Tag Archives: journalism

CBC’s “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” and the Difficulties of Journalistic History

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has just aired a piece on the controversial history of Oak Ridge, the forensic mental health division of the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, Ontario. (The Oak Ridge building officially closed in 2014, but Waypoint continues to house Ontario’s only maximum security forensic hospital.) “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” aired March 1st, 2016 as part of the CBC’s national news program The National and is described simply as: “Allegations of treatment with LSD, sleep deprivation, torture. The painful legacy of an Ontario psychiatric facility. Reg Sherren reports.”

The 15-minute piece, driven by the narrative of one man’s experiences in the institution in the 1970s, describes some of the treatment practices at the institution at this time and questions the ethics of those involved. A provocative indictment of the institution and its doctors, the segment unfortunately lacks any counterpoint regarding the ethics of the therapeutic practices employed at the hospital. Absent any discussion of the greater context of psychiatry at this time, the treatment of patients at Oak Ridge is presented as unequivocally cruel, unusual, and unethical. This is certainly the experience of the former patient featured in “The Secrets of Oak Ridge.”

And from our present-day vantage point we may well feel similarly. Taking the context of 1960s and 70s psychiatry into account, however, the ethics, or lack thereof, of the program are less clearcut. At the time, Oak Ridge’s use of LSD and other psychopharmaceuticals – alongside other therapies – was seen as a positive form of treatment and a promising advance in the field. Where the CBC segment is most successful is in presenting the patient’s voice, as he recounts his experiences at the hospital. Respecting this patient’s experience, while putting that experience into historical context is a fine balancing act, one, unfortunately, “The Secrets of Oak Ridge” does not attempt. Contextualizing these treatment practices does not mean invalidating the experiences of this or any other patient, but it is necessary for a more complete understanding of what transpired at this hospital in this moment in time.

As we’ve reported previously on AHP, the recently launched Remembering Oak Ridge Digital Archive and Exhibit produced by former AHP contributor Jennifer Bazar, is an excellent and under-utilized source for this much needed information. Details and fuller context for the social therapy program discussed in the CBC segment can be found on this page of the site. (It should also be noted that a class action lawsuit against the hospital and the program’s doctors, on behalf several patients, is as yet undecided.)

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The Cognitive Revolution (Myths, Part 2)

Christian JarrettPreviously on AHP: Chris Green critiqued an essay by Christian Jarrett (pictured right), published as a journalistic feature in the latest issue of The Psychologist, 21(9). In this essay, Jarrett outlines — and purports to debunk — several myths in the history of psychology.

Among the examinations of apocrypha surrounding Kitty Genovese and Little Albert is a question regarding the very existence of a Cognitive Revolution in psychology. Green, in response, argues that this makes a different kind of claim than do Jarrett’s other efforts:

There is all manner of debate over what the precise character of the cognitive revolution was. Some have even argued that the continuities with behaviorism are so great that it cannot be considered to be a scientific “revolution” at all. But this kind of historiographic debate is not at all the same project as excavating indisputable facts that have become distorted over the decades with retelling. It is simply the case that many of the details of the story commonly told about the Kitty Genovese case are not true. It is simply the case that Little Albert was conditioned to be afraid of a rat rather than a rabbit. This is not the case with debate over the cognitive revolution, which is a very complicated social and scientific movement that took place over a period of decades (Green, 2008, at AHP here).

Green then goes a step further in his criticism. And herein lies the lesson:

What we have here, I fear, is a case of revisionist history attempting to deflect criticism by masquerading as a case of factual “debunking” (Green, 2008, contd).

The significance of this sentence is to be found in the distinction between the good kind of “revision through reexamination” (debunking) and the bad kind of “revision through oversimplification, denial, or distortion” (negationist revisionism). This distinction is sufficiently important that we will examine it in greater detail below.

Caveat: What follows is my opinion, not an attempt to explain “what Green really meant.” (Criticism is welcome; please feel free to leave comments below.) Continue reading The Cognitive Revolution (Myths, Part 2)

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Science Journalism Sucks (mostly)

Ben Goldacre, a science reporter for the Guardian, has written an interesting (if too short) article on why science journalism is lousy most of the time.

Gary Schwitzer used to be a journalist, but now he has turned to quantitative analyses of journalism, and this month he published an analysis of 500 health articles from mainstream media in the US. The results were dismal. Only 35% of stories were rated satisfactory for whether the journalist had “discussed the study methodology and the quality of the evidence”: because in the media, as you will have noticed, science is about absolute truth statements from arbitrary authority figures in white coats, rather than clear descriptions of studies and the reasons why people draw conclusions from them. Continue reading Science Journalism Sucks (mostly)

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NY Times: Kafka’s cockroach was real! (Really?)

It turns out that the giant cockroach in The Metamorphosis was Franz Kafka’s neighbor, who apparently suffered from “entomological dysplasia.” Said his editor, quoted in The New York Times:

“The story is true. Kafka simply wrote a completely verifiable, journalistic account of a neighbor by the name of Gregor Samsa who, because of some bizarre medical condition, turned into a ‘monstrous vermin.’ Kafka assured us that he’d made the whole thing up. We now know that to be completely false. The account is 100 percent true.”

But when one checks the facts presented in the “coverage” of this revelation (really an op-ed piece), cracks appear immediately:

In a telephone interview, Mr. Kafka was contrite and tearful. “I know what I did was wrong,” he said. “I’m very alienated from myself, but that’s no excuse to lie. I took someone’s life and selfishly turned it into an enigmatic literary parable.”

The problem is, Kafka died in 1924; he could not have been interviewed for the piece.

This detail unraveled, the whole story twists back on itself. Continue reading NY Times: Kafka’s cockroach was real! (Really?)

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