‘Debate’- Case Against Scientific Validity of Mental Screens– NAS- Sci-Tech Policy Fellows Seminar

The stakes are high. “Freedom can be maintained only if citizens understand the intellectual basis of scientific expertise sufficiently well to differentiate between persuasion and manipulation” [1]

Indeed, for 40 years, the citizenry was manipulated by leading “authorities” in psychiatry and the drug industry into believing that there was scientific evidence to support the claim that patients diagnosed with a mental disorder (such as, depression) had a “chemical imbalance in their brain.”

That claim rests on hype and marketing, not scientific evidence. As Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo demonstrate in their recent uncontested article in PLoS Medicine that , despite all efforts  to validate the “serotonin deficiency theory”—no scientific evidence has ever been presented to back up any claim of biochemical imbalances in the brains of patients.

However, the theory gave pharmaceutical companies a powerful marketing angle which “authoritative” academic psychiatrists reinforced in ideological monologues. Still, not a single psychiatrist who has authored numerous journal articles about  the “serotonin deficiency” theory as the biological cause for depression, has come forward to defend the chemical deficiency theory. This speculative hypothesis was born in 1965, dominating the profession for the past 40 years without a shred of evidence to support it.

Similarly, for over a decade parents and physicians were manipulated by leading “authorities” into believing that antidepressants were proven “safe and effective” for use by children. An examination of the evidence resulted in FDA-mandated Black Box warnings followed by an FDA advisory indicate, antidepressants increase the risk of suicide:
“suicidal thinking or behavior to drug can be expected in about 1 out of 50 treated pediatric patients.”

It is important to remember that even “esteemed authorities have been wrong many times in the history of science…. Even the most prestigious scientists have occasionally refused to accept new theories despite there being enough accumulated evidence to convince others. In the long run, however, theories are judged by their results.” [2]


“there is a need for a vigorous and informed democratic debate on the production and use of scientific knowledge. The scientific community and decision-makers should seek the strengthening of public trust and support for science through such a debate. Greater interdisciplinary efforts, involving both natural and social sciences, are a prerequisite for dealing with ethical, social, cultural, environmental, gender, economic and health issues.” [3]

Yet, psychiatry’s leaders continue to behave like the ruling class in a dictatorship rather than scientists–they won’t debate. What is it  that so frightens psychiatry’s academic theoreticians about a public debate about the science behind its conceptual theories and practice methods ?

It is within this context that Dr. David Shaffer bowed out of the debate about the scientific evidence behind mental screening. The debate was organized by the National Academies of Science Policy Fellows (Feb 22).

“In matters of public interest, scientists, like other people, can be expected to be biased where their own personal, corporate, institutional, or community interests are at stake.” [2]

After receiving a copy of the AHRP Infomail reporting that Dr. David Shaffer withdrew from the “debate”,  I received a request from Dr. Shaffer asking for space in our newsletter.
Below is his request, followed by my response.
But once again, Dr. Shaffer seems to have had a change of mind. He has, so far, not followed through with any comments–

“Screening for Mental Illness in Youth: Good Preventive Medicine?” Vera Hassner Sharav
February 22, 2006 Power Point Presentation arguing that mental screening lacks scientific validity is posted at: http://www.ahrp.org/children/teenscreen/debateNAS0206.ppt
1. See: Science & Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health cite: Dubos, R. (1970). Reason awake: Science for man. New York: Columbia University Press, , p. 225.
2. Science for All Americans. Chapter 1 The Nature of Science

Vera Hassner Sharav


From: David Shaffer [mailto:shafferd@childpsych.columbia.edu]
Sent: Saturday, February 25, 2006 6:52 PM
To: Vera Sharav
Subject: Re: Screening Debate at National Academy of Science–TeenScreen architect Pulled Out
Importance: High

Dear Vera,

Will you allow me space in your newsletter to address the BMJ criteria?

David Shaffer

David Shaffer FRCP(Lond), FRCPsych(Lond)
Irving Philips Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics
Columbia University, 1051 Riverside Drive. NYC, NY 10032. USA
Tel: 212 543 5949    Fax 212 543 5966

From: Vera Sharav [mailto:veracare@rcn.com]
Sent: Sunday, February 26, 2006 2:42 PM
To: ‘David Shaffer’
Subject: RE: Screening Debate at National Academy of Science–TeenScreen architect Pulled Out

Dear David

If you would like to submit comments germane  to the topic of the debate, citing evidence for or against mental screening–we will consider circulating them.

Vera Sharav