Subjective Vs. Objective Labels: A
Plea for Occam's Razor
|I am often asked, sometimes heatedly, about
my dismissal of labels like "ADD". Parents tell me they are
grateful to have a label that seems to explain - at last - their
child's challenging behavior. Other adults tell me that the ADD label
has helped them to understand the difficulties they themselves have
faced in life. So what is wrong with using labels that seem to explain
so much? Nothing - if we are talking about objective labels.
Everything - if we are using subjective ones.
The definition of "objective" is "having actual
existence or reality." In medicine, objective labels such
as cancer, brain damage, dietary deficiencies, and sleep disorders can
be verified in the laboratory.
The definition of "subjective" is "proceeding from
or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external
world". Subjective labels (ADD, ADHD, sensory sensitivity
etc.) are given casually, arbitrarily, with no laboratory or other
medical proof - and thus are not valid; they are based on a list of
subjective feelings and experiences which can change from one day to
the next, and thus are not reliable. The only brain damage that has
ever been associated with so-called "learning disorders" has
been found in children or adults who were already taking a strong
medication such as Ritalin. The similarities between Ritalin and
cocaine have prompted concern that the unknown dangers of Ritalin
could be similar to the known dangers of cocaine.1
The use of such dangerous drugs are especially unjustified as there is
no true laboratory evidence of the "disorders" that Ritalin
is supposed to cure. In a study of 5,000 children followed from
adolescence to adulthood, psychopharmacologist Susan Schenk of Texas
A&M University found that children treated with Ritalin are three
times more likely to develop a taste for cocaine.2
labels are self-fulfilling.
|Subjective labels, being neither valid nor reliable,
have no usefulness. They do, however, have many unfortunate
consequences. First, all subjective labels are self-fulfilling. If I
believe that I am "clumsy", the next time I drop something I
will view that as further proof of that label, when there may be a
much simpler reason. Perhaps my sleep the previous night was disturbed
or I am not paying attention because I am worried about a friend who
|We truly are what we believe we are. In
fact, there are many understandable, human reasons for clumsiness,
sadness, forgetfulness, distraction and all the "symptoms"
of "learning disorders". Anyone - at any age - can drop
things, forget things, and over-react to frustration if they haven't
had sufficient rest, their diet hasn't been adequate, or their life is
currently stressful. These reactions are universal. They are
understandable. They are human.
In contrast, a true medical condition, like cancer, is objective.
This type of label serves the very useful purpose of telling us about
something that can be treated, and ideally cured. A subjective
label like ADD distracts us from the true causes of human behavior. If
I believe that it is "my ADD" that has brought about
clumsiness, I am likely to miss the actual cause (such as lack of
sleep) and solution (changing my lifestyle to get sufficient rest).
Subjective labels not only distract us from true causes and
solutions, they fool us into thinking that the only solution is
medication. Millions of dollars are spent for drugs that, at best,
have a placebo effect, and at worst cause severe side effects.
The labels "ADD" and "ADHD", because they have
been applied to millions of children, who are then given dangerous,
addictive drugs, are especially troublesome. We all owe it to children
to avoid using these labels. Every time we use them, we are
proclaiming their validity.
|There is a philosophical tool called "Occam's
Razor", a handy device for cutting through preposterous theories:
the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that
should be selected. Applying Occam's Razor to the so-called
"symptoms" of subjective disorders, we could say "I'm
feeling sad because my best friend moved away." "I'm tired
because I didn't sleep well last night." "I'm dropping
things because I'm tired." "I'm overreacting to criticism
because my partner and I argued this morning." "I'm restless
because I had coffee today." "I can't concentrate right now
because I'm worried about finances." "This child is
distracted in school because he is being bullied / because the
presentations are boring / because he needs more physical exercise /
because he would rather learn through play."
naturally energetic, playful, and curious.
|Not only do such explanations make more
sense and fit Occam's Razor, they can help us to find and fix the true
causes, and improve our lives and relationships. If we focus directly
on our current feelings and circumstances, we can begin to discover
the real difficulty. Only when we know the real problem - the true
objective cause - can we find a real solution. When we are talking
about children, the true "problem" is often the simple fact
that they are children, who are naturally energetic, playful,
Objective labels (true physical disorders that can be tested and
verified in a lab) are the simplest explanation for many conditions.
If someone has a brain tumor, that is the simplest explanation for his
distractibility, confusion or clumsiness, and the sooner it is
detected the better the outcome can be. Objective labels are
enabling - they help us to look for real solutions for real
problems. They fit Occam's Razor.
Subjective labels are disabling - they convince us that the
problem is permanent and unavoidable (so there is no reason to focus
on improving our sleep, diet, relationships, lifestyle choices, or
personal habits) and convince us that the only solution is a dangerous
drug. Subjective labels like "ADD" do not fit Occam's Razor
- they are far from the simplest explanation - and in fact they are
the most obscure and arbitrary, and do nothing to further our
understanding of true causes. Instead, they bring only further
confusion, and lead us away from creative, realistic and useful
solutions to life's challenges.
Perhaps the greatest danger of using such labels is that they
medicalize both the child's and his parents' view of his way of being
- and to what end? ADD, ADHD, Asperger's Syndrome, "selective
mutism" and other similar terms are all subjective labels based
on a negative interpretation of the child's unique approach to life
and learning. Like all negative labels, they affect the child's
self-concept and the way other children and adults view him. In that
sense, all of these labels are detrimental, limiting and
self-fulfilling. The misunderstood behaviors behind the labels
demonstrate the child's understandable attempts to cope when
overwhelmed by fear or frustration (these "disorders" appear
almost exclusively in the school environment). Fortunately, there is a
new alternative view called "neurodiversity". Thomas
Armstrong has shown that what we regard as "disabilities" in
our culture have at other times and in other cultures been considered
assets and advantages. Dr. Armstrong calls for a new approach based on
deep respect and a celebration of natural differences.3
Learning disability labels assume that children should act like
adults. Why can't we let children be children, with all their natural
energy and playfulness? Have we all forgotten what it was like to be a
child? Expecting five-year-olds to act as though t hey are thirty-five
is both unfair and unrealistic. They will grow up soon enough!
1 Koerner, Brendan I. "Is
Ritalin "Chemically Similar" to Cocaine?" Slate,
Jan. 6, 2003
2 Schenk, Susan and Emily S. Davidson. "Stimulant
Preexposure Sensitizes Rats and Humans to the Rewarding Effects of
Cocaine" NIDA Monograph 169, p. 56-82.
3 Armstrong, Thomas, Ph.D. "Special
Education and the Concept of Neurodiversity"
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers email counseling
worldwide, with a focus on parenting, unschooling, and personal matters. She
is the Director of The Natural Child
Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting
from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
|More articles by Jan Hunt