12 steps

Is Science Being Irrational Rather than AA?

In a recent blog a few days ago I challenged some of Gabrielle Glaser’s “evidence” in her article   “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous “, which purported to demonstrate the so-called effectiveness of “controlling drinking”.

Glaser cited the following in her article

“ To many, though, the idea of non-abstinent recovery is anathema. No one knows that better than Mark and Linda Sobell, who are both psychologists. In the 1970s, the couple conducted a study with a group of 20 patients in Southern California who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence.

Over the course of 17 sessions, they taught the patients how to identify their triggers, how to refuse drinks, and other strategies to help them drink safely. In a follow-up study two years later, the patients had fewer days of heavy drinking, and more days of no drinking, than did a group of 20 alcohol-dependent patients who were told to abstain from drinking entirely.”

I responded to this as follows

” What Glaser failed to mention was that in a subsequent study (4) 10-year follow-up of the original 20 experimental subjects showed that only one, who apparently had not experienced physical withdrawal symptoms (thus possibly not alcoholic), maintained a pattern of controlled drinking;

eight continued to drink excessively–regularly or intermittently–despite repeated damaging consequences;

six abandoned their efforts to engage in controlled drinking and became abstinent;

four died from alcohol-related causes;

and one, certified about a year after discharge from the research project as gravely disabled because of drinking, was missing.

Why did Glaser failed to mention this research, a follow up study to the one she mentions and cites?”

The authors attempted to justify this choice in a statement that seems to clearly demonstrate their bias: “we are addressing the question of whether controlled drinking is itself a desirable treatment goal, not the question of whether the patients directed towards that goal fared better or worse than a control group.. .” (Pendery et al., 1982, 172-173)

The interesting aspect about her article for me (and most worrying) was that it highlighted a controversy that goes back to the 1960s – can alcoholics ever control their drinking?

In this blog we will address the origins of this “controlled drinking debate” and demonstrated how it is a castle built on sand.

The original study which supposedly demonstrated so-called controlled drinking or asymptomatic drinking in it’s alcoholic participants did no such thing.

So we now have an ongoing debate about controlled drinking when it has continuously been based on dubious research, bogus findings and bad science.

It is the researchers that Glaser champions that could be accused of irrationality.

The methodological madness started way back in the 1960s.

 While scattered reports of controlled drinking outcomes had occasionally appeared in the scientific literature before 1962, most commentators date the beginning of the controlled drinking controversy to the publication that year of a paper entitled “Normal Drinking in Recovered Alcohol Addicts.” In this paper, D.L. Davies, a British psychiatrist, reports that, in the course of long-term follow-up of patients treated for “alcohol addiction” at Maudsley Hospital in London, 7 of the 93 patients investigated “have subsequently been able to drink normally for periods of 7 to 11 years after discharge from the hospital.” (Davies, 1962, p. 94).

At least two different studies have challenged the findings of Davies:-

“Evidence suggests that five subjects experienced significant drinking problems both during Davies’s original follow-up period and subsequently, that three of these five at some time also used psychotropic drugs heavily, and that the two remaining subjects (one of whom was never severely dependent on alcohol) engaged in trouble-free drinking over the total period”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4010292

“A subsequent follow-up of these cases suggested that Davies had been substantially mislead”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7956756

So four decades of research into controlled drinking were inspired by a study which did not actually demonstrate controlled drinking in the first place!

In addition to the Sobells, Glaser also mentioned the Rand Report of the 1970s.

“In 1976, for instance, the Rand Corporation released a study of more than 2,000 men who had been patients at 44 different NIAAA-funded treatment centers. The report noted that 18 months after treatment, 22 percent of the men were drinking moderately. The authors concluded that it was possible for some alcohol-dependent men to return to controlled drinking. Researchers at the National Council on Alcoholism charged that the news would lead alcoholics to falsely believe they could drink safely. The NIAAA, which had funded the research, repudiated it. Rand repeated the study, this time looking over a four-year period. The results were similar.”

The first Rand Report was attacked as being methodologically weak  – e.g  it suffered from sample bias (80% of subject dropped out).

The Rand Corporation did a follow up 4 years later.  This time they reported that a smaller figure of 14% of the sample  continued to drink in an unproblematic manner  but other researchers reanalyzing the data arrived at a corrected estimate of 3-4% of the sample were drinking in a nonproblematic manner.

3% is somewhat less than the 22% – why does Glaser not cite these other follow up studies again?  It is difficult to accept any of her arguments as  she picks only studies that support her biased arguments.

It was also noted that by some observers that alcoholics can often be expected to drink in a non problematic manner for brief periods. In my own experience, I have often heard of alcoholics share about a relapse and state that they thought they had their alcoholic problem licked as they started off drinking in what appeared to be a controlled manner only to find in a matter of weeks that their alcoholism had progressed far beyond it’s original severity prior to the relapse. In other words it can take a relapse some weeks to kick start into even more profound alcoholism than previously.

Glaser, and many so-called commentators new to this emotionally charged field may do worse than reading   one of the most powerful and compelling studies ever carried out by an academic researcher. That researcher was George E Vaillant.

His classic and lauded work The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited (1995) is a book  that describes two multi-decade studies (60 years) of the lives of 600 American males, non-alcoholics at the outset, focusing on their lifelong drinking behaviours. By following the men from youth to old age it was possible to chart their drinking patterns and what factors may have contributed to alcoholism.

In other words, this studies show the “progression” of the disease of alcoholism.

The National Review hailed the first edition (1983) as “a genuine revolution in the field of alcoholism research” and said that “Vaillant has combined clinical experience with an unprecedented amount of empirical data to produce what may ultimately come to be viewed as the single most important contribution to the literature of alcoholism since the first edition of AA’s Big Book.” Some of the main conclusions of Vaillant’s book are:

“… it is therapeutically effective to explain it as a disease to patients. The disease concept encourages patients to take responsibility for their drinking, without debilitating guilt.

That there is as yet no cure for alcoholism…

That for most alcoholics, attempts at controlled drinking in the long term end in either abstinence or a return to alcoholism.

Successful return to controlled drinking is…just  a rare and unstable outcome that in the long term usually ends in relapse or abstinence, especially for the more severe cases.

“by the time an alcoholic is ill enough to require clinic treatment, return to asymptomatic drinking is the exception not the rule.”

When asked whether controlled drinking is advisable as a therapeutic goal, Vaillant concluded that “training alcohol-dependent individuals to achieve stable return to controlled drinking is a mirage.”

 

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2 replies »

  1. I have been in AA for over 30 years, I was an academic in the humanities. I was pleased to find your analysis of Glaziers article which I found disturbing for it’s lack of any rigor (fact check?) and the philistine stance of the author. Lately rereading Ernest Kurtz “Not God” dissertation on alchoholism, William James, the” Varieties ..” and looking at Hallowell again,” Delivered From Distraction”, Reward Deficiency Syndrome. Last from James the formal lack of modern language outside of organized religion to describe transcendence i.e. to go beyond limits. Language found in mountain climbing literature i.e Chomalunga v.s. Mt Everest and music. Web site is great

  2. Thanks Mary, you know the most disturbing thing for me is that someone like Glaser is suddenly elevated to the position of an expert on alcoholism simply by writing a completely biased and inaccurate piece of journalism!

    Perhaps it was simply because news companies just wanted to sell copy by publishing an article on an emotionally provocative and controversial subject matter?

    However, it is difficult not to see this act as very irresponsible and dangerous for very vulnerable people. It is confusing for them and their loved ones and sent out a very jaundiced view of AA.

    Whether there is a secular or new atheist agenda we will have to wait and see?

    I love James and Kurtz in particular. Kurtz and William White have been important to my own recovery.

    I was a Buddhist for a number of years so the spiritual side did not effect me too much although the God thing did. I just tried to ignore it!

    So I went along in the early weeks and months from a Buddhist perspective of the self being an illusion and the source of all suffering, a view I still have today as do many Christians and other faiths.

    It was only by working the steps that I was given an insight that I did not particularly want to believe and mentioned in Appendix II of the Big Book – “He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone. What often takes place in a few months could seldom have been accomplished by years of self discipline. With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.”

    Now how do I go about explaining this to scientists? 🙂

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