THE NEVERENDING ARGUMENT

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.


          I'm not sure how it began, but I recently had a brief discussion with another parent at my son's baseball game about space aliens.

          I suggested at some point that just perhaps the earth had not actually been visited by beings from other planets. This woman immediately took issue with my opinion. She suggested that "I must have blinders on," and that for me to say that we here on earth were the only people in the universe was "just ridiculous." (I didn't say that, but I let it go).

          I sat quietly for a few moments and considered the turn this conversation had suddenly taken. I thought of how much more interesting it was than the ball game, how I had always thought this woman to be so friendly and pleasant to talk to. I knew now that I simply hadn't previously hit upon the right subject.

          It isn't as if a conflict such as this is especially foreign to me. The phenomenal popularity of alternative therapies will generate a similar exchange at most courses I teach. It usually goes something like this:

          Student: "Don't you believe that the memory of traumatic events can somehow become stuck in our peripheral tissues?"

          Me: "Well, all of the research done the past twenty years indicates that memory is not something that is contained in any particular part of the brain, much less the leg. And although a sensation might remind us of a past event, studies show that our memories are not reliable. Memory is a confabulation colored by emotion, desire, denial and our need to please others. In short, memory is not a "thing" that can be pushed around by the therapist's hands, but an event of the mind that is essential for normal functioning. It can't always be relied upon to tell us accurately of our past. Loftus and her colleagues in the clinical research community have proven that the "repression" of traumatic memory is a myth and that "recovered memory" is a result of the interaction between the client and the therapist, not the discovery of an actual event."

          Student: "Barrett, I'm surprised that you are so close minded about this."

          At this point I have to make a choice about whether to say more or to just shrug my shoulders. I know that my answer, though fairly complete, was pedantic and perhaps even boring. Further words from me about this are not really necessary.

          Like my conversation at the baseball game, there is only conflict ahead, and no real exchange of information. I can't help but feel that emotions will rule the discussion should it proceed, mine included.

          Though I think that there are deeper issues here concerning what constitutes credible evidence, what really rises to the surface are systems of belief and the nature of skepticism.

          On either side of something like this is one person willing to believe and another wanting only to know. On one side is a faith in every remote possibility, and on the other an adherence to probability that is inherent to parsimonious scientific reasoning. Both sides think the other is ignorant or has been duped. The scientific sort is called close minded and the believer is called empty headed.

          I find it fairly easy to simply shrug my shoulders when the subject is interplanetary visitations. After all, this doesn't have any real effect on my work or the lives of my patients.

          But when clinical issues take this turn I find myself mired beyond that point, often wishing I was elsewhere.

          I don't think that this will ever end.