Phoney Theories can have a life of their own - Zombie Science in ME/CFS?
Subject: Zombie Science in ME/CFS?
15th August 2008
Mental health researchers at The Institute of Psychiatry (London) are currently
undertaking a study of "social cognition". The project seeks to find out
whether "the processing of social information" is affected in people with
anorexia nervosa and whether or not people with anorexia can recognise complex
emotions in other people.
The anorexia group will be compared with healthy controls and also with people
who have "CFS", the latter being recruited through outpatient services of The
South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
The project was announced in 2007 just before the publication of the NICE
Guideline on "CFS/ME".
Recruitment for this "research" will run until the end of 2008 and the project
will be completed in 2009
The study literature states: "The comparison with CFS will allow (researchers)
to gauge whether any social cognition deficits are unique to anorexia, or
reflect more global symptoms of psychiatric illness with marked physical
So there we have it in black and white: according to researchers at the IoP
(the home of stalwart supporters of CBT and GET for "CFS/ME" Professors Simon
Wessely and Trudie Chalder), "CFS" is "a psychiatric illness with marked
The background to the project states: "Anorexia nervosa and chronic fatigue
syndrome are classical psychosomatic disorders where response to social threat
is expressed somatically (e.g. Hatcher & House, 2003; Kato et al 2006; Schmidt
et al 1997). Other similarities between these disorders include strong female
preponderance and overlapping personality characteristics, such as being
introverted and avoidant. Aberrant emotional processing is a strong candidate as
a maintaining factor for these disorders (Schmidt & Treasure 2006)".
Is it by chance alone that this "research" coincides with the publication of the
NICE Guideline and that the only "evidence" upon which the NICE Guideline
Development Group relied is that of the Wessely School, whose assumption about
the nature of "CFS/ME" is that it is a psychosomatic disorder and whose model
and management recommendations are based on "fear avoidance" and
It is surely remarkable that the beliefs of the Wessely School about "CFS/ME"
(in which they unequivocally include "ME/CFS") remain uninfluenced by the
ever-mounting biomedical evidence which proves their beliefs to be seriously
A possible explanation has been put forward by Professor Bruce Charlton,
Editor-in-Chief of Medical Hypotheses; Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at
the University of California and Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry at the
University of Newcastle (UK).
Charlton is well-known for his campaign to breathe new life into academic
medicine in order to capture issues that matter to patients and which would make
a difference to their lives.
In a compelling Editorial (Zombie science: A sinister consequence of evaluating
scientific theories purely on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Medical
Hypotheses, 26th July 2008) Charlton debunks the ideal of impartial and
objective science. The following quotations apply with particular resonance to
the current ME/CFS situation in the UK:
"In the real world it looks like most scientists are quite willing to pursue
wrong ideas - so long as they are rewarded for doing so with a better chance of
achieving more grants, publications and status".
"This is 'enlightened self-interest' a powerful factor in scientific evaluation
because the primary criterion of the 'validity' of a theory is whether or not
acting upon it will benefit the career of the scientist; 'enlightened' because
the canny career scientist will be looking ahead a few years in order to prefer
that theory which offers the best prospect of netting the next grant, tenure,
promotion or prestigious job opportunity".
"When a new theory is launched, it is unlikely to win converts unless (they) are
rewarded with a greater chance of generous research funding, the opportunity to
publish in prestigious journals and the hope of increased status exemplified by
admiration and respect from other scientists".
"Theories may become popular or even dominant purely because of their
association with immediate incentives and despite their scientific weaknesses".
"Even the most conclusive 'hatchet jobs' done on phoney theories will fail to
kill, or even weaken, them when the phoney theories are backed up with
sufficient economic muscle in the form of funding. Scientists will gravitate to
where the money is so long as the funding stream is sufficiently deep and
"Classical theory has it that a bogus hypothesis will be rejected when it fails
to predict 'reality', but (this) can be deferred almost indefinitely by the
elaboration of secondary hypotheses which then require further testing (and
generates more work for the bogus believers)".
"That the first theory is phoney, and always was phoney, is regarded as
simplistic, crass (and) a sign of lack of sophistication".
"And anyway, there are massive 'sunk costs' associated with the phoney theory,
including the reputations of numerous scientists who are now successful and
powerful on the back of the phoney theory, and who now control the peer-review
process (including the allocation of grants, publications and jobs)".
"False theories can therefore prove very long-lived".
"The zombification of science (occurs) when science based on phoney theories is
serving a useful but non-scientific purpose (so it is) kept going by continuous
transfusions of cash from those whose interests it serves".
"For example, if a branch of pseudo-science based on a phoney theory is valuable
for political reasons (e.g. to justify government policies) then real science
expires and 'zombie science' evolves".
"(This) can be explained away by yet further phoney theoretical elaborations,
especially when there is monopolistic control of information".
"In a nutshell, zombie science is supported because it is useful propaganda
(and) is deployed in arenas such as political rhetoric, public administration,
management, public relations, marketing and the mass media generally. Indeed,
zombie science often comes across in the mass media as being more plausible than
"Personal careerist benefits seem easily able to overwhelm the benefits of
trying to establish the 'real world' of truth".
"In current science, there seems to be a greater possibility that large scale
change may be fashion rather than progress, and such change may be serving
propagandist goals rather than advancing scientific understanding".
"Modern science may have a lumbering pace, and its vast bulk means that once it
has begun to move in a particular direction, trying to deflect its path is like
stopping a charging rhinoceros".
"Perhaps funders co-operate, co-ordinate and collude, and therefore should be
regarded as a cartel".
To halt this raging rhinoceros, Charlton says: "Individual ambition should
ensure a sufficient supply of debunkers to keep the gardens of science weeded of
bogus theories, and to banish the zombies of science to the graveyards where
The ME/CFS community can have no doubt that Charlton has hit the nail on the
For how much longer must these desperate people be sacrificed on the defiled
altar of zombie science?