In an important and thorough post last week at The Atlantic, Ford Vox, a physician-journalist in Boston, wrote about Scientology's campaign against psychiatry, a useful reminder that Scientology continues to pursue its agenda, even if we're not always aware of it.
His post focuses on a series of four articles written by Andrea Ball in May and June at the Austin American-Statesman. They deal with a controversy over psychiatric research that appears to have been done improperly. The first article begins with a serious indictment:
The Department of State Health Services has prohibited the use of a controversial treatment at its public psychiatric hospitals after officials say they learned that a doctor performed unauthorized research on aggressive patients with serious mental disabilities.
Read a little further, and you'll learn that the controversy was not over the treatment--the psychiatrist using it "was praised in a 2006 performance evaluation for implementing the treatment and training staffers on how to use the device," Ball writes. The controversy was over the use of research data--a charge that the psychiatrist, Dr. Allen Childs, at North Texas State Hospital conducted studies without approval from an Institutional Review Board, a standard procedure in clinical research.
The lede should have said that the controversy concerned research protocols, still a serious charge, but less inflammatory than a claim that patients are receiving "controversial treatment."
Officials said the concern arose after questions were raised by "the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a mental health watchdog group." Here Ball makes a major misstep. The Citizens Commission on Human Rights was, according to its website, "co-founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology." That fact should have absolutely been mentioned. She goes on to write in the first story that the group is calling for a legislative inquiry, and she quotes its policy director, who says, "the policy implications of this are staggering."
They are not staggering. A researcher did not follow proper procedures, and he should be reprimanded. I can't think of any policy implications. The policies to address this sort of thing are already in place. She quotes the commission's policy director again in the second story, and the commission is mentioned again in the third story. At no point is it identified as an organization founded by Scientology.
Vox writes that the commission "incessantly employs classic propaganda techniques like trumpeting each instant of an errant psychiatrist as emblematic of the entire field." And he says Ball and the Statesman-American played nicely into its hands.
I do not believe that the Statesman or Texas officials knew they were also serving as functionaries in a Scientology campaign. If so I think that Scientology's role would have made its way into at least one of the four Statesman articles...
Vox says more about Scientology and its anti-psychiatry campaign, and you should consult him for more detail there. Part of what troubles me about Ball's stories is that this is a mistake I fear I could have made myself. We're often too quick to describe advocates in shorthand that doesn't tell us much about who they are. The Citizens Commission is indeed a "mental health watchdog group," and Ball might simply have missed the connection to Scientology.
What troubles me further, however, is the reply she sent me when I emailed to ask whether I'd missed anything in her stories: "The story speaks for itself, and all the reporting was our own – not that of CCHR, which made the complaint to the state. We plan to include mention of Scientology’s role with CCHR in future stories."
No correction? If the connection merits mention in future stories, why not in these? Do Ball and her editors not feel that they've been had by an activist group with a hidden agenda? They should.
As I say, I fear that missing the Scientology link is something I might have done in similar circumstances. But if that happened, I would be eager to correct it, for the sake of the record, and for the sake of my own reputation. "The story speaks for itself" is a woefully inadequate response.
- Paul Raeburn