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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Tear Down The Wall: Psychoanalysts Suppress Documentary on Autism

by Maarten Boudry

[This is a guest post by Maarten Boudry. Maarten is a fellow of the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research at Ghent University. After earning a Master’s degree in Philosophy, he followed a postgraduate program in Logic, History and Philosophy of Science. He has defended a PhD thesis on irrationality and the structure of pseudoscience, and has published papers on that subject in Philosophia, Foundations of Science and Quarterly Review of Biology. His other research interests include the conflict between science and religion, skepticism, scientific naturalism and the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory. He is co-editor, with Massimo, of the forthcoming The Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, to be published by the University of Chicago Press.]

The French documentary film The Wall (Le mur), which takes issue with psychoanalytic views on autism, has caused some uproar over the past few months, even drawing attention from The New York Times. France is one of the last remaining bulwarks of psychoanalysis, the theory and therapy devised by Sigmund Freud and further developed by his countless acolytes. In most of the Anglo-Saxon world, the influence of psychoanalysis has steadily waned over the past decades (except in the humanities and cultural studies), but the public health sector and academic psychology departments in France are still largely dominated by psychoanalysts, particularly the followers of the charismatic Jacques Lacan, who was one of the major targets of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s book Intellectual Impostures. In most other countries, different variants of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are regarded as the standard treatment for autism (and for several other psychological afflictions). French psychoanalysts continue resisting this approach, because they (falsely) regard it as a reductionist approach that solely focuses on behavior change and neglects the subjective dimension of psychological illness. In The Wall, we see a number of psychoanalysts explaining the onset of autism, a neurological condition with an important hereditary factor,  in terms of unresolved oedipal dramas and intersubjective struggles.

Three of the dozen or so analysts who appear in The Wall (Alexandre Stevens, Esthela Solano and Eric Laurent), all of Lacanian stripe, have sued filmmaker Sophie Robert for defamation, claiming that The Wall’s depiction of their views is tendentious, that their views have been distorted through editing, and that the film is a diatribe against psychoanalysis instead of a sober assessment of the theory and therapy. Surprisingly, a court in Lille has partly put the analysts in the right, banning The Wall and sentencing Robert to cough up a compensation fee of hundreds of thousands of euros.

If you think The Wall is manipulative propaganda, you’ve never seen manipulative propaganda. The 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change, for example, is a typical piece of cut-and-paste work: mostly snippets of a few seconds, taken out of context and disingenuously strung together to serve the needs of the filmmakers. The distortions of Loose Change were well documented on the blog Screw Loose Change and by other conspiracy debunkers. What we see in The Wall, however, are psychoanalysts answering questions and holding forth about autism at length, sometimes in uninterrupted sequences of almost a minute. The followers of Freud and Lacan have been remarkably unforthcoming about the alleged misrepresentations of The Wall, complaining mainly about the “polemic” tone of the film and only vaguely referring to misleading editing work.

The judge’s motivation does not provide a smoking gun either. In fact, it would simply outlaw any form of creative post-filming editing. Ironically, the judge charges Robert with leaving out material that even further attests to the bizarre views of Lacanian psychoanalysts. For example, one of the three psychoanalysts is shown saying that sometimes autism is caused by the mother being depressed at birth or while the child is in utero. Misrepresentation of his views, says the judge, because off-screen he adds that autism is foremost a “choice” made by the child itself. Apparently, parents do influence this flight into autism, but only the child itself takes “responsibility.” Such a bizarre position goes out of the frying pan into the fire. The judge, however, thinks it is a “very nuanced view” that gets insufficient attention in The Wall (one wonders why a judge pronounces on such matters). Should we blame Sophie Robert for failing to unearth even more pseudoscientific speculations?

In spite of Robert’s editing work, anyone who bothers to sit through the whole documentary will see a prime example of self-incrimination, with all sorts of bizarre pronouncements that are really self-explanatory, and that derive from a long psychoanalytic tradition of blaming autism on flawed relationships with parents (Bruno Bettelheim, Jacques Lacan, Françoise Dolto). For example, we learn that fathers need to intervene in the mother-child relationship in order to prevent their sexual fusion; that all mothers experience a period of “maternal madness” after pregnancy; that every mother-child relationship is intrinsically incestuous; that the autistic child “refuses” to enter into the world of language because it is “sick of language”; that some fathers are impotent and pathogenic; that one function of the placenta is to mediate between the murderous desires of mother and fetus during pregnancy (!); and that the psychological damage of father-daughter incest is not much to worry about.

Not all of those exotic views are shared by all the interviewed analysts, of course. Indeed, if you consult two psychoanalysts on any given subject, you usually end up with three different opinions. The analysts in The Wall have one thing in common, though: they revel in the same baseless and gratuitous psychoanalytic method, and they display the same cavalier disregard for careful scientific theorizing about the human mind. Particularly harrowing is the bleak view expressed by many Lacanian analysts about the expected benefits of their (or any form of) therapy (“the pleasure of taking interest in a soap bubble,” says one analyst after an embarrassing silence). This reflects another central tenet of Lacanian psychoanalysis: we cannot be cured from the human condition, and the symptoms developed by a patient constitute his or her way of coping with the ineluctable “knot” into which we humans tie ourselves (hence the “choice” for autism). Instead of fostering false hopes, or so the Lacanians claim, we should resign to this state of affairs. To try to get rid of debilitating symptoms, as cognitive behavioral therapists try to do, is to eradicate the dimension of human subjectivity. Such defeatism is appalling in view of the evidence-based therapeutic interventions for dealing with conditions such as autism.

To be sure, some parts of The Wall have been substantially edited (as is the case in any documentary film), but the three psychoanalysts have not given a single instance of editing work that has led to gross misrepresentation. Examples where questions and answers have been shuffled to improve the flow of the storyline hardly make a difference to the arguments presented. In one or two instances, the editing process may be regarded as glancing over some nuances, or insufficiently discriminating between different viewpoints. In a theoretical mess such as Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, with its obscure and byzantine doctrine about subjective development, one can always blame the critic of missing such or such theoretical subtlety. To Robert’s credit, she has taken pains to clear away the fog surrounding (Lacanian) psychoanalysis, and to crisply demonstrate what the psychoanalytic view of autism comes down to.

The other charges against Sophie Robert are simply ridiculous. The film is accused of being “polemic,” as if this was a thought crime in itself. A film maker has the right to express his or her views on a subject, and to take sides if (s)he feels morally obliged to do so. Would any sensible person be able to make a documentary about homeopathy, astrology or Scientology and manage to remain studiously evenhanded about the subject matter? The polemic tone of the film is perfectly justified in light of the outrageous claims made by the Lacanian psychoanalysts themselves. And even if Robert had seriously misrepresented the views of some of her interviewees, the latter could have written a formal response instead of dragging a young filmmaker into court and demanding exorbitant compensation fees (€ 300,000 in total).

This ruling is a blatant violation of the right to free speech and free dissemination of information. All interviewees had signed an agreement disowning their rights to the footage and acknowledging that the material would be edited. Although freedom of speech ends where libel and slander begin, psychoanalysts have not even come close to showing that such is the case. Naturally, Sophie Robert has appealed against the judge’s ruling. In the meantime, Lacanian psychoanalysts who (understandably) have tried to ban this 52-minute long embarrassment for their discipline, will have to countenance the so-called Streisand effect: attempts to censor information on the internet will almost inevitably backfire, by attracting more attention and furthering its dissemination. And you, dear reader, are complicit in this strange phenomenon!

Visit the website ‘Support the Wall


  1. "France is one of the last remaining bulwarks of psychoanalysis"

    You forgot Argentina. The Faculty of Psichology of the Buenos Aires Univeristy is filled with this pseudocientific nonesense. We are surrounded by lacanians, it's a disgrace

  2. Knowing very little about psychoanalysis, I have to state that this thread infuriates me to learn about. I have an autistic nephew and I shudder at the thought that, in another country, he would be receiving treatment based on these people's theories. I would have to look more into this but, from a superficial view, I could imagine many similarities between their suggestions for treatment and how the United States treated Autistic children before we recognized Autism as a disorder.

  3. Maarten, you are simply lying. The psychoanalysts have given several examples of misrepresentation. Sophie Robert cut away some of the questions she originally posed and put others in their place in the editing process after. The concrete examples are in the arrest.


    Also, Sophie Robert wasn't convncted for taking a moral stance, she was convicted for the blatant lies she told, for manipulation and misuse of the consent of the people she interviewed. This has nothing to do with free speach. Sophie Robert still is as free as anyone to make a partisan film about whatever she wants.

    If anyone wanted to see a piece of manipulationist propaganda, this text is a perfect example. You don't bother with the facts, you distort them to fit your own explanatory scheme, and you even suggest a completely unargumented conspiracy theory in your title (as if psychoanalysts controlled jurisdiction, come on, let's be be serious)

    I don't want to defend these psychoanalysts, or psychoanalysis as a whole. I want autists to get the best therapy or treatment they can, and if that means downgrading the role of psychoanalysis, that's fine by me. But the end doesn't justify the means, and that goes for you as well as for Sophie Robert. If you want to fight psychoanalysis, by all means do so. But do so honestly, with real arguments instead of propaganda.

  4. Sorry, please ignore the author name above the previous post as well as this one. They are both by Anton Froeyman

  5. My only hope is that this mess will be decided by a sound mind (given the fact pattern presented, I have no clue how the judge ruled against the filmaker). Psychoanalysis is simply not a tenable scientific theory. One wonders how on earth anyone can seriously advocate that an autistic child chooses his condition.

    1. 'Choosing' is a word to say it isn't the fault of the parents...
      If I may add, it is a forced choice than comes into manifestation when the child is introduced in the world of the others. That it is for a great part biological forced, isn't contradicting what you say.

  6. @ Daneel. Yes, I should've mentioned Argentine. I know that used to be one of the strongholds as well, but I haven't checked lately... So is the situation still as bad?

    @ Reini. Have you actually read either the judge's ruling or my post? The alleged examples of misrepresentation in the ruling are either laughable, such as in Alexandre Steven's case, or come down to irrelevant nitpicking. Why don't you cite one of the so-called editing offenses, as I did, instead of simply referring to the judge's ruling? Of course questions and answers were edited through cut-and-paste techniques, Robert had several hours of footage. The real question is: was the editing of such nature that it distorted the views of the interviewees? The answer is: not at all, and certainly not to a degree that would call for a ban on the film. Anyone who consults the ruling can see for himself. For interested readers, here is an English translation: http://www.supportthewall.org/2012/02/exclusive-translation-of-the-court-decision-of-jan-26-2012-the-wall-sophie-robert-vs-psychoanalysts/
    What "blatant lies" did Sophie Robert tell? Are you talking about the working title of the film that changed in due course (see ruling)? How devious!
    By the way, my title is perfectly accurate and not in the slightest degree conspirational: psychoanalysts have suppressed a documentary by dragging the film maker into court and demanding huge compensation fees for reputation damage that, as it happens, was entirely self-inflicted. Have you actually seen the nonsense they are spouting about autism?
    I rest my case: this ruling is a disgrace to free speech.

  7. First of all, that "translation" is not a translation, it is a distortion made by supporters of Sophie Robert.

    The real arrest is here (sorry, I posted the wrong link in the previous post). People who are actually interested in the truth of the matter can verify everything there for themselves.


    Second, you cite exactly one word from the arrest, "polemic", en you misrepresent it. The film wasn't convicted for being polemic or partisan at all. It's director was convincted for absuse of confidence and misrepresentation. That's not my opinion, that's a fact, it's in the arrest. If Sophie Robert wants to make a partisan film against psychoanalysis, she is free to do so. She just has to do so honestly.

    It is telling that people like you, who are always talking about truth and rationality, don't bother with the truth when it doesn't fit your prejudices.

  8. By all means, read the French original (as I did), I was trying to do English readers a service! Of course, as expected, you don't provide a single instance of distortion. Nor do you you deal with my analysis of Steven's ludicrous charge of misrepresentation. Instead, you repeat the word "misrepresentation" over and again. In the sceptical literature, that is called an "argumentum ad nauseam".

  9. Maarte, Just and advice. Be carefull when debating with PSA fans (it's like doing so with Creationists). The situation in Argentina is similar, but in the State I live (Santa Fe) there is a piece of legislation that forvides PSA from trating Autism. They protested of course, but the general notion by our society (I think) is that PSA is actually real psychology. I hope you can healp us to adress this issues that we are currentlly experiencing down here.

  10. Hello,

    Good blogpost. I followed the story for a while now. I even interviewed Sophie Robert for my French-speaking skeptical podcast "Scepticisme scientifique". That ruling is really worring for free speach in France, especially for documentary makers. How can you make a documentary if every people you interview can after sue you for the way you edited what they said? I think Sophie Robert editing was more than fair, but even if it wasn't, that's how you make documentaries. Investigative journalists should be really afraid of that kind of rulling.

    The psychoanalyst lobby is really strong in France. I think the French skeptical community is fighting here an uphill battle, against a very powerfull group of people. But things are slowly changing. Let's all support Sophie Robert's work.

    Skeptically yours,

  11. I am a geneticist, and when I read Maarten Boudry's report I was outraged by this court decision. I read the translation posted here (http://www.supportthewall.org/2012/02/exclusive-translation-of-the-court-decision-of-jan-26-2012-the-wall-sophie-robert-vs-psychoanalysts/), and I was inclined to take the filmmaker's side. Now, I don't agree with any of the psychoanalytical take on autism, but -in all fairness- I have to conclude that the director truly misrepresented what the plaitiffs said.
    As an example, Mrs. Robert makes it sound like Mr. Stevens thinks the "blame" for an autistic child should be on the mother’s depression. When I read his answer in the context of her actual question, I understand that he believes that that baby isn't capable of relating to her mother. So the primary cause of autism lies in the baby.
    A second example. Mrs. Robert edited the film to make it sound like Mrs. Solano-Suarez admits they don't know what they're doing when they are treating an autistic child. But the original question was different. Mrs. Solano-Suarez was saying is that psychoanalytical theory of autism is conjectural because it is impossible to psychoanalyze a child who cannot speak.
    Again, I am a skeptical. I think these theories are bull. Autism is far more likely to be a purely organic disorder. However, I agree that Mrs. Robert's editing isn't fair to the actual views of the plaintiffs (based on a translation that is purported to be on her side).
    As rationalists, we should try not to side with someone just because we share their opinions... especially when they are wrong.

  12. While the rightness of the decision may be up to debate, there are also good news from France. Yesterday, the health authorities issued a report to disadvise the use of psychoanalysis when dealing with autism. If you can read french, this article may be relevant for you :


  13. This film is far too gentle with the interviewed psychoanalysts.



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