“It is never too late to give up your prejudices…No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Last weekend, I attended the annual National Eating Disorders Association conference in New York City. It was a fantastic conference and an exhilarating experience, a whirlwind of thinking and conversing and listening and networking.
That said, I attended a few lectures that made me cringe and perhaps set the field back a few years. One well-known psychologist and author stated in her lecture that there’s a false dichotomy between research and practice, because all clinicians are, ipso facto, researchers. She went on to explain to the clinicians in the room that that if you work with eating disorder patients and you contemplate eating disorder issues, then you are a researcher.
I think, therefore I am…a researcher?
And therein lies the rub. Working with eating disorder patients and thinking about them does not make you a researcher anymore than watching MSNBC and contemplating the mid-term election makes you a political scientist.
Historically, a major problem within the field of eating disorders is that etiological theories were formed, and treatment approaches created, based upon clinicians’ casual observation and reflection. Hilde Bruch, MD, who wrote the highly influential book The Golden Cage (1978), based her theories on her observation and treatment of the anorexic patients in her practice. Bruch concluded that anorexia nervosa occurs almost exclusively in upper-class white families (because those were the families, residing in her primarily Caucasian neighborhood, who could afford to enter treatment with her), that dysfunctional patterns of family interaction are key in the etiology of anorexia nervosa (because she observed strained and tense relationships between her severely ill patients and their worried parents) and that anorexia represents a misguided attempt at forming an identity and asserting some control over an otherwise uncontrollable life (based upon the self-reports of malnourished patients suffering from a brain disease).
This book was immensely popular amongst clinicians and the general public, as it was the first book to attempt to explain anorexia nervosa, and these theories became professional dogma. Bruch’s ideas spread like wildfire, and it would be many years before scientific research would be published to counter her claims. And to this day, more than three decades later, many clinicians, anorexics, and their families still hold these beliefs.
We are, in general, resistant to change. People have a very hard time letting go of long-held beliefs, which may explain why societal change tends to happen incrementally over generations. Many clinicians have so much pride in the work they have done in the past, and so much prejudice against new ideas which are diametrically opposed to their own, that they vigorously defend the theories they have held forever even when all reliable evidence points to the contrary. They seek to assimilate new information into their preexisting beliefs (for example, a racist person may boast about having one black friend, claiming that his buddy is “not like most black people”) rather than abandoning their old beliefs once it becomes clear that they are flawed. To quote the 17th century philosopher John Locke: “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”
It is essential, therefore, that the most recent scientific research on the etiology and effective treatment of eating disorders is featured prominently and unapologetically at local, national, and global events aimed professionals, patients, and families in the eating disorder world. The new message cannot be muted or diluted with antiquated theories or treatments under the politically-correct assumption that all ideas are equally valid. As it is, big-name wealthy treatment centers get the most publicity, most likely because of their massive donations to eating disorder organizations who feature them prominently in exhibit halls at conferences. People are so easily swayed by catch phrases and neat giveaways and glossy brochures featuring impossibly happy eating disordered teenagers riding horses and finger painting. But these centers do not necessarily offer the most effective treatments. If we want our field to make progress, if we truly want to save more lives and rescue more sufferers from the agony of this illness, money cannot trump science.
One of the most promising statements I heard all weekend was this, from a psychologist who is the director of an eating disorders treatment program:
“It is no longer acceptable, in 2010, for clinicians to practice a certain way simply because they have been practicing that way for years.”
My friend Carrie Arnold and I gave a standing ovation to that one and clapped until our hands hurt.
We invite you to join us in doing the same.