Breaking the Science: Misleading Stories
by Mark B. Rosenthal
October 17, 2005
Beginning October 20th, PBS stations around the nation will air a
film entitled "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories".
Although protecting helpless victims from brutal abusers is a noble
undertaking, distorting the facts to libel an entire class of people
The Strategy For Passing Unjust Laws
This film seems to be the first step in a pattern that's been played out many times in the past few decades:
Determine what conclusions a study would need to reach in order to
stampede legislators into passing the laws you want passed.
Conduct studies that are carefully designed ignore any
inconvenient facts. Popular techniques in this step include: 1)
using self-selected rather than randomized population samples,
2) taking care not to ask any questions that might elicit
undesired answers, and 3) neglecting to report any results at
all from any questions whose answers contradict your thesis.
Publicize these studies as if they were impartial research, by
planting newspaper stories, publishing in journals whose
referees are as biased as the studies' authors, getting
corporations to fund advertising that masquerades as a
Use yellow journalism to scare the public into demanding that
legislators pass a law to fix the nonexistent problem.
In the early 1990s, the American Association of University Women had
great success using such strategies. They began by issuing a report
entitled "How Schools Shortchange Girls". Diane Ravitch, former
Director of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, calls the AAUW report "bizarre" for
reporting that girls' educational achievement was lagging behind
boys at exactly the time that girls had just overtaken boys in
almost every area. (http://www.ericdigests.org/2003-4/boys1.html)
But it doesn't seem bizarre at all if you assume that AAUW's goal
was not to conduct honest research, but rather to drive public
policy, sure in the knowledge that journalists wouldn't have the
expertise to challenge their conclusions, and that they could get
laws enacted to address their fabricated problem quicker than honest
researchers could analyze how they'd manipulated their research to
come to such a "bizarre" conclusion. And that's exactly what
happened. Laws enacted as a result of the AAUW hype resulted in
inequitable allocation of resources to programs for girls only. By
pitting our daughters against our sons in this way, they denied a
generation of boys the opportunity to overcome their deficits.
"Breaking the Silence"
seems to be the publicity and hype phase of an even more insidious
campaign. The goal this time appears to be stampeding legislators
into passing laws that will have the effect of preventing courts
from granting any form of custody (legal or physical, shared or
sole) to any father over any mother's objection.
The Program's Claims
The hour-long program makes some astonishing claims. George
Washington University Law Professor Joan Meier says that in "75% of
cases in which fathers contest custody, fathers have a history of
being batterers". In her worldview, if a father seeks a
relationship with his children in family court, that in itself is
tantamount to proof that he's a batterer.
A copy of the "Guest Editor's Introduction" to the August, 2005
issue of the journal
"Violence Against Women"
was distributed at the prescreening. The film's press release (CPTV
has removed the document from its original location on their website
at http://www.cptv.org/pdf/BTS_pressrelease.pdf. A copy is archived
repeats that article's allegation that Parental Alienation Syndrome
has been "discredited by the American Psychological Association,"
and Meier echoes that in the film, asserting that scientists have
declared PAS "junk science". The film also claims that in family court cases where mothers
allege battery, fathers are given custody two-thirds of the time.
What the Filmmakers Don't Want You to Notice
Analysis of the claims made in the
"Violence Against Women"
journal indicates that this research, on which much of the content
of this film is based, fails to distinguish between allegations and
actual abuse, and instead blindly assumes all allegations to be
true. (See http://www.familytx.org/research/articles/PAS/pas_rebuttal.html)
A documentary filmmaker has a responsibility to present an issue in
an accurate and balanced fashion. In this case, filmmakers
Catherine Tatge and Domenique Lasseur provided a soapbox for a
number of very angry women and their children to make some very
serious accusations. The closing frame of the film says that only
one accused father declined to be interviewed. So where were all
the other accused fathers who didn't decline?
Michael McCormick, director of the American Coalition for Fathers
and Children, reports that filmmaker Domenic Lasseur called him last
spring to arrange to interview an ACFC spokesperson so the
documentary would have some balance. But Lasseur later cancelled
the interview. That, plus the absence of any other spokesperson to
provide balance, suggests that he or someone above him decided that
fairness and balance were unnecessary.
[Update: Since this article was originally written, additional
people have come forward with stories very similar to that told by
Michael McCormick. For details, see http://www.breakingthescience.org/BreakingTheScience-OstrichSyndrome.php#rejected-interviewees]
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data on child abuse
shows that over twice as many children are battered by their mothers
(40.8%) as by their fathers (18.8%), excluding cases in which both
parents are abusive (16.9%) (See http://faq.acf.hhs.gov/cgi-bin/acfrightnow.cfg/php/enduser/std_adp.php?p_faqid=70).
Likewise the number of children killed by their mothers without the
father's involvement is double the number killed by their fathers
without the mother's involvement (See http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm03/figure4_2.htm).
Yet the filmmakers mislead viewers by interviewing only children
victimized by fathers and denying children victimized by their
mothers the opportunity to tell their stories.
Even the title
"Breaking the Silence"
is disingenuous. A Google search for "domestic violence" turns up
36.8 MILLION documents. This is "silence" like "War is peace,
freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength".
Filmmakers Tatge and Lasseur use a small handful of cases to create
the illusion of a pervasive problem of family court discrimination
against women and children domestic violence victims. With a
U.S. population of 297 million, it's possible to cherrypick a small
non-representative sample to prove nearly anything.
Misleading the Public About Scientists' Opinions on Parental
The film's central thesis, that Parental Alienation Syndrome is
"junk science" that has been discredited by the American
Psychological Association, is itself misleading. Although it's true
that Temple University psychiatry professor Paul Fink called PAS
"junk science" in a July 1, 2003
he explained, "There are lots of people who alienate their partners
during a divorce. But it is not a syndrome, a disease or a
disorder." So the claim that PAS is "junk science" doesn't mean it
never happens; it just means it's not a recognized mental illness.
Without Fink's full explanation, most people would assume that
calling PAS "junk science" means the phenomenon doesn't happen.
Dispelling that misimpression would undermine the filmmakers' point,
so the fact that they don't provide the full explanation is worth
The claim that PAS has been discredited by the APA is based on a
single sentence from the APA's 1996 report on violence and the
family, which simply says there are no data to support PAS.
The Association of Women Psychiatrists (a professional group
unaffiliated with the APA) takes PAS seriously enough that their
Fall 2003 newsletter printed an article asserting "The Denial and/or
Discrediting of the Parental Alienation Syndrome Harms Women" (http://www.womenpsych.org/news/NewsFall2003.pdf).
And apparently even the APA does not consider their 1996 report to
be the final word. At the 2002 APA conference, PAS was considered
important enough for them to offer a seminar worth seven Continuing
Education credits, in which they explained what Parental Alienation
Syndrome is and taught custody evaluators to identify when PAS does
and does not occur. (http://www.apa.org/ce/workshopssat.html)
If the Film's Agenda Becomes Law, Kids Will Pay the Price
"Research" that fails to distinguish between accusations of abuse
and actual abuse is unworthy of the name "research". Using such a
trick to conclude that nearly all fathers who contest custody are
batterers, amounts to libel against all fathers who love their
children enough to fight for their welfare.
Those who play this ugly little game in order to stampede
politicians into passing ill-considered laws that will make it
virtually impossible for any father to ever be granted custody, show
a callous disregard for the welfare of two-thirds of abused children
- those children abused by their mothers.
Finally, PBS's own Code of Ethics (http://www.cpb.org/aboutcpb/cpbethicsguide.pdf)
requires them to "avoid any conduct that might result in the loss of
public confidence in CPB's programs ... or might reasonably give the
appearance of ... the compromise or loss of complete impartiality of
judgment and action." Allowing a speaker to assert that trying to
maintain a relationship with your children means you've probably
battered your wife, and not including any speaker to point out the
hatefulness of that statement, certainly gives the appearance of a
complete loss impartiality.
RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting)