Like so many others, I have wanted to embrace the idea that research supports such beliefs as “ADHD is a chronic disease plaguing children”, and/or “Bigfoot exists”. I mean, who wouldn’t? We assume that research is based on sound evidence; information we can trust.
As a parent or educator, who wouldn’t want to believe evidence that there is a simple medical explanation for those annoying behaviors exhibited by children in the process of developing into responsible young adults? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to diagnose those behaviors with one quick visit to the doctor’s office? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a safe, magical, pill; a miraculous “medicine” if you will, that all children could take every day to make them one with everything?
Ooohmmmm . . . close your eyes . . . breathe deeply . . .
Visualize the bliss of such serendipitous scientific discovery . . .
A world of perfectly medicated children.
Also, how amazing would it be if, after centuries of mysterious sightings, Bigfoot just came out of the forest or cave one day, waving a white flag – speaking perhaps in a hoity British accent – “I give up you blimey Yankees! You have caught me . . . now please may I subscribe to satellite TV? It’s dreadfully lonely out here. Fancy a cup of tea?” Of course I am being sarcastic. I doubt Bigfoot is British. He is far too hairy. But perhaps, as Col. Steve Austin documented on national TV in the 1970’s, he could be a bionic robotic creature created for protection by an alien culture living secretly embedded in the Rocky Mountains.
You should know though, I am a pessimistic optimist. Since one fateful evening in February 1976 I have been a hopeful believer in finding Bigfoot. It was that night, with my own eyes; I witnessed my childhood hero’s epic battle with Bigfoot in the woods. Ever since that experience, when I’m surrounded by nature, I often have a lingering thought in the back of my mind that like the Six-Million Dollar Man I will encounter this elusive creature.
As my wife and kids will sadly confirm, one of the last things I do before going to bed on Sunday nights – in an effort to capture one more brainless and carefree hour before the busy work week begins – is watch the strangely addictive Animal Planet series Finding Bigfooot. Every week I watch and hope that my parasocial friends Bobo, Cliff, Renee and Matt (the incredibly likable cast of the show) just might miraculously stumble onto real evidence of Sasquatch. But every week they do the same old thing and make-believe that a random knock on a tree, a strange primeval scream in the night (often sounding coincidentally similar to a coyote’s howl or the screech of an owl), or a large barefoot print in the mud will convince the naysayers of the world. You see, beneath this blanket of sarcasm I truly want to believe. Such discovery is what makes life interesting.
As I horizontally meditated on my couch this past week, however, reflecting on the continuous, fruitless endeavor to document evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, it dawned on me; Bigfoot hunters are not that different from the researchers pursuing evidence of ADHD.
When I started writing my latest book on ADHD I truly wanted to believe in it as well. My goal was to research and learn more about it in hopes of better understanding how I could help such kids. But the more I researched ADHD, the more I began to realize just how shoddily the label is abused to justify the daily drugging of more than 4.5 million children in the USA. I realized the research had far too many unknowns and limitations to justify medicating children with dangerous mind-altering drugs, packing an endless arsenal of short-term, long-term and possibly permanent or fatal side effects. As time passed, the mental photo I had in my mind of this 800 pound gorilla (plaguing the USA worse than any other country) started to become a rather blurry image.
As I learned more about how easy it is to be diagnosed ADHD, the research behind the case for the supposed mental disorder started to resemble the redundantly proliferating collection of plaster casts of Sasquatchian-like footprints, and reek worse than a Bigfoot enthusiast’s hoard of woodland creatures’ “mysterious” scat samples. What I once assumed was sound scientific research supporting the case for ADHD began to closely resemble the mythical folklore behind Bigfoot.
So what does ADHD and Bigfoot research have in common? There are many things, but following are three major limitations that I see as common to ADHD and Bigfoot Research:
Limitation #1: Flawed Research Methodology for Investigation
In laymen’s terms, “research methodology” refers to the methods used to go about collecting evidence for real scientific study. As I explain to my grad students every semester, if one is willing to sacrifice ethics, it’s somewhat easy to produce statistics that loosely support any hypothesis. Anyone with an expertise in statistical analysis typically can do enough data mining to produce what we call “statistically significant” findings. Many already suspect Bigfoot researchers have manipulated evidence in the past, and it should come as no surprise that ADHD researchers – in moments of desperation, let’s say – might succumb to the same temptation. But regardless of the fake ape costumes or mathematical mumbo-jumbo that many use to scare us into believing, before one lets such researchers’ “stat-a-neese” (the language of statistics) confuse them into compliance, what the consumers of such research need to do is examine the methods used.
By considering, for instance, whether the participants used for the study serve as a sufficiently representative sample to generalize such findings to the greater population, one can be a bit savvier as to whether such claims hold water. In other words, you can’t do brain scans on less than one hundred kids diagnosed ADHD, with many of them currently taking dangerous stimulant medications, and claim that such scans give us a picture of what a child’s brain with ADHD looks like. This doesn’t come close to justifying medicating millions more. A picture of the after effect of stimulant use is not proof of ADHD.
We also can tell a lot about claims by looking at whether reliable and valid measurements are being used. Unfortunately, as the pro-ADHD experts quite often admit, there is no such scientific measure. There is no reliable or validated written, medical or biological test in existence for ADHD. Also, if they do not statistically or scientifically control for the plethora of other possible answers (variables we call covariates in statistical analysis), or consider differential diagnoses that might more accurately explain the behaviors or conclusions, then we can’t be sure that what they claim is legit. There are numerous other flaws to the methods used to research ADHD, that I cover in my book in more depth.
Research from the fields of inquiry into both ADHD and Bigfoot, however, typically lack these three simple methodological requirements for a good study; The samples used are insufficient to draw conclusions from, the measurements are suspect, and they often ignore the other obvious explanations for such discoveries. For some reason the majority of research published on ADHD ignores – and wants you to ignore – that they have no reliable or valid way to measure ADHD for a formal study. They rarely account for what might really explain such common childhood behaviors. And if Finding Bigfoot provides an example of how Bigfoot hunters operate, then one can assume many Bigfoot researchers also are not seeking to improve their methodology in hopes of increasing chances of better and more accurate evidence.
One wonders; are both industries’ interests better served by a never-ending search for an elusive non-entity? Do these industries thrive more on the conveniently embodied primal fears that dwell within us, and the eternal promise of a resolution to those fears if only the elusive entity is someday found? Are the two fields disinterested in an organized approach to finding their elusive quarry, or are they simply incompetent, or do they actually have a built-in bias against having to do battle with the objects of their search, were they were to actually stumble on them?
Limitation #2: The Curse of the Eye of the Beholder
As many have stated for decades, ADHD is in the eye of the beholder, and – as the Bigfoot researchers have claimed “I saw him!”, with no way to measure whether ADHD exists – unfortunately this is all we have to go on. This is why the diagnosis of ADHD rests upon one’s opinion. If what they see reflects any part of the 18 common childhood behaviors experts want you to believe are symptoms of a mental disorder, then in their eyes the child is ADHD.
“Just look at my Billy, what else could describe the way he acts?”
Um; he’s five years old.
”Just look at this impressive brain scan image, what else do you think could explain this phenomenon?”
Um, your child’s brain functions in a slightly different way or on a different level then what some call normal; which quite possibly is a good thing.
“Just look at this photo of a strange dark furry blob of something lurking in the woods?”
You get the picture. The existence of ADHD and Bigfoot rests upon the eye of the beholder.
Limitation #3: No Conclusive Evidence
If the pictures don’t manage to equal a thousand words, they then try to convince you with numbers. The Squatchers of the world point to how many hundreds of sightings have been reported. The ADHD experts of the world have even more numbers that they want you to believe are some kind of proof. But as the New York Times and Forbes have reported, much of the research they want you to believe is proof of ADHD’s existence is written by duped desperate Ghostwriters hired by high-priced Madison Avenue advertising firms the makers of drugs for kids have contracted to build a propaganda machine. Many of the other pro-ADHD researchers are just on the payroll of the pharmaceutical companies.
Furthermore, as my soon-to-be-released book on ADHD explains in more detail, the majority of research produced by the pro-ADHD world only investigates whether the drugs mask common annoying behaviors of childhood that they want you to believe are symptoms of ADHD. The other large slice of the ADHD mud pie’s studies tries again and again to convince you that the drugs help children do better in school.
But as a recent study suggests, confirming what numerous other studies have documented for years, the drugs do not help children become better students. The dangerous drugs, the stimulants the DEA classifies as addictive Schedule II narcotics, only over-stimulate a young child’s brain into malfunctioning on a daily basis. And if you take the time to read about what I discovered pertaining to studies on lab animals taking such ADHD drugs, you will also find that the drugs quite possibly cause permanent brain damage.
Just as with Bigfoot research, there is no conclusive DNA evidence when it comes to ADHD. The neurobehavioral research has not produced evidence documenting that a child exhibiting ADHD related behaviors has a “less superior” brain than a child who does not. After 60 years of prescribing dangerous stimulants to treat this supposed disorder, for some strange reason the not-so-family-friendly arm of the pharmaceutical industry selling the dangerous drugs for kids has no conclusive longitudinal research to confirm that the drugs do not negatively impact on a child’s long-term development. As friend of mine in the Bronx likes to say, “Fugged-a-bout-it.” And, sadly, they continue to try to get us to ignore the research that shows nearly all of the childhood symptoms associated with ADHD typically mellow over time and are related to delays associated with common childhood developmental stages. In 2009, however, they did admit something all should pay close attention to; talk therapy is just as effective as – if not more effective than – drugs for addressing such behavioral issues. (I would add to that good ole’ fashioned parenting.)
They Don’t Know Diddly Squatch
Every week Finding Bigfoot’s cast goes to a location where an impressive sighting of Bigfoot has been reported. They start the show by meeting with the witness at the scene of the sighting. Renee, the only nonbeliever of the quartet, says it is not enough evidence. The other three gents shake the person’s hand and say “Welcome to the club, you saw a Bigfoot.” And then in order to collect more evidence they hold a town hall meeting and ask others if they saw this creature. They then act as if such reported sightings (usually void of any physical evidence) are real data, and then go on to say they are triangulating the sightings to mathematically determine where they will go for one whole night or possibly a whopping two nights to look for themselves; this all sounds really scientific to my five-year-old son.
They start their scientific expedition by screaming endless “Bigfoot calls” into the forest. They continue the night by smacking wooden bats against trees. Apparently, making as much noise as possible is the best way to sneak up on a Bigfoot. Also, if you didn’t know, “knocking” is how Bigfoots communicate with each other. The whole time they are doing this they are walking around with bulky clunky camera rigs hooked up to them (picture Blair Witch Mountain camera angles). To illuminate the cast’s faces, cameras equipped with night lights that one is suppose to assume Bigfoots can’t see. And then, to add extra stealth to the scientific mission, they have a camera crew following them. The night typically ends with them saying, “Though we did not find a Bigfoot, it was a great night and we gathered some real evidence.” They heard a “woop woop.” Or a knock which often seems to sound like a tree branch breaking.
Every week, as someone who specializes in educational research methodology, I sit (or lie) there wishing that just once they would actually abandon their fruitless ineffective one-night stand methods and instead set up camp for a few months. This is especially true on those nights when the evidence suggests that from local residents’ encounters there could very well be Bigfoot(s?) in the area. If they did this they could set up cameras throughout the area tracking every creature’s movements. Then, as they stake out hotspots and monitor the mountainsides systematically, they could strategically use their impressively advanced technology – such as the infrared night vision from FLIR. They could take ADHD stimulants so they have no need for sleep, and will be chemically prepared to focus on the task at hand. (Apparently this is what they are now recommending to truck drivers.) But, no; for the Finding Bigfoot cast, every week it is the same old thing, the same old methods.
ADHD investigators, especially those being paid or supported by the billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies making the drugs (which is a very large percent of the ADHD researchers), pursue similar flawed methods for collecting evidence. They, similar to the Bigfoot hunters, continue to make a lot of senseless noise and repeat the same flawed approaches they have used for decades. When we stop buying everything they are trying to sell us about this supposed disorder millions of kids suffer from, we end up wondering if this 800 pound gorilla in the room that they call ADHD is like the late Andre the Giant dressed up in a Bigfoot costume? This, sadly, was the case when the Six-Million Dollar man wrestled Bigfoot.
In 2003, the average prevalence of ADHD in kids in the USA was 6.5%. That increased to 11% by 2013. According to my calculations, if we continue to allow suspect research gathered through flawed methods to scare us into following the same path or running for the hills, by 2043 we probably will be drugging close to half of the kids in the USA. As I always say when ending one of my talks, I could be wrong. If real evidence, irrefutable evidence of Bigfoot or ADHD is ever uncovered, I will be the first to question my position and, if need be, admit my error. I just wish those lurking in the pro-ADHD research forest would see through the trees and, at some point, after 60 years of trying to find research that justifies drugging kids for acting like kids, be willing to admit they are wrong.
I must admit I don’t know whether I can watch another season of Finding Bigfoot, no matter how much I like the cast personally, or how much I enjoy the sense of mystery, of wonder, and the excitement of the hunt, or how satisfying finding and capturing an embodiment of the fears of things that go bump in the night might be, if the search continues to ignore real science, or fails to add sound research methods to the efforts. I would like to keep watching, and enjoying those hope- and wonder-filled moments, prostrate on the couch, before the week begins.
But at some point I, and we, must get to the real work. Until the ADHD researchers offer up evidence better than that behind the existence of Bigfoot, we should stop treating our children for this idiopathic (Idio is a Latin root meaning “peculiar,” and pathic basically means “illness”) disease. If there is any mental disorder out there being placed upon children peculiarly, it is ADHD, and the consequences are growing increasingly catastrophic.
The Finding Bigfoot crew, for their part, is doing nothing worse than spending nights in the woods; trying to communicate with their furry quarry, armed with nothing more dangerous than cameras and curiosity.
Our children deserve no less.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.