Netflix Series, “Afflicted” Draws More Attention and Wrath – Now From a Group of Physicians, Scientists, Filmmakers, and Writers

By B.N. Frank

Last month Activist Post reported about a Change.org petition requesting the removal of Netflix series, Afflicted.  Over 7500 have signed it so far.  More are likely on the way now that Pacific Standard published “An Open Letter Accuses Netflix’s ‘Afflicted’ of Abandoning Ethics and Science.”

This is a great letter but it pained me to read it.  The series’ participants have actually received physical threats from viewers (including medical professionals) on Twitter and Reddit.

According to the participants, Netflix and the series’ producers lied to them and their loved ones.  It’s good to see so many people speaking out against this.

Here are some excerpts from the letter:

On Tuesday, I joined a group of physicians, scientists, filmmakers, and writers—including Lena Dunham, Monica Lewinsky, and Mario Carpecchi, a Nobel Laureate in genetics—in signing an open letter to Netflix detailing many ethical missteps, scientific errors, and omissions evident in the series.

Five of the seven subjects of the series have written essays on Medium about their experience. They say their stories were misrepresented through deceptive editing techniques that seem more befitting a reality show than a documentary series. “The most serious and central flaw of Afflicted is the way it frames our conditions—which impact millions of people around the world—as psychosomatic or psychiatric disorders,” they wrote in a collective essay. “It does this in part by carefully excluding facts, which show that, yes, while there is a lot that science does not understand about our conditions, they have an ‘organic’ basis.”

Before agreeing to take part in the project, many of the participants directly asked producers whether Afflicted would suggest that their illnesses were psychosomatic. Despite the producers’ assurances to the contrary, the central question that drives the series is whether the subjects’ illnesses are “real” or “all in their heads.”

But according to the participants, in many cases, interviews with their family and friends were deceptively edited to make them appear more skeptical than they actually are. In some cases, clips in which family members acknowledged they’d wondered if their loved one’s problem was psychological early on in their illness were taken out of context to imply they still harbored those beliefs. In others, producers seem to have put words into their mouths: According to Jamison, interviewees were asked to start their answers by repeating the question they had been asked. This is how the producers managed to get a clip of his mom seemingly questioning if “hypochondria” was a component of her son’s illness.

Indeed, the editing choices in the series not only fail to challenge these armchair diagnoses but often seem to actively support them.

Even more irresponsible is the inclusion of such psychological speculation by various unqualified doctors. Presented as experts despite the fact that they have not examined the participants and are not specialists in their particular conditions, they muse vaguely about the power of the mind to produce physical symptoms. A single psychiatrist, who has never evaluated any of the subjects, is quoted extensively throughout.

The show implicitly endorses this view by simply omitting salient facts that would challenge it. You wouldn’t know from the show that, according to the five subjects who’ve publicly responded, they’d all previously seen mental-health professionals who’d concluded that their symptoms weren’t attributable to psychological problems. In fact, all were required to undergo and pass a psychiatric evaluation to even be part of the series.

Most damning of all, Afflicted failed to include any of the scientific evidence that would have served as the most persuasive counterpoint to those skeptical that the contested illnesses it highlights are real and serious organic conditions.

It’s not like Afflicted producers lacked access to such experts. For example, a crew filmed prominent ME/CFS researchers at a Stanford University symposium on the “molecular basis” of the disease and even conducted interviews with several of them. Yet none of this footage made it into the series. Even the participants’ own conventional medical doctors weren’t included.

But over seven episodes, the show has systematically stacked the deck in favor of the hypothesis that the cause of their symptoms is, in fact, “all in their heads.”


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