Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Rebuttal of Israel's Response to "School of Shock"

Matthew Israel of the Judge Rotenberg Center has been posting a link to his response to Jennifer Gonnerman's article titled "School of Shock." This is a rebuttal of said response.

Every surgical, dental or medical treatment involves discomfort, risks or costs on the one hand, and expected benefits on the other. For most persons a reasonable approach is to weigh the discomfort/risks/costs against the potential benefits in deciding whether to undergo or approve the treatment.
There's a clear difference between the JRC's "treatment" and surgical, dental or medical treatment. First of all, infliction of pain is not a means to an end in any of the analogies mentioned. Pain is simply a side-effect of the treatment. Furthermore, in each of these cases, measures are taken to reduce discomfort. That's what anasthesia is for! So the analogy is poor.

I'm leaving aside whether the behaviors "treated" are true medical conditions in all cases, and whether the "treatment" itself is medical.

In the case of certain treatments, however, there are some persons who, for religious or philosophical reasons, are unwilling to weigh the negative aspects of those treatments against the potential benefits. These persons view the treatment in question as Wrong with a capital “W”, regardless of the potential benefits the treatment might produce. For example, Christian Scientists oppose the use of medical interventions, and Scientologists oppose the use of psychiatric drugs, regardless of what potential benefits may ensue.
What is this irrelevant nonsense? I'm picturing an immate of the JRC objecting to being tortured for "philosophical reasons." Is he serious?

Opponents of behavior modification treatment that involves aversives(sometimes referred to as “aversive therapy”) are similarly unwilling to weigh the discomfort, risks or costs associated with aversives against the potential benefits—even when those benefits could be lifesaving, life-improving or life-extending. Such persons prefer to brand aversives as “Wrong,” refusing to recognize them as part of a relatively new behavior modification treatment procedure2, and many of them sometimes do whatever they can to prevent anyone else from using them. It is clear from Ms. Gonnerman’s article that she is one of those persons.
Here I'm going to have to say that Mr. Israel is using "aversives" as a euphemism for torture. At a different time we can discuss "aversives" as they are used in behavior modification. For example, Lovaas recommends slapping a child on the rear and yelling "No!" Many of us find this in itself objectionable, but I don't think this is what we're talking about right now.

Torture is defined as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity" (Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1987).

Allowing the Judge Rotenberg Center to exist would appear to be in violation of international law under this definition. If the JRC immates were Al-Qaeda terrorists instead of the developmentally disabled, I'm sure Amnesty International would be on the case sooner than you could say "Abu Ghraib."

Ms. Gonnerman is so intent on indicting the Judge Rotenberg Center (“JRC”), the only special needs school in the country that offers this form of therapy, that she violates the normal journalistic ethics of presenting both sides of a controversial issue. Out of a total of 265 column inches that her article occupies, only 15 inches (6% percent of the article) present any of the benefits of JRC’s treatment. Even those few accounts of parents (characterized as “desperate parents”) or students who speak positively about JRC are presented with snide comments, disparaged by unfavorable observations or reported in the least favorable light possible.
Here Mr. Israel is making the common mistake of confusing journalistic balance with "equal time." This is actually a big problem in science reporting, where fringe ideas are often portrayed as being on equal footing with accepted and tested theories (source).


Matthew Israel's response to "School of Shock" contains several false analogies and demonstrates a lack of understanding of certain concepts. Hence, it adds little value to any discussion about the need to stop torturing people. Perhaps if we were to strap one of those JRC backpacks to Mr. Israel, and we were to administer a shock every time he comes up with a response of this quality, such responses might improve in time. (I'm of course not serious about that last part.)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Basically it's up to Congress and the President in my opinion Phil.

    U.S.A. has signed the international declaration that is referenced, but has not 'Ratified' it.

  3. Not to burst your balloon joseph but you didn't rebut Israels' response at all.

    I read the response. The behavior in question for which various aversives are used are seriously self injurious behavior such as head banging leading to brain injury, biting of extremities to the point of severance and self starvation. The Israel argument is that 2 seconds of shock is effective at preventing such dangerous behavior in lieu of life in restraints, seclusion or psychotropic drugs.

    You didn't rebut the Israel response at all.

  4. It is absolutely not the case that self-injurious behavior is the only reason shocks are administered at the JRC. In fact, immates described as "high functioning" are subject to the shocks.

    Either way, I don't see how self-injury justifies engaging in torture. "Other treatments didn't work" is not a valid reason to select an unethical form of "treatment." It just means that better ways to deal with the issue (which probably do exist) are just not known.

    By way of analogy, suppose someone has clinical depression, and none of the conventional treatments work. Would it be appropriate to try a frontal lobotomy at that point?

  5. christschool10/31/2007 3:30 PM

    Dr. Israel uses the GED for offenses such as a "student" saying "you stink". Hard to believe? Look at my video of a discussion by Dr. Worsham, one of the staff psychologists for JRC. Also interesting to note is how they (JRC) "creatively" identifies such speech as a legitimate use of GED to the court judge. Each student is suppose to have an advocate/solicitor. Hard to believe any good solicitor would accept these reasons to use painful electroconvulsive shock on his/her client.

    What's interesting is that the video capture I took from JRC's website was removed at some point (not sure if it was reposted). A student in the video is shown getting the GED for what she says. There was no SIB or physical aggression.

    Mr. Doherty, if you defend such practices, you have slipped into the realm of barbarism.


  6. Self-injury is Harold's justification for everything that is done to autistics. Institutionalization is a favorite of his. But he couldn't answer why (if self-injury is the reason institutionalization is pursued) the number of developmentally disabled persons living in institutions has dropped substantially in the last several decades, and continues to drop.

  7. Joe,
    Do you think Israel should try chelation instead of electricity?
    I think a few zaps would be good for neurodiverse bloggers though.

  8. "Self-injury is Harold's justification for everything that is done to autistics. Institutionalization is a favorite of his. But he couldn't answer why (if self-injury is the reason institutionalization is pursued) the number of developmentally disabled persons living in institutions has dropped substantially in the last several decades, and continues to drop."

    joseph, whenever your arguments fall apart you result to gross mis-characterization of positions that others take. For the record your summaries of my positions have nothing to do with anything I have ever stated.

    I simply pointed out in this exchange that you did not actually rebut Mr. Israel's argument. You didn't.

    As for self injury it is real. What treatment or help do you propose for the autistic children who hurt themselves as descrbied by Mr. Israel?

  9. Ok, this is something I've never understood. How can you tell someone that it is wrong to physically hurt themselves by, er, physically hurting them? Furthermore, if the treatment is supposed to be so effective, then why are so many inmates of the JRC still there afte years and why are so many being shocked for things that have nothing to do with SIB's?
    One thing as well that I think that Matthew Israel and other supporters of the JRC's use of shocks should bear in mind is the lack of control that the inmates have. I know that there have been some people who've taken the shocks voluntarily and claimed it felt ok. But imagine if you never knew when you were to get a shock. Imagine that the shock could come if you were felt to be walking in a wrong direction, or saying the wrong thing, or because you weren't hungry, or you wanted time on your own, or you wanted to spend time with someone. Imagine if everytime you thought you'd realised what was causing you to be shocked, you then got shocked for something you hadn't thought of. I know that when I was in labour and having contactions the knowledge that they would arrive at a set time after a while, that they would end at some point in the near future and that I would be able to hold somebody who would make up for all the pain was a damn sight easier to cope with than when my wisdom teeth were coming through and I was getting awful pain for several days that I didn't know when it would end, didn't have anything to look forward to other than the cessation of pain and as it came and went intermittently I couldn't relax when the pain wasn't there.
    If I'm being totally honest I'd sasy that the JRC does not want merely to cease all SIB's, they desire total unthinking and unquestioning obedience from their inmates. And that is very, very wrong. And before anybody seeks to try and claim that my condemnation of the JRC means I am advocating a person selfinjuring themselves to the point where they will cause themselves physical harm then I will make it clear that I'm not.

  10. My sons headbanging is life threatening. Making me a parent desperate to try nearly anything that is appropiate and in his best interest.
    But i certainly draw the line at torture.
    We dont even subject prisoners to this type of thing.

  11. What treatment or help do you propose for the autistic children who hurt themselves as descrbied by Mr. Israel?

    What's the name of this fallacy? Basically, you're expecting me to provide an alternative, otherwise the current method is valid according to you.

    I already addressed this. By your reasoning, frontal lobotomies should be considered in cases where mental disorders are untreatable.

  12. Joe,
    Do you think David Andrews could benefit from a lobotomy?

  13. Watch it John. I was debating whether your messages constitute threats of violence.

  14. Joe,
    How does suggesting a medical procedure that might help someone equate to a threat of violence?

  15. I suppose we should be applauding Israel.

    For, unlike some in the autism community that constantly differentiate between "low functioning" autistics and "Asperger's syndrome" autistics, and saying that the same treatments should not apply, Israel demonstrates that he thinks all autistics share commonalities, and thus should all be treated (tortured) in a similar fashion.

    Or perhaps it's just the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year that he gets off of each "inmate" that drives his view.


  16. Joseph, the fallacy you ask for is the appeal to lack of assistance.