I love controversy.
So naturally, I was thrilled to read the recent news article in the Sun Sentinel with a headline describing Maudsley as “a controversial treatment.”
This article gives an overview of the Maudsley Method and describes the experiences of two families – one with a 12-year-old girl and one with an 18-year-old boy – who used this approach to help their children recover from Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In a fair and balanced way, the article also lists some of the criticisms of the Maudsley Method that make it so controversial.
I believe that controversy is healthy part of living in a free society. Without controversy, there cannot be progress in the areas of ethics, morals, politics, or social norms. We must challenge old ideas and new ideas alike. We must approach life with an open mind as well as a healthy degree of skepticism. Some of the best ideas in the history of humanity, such as racial integration, freedom of religion, and equal rights for both genders, were born amidst extreme controversy. Thousands of people devoted their lives to the pursuit of these ideas. People died fighting for these causes. And to my generation, they seem so obvious and self-evident that we take them for granted.
Controversy accelerates progress in the aforementioned areas by shedding new light on old ideas. On the contrary, controversy tends to hinder progress in science. This happens because controversy over scientific ideas generally arises when people criticize or oppose scientific discoveries on the grounds of theology, politics, morality, or philosophy. Many scientific truths were initially met with extreme controversy. Galileo was tried – and convicted – by the Vatican for his scientific explanation of a heliocentric universe. And although Darwin’s theory of evolution has been almost universally supported by the modern scientific community, it was (and still is, in some communities) highly controversial for cultural, theological, and political reasons.
All viewpoints have equal merit in debating different perspectives on morality, philosophy, or politics. The winning idea is the one which is shared by the majority of people, which is then often supported by legislation and reinforced by social norms. This is what happened with racial integration, religious freedom, and gender equality. In debates over science, however, some answers are clearly superior to others. Ideas supported by scientific research are superior to ideas not supported by scientific research. Scientists conduct reliable studies, interpret the data, and present the results to their peers. Eventually, these results are disseminated into the public domain. Personal beliefs and political viewpoints and religious doctrines have no place in scientific inquiry. They obscure the truth.
In this vein, we have the controversy over the Maudsley Approach. Some clinicians say that they “don’t believe in Maudsley” just as some people say they don’t believe in God or Santa Clause or evolution. Maudsley, like evolution, is not a “belief” to be accepted or rejected. Maudsley, like evolution, is supported by a wealth of scientific literature which should be evaluated empirically and used effectively to understand and advance the human condition. To treat Maudsley as a socio-political issue like gay marriage that one sides “for” or “against” muddies the waters, misses the point, and makes one look scientifically illiterate.
Those who criticize Maudsley are doing so on philosophical, rather than scientific, grounds. They have not devised reliable, valid studies yielding data to the contrary. Rather, they cite antiquated and unproven ideas about eating disorders, they make criticisms that show a clear ignorance of the scientific process, or they ask irrelevant questions.
Some day soon, the Maudsley Approach will join the ranks of Darwin’s evolution and Galileo’s heliocentric solar system as a scientifically accepted truth. Some day soon, all therapists will approach psychology as a science – like biology and astronomy – which is guided by empirical data and impervious to personal beliefs.