CHILDMYTHS: Nonsense, Pseudoscience, and Parental Alienation

Nonsense, Pseudoscience, and Parental Alienation

My other blog, which I’m afraid I’ve neglected for
years, is called The Study of Nonsense. This phrase is a quotation from some
brilliant person who has not been clearly identified. He said, memorably:
“Nonsense is always nonsense, but the study of nonsense is scholarship”. I
strongly agree with this comment and think it’s not well known how much
scholarship is really needed to identify nonsense and show it to be what it is.
If you don’t know what makes sense in a field, it’s hard to say what nonsense
is. Nonsense can look perfectly plausible if you don’t know established
relevant information and if you don’t examine arguments for plausibility.
Telling sense from nonsense is especially difficult
when a topic involves many complex and interacting factors, which is the case
for “parental alienation” (PA). The concept of PA is that when a child of
divorced parents avoids contact with one parent, chances are strong that this
occurs because the other, preferred, parent has manipulated or persuaded the
child into taking that negative position. It would be foolish to argue that
this never happens considering what very strange and undesirable things people
actually do—but it would also be foolish to claim that a parent’s alienating
behavior was the only cause for avoidance, even if such behavior were present.
PA advocates do make that claim, however, even though one (Richard Warshak)
acknowledges that there can be “false positives” in which a child is thought
to  have been “alienated” when this is
not the case.
The nonsense associated with PA can be
hard to understand or explain because of these complicating factors. It may
thus be more appropriate to talk about PA not in terms of ordinary nonsense,
but in terms of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is the name given to
assertions that claim support from systematic scientific investigation, but do
not in fact have such support. The issue here is “truth in advertising”, or,
not to put too fine a point on it, the possibility of fraud. Pseudoscience is
thus nonsense, but presents even more dangers to the public than forms of
nonsense that do not make such claims.
There are a number of traits
that allow us to recognize pseudoscience, and PA proponents have included most
of them in their arguments.
Exaggerated claims of effectiveness
are made without support by adequate research
Findings are misrepresented
The way a treatment is said to work
is not congruent with well-established existing knowledge
Treatments have not been shown to
work by a discipline’s usual standards of evidence, but are claimed to be
effective anyway
Treatments have not only not been
tested adequately, but are also based on implausible conceptual frameworks
Treatments are potentially harmful,
either directly or in terms of side
Technical terminology is used to
obfuscate rather than to clarify the discussion
I can provide examples for each of these
as it applies to PA publications, but instead of doing that in this space I
want to comment on an aspect of pseudoscience that is not often mentioned but that
is quite relevant to the PA discussion. This is the addition of irrelevant
to material purporting to discuss PA issues. Tversky and
Kahneman in 1981 demonstrated clearly that thinking is confused when people are
presented with irrelevant as well as relevant information. For example, study
participants who could effectively decide the probability that a person in a
group was male or female after being told the proportions of each sex in the
group, were nevertheless unable to solve the problem when additional information
(like professions or hair color) was added– 
even though the relevant information stayed exactly the same.
In a recent article supporting PA
concepts,. Harman, Lorandos, Biringen, and Grubb (2019) gave an extensive list
of mental and physical problems resulting from adverse childhood experiences
(ACEs) without presenting any evidence that “alienation” by a parent was in any
way equivalent to any of the ACEs. They thus coupled claims about PA with
irrelevant (and frightening) material. Childress (2015) included in his
self-published book many references to family systems therapy as discussed by
authors like Haley and Minuchin, even though the treatment he recommended is
not a form of family therapy and is stated to be successful even when many of
the so-called “alienating” parents do not have any contact with their children until
the children reach the age of 18. Childress also included in his discussion
references to Tronick’s work on broken and repaired communication sequences but
did not mention that the research involved infants and their mothers rather
than the teenagers who are usually the focus of PA claims. The California
psychologist Randy Rand, reported to be the originator of the PA treatment
program Family Bridges ™ , claimed that he was asked to create this program by
the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, with the purpose of
reuniting internationally-abducted children  with their American parents—a point of
historical interest, but irrelevant to evidence supporting identification or
treatment of PA.
The use of irrelevant information to
confuse the audience is thus characteristic of PA publications and may be
considered an aspect of pseudoscience.
When pseudoscientific thinking is part of
the presentation of proprietary treatments for sale, the question of fraud
arises. Whether a charge of fraud could be made to stick, of course, would
depend upon whether a PA advocate actually believed in his or her assertions,
and whether a victim could show that he or she had been harmed by PA practices.



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