Talking Headlines: with Professor Jim Coyne

James C Coyne:

My interview with Silvia Paracchini

Originally posted on :

James Coyne is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Director of Behavioral Oncology at the Abramson Cancer Centre and Senior Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. His main area of interest is health psychology and depression. Professor Coyne’s work in psychology and psychiatry is consistently cited for its impact. Jim is also an active blogger, confronting editorial practices and media science reports that favour sensationalism at the expense of scientific content. Jim is currently visiting Scotland as a 2015 Carnegie Centenary Visiting Professor at the University of Stirling.

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Guest blog post: Fact checking dubious therapy workshop adverts and presenters

This guest post is an excellent follow-up to my debunking of the neurononsense [1,2] used to promote psychotherapy trainings as being better and more closely tied to brain science than competitors. My good friend and neuroscientist Deborah Apthorp* wrote it, prompted by an email advertisement she received by way of her University staff email list. She takes a skeptical look of advertisements for workshops with wild claims from presenters whose credentials prove dubious when checked against information available on the internet. She presents evidence for skepticism about workshop offerings and demonstrates a set of fact checking strategies useful to anyone who might be looking for continuing education credit or simply enhancing their ability to serve their clients/patients.

It is disconcerting that these workshops are marketed in university settings and seem to offer continuing education credit. I have trouble believing that academics will be attracted by the outrageous claims, and at least some of the credentials claimed by presenters should trigger academics’ skepticism.

But some of the target clinician audience are masters level or holders of practitioner-oriented PsyDs and PhDs. Their training did not include the critical skills needed to evaluate claims about research. And an unknown, but large part of the audience are not formally trained, licensed, or regulated therapists. They get by in a shadowy area of practice as coaches or counselors or go by other terms that sound like they are licensed, but they aren’t. These practitioners don’t have to answer to regulatory bodies that set minimal levels of training and expertise or even ethical constraints on what they can do. Instead, they acquire dubious certifications from official sounding boards set up and controlled by those profiting from the workshops. The certification does not really mean much outside the world of the workshops, but is intended to convey status and confidence to unsuspecting people seeking services. And those who attend these workshops can find themselves in a ponzi scheme where they have to attend more workshops to maintain their level of credentialing, and not be able to get credit by other means.

Here’s Deborah…

DebSo this lobbed into my inbox today, via the official channel of our staff email list:

Mindfulness, Neuroscience and Attachment Theory: A Powerful Approach for Changing the Brain, Transforming Negative Emotions and Improving Client Outcomes

The course costs $335.00 and is available in all of Australia’s major capital cities. It’s being held at mostly conference-centre type venues, so presumably they’re expecting pretty big numbers. There are some pretty big promises here, and as a neuroscientist my alarm bells immediately started ringing.

“….advances in neuroscience and attachment theory have led to revolutionary work in the application of mindfulness in the treatment of anxiety, depression emotional dysregulation, anger and stress.”

“…In this seminar, we will explore an integrated approach — incorporating advances in neuroscience, new insights about attachment theory and The Five Core Skills of Mindfulness — that accelerates healthy change and improves client outcomes.”

“…Take home cutting-edge information on the interface between neuroscience, mindfulness and therapy. “

Is this workshop endorsed by the APS? Apparently not, though the organisers are somewhat evasive about it: …”APS: Activities do not need to be endorsed by APS. Members can accrue 7 CPD hours by participating in this activity”

So who is this Terry Fralich (LCPC)? (And what does that stand for? Licensed Clinical Professional Counsellor, apparently, although it’s not clear which body did the licensing.) According to the official website, “Terry Fralich is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Southern Maine Graduate School and a Co-Founder of the Mindfulness Centre of Southern Maine.” However, although it seems that there is a Ms. Julie Fralich listed on the official University of Southern Maine faculty list , there is no Terry Fralich listed. The only mention at all on the website is his wife Rebecca Wing (a co-presenter at the workshops and co-founder of the Mindfulness Center – see below), who is an alumnus of their School of Music (class of ’84).

He does show up on a lot of sites about mindfulness, the top hit being his “Mindfulness Retreat Center of Maine”, which showcases its lovely views and comfortable accommodation (prices are available on application). They also sell “Books and CDs”, although the only actual book listed is Mr. Fralich’s book “Cultivating Lasting Happiness – a 7-step guide to mindfulness”. According to Amazon, this seems to have been the only book he has written (reviews are generally positive, though one reader found it did not cover any new ground). It seems to be a pretty standard practical guide to mindfulness meditation – nothing wrong with that in itself, I guess.

So where are this guy’s credentials in neuroscience and attachment theory? A search on Google Scholar turned up only the aforementioned book, but no academic papers. His only relevant qualification seems to be a Masters Degree in Clinical Counselling (although I could not find out where this qualification was obtained – if anyone knows, mention it in the comments). Apparently he has studied with the Dalai Lama for more than 25 years; according to his website, “Prior to becoming a mindfulness therapist, academic and counsellor, Terry was an attorney who practiced law in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Maine.” I guess this experience should make him careful about making claims which can’t be verified.

Here’s a YouTube teaser for one of his lectures.

I also found a link to a PDF for the program.

It incorporates sciencey-sounding things like “The triune brain” (huh?), “Fight-or-flight-or-freeze and stress responses”, and of course today’s essential buzzword, “neuroplasticity”. A particularly scary phrase is “Reconsolidation of negative memories: transforming unhealthy patterns
and messages.” How are they going to teach therapists to do this – these people who have no training at all in neuroscience, attachment theory, memory or indeed, it seems, even CBT?

tatraDelving a little deeper, I had a look at the list of trainers on Tatra Training’s website. It seems that a number of them are associated with an organization called the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy National Certification and Accreditation Association (DBTNCAA), allegedly “the first active organisation to certify DBT providers and accredit DBT programs.” – notably, the appropriately-named Dr. Cathy Moonshine (alcohol and chemical dependency treatment counselor), and Lane Pederson (PsyD, President/CEO). However, this organization is not in any way endorsed by the founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy herself, Marsha Linehan. In fact, there is a disclaimer on Cathy Moonshine’s site to this effect:

“All trainings, clinical support, and products sold by Dr. Moonshine are of her own creation without collaboration with Dr. Linehan, or Dr. Linehan’s affiliated company, Behavioral Tech, LLC. Dr. Moonshine’s products are not sanctioned by, sponsored, licensed, or affiliated with Dr. Linehan and/or Behavioral Tech, LLC.”

Thus, it seems Linehan herself has a competing company, but she does at least have an impressive CV with many research articles to back her up. I attempted to contact her for comment on the DBTNCAA and Tatra Training, but she has not yet repled.

Let’s have a look at some of the other “trainers” and their biographies. Dr. Daniel Short is listed as a Faculty Member at Argosy University, a for-profit college in Minnesota that has changed its name and is at now being sued by former students for fraud.

Dr Gregory Lester’s biography claims that he has published papers in “The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Western Journal of Medicine, The Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, The Journal of Behaviour Therapy, Emergency Medicine News, The Yearbook of Family Practice, The Transactional Analysis Journal, and The Sceptical Inquirer”. But a PubMed search reveals none of these publications. An online list from his own website reveals very few relevant publications, and does not even include all of the outlets listed above; instead, there are things like “Dealing with the Difficult Diner”, in Restaurant Hospitality, and “Dealing with personality disorders” in The Priest Magazine. In addition, there are several books, which you can presumably buy at his workshops.

Interestingly, his bio also states that “… he has specialised in Personality Disorders for over 25 years, and has been a participant in multiple studies that form the basis for the DSM V revision of the section on Personality Disorders.” He has participated in these studies? Was he a control, or does he have a personality disorder himself? Because he certainly wasn’t an author on any of these studies.

Dr Brett Deacon seems to check out OK. Surprising to find him associated with this bunch.

Dr Daniel Fox is said to be the author of “numerous articles on personality, ethics, and neurofeedback”, but only one on neurofeedback (in the Journal of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback) turned up in PubMed. This seems to be a review rather than an original research piece. An author search on “Fox, DJ [AU] and Ethics” returned no hits, and neither did “personality”, He also seems to have a book, which comes with optional seminar bundles!

Jerold J Kreisman is another of the Tatra stars and seems to feature as the Borderline Personality expert. The site claims breathlessly that he ‘…has appeared on many media programs, including The Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jesse Raphael Shows. He has been listed in “Top Doctors,” “Best Doctors in America,” “Patients’ Choice Doctors,” and “Who’s Who.”’. It also, more seriously, claims he has published “over twenty articles and book chapters”; however, PubMed only turns up four publications, one if which is from 1975 so is probably not by the same JJ Kreisman. Of the three remaining publications, only one 1996 paper (on which he is third author) is related to BPD, and this seems subject to an erratum (though the erratum itself seems impossible to find; the article seems to have been subject to a Letter to the Editor, which also is hard to find.). The only relevant publications seem to be, again, pop-psych-style books with titles like I Hate You–Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality.

What about Ronald Potter-Efron, the facilitator of Healing the Angry Brain: Changing the Brain & Behaviours of Angry, Aggressive, Raging & Domestically Violent Clients? Again, he is a prolific author of self-help books. Google Scholar and Scopus do turn up about five academic publications, all from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, he seems to have turned to the more lucrative self-help industry.

So all in all, it seems the Tatra Training people work via a fairly aggressive marketing campaign to clinical psychology academic departments and, presumably, clinicians themselves, as well as other “Corporate and Allied Health” practitioners. Their main address is in Adelaide, South Australia; Google Street View shows an anonymous-looking office block. Tatra was founded by Hanna Nowicki (LLB, BA Psych., Postgrad. Soc. Admin, Cert IV Training & Workplace Assessment), who seems to have no qualification in psychology other than her B.A. Psych, although this hasn’t stopped her developing and presenting “…multiple workshops on personality disorders, self injury, suicide risk assessment, depression, engagement techniques and introduction to mental health.”

Disturbingly, the list of clients includes many government organisations such as Centrelink, Correctional Services, Housing SA, Worklink Queensland, and more nebulously-named organisations such as “Residential Care Services”, “Brain Injury and Disability Services”, “Public Mental Health Services”, “Hospital Social Work Departments”, and so on.

How much money are these people making per workshop? Well, if the Sydney venue is anything to go by, the Wesley Conference Centre in Sydney seats 875 people, so if that sells out at $335 a head that’s $293,125. (The Wesley Centre does have smaller venues, so perhaps the organisers aren’t expecting such a large crowd. Their general preference for booking conference centres and Leagues Clubs, though, suggests that they are.) If the workshop is held in all five major cities (assume most are smaller than Sydney, so let’s be conservative and assume gross takings of $200,000 per workshop), then that’s a tidy sum ($1m per workshop, so $2m per year if only 2 workshops are held, as in 2014 and 2015). Of course one must subtract venue hire, advertising costs, speaker fees, catering, etc. etc., but all the same this seems quite a promising business model, particularly when combined with the in-house training offered.

I am concerned that these people are pushing a product that is not what is advertised, and claiming to be experts when they are not, sometimes supported by what seem to border on fraudulent claims. I am concerned that naïve young mental health professionals, looking for accreditation hours, are being fed misleading information that is not based on scientific evidence. If anyone has direct experience of these workshops, I would be very interested to know about it.

*Deborah Apthorp is a neuroscience researcher working at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She holds an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship, and is interested in EEG, visual neuroscience, visual attention and the dynamics of postural control. In addition to this, she is a keen sailor, cyclist and windsurfer, and a passionate supporter of the Open Science movement.

Here’s her Google Scholar page and her own WordPress blog.

Talking back to the authors of the Northwestern “Blood test for depression” study

translational psychiatry[Update 9/25/2014]This post critiques the press coverage of a recent article in Translational Psychiatry concerning whether a blood test for depression would soon be available. A critique of the bad science of the article itself is now available at PLOS Mind the Brain.

Judging from the extraordinary number of articles in the media, as well as the flurry of activity on Twitter, a recent study coming out of Northwestern University is truly a breakthrough in providing a blood test for depression.

Unfortunately, the many articles in the media have a considerable, almost copy/paste redundancy. Just compare them to the Translational Psychiatry article’s press release. In many instances, there is more than churnalism going on, there is outright plagiarism. Media coverage offers very few demurs or dampening qualifications on what the authors claim. How do journalists put their names on such lack of work?

Similarly, the tweets appear to be retweets of just a couple of messages, although few are labeled as retweets.

I had my usual doubts as to whether the journalists or tweeters have actually read the article. Journalists could always have gone for second opinions to Google Scholar and looked up similarly themed articles and then maybe contacted the authors of similar articles for comments. Journalists could also have loaded the abstract of the Translational Psychiatry article into EtBlast and gotten dozens of recommendations for relevant experts based on text similarity. I see no evidence that this was done.etblast

There must be something intimidating about an article that claims to be testing not for genes, but for gene transcripts associated with depression. Shuts down the critical faculties. Lacking relevant expertise, journalists and tweeters may be inclined to simply defer to the claims of the authors and not further scrutinize the text or tables of the article with whatever relevant knowledge they do have. If this had been done, they might have found things that they could understand that would be very relevant to evaluating the credibility of this article.

Almost all of the hype that is been written about this Translational Psychiatry article originates with its authors, either in the article itself, the press release, or the well-crafted soundbites provided to the media. Yet, some of the latter are simply excerpted from the press release and made to look like the quotes arose in an interview. I promised a full thorough demolition of the article, and that will be forthcoming. However, here, I will analyze some of the statements attributed to two of the authors in the press. There is a fascinating logic, an ideology even to the statements that is of interest in itself. But you also can take this blog post as a teaser for a soon to arrive blog post at PLOS Mind the Brain in the next week or two.

Keep in mind as we scrutinize what the authors say about their study, just how modest it is. The study started by comparing 32 primary care patients participating in a clinical trial to 32 control persons match for age, ethnicity/race, and gender. Five of the primary care patients were lost to follow-up and another five were lost from the 18 month blood draws. Of these last 22 remaining patients, nine were classified in remission of their depression, and 13 not in remission.

So basically we are talking about some exceedingly small samples and comparisons of subsamples. These shrink to a comparison of 9 patients in remission and 13 not in remission for any statements about prediction of treatment outcome. In any other context, how could anyone who knows anything about clinical research accept the results of such analyses?

Furthermore, if we want to talk about any differences observed at baseline versus what was seen at follow-up, it could well be attributed to simple selective loss to follow-up. This is just one of the many alternative explanations of results reported for these data that cannot be adequately tested because of the small sample sizes. The articles talks about utilizing multivariate statistical controls, but that is statistical malpractice in a sample this size that is highly likely to produce spurious findings.

The authors make a number of statements about predicting remission from cognitive behavior therapy, but from the beginning of the study and into follow-up, all of the patients were getting cognitive behavior therapy and considerable proportion getting antidepressants as well. That is no small complication. It is generally assumed that predictors of response to antidepressants should be different than predictors of response to psychotherapy, but there is really no opportunity to examine this within this confounded small sample.

The two authors quoted by name in media coverage are

Eva RedlEva Redei, PhD, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Physiology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

David.mohrDavid C. Mohr, PhD, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

From an article in Medscape, Blood Test Flags Depression, Predicts Treatment Response:

We were pleased with these findings, including finding biomarkers that continued to be present after people were effectively treated,” co–lead author David C. Mohr, PhD, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Mohr noted that essentially, these are markers of traits ― and may show that certain people have a predisposition to the disorder and can be followed more carefully.

Maybe, maybe not, Dr. Mohr. Aside from your modest sample size and voodoo statistics, it is unclear how clinically useful a trait marker would be. After all, we already have a trait marker in neuroticism, and while it is statistically predictive, it does not do all that well in terms of clinical applications. And the alternative of course is simply to have a discussion with patients as the particular symptoms they have and whether alternative explanations can be ruled out.

Recall, Dr. Mohr, this “trait marker” as you assumed it to be, is occurring in the mildly to moderately depressed sample. Clinical depression is a recurring episodic condition, and this “trait” is not going to be expressing itself in a full-blown episode much of the time.

“Abundance of the DGKA, KIAA1539, and RAPH1 transcripts remained significantly different between subjects with MDD and…controls even after post-CBT remission,” report the investigators.

Well, maybe, but it seems a stretch to make such claims from such limited evidence. The 3 transcripts remaining significant after remission are based on the 9 patients who remitted. Three is different than the 9 of 20 transcripts that differed at baseline, but we don’t know if this is a matter of loss to follow up or remission. And even this reduced number of significant differences, 3, is still statistically improbable, given the small sample size, even assuming an effect is present. The authors have no business interpreting their data to the press in this fashion.

In addition, these transcripts “demonstrated high discriminative ability” between the 2 groups, regardless of their current clinical status, thus appearing to indicate a vulnerability to depression.

The authors have no business claiming to have demonstrated “high discriminative ability” with such a small sample. Notoriously, such findings do not replicate. There is always a drop in the performance statistics from such a small sample when replication is attempted in nine seconds sample. Comparison with an earlier paper, reveals that the authors have not even replicate the findings from their earlier study of early onset depression in the present one and that does not bode well.

“This clearly indicates that you can have a blood-based laboratory test for depression, providing a scientific diagnosis in the same way someone is diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol,” said Dr. Redei.

Maybe someday we will have a blood-based laboratory test for depression, but by themselves, these data do not increase the probability.

“Clinically, simplicity is important. The primary care setting is already completely overburdened. The more we can do to simplify the tasks of these caregivers, the more we’re going to be able to have them implement it,” said Dr. Mohr.

Of all the crass, premature and inaccurate statements I find in this article, this one tops the list. Basically, Dr. Mohr is making a pitch that the blood test he is promoting will free primary care clinicians from having to talk to their patients. All they need to do is give the blood test and prescribe antidepressants.

From A Blood Test for Depression Shows the Illness is not a Matter of Will

“Being aware of people who are more susceptible to recurring depression allows us to monitor them more closely,” said David Mohr, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study in a press release. “They can consider a maintenance dose of antidepressants or continued psychotherapy to diminish the severity of a future episode or prolong the intervals between episodes.”

This advice is not only premature, it is inappropriate for a mild to moderately depressed sample treated in primary care, where monitoring and follow-up are either nonexistent or grossly inadequate. Dr. Mohr’s suggestion if it were taken seriously, would lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment or prolonged treatment without follow-up and him and re-evaluation.

In general, these authors seem cavalier in ignoring the problems of overdiagnosis. Elsewhere, Dr. Redei is asked about it and gives a flippant response:

There’s a lot of concern about overdiagnosis for psychiatric illnesses already. How do you think your findings might affect that issue?

[Dr. Redl] People who worry about overdiagnosis — they are probably right, and they are probably wrong. Because there is potentially a problem with underdiagnosis, too. In the elderly, for example – we say, “Oh, you’re just old. You don’t have any energy, and you don’t want to do anything — you’re just old.”

From Blood Test Spots Adult Depression: Study

The blood test’s accuracy in diagnosing depression is similar to those of standard psychiatric diagnostic interviews, which are about 72 percent to 80 percent effective, she said.

It is irresponsible rubbish to claim that the study showed that these measures of gene expression were as accurate as current interview methods. The study involved comparing 20 different measures of gene expression to an interview by a bachelor level interviewer using a less than optimal interview schedule that did not allow for explain any questions or probe of the patient’s response. It certainly would not of been allowed in a study for which the data were to be submitted to the US FDA (FDA). And there was no gold standard beyond that.

Additionally, if the levels of five specific RNA markers line up together, that suggests that the patient will probably respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy, Redei said. “This is the first time that we can predict a response to psychotherapy,” she added.

Again, Dr. Redei, you are talking trash that is not justified by the results of your study. The sample is quite small and most of the patients who receive cognitive behavior therapy also received medication.

The delay between the start of symptoms and diagnosis can range from two months to 40 months, the study authors pointed out.

“The longer this delay is, the harder it is on the patient, their family and environment,” said lead researcher Eva Redei, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and physiology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“Additionally, if a patient is not able or willing to communicate with the doctor, the diagnosis is difficult to make,” she said. “If the blood test is positive, that would alert the doctor.”

Perhaps, Dr. Redei, you need to be reminded that you are studying mildly to moderately depressed primary care patients, not an inpatient or suicidal sample. What is the hurry to treat them? Current guidelines in much of the world have become conservative about initiating treatment too quickly. In both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, there is a recommendation for first trying watchful waiting, simple behavioral activation homework, or Internet-based therapy before starting something more intensive like antidepressant therapy or psychotherapy. Certainly if a patient has multiple recurrent episodes or a history of sudden suicidality, a different strategy would be recommended.

And in what clinical situations does Dr. Redei imagine having to initiate treatment when a patient is not able or willing to communicate with the doctor? Would treatment be ethical under those circumstances and how would it receive the necessary monitoring?

From: First ‘Blood Test for Depression’ Holds Promise of Objective Diagnosis

“Currently we know drug therapy is effective but not for everybody and psychotherapy is effective but not for everybody, ” Mohr said. “We know combined therapies are more effective than either alone but maybe by combining therapies we are using a scattershot approach. Having a blood test would allow us to better target treatment to individuals.

Again, Dr. Mohr, this is a widely shared hope by some, but your current study in no way advances us further to achieve this hope of a clinical tool.

In all of the many media stories available about the study, there was little dissent or skepticism. One important exception was

Newsweek’s First ‘Blood Test for Depression’ Holds Promise of Objective Diagnosis

Outside experts caution, however, that the results are preliminary, and not close to ready for use the doctor’s office. Meanwhile, diagnosing depression the “old-fashioned way” through an interview works quite well, and should only take 10 to 15 minutes, says Todd Essig, a clinical psychologist in New York. But many doctors are increasingly overburdened and often not reimbursed for taking the time to talk to their patients, he says.

Essig says it’s “a nice little study” but has no clinical usefulness at this point. That’s because it involved such a small sample of people and because the researchers excluded many patients that real clinicians would see on a daily basis, he says.

“It’s moving basic knowledge incrementally forward, but its way to soon to say it’s a ‘blood test for depression,’” Essig says.

“Depression is not hard to diagnose, even in a primary care setting,” he adds. “If physicians were allowed by health-care delivery systems to spend more time talking with their patients there would be less need for such a blood test.”

Amen, Dr. Essig, well put.

Northwestern Researchers Develop RT-qPCR Assay for Depression Biomarkers, Seek Industry Partners

One has to ask why would these mental health professionals disseminate such misleading, premature, and potentially harmful claims? In part, because it is just quite fashionable and newsworthy to claim progress in an objective blood test for depression. Indeed, Thomas Insel, the director of NIMH is now insisting that even grant applications for psychotherapy research include examining potential biomarkers. Even in the absence of much in the way of promising, clinically useful biomarker candidates, there are points to be scored in grant applications that cite pilot work moving in that direction, regardless of how unjustified the claims are. As John Ioannidis has pointed out, fashionable areas of research are often characterized by more hype and false discoveries than actual progress.

However, comments in one article clearly show that these authors are interested in the commercial potential of their wild claims.

Now, the group is looking to develop this test into a commercial product, and seeking investment and partners, Redei said.

“The goal is to partner to move this as far as possible into the clinic,” Redei said. “There are [other assays] coming behind it, so I would like to focus on [those] … but then this one can move on. For that, I absolutely need partners [and] money, that’s the bottom line,” she said.

Redei envisions developing this assay into a US Food and Drug Administration-approved diagnostic, rather than a laboratory-developed test. “If it’s FDA approved, then any laboratory can do it,” she said.

“I hope it is going to result in licensing, investing, or any other way that moves it forward,” she said. “If it only exists as a paper in my drawer, what good does it do?”



Most positive findings in psychology false or exaggerated? An activist’s perspective

Abstract of a  talk to be given at the Australian National University (ANU), room G08, Building  39, 3pm September  11, 2014.

UPDATE (October 24, 2014): Here is a link to the Powerpoint presentation and to a YouTube interview with ANU Research School of Psychology’s Professor Mike Smithson. A list of relevant links to James Coyne’s blogs has also been added at the end of this post.

confirmation biaIn 2005, John Ioannidis made the controversial assertion in a now famous PLoS Medicine paper that “Most Published Research Findings are False”. The paper demonstrated that many positive findings in biomedicine subsequently proved to be false, and that most discoveries are either not replicated or can be shown to be exaggerated. The relevance of these demonstrations was not appreciated until later in psychology.

Recent documented examples of outright fraud in the psychological literature have spurred skepticism. However, while outright fraud may be rare, confirmatory bias and flexible rules of design and analysis are rampant and even implicitly encouraged by journals seeking newsworthy articles. Efforts at reform have met with considerable resistance, as seen in the blowback against the replicability movement.

This talk will describe the work of one loosely affiliated group to advance reform by focusing attention not only on the quality of the existing literature, but on the social and political processes at the level of editing and reviewing. It will give specific examples of recent and ongoing efforts to dilute the absolute authority of editors and prepublication reviewers, and instead enforce transparency and greater reliance on post-publication peer review of claims and data.

Optional suggested readings (I suggest only one or two as background)

Is evidence-based medicine as bad as bad Pharma?

I am holding my revised manuscript hostage until the editor forwards my complaint to a rogue reviewer.

Reanalysis: No health benefits found for pursuing meaning in life versus pleasure.

A formal request for retraction of a cancer article

UPDATED Blog posts coordinated with the slide presentation relevant to Are most positive findings in psychology false or exaggerated? An activist’s perspective.

Exposing Meta Analyses with an agenda: American anti-abortionist gets flawed meta Analysis into British Journal of Psychiatry

Negative Mental Health Effects of Abortion: Does getting an abortion damage women’s mental health?  October 24, 2011

More on Review Claiming Abortion Hurts Women’s Mental Health: Author had conflict of interest, used scare tactics. November 15, 2011

Editor Should Have Caught Bias and Flaws in Review of Mental Health Effects of Abortion: Was publication of a flawed anti-abortion review deliberate? December 5, 2011

Is Having an Abortion Likely to Damage a Woman’s Mental Health?: Evaluating the Evidence from a Controversial Review. November 6, 2011

Going after bad science that misleads cancer patients

A formal request for retraction of a Cancer article May 12, 2014

Doubts a Classic Lancet Study Showed Psychotherapy Improves Survival of Cancer Patients. eptember 2, 2013

Frightening Breast Cancer Patients with Bad Science September 28, 2012

Pseudoscience of positive psychology and health

Reanalysis: No health benefits found for pursuing meaning in life versus pleasure. August 25, 2014

Improving your health by pursuing meaning in your life versus happiness. August 5, 2014

Challenging unfair editorial practices

Whomp! Using invited editorial commentary to neutralize negative findings. November 13, 2013.

I am holding my revised manuscript hostage until the editor forwards my complaint to a rogue reviewer.  October 30, 2012

Exposures of conflicts of interests (COIs) associated with promoters of treatments

Soothing psychotherapists’ brains with NeuroBalm. June 24, 2014.

Are meta-analyses done by promoters of psychological treatments as tainted as those done by Pharma? May 20, 2014

Moving From Criticism and Activism to Proposals for Constructive Change

A. Democratizing Post-Publication Peer Review

Join PubMed’s Revolution in Post Publication Peer Review.October 22, 2013

B. Salvaging psychotherapy research

Salvaging psychotherapy research: a manifesto. June 10, 2014

What We Need to Do to Redeem Psychotherapy Research. June 10, 2014.




I reply to John Grohl’s “PLOS blogger calls out PLOS One –Huh?”

Apparently John Grohl was taken aback by my criticism of neurononsense in a PLOS One article.  I am pleased at gaining recognition at his highly accessed blog, but I think he was at least a bit confused about what was going on. The following comment is left at his blog post for approval.

plos oneJohn, thank you for encouraging people to read my blog post. If I ever get around to monetizing my activity by collecting my blog posts in a book, I will remind you that you said I know bad research when I see it and that even that I am brilliant. I will ask for a dust jacket endorsement or maybe a favorable review at Amazon.

Like you, I find it amazing that I was allowed free reign as a blogger to mount such an attack on an article that PLOS had published. I had filed a complaint with the journal over the undisclosed conflict of interest of one of the authors. I informed the managing editors that I would be merciless in my blog post in exposing what could found with meticulous reads and rereads of an article, once I was alerted by a conflict of interest. The journal is processing my formal complaint. Management indicated no interest in previewing my blog post, but only asked that I indicate it was my personal opinion, not that of the journal. I am confident that if this process were unfolding at a for-profit journal, or worse, one associated with a professional organization such as American Psychological Association or Association for Psychological Science, there would have been an effort to muzzle me, but little prospects for a full formal review of my complaint that respected the authors’ rights as well as my own.

sleuth_cartoon UsePLOS One requests disclosure of potential conflicts of interest in exquisite detail and accompanies every article with a declaration. It has an explicit procedure for reviewing complaints of breaches of its policies. I expressed my opinion in both in my blog post and in my complaint that the authors violated the trust of the journal and the readers by failure to make the disclosure of extensive financial benefits associated with an uncritical acceptance of the claims made in the article. But PLOS One does not go on the opinion of one person. Even when the complainant is one of its 4000 Academic Editors, it reviews the evidence and solicits additional information from authors. I am confident in the fairness of the outcome of that review. If it does not favor of my assessment, I will apologize to the authors, but still assert that I had strong basis for my complaints.

Like many people associated with PLOS, I have a great skepticism about the validity of prepublication review in certifying the reliability of what is said in published papers. My blog posts are an incessant effort to cultivate a skepticism in others and provide them with the tools to decide for themselves about whether to accept what they read. PLOS is different than most journals in providing readers with immediate opportunities to comment on articles in a way that will be available to anyone accessing them. I encourage readers to make more use ofPubMed Commons to those opportunities, as well as PubMed Commons for post publication peer review.

I am pleased and flattered that you think I laid out the problems in the article so bare that they are now obvious and should have precluded publication of the article. But it took a lot of work and lots of rereads and expertise that I alone do not possess. I got extensive feedback from a number of persons, including neuroscientists and I am quite indebted in particular to Neurocritic. I highly recommend his earlier blog post about this article. He had proceeded to the point of sniffing out that something was amiss. But when he called out Magnetto, the BS detector to investigate, he was thwarted by the lack of some technical details, as well has his inability to get into the down and dirty of the claims were being made about clinical psychology science. As we went back and forth building upon the revelations of the other, weMagneto_430 were both shocked and treated to aha experiences – why didn’t I notice that?

Initially, we trusted the authors citing a previous paper in Psychological Science for the validity of their methods and their choice of Regions of Interest (ROIs) of the brain for study. It took a number of reads of that paper to discover that they were not accurately reporting what was in that paper or the lack of correspondence to what was done in the PLOS paper. I consider the Psychological Science paper just as flawed and at risk for nonsense interpretations, but I have no confidence in APS or that journal’s tolerance for being called out on shortcomings in their peer review. I speak from experience.

Taken together, I consider my blog post and the flaws in the PLOS article that I targeted as indications of the need for readers to be skeptical about depending on prepublication peer review in evaluating the reliability of articles. And let us see the outcome of the formal review as to whether there is the self correction, if it is necessary, that I think we can depend on PLOS to provide.

Finally, let’s all insist on disclosure of conflicts of interest in every paper, not just those coming from the pharmaceutical industry. My documentation of the problems with promoters of Triple P Parenting have led to bar fights with some journals and even formal complaints to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Keep watching my blog posts to see the outcome of those fights. Disclosures of conflicts of interest depend on the candor of authors. I would have been a hypocrite if I did not call out the authors of a PLOS One article in the same way that I call out authors of publications in other journals.

igagged_jpg-scaled500PS. For the record, I quit blogging at Psychology Today because management changed one of my titles so as not to offend pharmaceutical companies.


Deconstructing misleading media coverage of neuroscience of couples therapy

Do we owe psychotherapists something more than noble lies and fairy tales in our translations of fMRI results?

hold me tightThe press release below was placed on the web by the University of Ottawa and refers to an article published in PLOS One. As I have noted in blog posts here and here, the PLOS One article is quite bad. But the press release is worse, and introduces a whole new level of distortion.

Comparing the article to the press release or my blog posts. You can get a sense of the nonsense in the press release. I will summarize the contradiction between these sources in my comments interspersed with excerpts from the press release.

True love creates resilience, turning off fear and pain in the brain

OTTAWA, May 1, 2014— New research led by Dr. Sue Johnson of the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology confirms that those with a truly felt loving connection to their partner seem to be calmer, stronger and more resilient to stress and threat.

In the first part of the study, which was recently published in PLOS ONE, couples learned how to reach for their lover and ask for what they need in a “Hold Me Tight” conversation. They learned the secrets of emotional responsiveness and connection.

If you go to the PLOS one article, you will see no mention of any “Hold Me Tight” conversation, only that couples who were selected for mild to moderate marital dissatisfaction received couples therapy. The therapy was of longer duration than typically been provided in previous studies of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). At completion, the average couple was still experiencing mild to moderate marital dissatisfaction and would still have qualified for entry into the study.

So, for a start, these were not couples feeling “loving connections to each other,” to the extent that the authors assume their quantitative measures are valid.

The second part of the study, summarized here, focused on how this also changed their brain. It compared the activation of the female partner’s brain when a signal was given that an electric shock was pending before and after the “Hold Me Tight” conversation.

The phrase “changed the brain” is vague and potentially misleading. It gives the false impression that there is some evidence that differences in fMRI results represent enduring, structural change, rather than transient, ambiguous changes in activity. Changes in brain activity does not equal change in structure of the brain. It seems analogous to suggesting that the air-conditioning coming on rearranged a room, beyond cooling it down temporarily. Or that viewing a TV soap opera changes the brain because it is detectable with fMRI.

Before the “Hold Me Tight” conversation, even when the female partner was holding her mate’s hand, her brain became very activated by the threat of the shock — especially in areas such as the inferior frontal gyrus, anterior insula, frontal operculum and orbitofrontal cortex, where fear is controlled. These are all areas that process alarm responses. Subjects also rated the shock as painful under all conditions.

Let us ignore that there is no indication in the PLOS One paper of a “Hold Me Tight” conversation. It is a gross exaggeration to say that the brain “became very activated.” We have to ask “Compared to what?” Activation of the brain is relative, and as the neuroscientist Neurocritic pointed out, there is no relevant comparison condition beyond partner versus stranger versus being alone. Nothing to compare them to and such fMRI data do not have anything equivalent to the standardization of an oven thermometer or a marital adjustment measure.. And the results are different than the press release would suggest. Namely,

In the vmPFC, left NAcc, left pallidum, rightinsula, right pallidum, and right planum polare, main effects ofEFT revealed general decreases from pre- to post- therapy in threat activation, regardless of whose hand was held, all Fs (1, 41.1 to 58.6) >3.9, all ps <.05. In the left caudate, left IFG, and vACC, interactions between EFT and DAS revealed that participants with the lowest pre-therapy DAS scores realized the greatest decreases from pre- to post-therapy in threat related activity, all Fs (1, 55.1 to 66.7) $6.2, all ps <. 02. In the right dlPFC and left supplementary motor cortex, interactions between handholding and EFT suggest that from pre- to post- therapy, threat-related activity decreased during partner but increased during stranger handholding, Fs (1, 44.6 to 48.9) = 5.0, ps = .03 (see Figure 5). [Emphasis added]

Keep in mind that these results are also derived from well over 100 statistical tests performed on data from 23 women and so they are likely due to chance. It is difficult to make sense of the contradictions in the results. By some measures, activation while holding both strangers and husbands’ hand decreased. Other differences were limited to the women with lower initial marital satisfaction.

It is also not clear what decreased activation means. It could mean that less thought processes are occurring or that thought processes take less effort. An fMRI is that ambiguous.

It is important to note what we are not told in the article. We are led by the authors to expect an overall (omnibus) test of whether changes in brain activity from before to after therapy will occur for when husbands’ hands are held, but not strangers or alone. It is curious that specific statistic is not reported where it should have been. It is likely that no overall simple difference was found, but the authors went fishing for whatever they could find anyway.

There is no mention in the paper of ratings of the shock as to degree of painfulness. There are ratings of discomfort.

We need to keep in mind that this experiment had to be approved by a committee for the protection of human subjects. If in fact the women were being subject to painful shock, the committee would not have granted approval.

The actual shock was 4 mA. I put a request out on Facebook for information as to how painful such a shock would be. A lab in Australia reported that in response, graduate assistants had been busy shocking themselves. W with that amperage could not produce a shock they would consider painful.

However, after the partners were guided through intense bonding conversations (a structured therapy titled Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy or EFT), the brain activation and reported level of pain changed —under one condition. While the shock was again described as painful in the alone and in the stranger hand holding conditions (albeit with some small change compared to before), the shock was described as merely uncomfortable when the husband offered his hand. Even more interesting, in the husband hand-holding condition, the subject’s brain remained calm with minimal activation in the face of threat.

Again, there are no ratings of painfulness described in the report of the experiment. The changes occurred in both husband and stranger handholding conditions.

The experiment explored three different conditions. In the first, the subject lay alone in a scanner knowing that when she saw a red X on a screen in front of her face there was a 20% chance she would receive a shock to her ankles. In the second, a male stranger held her hand throughout the same procedure. In the third, her partner held her hand. Subjects also pressed a screen after each shock to rate how painful they perceived it to be.

Here we are given a relevant detail. The women believed that they had a 20% chance of receiving a shock to their ankles. It is likely that the anticipation was uncomfortable, not the actual shock. The second condition is described as having their hand held by a male stranger. Depending on the circumstances, that could either be creepy or benign. Presumably, the “male stranger” was a laboratory assistant. That might explain why the actual results of the experiments suggest that after therapy, handholding by this stranger was not particularly activating of areas of the brain that it had been earlier.

But, the press release provides a distorted presentation of the actual results of the study. This presentation seems to indicate that the EFT it had occurred between the first and second fMRIs had produced an effect only for the condition in which the woman’s hand was held by a partner, not a stranger.

The actual results were weak and contradictory. They do not seem to be overall effects for free versus post therapy fMRI. Rather, effects were limited to a subgroup of women who had started therapy with exceptionally low marital satisfaction and persisted after they had therapy. The changes in brain activation associated with having their handheld by a partner were not different than a changes for having their hand held by a stranger.

These results support the effectiveness of EFT and its ability to shape secure bonding. The physiological effects are exactly what one would expect from more secure bonding. This study also adds to the evidence that attachment bonds and their soothing impact are a key part of adult romantic love.

How this could be accurate? The women did not have a secure bonding with the stranger, but their brain activation nonetheless changed. And apparently this did not happen for all women, mostly only those with lower marital satisfaction at the beginning of therapy.

From the press release, I cannot reconstruct what was done and what was found in the study reported in PLOS One. A lot of wow, a lot of shock and awe, but little truth.

Surely, you jest, Dr. Johnson.

Tools for Debunking Neuro-Nonsense About Psychotherapy

nonsenseThe second in my two-part blog post at PLOS Mind the Brain involves assisting readers to do some debunking of bad neuoscience for themselves. The particular specimen is neurononsense intended to promote emotionally focused psychotherapy (EFT) to the unwary. A promotional video and press releases drawing upon a PLOS One article were aimed to wow therapists seeking further training and CE credits. The dilemma is that most folks are not equipped with the basic neuroscience to detect neurobullocks. Near the end of the blog, I provide some basic principles for cultivating skepticism about bad neuroscience. Namely,

Beware of

  • Multiple statistical tests performed with large numbers of fMRI data points from small numbers of subjects. Results capitalize on chance and probably will not generalize.
  • The new phrenology, claims that complex mental functions are localized in single regions of the brain so that a difference for that mental function can be inferred from a specific finding for that region.
  • Glib interpretations that if a particular region of the brain is activated. It may simply mean that certain mental processes are occurring. Among other things, he could simply mean that these processes are now taking more effort.
  • Claims that changes in activation observed in fMRI data represent changes in the structure of the brain or mental processes. Function does not equal structure.

But mainly, I guided readers through the article calling attention to anomalies and just plain weirdness at the level of basic numbers and descriptions of procedures. Some of my points were rather straightforward, but some may need further explanation or documentation. That is why I have provided this auxiliary blog.

The numbers below correspond to footnotes embedded in the text of the Mind the Brain blog post.

1. Including or excluding one or two participants can change results.

Many of the analyses depended on correlation coefficients. For a sample of 23, a correlation of .41 is required for a significance of .05. To get a sense of how adding or leaving out a few subjects can affect results, look at the scatterplots below.

The first has 28 data points and a correlation of -.272.  The second plot has added in three data points which were not particularly outliers, and the correlation jumped to -.454.

slie r .27 Part 2 Groningen_Basic statistics plus

slide 1 Groningen_Basic statistics plus






2. There is some evidence this could have occurred after initial results were known.

The article notes:

 A total of 35 couples completed the 1.5 hour pre-therapy fMRI scan. Over the course of therapy, 5 couples either became pregnant, started taking medication, or revealed a history of trauma which made them no longer eligible for the study. Four couples dropped out of therapy and therefore did not complete the post EFT scan, two couples were dropped for missing data, and one other was dropped whose overall threat-related brain activation in a variety of regions was an extreme a statistical outlier (e.g., greater than three standard deviations below the average of the rest of the sample).

I am particularly interested in the women who revealed a history of trauma after the initial fMRI. When did they reveal it? Did disclosure occur in the course of therapy?

If the experiment had the rigor of a clinical trial as the authors claim, results for all couples would be retained, analogous to what is termed an “intention-to-treat analysis.”

There are clinical trials that started with more patients per cell and dropping or retaining just a few patients affected the overall significance of results. Notable examples are Fawzy et al. who turned a null trial into a positive one by dropping three patients and Classen et al in which results of a trial with 353 participants are significant or not, depending on whether one patient is excluded.

3. Any positive significant findings are likely to be false, and of necessity, significant findings will be large in magnitude, even when false positives.

A good discussion of the likelihood that significant findings from underpowered trials are likely to be false can be found here. Findings from small numbers of participants that are significant are larger, because larger effect sizes are required for significance.

4. They stated that they recruited couples with the criteria that their marital dissatisfaction initially be between 80-96 on the DAS. They then report that initial mean DAS score was 81.2 (SD=14.0). Impossible.

Couples with mild to moderate marital distress are quite common in the general population to which advertisements were directed. It statistically improbable that they recruited from such a pool and obtained a mean score of 81.2. Furthermore, with a lower bound of 80, it makes no sense that if the mean score was 81.2, there would be a standard deviation of 14. This is overall a very weird distribution if we accept what they say.

5. The amount of therapy that these wives received (M= 22-9, range =13-35) was substantially more what was provided in past EFT outcome studies. Whatever therapeutic gains were observed in the sample could not be expected to generalize to past studies.

Past outcome studies of EFT have provided 8 to 12 sessions of EFT with one small dissertation study providing 15 sessions.

6. The average couple finishing the study still qualified for entering it.

Mean DAS scores after EFT was declared completed were 96.0 (SD =17.2). In order to enroll in the study, couples had to have DAS scores 97 or less.

7. No theoretical or clinical rationale is given for not studying husbands or presenting their data as well.

Jim Coan’s video presentation suggests that he was inspired to do this line of research by observing how a man in individual psychotherapy for PTSD was soothed by his wife in the therapy sessions after the man requested that she be present. There is nothing in the promotional materials associated with either the original Coan study or the present one to indicate that fMRI would be limited to wives.

Again, if the studies really had the rigor of a clinical trial as claimed by the authors, the exclusive focus on wives versus husbands’ fMRI would have been pre-specified in the registration of the study. There are no registrations to the studies.

8. The size of many differences between results characterized as significant versus nonsignificant is not itself statistically significant.

With a sample size of 23, let’s take a correlation coefficient of .40, which just misses statistical significance. A correlation of .80 (p < .001) is required to be statistically more significant than .40 (p > .05). So, many “statistically significant findings” are not significantly larger than correlations that were ignored as not significant. This highlights the absurdity of simply tallying up differences that reach the threshold of significance, particularly when no confidence intervals are provided.

9. The graphic representations in Figures 2 and 4 were produced by throwing away two thirds of the available data.

standard deviations and normal distributionAs seen in the bell curve to the left, 68.2% (or ~16/23) of the women fall between the excluded -1. to + 1.0 SD.


Throwing away the data for 16 women leaves with 7. These were distributed across the four lines in Figures 2 and 4, one or two to a line. Funky?  yup.

j figure 2.pone.0079314.g002