August 2, 2014 34 Comments
I like a good public debate, especially when it comes to mental health. I’ve been to a fair few, like the Maudsley Debate on CBT for psychosis, and even spoken at one myself, on the value of diagnosis in psychiatry.
Debates are often called for, much anticipated, and generally held up to be an uncontaminated source of truth and progress in heated times.
I wonder though, whether they’re the universal answer that they’re cracked up to be. I’d never argue against issues being discussed informally on smaller platforms like Twitter, but hosting an official and well publicised event on a grand stage seems to hold quite a propensity to make the issue at hand even less clear.
Firstly, the motion sometimes isn’t fair. I was rather piqued to read the introduction to a debate due to happen in November at the Royal Geographic Society, at which speakers will argue for and against the motion that ‘Psychiatrists and the Pharmaceutical Industry are to Blame for the Current ‘Epidemic’ of Mental Disorders’. It’s a straw man – the assumption has been made that there is an epidemic of psychiatric diagnosing (when in fact, mental health services are too busy to see even the sickest patients enough and are being cut further) and someone is to blame.
The rest of the blurb is obnoxiously biased too, for example ‘Drug pushers. We tend to associate them with the bleak underworld of criminality. But some would argue that there’s another class of drug pushers, just as unscrupulous, who work in the highly respectable fields of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry.’
Sir Simon Wessely, speaking against the motion, is one of the best public orators I’ve ever seen but he’s starting from a phenomenally biased position. Unless the motion and backdrop are fair and balanced, a debate can turn into a pointless inquisition and show trial serving only to reinforce the skewed presumptions of the people who set the motion.
Secondly, I just don’t think that some topics are suitable for public debate, either because of the nature of the question or the state of the current answer to that question.
Public debates are not objective. They are rhetorical sniping contests won not by people with the best and most useful answers but by the people who convince the audience, who are themselves hugely biased already, using charisma, ethos, selective information and verbal trickery. The recent demand in a broadsheet newspaper by the so-called ‘Council for Evidence Based Psychiatry’ for a public debate on the harms of psychiatric medication was in my view completely ridiculous – there is no way a complex, lengthy and highly statistical issue like that should be thrown to a few angry academics in front of microphones.
In some cases too, simply having the debate lends credence to one side of the argument that it doesn’t deserve. We wouldn’t have a public debate on vaccination and autism, because we know well enough already what the answer is and we don’t want to give the other side more credit than it deserves. I suppose you could call it meta-debate. Far be it from me to ascribe that to any topic in mental health, but Nick Clegg didn’t seem to fair too well against Nigel Farage. It was over before it even started – Farage had proven that his views were apparently worthy of airtime. The fact he outdid Clegg with panache too was an added bonus for him. The sensible, grown up politicians steered clear of the no-win situation.
To finish, we shouldn’t mistake the result of a debate for closure on an issue either, which seems to be a nagging recent trend. If we can’t make our minds up about an issue after decades of research then there’s no way we’ll get there in one evening.
At the end of the day we just need to remember what a public debate is – a few highly biased people talking in a highly biased way to a highly biased audience about an often highly biased motion. They can be fun, exciting and stimulating, but they run the risk of distorting an argument even further and they certainly aren’t an absolute truth.