Disorder and Early Sorrow

This review of Simon Blackburn’s Truth brings up Munchausen’s by proxy:

For a more serious example of the misuse of “objective facts” by people in power, he blasts the proponents of “Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy,” which Blackburn calls “a description invented by a British pediatrician for a ‘condition’ in which mothers harm or kill their babies in order to gain attention for themselves. By insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence, the medical profession assisted in the conviction of many innocent mothers whose babies had died of natural causes.”

The subject is in the news as we speak, as a professor of forensic statistics explains what he takes to be a mistake in Roy Meadow’s analysis of the odds that two children in the same family could have SIDS, to the General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice panel.

These ‘conditions’ that are ‘discovered’ are interesting. Apparently there is – or is said to be – a ‘condition’ ‘called’ (by whom?) Body Integrity Identity Disorder. People who have this rare ‘condition’ apparently (as far as I can make out) are convinced they have an arm or leg too many and pine their lives away longing to have the superfluous limb chopped off. Now…I don’t know, but where I come from, that kind of thing isn’t considered a ‘condition’ so much as just being stark staring stupid. Could that be the problem here? Could the people (who are they?) who named this ‘condition’ Body Integrity Identity Disorder, simply have been confused? Could they just have mistaken a peculiar belief with a ‘condition’? People have lots of peculiar beliefs, you know; that doesn’t mean they’re sick, it just means they’re not firing on all cylinders. A certain amount of cautious skepticism would seem to be in order.

Two Australian philosophers believe surgeons should be allowed to cut off the healthy limbs of some “amputee wannabes”. Neil Levy and Tim Bayne argue that patients obsessed with having a limb amputated should be able to have it safely removed by a surgeon, as long as they are deemed sane…Dr Levy, of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, said some patients suffered so severely from the rare condition – known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) – they tried to remove the limb themselves…Only a few thousand people worldwide are believed to have the disorder.

By whom? Who are all these people? All these shadowy people who named the ‘Disorder’ and have beliefs about how many people in the world have it – who are they, and how do they know?

But more to the point, this seems like a glaring example of exactly what Blackburn is talking about – of ‘insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence’ – and then give surgeons the okay to cut off legs and arms that don’t need cutting off. It’s like
‘Reactive Attachment Disorder’
, the made-up ‘disorder’ that got Candace Newmaker killed by ‘therapists’ in a rebirthing exercise. It’s also like ‘recovered memory’ and ‘multiple personality disorder’ and no doubt a good few other disorders and syndromes. If it just prompts some therapeutic hand-holding and hanky-clutching, it’s not so terrible (unless the afflicted want to tell us about their affliction, in which case it’s time to discover an urgent appointment elsewhere), but when it starts getting people squashed in mattresses or mutilated or thrown in prison or permanently estranged from parents or children – it’s a bit dodgy.

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