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The Price of Exposing Pseudoscience and Questionable Therapies

October 10, 2010

I have just learned that my colleagues and I are not alone in being the target of a vicious smear campaign for exposing pseudoscience and questionable, potentially harmful treatments. Well, actually I have been aware of this for quite some time but just learned some interesting details. Do a Google search on “Monica Pignotti” and then do a Google search on “David Gorski” and you’ll see what I mean.

While, of course there are differences — we come from different professions and are obviously different genders and so some of the attacks on me have a sexist tone — the parallels and similarities are undeniable.

David Gorski provides a summary of the smear campaign against him here and  here. As we have, Dr. Gorski has been the target of ad hominem attacks as well as poisoning the well, tactics that I am all too familiar with as they have also been used on me. Again, just do a Google search to turn up examples. As has happened with me, his attackers have tried to flip things and call him a quack and kook. His attackers have also accused him of being in league with “big pharma” insinuating that he has financial motives for his exposure of pseudoscience. My colleagues and I have also been accused of having financial motives and conflicts of interest when that is far from being the case and Advocates for Children in Therapy has been falsely portrayed of being “for profit” when in fact it is not-for-profit.

Another similarity is that some of Dr. Gorski’s attackers have tried to insinuate that there is something pathological about his blogging, as if it were some kind of addiction. Similar insinuations have been made about me. What refutes this is that this has not interfered with our other work. I have continued to be a productive scholar and my CV shows that I continue to publish, which I would not have had time to do, had all my time been consumed posting to the internet. Again, what this comes down to is another form of ad hominem. One blogger even attempted to excoriate me for making an average of 4 postings per day during a particular month to a discussion group. Imagine that — four whole postings per day which would take less around 15 minutes, an addiction? I don’t think so.

On an even more serious note, people Dr. Gorski criticized attempted, unsuccessfully to get him fired from his job at Wayne State University and the Barbara Ann Kramanos Cancer Center. You can read all about it in the links I provided above. The attempt was an abysmal failure, as both of these institutions supported Dr. Gorski’s right to freedom of speech.

Similarly, in July of 2009, Ronald Federici made an attempt to complain to my Dean at Florida State University College of Social work where I was a PhD student. He also attempted, unsuccessfully back in 2004 to complain to Jean Mercer’s Dean at Richard Stockton College (Dr. Mercer is now retired Professor Emerita). In my case, he sent four e-mails and he also his colleagues wrote letters to my Dean. Among a number of other ludicrous accusations, he stated that I spent 20+ years in a cult (not true) and that he was afraid I was not of sound mind, although by his own admission he had never even met, much less assessed my mental state. These attempts to smear me failed and my Dean told me that he was not going to take any action against me, as he considered these letters of complaint completely irrelevant to my work at FSU. When some of my colleagues, such as Scott Lilienfeld, learned of these letters, they sent letters of support to my Dean. The result was I graduated from FSU and I left in good standing, with solid references who are willing to vouch for the high quality of my work as a student, teacher, researcher and scholar. The only reason I did not continue working at FSU was because FSU Social Work has a policy against hiring their own PhD graduates in tenure track positions as many universities do.

What followed the failure to get me fired were libelous, anonymous postings on the internet that claimed I was fired from FSU for wanting to watch two married faculty members have sex and all kinds of other absurd lies. Someone even falsely impersonated a student and claimed I did things in my classes that bore no resemblance to anything I have ever done in a class. Additionally, in the fall of 2009, anonymous letters were sent to a number of faculty and students at FSU. Based on the feedback I got from the individuals who received these letters, I got nothing but sympathy and no one I was in touch with found these letters the least bit credible, given the bizarre style in which they were written and also the fact that the anonymous author lacked the courage to put his or her name to what was being alleged about me.  Note that although I do know who authored the letter to my Dean, I cannot prove who is behind the anonymous postings or other e-mails to the faculty, so people can read all this and draw their own conclusions.

Dr. Gorski’s story has a happy ending although in some ways, his saga is ongoing. He continues in his tenure track faculty position and hospital position, but as someone who had yet to receive tenure, he was vulnerable. As a new PhD graduate, I am even more vulnerable and of course my attackers know this and take advantage of it. Another person who received a great deal of hate mail and harassment was Richard J. McNally, psychology professor at Harvard University. Fortunately, he already had tenure at the time and his institution and their lawyers solidly supported him and continue to do so. His student, Susan Clancy, now graduated with her PhD in Psychology and also on the faculty at a Harvard affiliated institution in Nicaragua, had it worse though. She ended up moving to Nicaragua, to get away from all the harassment she has had to endure. Elizabeth Loftus is another individual who has had to endure a highly malicious smear campaign because of her research findings on false memory. She has been even been the target of what in my opinion was a baseless lawsuit. Read Richard J. McNally’s Amicus brief on this case.

Some people just don’t seem to want to get the difference between defamation and legitimate criticism and exposure of pseudoscientific practices. Defamation means making maliciously intended false statements that harm a person’ s reputation. The kinds of anonymous attacks I have been subjected to, such as stating I was fired from FSU when I was not, stating I was criminally charged and arrested when I was not, that I am reported to the FBI’s terrorist hotline (I’m sure they get “reports” from cranks on a daily basis and know how to identify and distinguish them from legitimate reports) as a terrorist or have terrorist connections which I am not and do not, and a number of other lies clearly qualify. This is very different from what Dr. Gorski, Dr. McNally, Dr. Clancy and I have been doing, as none of these parties have lied about anyone or launched personal attacks on anyone. And no, criticizing a person’s writings and treatment recommendations, while they may be inappropriately taken personally, is not personal.

Whether what has happened to us will have chilling effects on others’ willingness to speak out and expose pseudoscience and potentially harmful practices has yet to be seen and will be determined by what each and every one of us does in the present to take a stand and refuse to be intimidated.

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