Retraction Watchby Ivan OranskyFebruary 13, 2014
Some Retraction Watch readers may recall this episode, recounted in a recent op-ed by Lew Powell:
During the 1980s and early ’90s a wave of nonexistent “satanic ritual abuse” claims shut down scores of day cares such as Little Rascals, McMartin in California and Fells Acres in Massachusetts. In virtually every instance the charges lacked any basis in fact. Today no reputable psychologist or other social scientist will argue otherwise. The defendants were innocent victims of a “moral panic” that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.Psychologist Richard Noll found the charges troubling too, so he wrote a piece last year for Psychiatric Times because:
Despite the discomfort it brings, we owe it to the current generation of clinicians to remember that an elite minority within the American psychiatric profession played a small but ultimately decisive role in the cultural validation, and then reduction, of the Satanism moral panic between 1988 and 1994. Indeed, what can we all learn from American psychiatry’s involvement in the moral panic?The Psychiatric Times editor said the staff thought the essay was “terrific” and might even be a cover story for their January issue. It was posted on December 6. But you won’t find that article — available here — at Psychiatric Times anymore. As Gary Greenberg relates:
The editor made some suggestions for the print version and asked for Noll to finish them by Dec. 16. But then on Dec. 14, Noll discovered that his article had vanished from the website. He made gentle inquiries and determined that it wasn’t a glitch, but that PT had intentionally taken down the article. The reasons were vague–something about how they didn’t like the title (which they had chosen), and how they didn’t like the fact that he had named names. But whatever the reason, the article was gone.Here’s what the editors told Noll when he pushed for an explanation:
Dear Dr. Noll,
I don’t blame you for being miffed at the inexplicable disappearance of your article, and the long delay in getting back to you with an explanation. I’d like to offer a sincere apology for the delay, and to explain what happened. It hasn’t helped that our offices were closed most of last week and that communications between editorial board members and staff have been generally slow because of vacations.
As you know, Professor [redacted] is the final arbiter of History of Psychiatry columns, so our staff enthusiastically went ahead and posted your article. I read it the weekend it was posted, however, and grew immediately concerned that it raised potential liability issues—possibly for you and, by extension, for Psychiatric Times. I therefore thought it prudent to hide the piece from public view until I could get some guidance from our editorial board. The board did support these concerns, and it was suggested that I consider obtaining corporate legal advice. There was also the suggestion that Drs. Kluft and Braun and some others discussed in your essay needed to be given the opportunity to respond to claims made in the piece. However, there was also general consensus that the piece “may be of some historical interest, but not particularly relevant to the problems facing psychiatry today.” Ultimately, it was the board’s recommendation that we not publish the piece.We respect your expertise and previous contributions to Psychiatric Times. The scenario is a first for us. I’m so sorry it happened this way. We will return your copyright form and hope that you find another venue for the piece…Powell, we should note, has also been urging the Journal of Child and Youth Care (now called Relational Child & Youth Care Practice) to retract a 1990 issue devoted to In the Shadow of Satan: The Ritual Abuse of Children.
"However, there was also general consensus that the piece ‘may be of some historical interest, but not particularly relevant to the problems facing psychiatry today.’ ”
It seems to me that our real failing is that when we go through the oscillations in science known as paradigm shifts, there are two things that are unique to our mental health specialties. Our highs and lows tend to swing way higher and way lower, often into the realm of absurdity as in this case. And we tend to reject whole paradigms lock stock and barrel as rapidly as we were too quick to embrace them earlier [lock stock and barrel]. I would surmise that the wide swings are in the nature of anything subjective. But I’m not sure I altogether understand the waves of naive acceptance and outright rejection. In other scientific endeavors, the phase of paradigm exhaustion leaves a growing residue of what was useful that leads to a gradual upward movement in the discipline.
Freud rejected his earlier trauma theory in favor of one based on fantasy, leaving the actually traumatized behind. The revival of trauma theory left those with powerful fantasies behind. In the midst of that rediscovery of traumatic mental illness, the episode Richard wants us to remember emerged. And it’s important to know that the therapists that got caught up in this story weren’t all crazy themselves, nor charlatans. The clarity offered by the victim/persecutor paradigm is a compelling human experience – extending well beyond the borders of the formally paranoid among us. And it came at a time when there were other paradigm shifts around every bend – including the medicalization of psychiatry.
There are other places where our history has unmentioned lacunae – prefrontal lobotomies, insulin coma wards, over-use of convulsive therapy or neuroleptics, etc – breakthroughs gone viral. We’re in the afterglow of some now – the DSM revolution, evidence-based medicine and clinical trials, translational science, clinical neuroscience, psychopharmacology. These are all useful concepts in moderation, but moderation has never been our forte. Are we going to suddenly disappear all of them just as we sought to disappear psychotherapy thirty years ago? or, to return to the point, as we continue to disappear the days when psychiatry battled the devil?
Are we ready now to reopen a discussion on this moral panic? Will both clinicians and historians of psychiatry be willing to be on record? Shall we continue to silence memory, or allow it to speak?