For about 80 years, it was accepted as scientific fact that rabbits were first domesticated in 600 A.D. as a result of a decree issued by Pope Gregory the Great declaring that fetal rabbits could be eaten during Lent.
Similarly, for about 30 years, after the International Psychogeriatric Association “invented” the artificial construct of BPSD in the late 1990s, it has been accepted scientific fact that when people who live with dementia respond normally to particular sets of circumstances, and that those reasonable reactions upset or challenge those around them, that those reasonable reactions are caused by dementia. Like the myth of the unborn baby bunnies, the myth of BPSD is being debunked.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Quite by accident, in 2016/17, the rabbit domestication story that had been accepted by scientists around the world for almost a century was discovered to be a complete fabrication.
“The whole thing is a house of cards,” Dr. Greger Larson said [as reported by the New York Times], acknowledging that he too has cited the story just like many other researchers. The remaining question, he said, is: “Why did we never question this? Why were we so willing to believe in this origin myth?”
Dr. Larson, who is the director of the paleo-genomics and bio-archaeology research network at the University of Oxford, made the finding (actually, more accurately, it was discovered by one of Larson’s graduate students whom Larson had asked to do some historical fact checking), which was subsequently published by Trends in Ecology and Evolution in December 2017, and which you won’t be able to read unless you live in an ivory tower (one of my pet peeves).
What astonished me as I listened to the story (hear it for yourself below), were the similarities between it and the ongoing acceptance as truth by much of the research, medical and gerontology community worldwide of the artificial construct of so-called “behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia,“ more commonly known as “BPSD.”
In particular, the uncanny applicability of these snippets of conversation between CBC host Carol Off (CO) and guest Greger Larsen (GL) struck me:
- GL: “The story…has been banging around for years but nobody ever bothered questioning [it]. And it’s in both the lay and academic literature…”
- CO: “How much of that actually turns out to be true?” GL:“None of it actually.”
- GL: “…and so the whole thing is just a house of cards of kind of accidentally mistaking people and translations and older references that all then got pieced together slowly. A bit like a Chinese Whispers or a game of telephone when you were a kid, and so the end result ends up being this kind of bizarre story…”
- GL: “And everybody just cites this story very easily over and over again, until it becomes recognized as a kind of fact.”
- GL: “So all of these little bits of it were just being kind of shelved onto a house that was being badly constructed with a lot of different materials, until you ended up with something that just made no sense whatsoever.”
- GL: “…what the rabbit story really revealed to me was the degree to which we don’t question the things that fit into our worldview. So if I tell you something that you believe without me having to prove it, then you don’t require a whole lot of evidence.”
- GL: “…actually there is not a single case where we have any decent evidence…”
The interview closes with this summary into which I’ve inserted in italics what I see as additional parallels to the myth of BPSD:
“These things are agglomerated onto an evolving tradition (the biomedical model). And now when we get to it, we just think ‘oh, well rabbits have always been associated with Easter (“challenging behaviours” are caused by ADRD). And actually they are a very, very recent addition (human behaviour has always been human behaviour until we had a reason to label it as aberrant). And somehow the hare (reasonable reactions to adverse circumstances) got replaced (with BPSD), even though the hare was part of it all along. So when and where that took place and what the motivations were (Ignorance, misunderstanding, good intentions and Big Pharma profit marketing?) and how it all happened (Ignorance, misunderstanding, good intentions and Big Pharma marketing?) we’ve got no idea, but that’s a project we’ve got going on (indeed we do). And what we’re going to get to the bottom of that one (damn right!).”
Here is the CBC As It Happens interview with Dr. Larson (fascinating AND funny):
In the event that you don’t see the sanity in what I say and/or you don’t share my view, I offer this: