It should come as no surprise to my regular readers that I a) am a clinical psychologist and b) despise pseudoscientific nonsense. As such, when I come across woo in my field, I feel a special fire begin to burn deep inside me and it’s not because I missed taking my Pepcid. Instead, it’s from having the field I have devoted the past 16 years of my life to dragged through the mud and made to look silly by those who are not actually practicing evidence-based psychology. Case in point:
The above link takes you to the official IADC website, where you can learn about both it and it’s “discoverer” (his words, not mine) Allan L. Botkin, Psy.D. Basically, he states that by using a variation on the “purple hat” / pseudoscientific therapy called EMDR (which I wrote about earlier), he can cause patients to experience an after-death communication (ADC) with a dead loved one. He’s not saying that it actually is someone communicating with the dead, but he’s not saying they aren’t, either. Here’s someone explaining it a bit more:
In IADC therapy, the person who is grieving the death of someone is asked to focus directly on the sadness during the eye movements. The typical IADC involves the patient seeing the deceased person, and that deceased person is telling him or her that everything is okay and not to grieve. In a number of cases, the deceased has related information previously unknown to the patient. The therapy works with people of all beliefs, including atheists and sceptics. The end result is the majority of patients overcoming their grief.
Well, that seems simple enough. Do some therapy, see a dead loved one, get better. Couldn’t be easier, right? According to the official website,
We can very rapidly, reliably, and easily induce an IADC® in about 75% of people who go through the induction. (See required conditions at the end of this page.)
Many patients report the same experiences described by people who have had a near-death experience (NDE) or after-death communication (ADC), although we suggest that the experience of feeling a reconnection is the critical activity, without implying the source of the perception.
I have a couple of issues with these statements. First off, who knows how they derived this 75% number. No support other than a statement (no peer reviewed research, or outside confirmation) is given. Second, Botkin (and perhaps others who use this technique) do not actually try and say what causes this experience (“the source of the perception.”). In another article, we learn that
Botkin is reasonably certain that the many patients who have benefited from this therapy are not dreaming, imagining, fantasizing, or otherwise hallucinating, but he prefers not to speculate as to whether or not patients are actually in touch with the spirit world.
That makes it seem as if he is just hedging his bets, perhaps in an attempt to be taken more seriously by the scientific world. He has even put a bit of distance between himself and the co-author of his book Induced After-Death Communication: A New Therapy for Healing Grief and Trauma, one R. Craig Hogan. This may be due to Hogan’s decidedly spiritual take on matters, including a book called Your Eternal Self and his being the “director of the Center for Spiritual Understanding and on the boards of the Academy of Spiritual and Paranormal Studies and Association for Evaluation and Communication of Evidence for Survival.” On a fun side note, the IADC book was even endorsed by Dr. Raymond Moody, best known as the man who coined the term “near death experience” (NDE). Moody, of course, is also well known as being a major proponent of belief in an afterlife, as well as a fan of past-life regression. Maybe it makes sense that Botkin distanced himself a bit from such folks if he’s trying to present things as being scientific.
Botkin claims that for 70% of people who undergo IADC (conducted in just 1-2 sessions), “it works.” Apparently that means:
The IADC® experiences we have induced in thousands of patients result in dramatic life changes that heal grief and trauma in a very short time and are sustained long-term. The technique has worth because it works; it doesn’t need for us to agree on a belief system or theory about the source of the phenomenon to support it.
In other words, it works because it works; we don’t need to know why or how. This number of therapy responders is a bit lower than Botkin himself presents in his one and only published article on IADC. In it, he reports 98% of his sample experienced an ADC, and that 96% of those believed it to be a spiritual experience in which they contacted the dead. He then goes on to present numerous case examples to demonstrate that it worked. No actual pre- to post-measures of symptom reduction or any sort of long-term follow-up, just case studies. But, he has been interviewed on Coast to Coast AM (twice!), so there’s that.
Given the less than conventional claims made about IADC, I thought it would make a good example for an exercise in critical thinking. Although there are numerous ways to think critically, I think a good base set is the following six principles (to dig more in-depth on these, I’d recommend watching a video of a talk I gave on them), which I will apply to what we know about IADC.
1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
Several pretty extraordinary claims are found when examining IADC, with no corresponding extraordinary evidence. The first and most outrageous is that, through a modified version of EMDR, people are communicating with the dead. Even if Botkin does not actually claim that IADC causes someone to be able to communicate with the dead, there are plenty of other people using the technique that say just that. Given the distinct lack of empirical evidence that there even is an afterlife, much less that we can communicate with people in it, there would have to be very compelling evidence that Botkin and colleagues could present to back up such a claim.
Another extraordinary claim is that “most” people get better from their grief in 1-2 sessions. This would actually be relatively easy to collect data on and measure, but apparently neither Botkin or others using IADC have done so. Instead, there are just case studies presented (a prototypical action among pseudoscience). Without evidence, this is just a claim with nothing to support it. The extraordinary claim aspect here is the short duration, as we know that for most people dealing with traumatic events or complicated grief, several months of therapy are needed to make substantial progress.
In order for a claim to be scientifically meaningful, it needs to be capable of being disproved. Wonderfully illustrated by Carl Sagan and his garage dragon, we would need to see if the claims of IADC could be shown to be untrue. It would be relatively easy to test aspects such as reduction in symptoms and long-term benefits (both of which are standard to do in clinical research). Ruling out the after-death communication part, though, is trickier. Since this is apparently a subjective experience, and the therapist is not “speaking” for the dead person (which would allow us to test things much easier), but instead “helping” the client do so, the entirety of proof rests in someone’s head. Given that we don’t have Professor X-like abilities to experience another person’s perception, I am afraid that we could not falsify this claim, rendering it unscientific.
3. Occam’s razor/ Parsimony
The principle of parsimony means that the most likely explanation for an event is the one with the fewest assumptions underlying it (although one must be careful in wielding it). Let’s take a look at the assumptions underlying IADC.
A) There is an afterlife.
B) People still living can pierce the veil (as it were) and speak to the dead.
C) This EMDR-derived procedure allows this to happen quickly and easily for a vast majority of people.
D) Speaking to deceased love ones quickly and permanently alleviates distress and grieving.
As I have said before, that’s a mighty big bucket of assumptions you’ve got there. Given that we have no solid evidence for the first two, and only case reports for the third and fourth, it might be more parsimonious to go with a less assumption-filled explanation of events. For example, the following are things we know to be accurate statements.
A) Some people experience high levels of grief and seek out anything they can to assist in feeling better.
B) Some people are highly suggestible, particularly when in emotionally-compromised states.
C) The placebo effect can be very strong, especially in the suggestible.
D) The majority of people who would go to someone for a procedure like IADC are probably highly suggestible and in an compromised state of mind, which would cause a particularly strong placebo effect.
No unsupported assumptions in list number two! So, based on a principle of parsimony, we can reasonably conclude that the second list is more likely to be accurate.
A key to knowing that something is true and accurate is being able to get the same results over and over again. Whether it’s medication, a physics experiment, or the principles of natural selection, scientists repeatedly test their results (and the results of others) to determine if something is real or just happened by chance. It’s the hallmark of good science and key to turning results from a “hmm, that’s interesting” into a “see, this is really happening.” Take the numbers of people that Botkin claims are able to be induced and helped by his therapy. He could be right, but we would need an independent research team using the same IADC protocol and tracking those results to be sure. Otherwise, all we have is his word (and the one published article) that it is happening how he says it is. Personally, if I had developed a wondrous new treatment, I would be all over testing it out, having others test it out, and confirming that it works great. That’s how people get recognition for their hard work in the scientific community.
5. Ruling out rival hypotheses
In applying this principle, we need to make sure that we are wedded to one explanation for a series of events, but instead entertain alternative explanations that are equally (or more) plausible. Good scientists purposefully set up experiments to rule out rival hypotheses, not just confirm favored ones. In this way, we don’t fall prey to the confirmation bias (or at least not as much). For supporters of IADC, their hypothesis is that (somehow, it’s never really explained) a modified form of EMDR allows people to communicate with their dead loved ones, which then makes their grief decline very rapidly. Alternative hypotheses do not seem to be in any way entertained (it’s a little hard to know, since the people using this aren’t actually conducting research on it). The closest that I’ve seen about IADC from practitioners of it is Botkin’s assertion that he does not speculate that people are actually speaking to the dead or not, just that it “works.”
Perhaps the first rival hypothesis that will spring to the mind of most critical thinkers is this: is IADC simply a 21st century version of a seance? I’m very inclined to believe that is much more plausible than the answer put forth from its practitioners.
6. Correlation is not causation
Just because two things are related does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. A standard example I use to illustrate this is the following: as murder rates rise, so do ice cream sales. It’s a very strong correlation, seen year after year after year. No reasonable person, though, would make either of the following statements – “Well, the more ice cream you eat, the more you want to murder!” or “After a good murder, you just need to eat a ton of ice cream!” Obviously, something else must be driving both ice cream and murders up at the same time (that thing is, of course, hotter temperatures). This is the “third variable problem.” As regards IADC, it may be true that massively grieving people go into three IADC sessions and their grief becomes alleviated afterwards. This does not, though, immediately mean that going through IADC is what caused them to get better. To determine if a new medication or therapy works, we have to test it against a placebo, simply because people often get better simply by expecting to get better, regardless of whether or not the treatment is having any active effects (this seems to be at least partially behind the popularity of alternative medicine). It could be that people who do IADC are truly caring, humane individuals and that the process of interacting with them (regardless of the “speaking to the dead” aspect of things) helps many individuals move past their grief and embrace their loss in a healthier fashion.
Based on the above analysis, IADC falls far short of having the evidence that most open-minded (but not so open their brain falls out) scientific skeptics would need to accept it as a real phenomenon. Instead, it seems to be just another in a long line of pseudoscientific psychotherapies that we have seen over the decades.