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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

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 is ill.

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."

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, and curious. 

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 they 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 counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.