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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Nov Dec 2016 > Superstition Masquerading as Science

Superstition Masquerading as Science

Psychiatrist Makes Devilishly Weak Case for Demonic Possession

An essay by Dr. Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist who purports to be “a man of science,” was featured in the July 1, 2016, online Opinions section of the Washington Post. The essay elicited strong reactions from many quarters; for example, it has drawn over 2,800 online responses as of this writing. Although the title of Gallagher’s essay is alarming enough—“As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession”—his grasp of science is even more troubling. In his essay, Gallagher claims to be able to identify individuals who are demonically possessed and to help exorcists distinguish them from people suffering from genuine mental illnesses. As clinical psychologists, two of whom are members of the Public Education and Media Committee of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology (SSCP), we are deeply concerned that his approach to explaining human behavior has the potential to damage the profession and contribute to harmful mental health practices.

At the outset, Gallagher tries to persuade readers that he is a skeptic. He describes himself as “inclined to skepticism” and notes that he once told an exorcist, “I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus pocus.” He argues that “respect for evidence,” among other virtues, guides his approach to psychiatry, teaching, and evaluating claims concerning demonic possession. Further, he asserts, reasonably, that in most cases behaviors attributed to possession can be accounted for by “more prosaic problems” such as “a medical disorder; mental illnesses,” suggestibility, or “fraud.”

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