“Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind”

When the law and the mind come together…

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith appeared on the Today programme this morning, promoting his call for a new law to be introduced to punish people who drive their partners to suicide. He says the current 1861 Offence Against the Person Act is inadequate because it requires a retrospective diagnosis of psychiatric illness in the person who killed themselves.

Enter criminal barrister John Cooper who believes the current Act works perfectly well. He says the law already states that psychiatric harm is assault. He explains:

“It’s very difficult to prove psychological harm. Psychological harm is not a disease of the mind. A psychiatric condition is a disease of the mind. But the law has to have clarity in this respect. We can section people under a mental health order. We can say a person is unfit to plead if they are psychiatrically troubled. That’s because we can prove it by a disease of the mind. It all gets very woolly when we bring in psychology”.

Well that’s cleared that up then.

Link to audio file of the discussion.

Amazing brain writing prize

Do you fancy winning ¬£250 for writing a short article about brain science? If so, this could be for you – the website ‘Your Amazing Brain’, hosted by the science exhibition centre @Bristol, together with the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, and The British Neuroscience Association, are looking for a newspaper style science article of around 650 words on the subject of brain science. There are two categories – the first anyone can enter (except professional writers), whereas the second is for researchers writing about their own area of research. Both have a winning prize of ¬£250 and your article will be published all over the place. But get cracking, the deadline is the end of this month.

Link to full details.

Dawkins’ new book on religion

god delusion.jpg‘The God Delusion’, Richard Dawkins’ forthcoming book on religion, is “incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory” according to Andrew Brown (author of the Darwin Wars), writing in Prospect magazine.

To a psychologist (or anyone taking a scientific approach to religion), what’s particularly of interest, is not so much whether or not God exists, but why so many people are believers, even today, when evolutionary theory means there’s no longer any need to invoke a designer to explain life’s complexity. But according to Brown’s scathing review, Dawkins utterly fails to offer any fresh insight into this question. “Thinking a bit was once what Dawkins was famous for. It’s a shame to see him reduced to one long argument from professorial incredulity”.

Dawkins is developing a somewhat legendary reputation for being anti-religion, a trend he has encouraged – he titled a collection of his essays published a few years ago ‘The Devil’s Chaplain’. Perhaps his most notable and controversial exposition on the subject was an article he wrote for the Guardian newspaper, just days after 9/11, in which he lamented the devaluing effect of religion on human life, and characterised the terrorists responsible as “testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world” but “desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next”.

UPDATE: Andrew Brown debates his review and Dawkins’ book with science writer Dan Jones and others, at Jones’ blog – the proper study of mankind.

Link to review in Prospect magazine.
Link to The God Delusion, on Amazon.
Link to Guardian article.

An ‘autism mum’


“You’re an autism mum. I see them all the time. I saw you that first day we met, how you agonised over your boy, mute in his pushchair while all the other pre-schoolers made their clever observations about the world; I see how you worry now over his odd way of walking, the animal noises he will sometimes make instead of words. And I see how no amount of pain in the experience of caring for your son will put to death the fire of love you have for him.”

Teacher Andy O’Connor speaking to the mother of an autistic boy in the novel Daniel Isn’t Talking, by Marti Leimbach. This book and four other fiction and non-fiction books on autism were intelligently reviewed by Adam Feinstein in the Guardian a few weeks ago.

Link to Daniel isn’t talking.
Link to Guardian review of five books on autism.

Dodgy science at the BA festival?

Continuing on from Vaughan’s discussion of Psi research at the BA Festival – I wonder if the likes of Prof. Lord Robert Winston ought to have been more concerned about some of the content in one of the mainstream BA Psychology Section seminars.

Prof. Geoffrey Beattie of Big Brother fame was this year’s Psychology Section President so it was perhaps no surprise that he organised a seminar on body language and invited along his fellow Big Brother psychologist Dr. Peter Collett.

However, Collett’s talk was really just a collection of highlights from his channel 4 show, in which he identifies ‘tells’ that give away what a politician is really thinking. For example he said that compared with his cabinet colleagues, Gordon Brown exhibited about 5 times as many discomfort gestures (e.g. looking down, chewing his lip) when Tony Blair was giving a conference speech. This prompted a journalist next to me to ask – “wouldn’t it have been more logical to have compared how many discomfort gestures Brown made during Blair’s speech with how many he made during a speech by someone else?”.

“Yes, you’re right” Collett admitted, “but you’re talking about an actual experiment, this is just something I put together for a TV programme”.

Hmm. Well at least he was honest about that – but wasn’t this supposed to be the BA Science Festival?

Another audience member suggested that Brown might have been displaying these discomfort gestures because of other events in his life – the conference may have been near in time to when he lost his new-born baby, for example.

“Yes, the interpretation of these gestures is up for grabs” Collett answered. “It’s all about taking into account the context…but with individuals this IS NOT A SCIENCE“.

At least a lot of parapsychology research uses sound scientific methodology whereas this was, as Collett pretty much admitted, just a load of speculation put together for a TV programme.