Bryan Caplan  

Szasz on the Turing Tragedy

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When I'm 89, I'll be grateful if I have a quarter of Szasz's insight and writing ability.  Here's his latest - the fascinating tragedy of mathematician and AI pioneer Alan Turning:

In 1951 Turing... confessed to his homosexual affair and was charged with "gross indecency," a crime then punishable by a maximum of two years' imprisonment. The judge, taking into account Turing's intellectual distinction and social position, sentenced him to probation, "on the condition that he submit for treatment by a duly qualified medical practitioner." In April 1952 he wrote to a friend, "I am both bound over for a year and obliged to take this organo-therapy for the same period. It is supposed to reduce sexual urge whilst it goes on, but one is supposed to return to normal when it is over. I hope they're right." Turing was never the same again. His body became feminized. He grew breasts.

[...]

On June 8, 1954, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper, a partly eaten apple laced with cyanide next to his bed. At the inquest... [t]he verdict was "suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed." ...

In 1967 the UK decriminalized homosexuality. Overnight it ceased to be a disease in England but not the United States, where for six more years it remained both a crime and a "treatable disease."

Turing's biographer, Andrew Hodges, notes that Turing did not consider his homosexuality a disease, a crime, or a shameful condition. He suggests that Turing opted for medical treatment rather than a brief period of imprisonment because he feared that a criminal conviction would be fatal for his career...

In the last couple of decades, a lot of people have apologized for the past crimes of the groups with which they identify: the U.S. for Japanese internment, the Church for Galileo, Swiss bankers for Nazi money laundering, even the Japanese (kind of) for their war crimes.  I'd like to see psychiatrists do the same - to admit that unusual preferences are not "disease," affirm that it is wrong to treat people against their will, and turn their backs on the "greats" of their profession who believed in and practiced coercive therapy.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
RL writes:

"I'd like to see psychiatrists...admit that unusual preferences are not "disease," affirm that it is wrong to treat people against their will, and turn their backs on the "greats" of their profession who believed in and practiced coercive therapy."

Those who ask for much, Bryan, are continually disappointed...

Your specific examples are just that: Specific. Apologizing does not raise questions about the US government, the Church, Swiss banking, or the Japanese government per se. Yet if psychiatrists did as you desire, they'd have little left to not apologize for.

Duncan writes:

Who's the cat that won't cop out
When there's psychiatrists about?
SZASZ!
Right On!

I'll do the whole thing as a youtube parody when I get the time. Or not.

Zac writes:

I doubt they'll ever do this, though. Those groups Bryan mentions are able to openly apologize because those things are in the past. But involuntary commitment is alive and well, and serves to legitimize the psychiatry profession. If they openly acknowledge that involuntary treatment of homosexuality was wrong, how can they continue to say that involuntary treatment of schizophrenia is right?

Dr. T writes:

There were many psychiatriatrists, even in the 1950s, who did not believe that homosexuality was a mental illness. It's true that some did, but that is not surprising when the vast majority of society believed that homosexuality was sinful, criminal, and/or a serious mental illness.

As a group, psychiatrists in the US were far ahead of the curve in removing the mental illness stigma from homosexuality. It took a while, but the profession (as a whole) first downgraded homosexuality from a major mental illness to a personality disorder and then later classified it as a normal behavior.

The psychiatrist who oversaw my clinical rotation in 1981 was an uncloseted homosexual in a monogamous relationship. He also was the Chair of the department, so it was obvious that his colleagues and the Dean and Chancellor felt that homosexuality was acceptable even in a prominent position.

------------

Palmer (above) confuses homosexuality with transsexuality. Transsexuals want to be the opposite sex. Homosexuals are attracted to partners of the same sex. And why is Palmer projecting his fantasies onto Bryan Caplan?

mkamdar writes:

Well, asking psychiatry to apologize today may be wishful thinking. The problems continue, albeit in different forms, even today.

And then of course you have the other consequences of the patent system & regulatory system when it comes to drugs..
that makes it appealing to monger jet lag as a disease so that narcolepsy drugs can be prescribed: http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/04/drug_company_pushes_.html
that makes it appealing to create overactive bladder as a disease since the market for urge incontinence wasn't large enough:
http://trusted.md/feed/items/system/2009/04/05/overactive_bladder_pharmacia_instrumental_in_creating_new_disease_says_former_vp

And I won't even get to the antipsychotics etc.

RL writes:

Dr T (apparently a psychiatrist himself) claims: "As a group, psychiatrists in the US were far ahead of the curve in removing the mental illness stigma from homosexuality. It took a while, but the profession (as a whole) first downgraded homosexuality from a major mental illness to a personality disorder and then later classified it as a normal behavior."

That's really amazing chutzpah. It's like saying, in an imagined future without gang violence, "Inner city gangs as a group in the US were far ahead of the curve in removing violence from inner city life. It took a while, but the gangs as a whole first downgraded violence from murder to aggravated assault, and then later eliminated it entirely."

To be clear: THERE NEVER WOULD HAVE BEEN A MENTAL ILLNESS STIGMA FOR HOMOSEXUALITY IF IT HADN'T BEEN FOR THE PSYCHIATRISTS! Congratulating them for their move toward less stigmatizing classifications is like congratulating former slave holders for eventually releasing their chattel.

anon writes:

I'm curious why you would think that members of a certain profession have any responsibility to apologize for the actions of others. Should Jewish doctors apologize for Mengele's crimes? I don't see how just because people have the same job, it automatically implies that they have the same values. Don't libertarians believe in individual responsibility?

Snark writes:

I'd like to see psychiatrists...admit that unusual preferences are not "disease,"...

One may argue that homosexuality is a phenotypically normal behavior, but Dr. Caplan seems to imply that acceptance of unusual preferences should extend to any behavior that consenting adults choose to engage in. What about mass suicide or coprophilia? They certainly pass the litmus of consent, but are generally considered pathological, regardless of intellectual distinction or social position.

Where do we draw the line on unusual preferences, or is it immoral to even try?

Gian writes:

I agree totally with RL. In India homosexuality is still a punishable offense (though hardly anybody is prosecuted) but it is not regarded as a Mental Disorder. Even the common people who may consider it a vice do not consider it a mental illness or disorder.

Tracy W writes:

I'd like to see psychiatrists do the same - to admit that unusual preferences are not "disease," affirm that it is wrong to treat people against their will, and turn their backs on the "greats" of their profession who believed in and practiced coercive therapy.

I hear this and I feel the strength of the argument.

But, on the other hand, one of my relatives believed for about ten years that her husband was trying to kill her, until her doctor prescribed her lithium and her sons browbeat her into taking it. Her husband was a forenisc scientist with ample access to deadly chemicals and the knowledge of how to use them, so it boggles belief that he would have been trying to kill her for ten years without any discernible physical effect. Eventually she outlived him by a good twenty years.

Physical coercion wasn't actually used, but only because her sons mentally bullied her into taking her medicine. But she was happier on her medicine not believing that her husband was trying to kill her.

Sometimes our brains can turn against us. That's as hard as other people turning against us.

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