This post has been edited since it was first published to correct some (though probably not all grammar errors) one sentence has been removed for flow and a paragraph explaining the unethical aspect has been added. Also one reference to misogyny has been altered to sexism.
By Keir Liddle
It is often common for people to declare that those who hold different and outlandish views from themselves are somehow mentally ill or defective cognitively. That those who believe aliens have abducted them are psychotic and those who believe in ghosts delusional.
It would perhaps seem obvious to assume that in some cases people with specific mental health problems might come to believe in outlandish and incredible things. That aliens exist and are controlling them perhaps? Or maybe that their loved ones are possessed by some malevolent spiritual entity? But it is by no means necessarily a given people who can only be described as utterly sane believe all manner of outlandish and ridiculous things. Is everyone who believes that 9/11 was an inside job a paranoid and delusional schizophrenic? Is everyone who has faith in a higher power nuts?
No. Not in the least. The idea that by holding outlandish views you are insane holds about as much water as a fractal sieve.
Indeed I would wager that the vast majority of people who believe in aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories are perfectly normal in mental health terms and indeed any other area you care to consider. To label them as otherwise based solely on their beliefs is dangerous, dismissive and grossly offensive.
Yet time and again Skeptics and Atheists will resort to the language of mental health and mental aberration when describing the views and opinions of everyone from your common or garden homeopath to Catholic priests. This is not big and it’s certainly not clever. Should you doubt this point read almost any skeptical forum and you will never be that far from someone using the language of mental health in relation to an ideological opponent.
Given this happens so often you might wonder what straw it was that broke the camels back this time. Well wonder no longer it was this post by parapsychologist Dr Barry Taff. Taff holds a doctorate in psychophysiology, claims to have investigated over 4,000 hauntings, has appeared on numerous TV shows and was technical consultant on truly woeful horror film “The Entity” based on one of his own investigations.
Taffs post, an opinion piece, is problematic from the get go entitled as it is “Psi and Psychosis: Be afraid, be very afraid” starting with a negative association with mental health issues could simply be an error of judgement in selecting a snappy title but Taffs post nosedives further into a pit of stigmatising language and unethically details his “disturbing” meetings with individuals in the paranormal community.
Taffs thesis is that “the paranormal attracts more emotionally disturbed people than any other area of human interest or endeavour.” which he attempts to explain by wondering if “Perhaps many such troubled individuals enter this field with the hope of resolving their own emotional demons?” and pondering “Why would anyone with even half a brain even make such absurd, unsupportable claims, when they themselves have never succeeded at such? That’s simple, they’re insane”.
None of Taffs assertions are backed up by evidence.
But perhaps that is to be expected as this is not a post designed to sensitively address the issues of mental illness and outlandish belief. It’s a post seemingly designed to make us feel sorry for Taff as he tries to conduct himself as a serious parapsychologist surrounded by hordes of terrifying crazy people. Terrifying crazy people that the tone of Taffs post makes it clear we are meant to point and laugh at. For instance the use of the phrase “half a brain” is particularly jarring as it associates mental health issues with those of mental competence and intelligence. I can think of no modern reputable psychologist, in any field, who would even think of making such a bold sweeping statement.
He recounts meeting “Ellen” an individual who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Taff makes the following worrying and unethical claims about Ellens character and her state of mind.
“I am unaware if these delusional episodes of entity attachment were the result of substance abuse, brain damage, or growing up in a totally dysfunctional home with its concomitant abuse and neglect.”
It seems Taff is not content to diagnose “Ellen” with substance abuse problems and neurological damage but he is more than happy to decide that her family either abused or neglected her. What evidence Taff has for this we will likely never know but given the tone and style of the rest of this post I for one am less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume this was based on anything other than his prejudices.
Next Taff describes “Brenda” an individual he labels a “blatant, paranoid schizophrenic” who he briefly insults and suggests is simply attention seeking. If you have your mental health stigma bingo cards handy you may be getting excited at the prospect of a full house round about now… Folllowing “Brenda” Taff describes “Robin”,a woman he met through an online dating site:
“During the summer of 2011, I met this strikingly beautiful girl on an online dating website. “Robin” was about ten years younger than myself and was stunning beyond words, but her exterior is where the beauty apparently ceased.”
Which highlights another niggling little undertone to Taffs post a sexist obsession with recounting the physical appearance of these women. But I digress, we will return to this sexism. before our denouement . “Robin” confides in Taff her desire to kill herself. Taff reports reacting by first asking “Robin” if she is worried about the impact the trauma will have on her daughter but also reports leaving the date with a “witty” retort asking if “Robin” will give him her car as she will not be needing it soon. In a startling lack of perspicacity Taff declares “Robin” to be selfish.
These are simply the first few cases Taff describes, there are three more equally as depressing anecdotes in a similar vein, but so far he displays a seemingly chronic lack of empathy or understanding for the individuals he has encountered and of mental health issues in general. Indeed for much of the post it’s hard to escape the notion that Taff just wants us to feel sorry for him.: to feel his pain and frustration as he deals with all these allegedly mentally ill people who harass and hound him. Taff frames mental illness as almost a moral, rather than psychological or medical, problem. He treats it as something to mock, to dismiss, to be alarmed be as he takes us on a guided tour on his own personal bedlam.
Taff also explains why more women then men appear in his post. I quote the following without comment:
Why are there so many more women discussed here than men you might ask? Because women are far more open about their feelings, thoughts and emotions, while many men are stoic, far too insecure to divulge such disturbing truths about themselves publicly. Women tend to be more in touch with their inner selves and are therefore more comfortable talking about such obscure matters. While men may have such inner beliefs and attitudes, they are not generally voiced in a society where they are better known for their acts and deeds as opposed to verbalizing their deepest thoughts. These incidents are but the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to dealing with the overwhelming paranormal psychosis that exists out there.
Taffs blog post is deeply unethical and it is highly disturbing that anyone who has come anywhere near a psychology course could even consider it ok to publish this. The clumsy disclaimer placed at the end does little to diminish the attitudes revealed and language used. Nothing less than a retraction and an apology to those individuals mentioned comes close to making amends. It is simply not ok for someone to post mocking accounts of their dealings with individuals they have diagnosed as mentally ill if that person claims a degree of authority in this area. By virtue of having a psychology degree and claiming the title of Parapsychologist Taff falls into this category. No psychologist should comment on an individuals mental health where that individual might reasonably be identified. No psychologist should come close to mocking mental health issues in such an offensive manner.
Indeed professional associations specifically prohibit such activities and discipline members who transgress in such a manner.
I would dearly love the Skeptic community on the whole to realise that the mentally ill are not there to be your figures of fun, you don’t have to be mentally ill to believe weird shit and it’s appalling that any of you think it’s ok to appropriate the language of mental illness to describe someone you disagree with.
You might not think you are as bad as Taff but I’ve seen you at your worst and it is not a pretty sight.