Propping up pseudoscience isn’t the same thing as fostering debate

The University of Toronto has been criticized for offering a new scholarship for research in the field of “anti-psychiatry.” For those of you who don’t know, anti-psychiatry is a movement that started in the 1960s, and firmly rejects “dangerous” treatments prescribed by psychiatry, and raises issues with its subjective diagnosis process.

In the end, the anti-psychiatry movement was started to deal with legitimate problems, but it’s not the right path to follow to improve the discipline of psychiatry in 2017.

Psychiatry, as a discipline, takes on very difficult problems for which no one has all the answers. And in many cases it has been wrong, and even corrupted to suit dangerous agendas. No one is arguing that the system is perfect. However, funding anti-psychiatry and creating a rift by casting doubt on all parties involved isn’t the answer.

Issues like a subjective diagnosis process can only be corrected through further research and collaboration. Or, in other words, by learning what doesn’t work and why.

And then there’s the fact that anti-psychiatry is more than just criticism of “barbaric methods.” It posits extremely dangerous ideas, like the notion that mental illness isn’t real.

This kind of suggestion flies in the face of significant breakthroughs and evidence that show paths to solve problems in the field of mental health. In an age where extensive efforts are needed to destigmatize mental illness, funding research that denies its existence could do some real damage.

This more extreme view may not be held by all members of the movement, but it is an idea that will be tacitly supported by the U of T under this new scholarship.

The movement itself is nebulous enough that a researcher could rise to prominence with theories that wouldn’t normally be condoned by the university, under the argument that it’s an integral part of a legitimate academic discipline. This could erode the credibility of the university itself, and confuse people looking for mental health solutions.

Some may argue that whether the ideas of anti-psychiatry are right or wrong, universities have a duty to show balance and foster debate.

But just because two sets of ideas are in opposition, that doesn’t mean they balance each other out. For example, picture a debate where one scientist who believes in climate changes argues against another, who does not. That’s a false equivalency, because only one side is armed with a preponderance of facts.

If you put a ten pound weight on one end of a scale and a one pound weight on the other, they won’t achieve balance, even though each side is given the same amount of space.

Universities do have a duty to foster debate, even if one side is unpopular. But both sides need to show their own legitimate evidence before they get through the door.

Taking a point of debate that is already legitimate and bringing it in to facilitate debate is one thing. Legitimizing it yourself out of a false sense of balance is quite another. Universities have a duty to foster debate, but not to fund it if it can’t be backed up.