Tiresome science

A paper in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics has just caught my cynical eye, which in the text detected the kind of material beloved of sensationalist science reporters. In this case the subject will most likely not be picked up by the media, as the press release accompanying the paper is full of numbers and technical terms, and journalists tend to have short attention spans.

In their paper, Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention medical researcher William Reeves and colleagues suggest that chronic fatigue syndrome is associated with “…an increased prevalence of maladaptive personality features and personality disorders”. These, say the authors, “…might be associated with being noncompliant with treatment suggestions, displaying unhealthy behavioral strategies and lacking a stable social environment.”.

While my interest here is primarily in the content of this scientific study, it is perhaps worth pointing out that Reeves is a controversial figure who has been much criticised by his peers for pushing such a ‘biopsychosocial’ view of chronic fatigue syndrome. Earlier this year, Reeves was persuaded to step down as head of the CDC’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Program.

With a study sample size of over 500, I do not doubt the statistical significance of the correlations found; it is the interpretation that troubles me. Not that the researchers are attempting to pull the wool over our eyes, mind you. The paper abstract is perfectly clear in its final sentence…

“Since maladaptive personality is not specific to CFS, it might be associated with illness per se rather than with a specific condition.”

That statement completely knocks the stuffing out of the conclusion from which I quote above. In essence, Reeves and his coworkers are saying that chronic fatigue syndrome and personality disorders are associated, but at the same time there is an implicit acknowledgement that maladaptive personality may be a reaction to CFS. And so we’re back to square one.

Further reading: Nater et al., “Personality Features and Personality Disorders in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Population-Based Study”, Psychother. Psychosom. 79, 312 (2010)