in the way of an argument that depends on no more than the self-evident proposition that all of us experience fears and anxieties, which are intensified in certain social situations and by large-scale trauma, but which cannot be termed “mental illnesses.”

The thing is, life’s tuff, we get hurt, and then we die. If we are lucky, we grow old before we die.

Any account of the human mind that makes recognizing those facts into some kind of a disease is going to do more harm than good.


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