The Buzzword Blog #4 : Irrational

What does 'irrational' mean?

The term 'irrational' is too often just another  buzzword.  It is used very loosely, even by scientists, to imply that somebody has formed an opinion without thinking about it 'properly'.

For too many people, 'irrational' is a word which can be applied to anybody who doesn't agree with them.  We each form our own opinions about people and the world around us and create a worldview, a set of mental models.  These mental/neuronal constructs can be very resistant to change.  One method being used to provoke such change is electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.  I want to pose a question about the use of ECT:

When a patient such as Ray Sandford says repeatedly of ECT : 
"I don't want to do this.", 
but the courts endorse coerced ECT, who is behaving irrationally,
the patients or the doctors and courts?

Rational, Irrational and the Science of  the Mind.

Psychologists strive to understand the human mind and its workings, but there are many barriers to such understanding.  One such barrier is the scientific resistance to 'mentalese'.  Around the beginning of the 20th century, psychology was being seen as unscientific, due to an over-reliance on people's reports of their own mental states.  Since these states could never be confirmed by an outside observer, some scientists rejected such 'mentalese' observations as being beyond the scope of 'real' science.

Building on work by scientists such as Ivan Pavlov  in the behavioural sciences,  B.F. Skinner developed a theory of operant conditioning,  a 'stimulus-response' model which he suggested could account for all animal behaviours including human speech.  The Skinnerian school of behavioural psychology held sway for some time, but scientists have gradually returned to questions in the 'mentalese' and theory of mind aspects of cognitive science.  What is awareness?  What is consciousness?  The return to the study of behaviours as mental processes has been helped by studies in neural structures and the advent of non-intrusive scientific tools such as EEG and brain scans.

Human behaviour is not amenable to analysis as a stimulus - response chain.  There are so many components to human behaviour, and to speech in particular, that any attempt at a binary division of a behaviour as type X and type Y is bound to be wrong.  There are so many dimensions of human behaviour that our minds may , to borrow a metaphor from mathematics,  be said to operate in the dimensions of hyperspace.  In plain language, we simply do not know exactly how the human mind works.

Behaviour Modification.
"Under what circumstances do you think someone else should have a greater right to make a decision affecting your life than yourself?" - Gerhard Adams

"a reasonable person will first consider that the other person might be in a better position to make a decision, be better informed, but of course this can still lead to coercion where so-called authorities claim to be in a superior position." - Steve Davis

Comments to: Do you have a Liberal or Conservative brain?

"Their training program is simplicity itself.  ...  Simple matter of voltage."
Gene Hackman as Captain Ramsey in the movie Crimson Tide,
on the training of Lipizzaner horses.

Electroconvulsive Therapy, or ECT, is used in the treatment of mental illness.  In the UK and the US it is unlawful to perfom ECT without the patient's informed consent.  The lacuna, the loophole in the law is that a different set of laws permits a court to formulate an uninformed consent, a court order based on opinion and speculation.  Opinion and speculation is not fact, and may be unethical.  An authority on a subject may be found to be, on close inspection, not fit to be called as an expert witness,  as with so-called expert on ECT, Christian Hageseth.

If there is one clear fact about the use of ECT and the involvement of the courts in coersive ECT, it is this: although scientists believe that we cannot know exactly how any person is thinking about any specific matter, the judges think that the converse is true: judges are often only too willing to decide what somebody else believes, often without sufficient evidence on which to base a plausible hypothesis.
7. Respondent cannot rationally weigh the risks and benefits involved in the use of ECT to treat her mental illness because she does not believe that she is mentally ill and she has an irrational fear of ECT fueled by information that her mother provides to her about what the mother believes is the lethal nature of ECT.

1. The evidence is clear and convinces the Court that treatment of the Respondent’s mental illness using electroconvulsive therapy is necessary and reasonable.
2. Respondent does not have the capacity to give or withhold consent to the use of electroconvulsive therapy to treat her mental illness.

Source:  In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of: File No: P8-02-60415
Irrationality: a Definition

Irrationality is the adoption of a any belief whatsoever without EITHER a sufficient base of widely supported facts or beliefs, OR having arrived at the belief by intuition rather than a process of critical analysis and assesment, or both.

Grounds For a Refusal To Accept ECT Treatment

ECT produces a number of effects in the patient, most particularly memory loss.  The problem is that these effects are subjective.  From the perspective of an absolutist science they can be rejected out of hand as purely anecdotal and as mere 'mentalese'.  Statistics is a mathematical method adopted by and accepted by science at large.  From a statistical perspective, a picture emerges of the results of ECT use which arouses outrage in numerous objective observers, amongst which I count myself.

ECT has been held to be only 50% effective.   Concerns about its use and effectiveness have been expressed by 51% of staff in a survey.  A significant number of patients report memory loss.

In a stunning reversal, an article in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in January 2007 by prominent researcher Harold Sackeim of Columbia University reveals that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) causes permanent amnesia and permanent deficits in cognitive abilities, which affect individuals’ ability to function.

Source: Electroconvulsive Therapy Causes Permanent Amnesia and Cognitive Deficits, Prominent Researcher Admits

Here is a matter of common knowledge which any court should readily adopt by taking judicial notice of it as a fact:

Any rational person, on being told that they are about to receive an electric shock administered to the head will show a fear reaction, and will take all necessary steps to avoid such a shock.    The voltage, amperage and duration, and the possible effects or non-effects need be neither considered nor discussed.

In a civilised country the right of self-defence is fully recognised,   even if the threat is not a real one.  In the event that A approaches B  with an electrical appliance in a threatening manner, leading to B striking A, the courts will grant B the right to be tried on the facts as he or she believed them to be.  This is laws of evidence 101.

The fact that a person with mental health problems shows fear and resistance faced with the prospect of ECT treatment is not a scientifically valid reason for deducing anything about that persons state of mind in general.  It is merely the same behaviour that would be exhibited by any rational person in the same circumstance.