Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

Science, Schmience—This Means YOU, PT Reader

We accept irrational cultural memes as science.

Much is being made of the fact that the Republican Party has given itself over entirely to anti-scientific voices. In their book, It's Even Worse than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein say what has become common wisdom: that the party is guided by irrational principles and its leadership is "unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science." 

One primary example of this anti-scientific madness is the denial of global warming (let alone evolution). But that's only the tip of the Republicans' anti-science iceberg. Paul Krugman, the New York Times' Nobel-Prize winning economist-columnist, regularly writes the same column: the Republican Party endorses economic positions that have been shown time and again to be false. 

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There are three primary points at which this unreality kicks in: that lower taxes pay for themselves, that austerity policies will lead to greater investment and growth by inspiring confidence (which Krugman calls the "confidence fairy") and, on the other side, that high levels of debt will cause interest rates to rise precipitously. These concepts have been decimated by recent American history (Bush's lowering of taxes and eliminating restrictions on business led to near-economic meltdown and depression); since reduced government spending has proven disastrous for renewing economic growth throughout Europe—notably in Ireland, the UK, and Spain; and that interest rates have continued at record low levels despite mounting government debt.

Only, here's the kicker—Krugman notes that while these positions are unquestionable in the Republican Party, many Democrats and many of Europe's leading economic figures also endorse them, even as Krugman declares, "these doctrines have overwhelmingly failed in practice." Krugman is stunned by "the apparent determination of European leaders to commit economic suicide for the Continent as a whole." These leaders are doubling down on these policies while "Europe has had several years of experience with harsh austerity programs, and the results are exactly what students of history told you would happen: such programs push depressed economies even deeper into depression."

But recognizing that received opinion, no matter how wrongheaded, dominates our visions of reality doesn't stop at Krugman's favorite targets: the Economist, the European Central Bank, and Britain's Cameron-led Conservative government. It pervades modern thought. Of course, that irrationality is at the center of human calculation was the main insight of Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist to win the Nobel Prize (for economics). Per David Brooks, "Human irrationality is Kahneman's great theme."

Book after book by economists and psychologists — like MIT behavior economics professor Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational — repeat this theme. More importantly, social psychologist Jonathon Haidt explains, people endorse positions, not because they are true, but because they express their group biases. When the leader of a political party wants to rally the troops, he or she simply evokes a group symbol endorsed by his or her followers. Witness the recent debate over forcing Catholic-based institutions to cover birth control. For Republicans-conservatives this was the anathema of government controlling religious freedom. For Democrats-liberals this was the anathema of government controlling women's bodies and health.

Which bring me to the theme of my post. Nora Volkow has now achieved the status of 60 Minutes icon. Appearing on that cultural landmark CBS show, Volkow repeated her mantra: "addiction is all about dopamine." What is important about the show is that it finalizes that this idea is a permanent cultural meme. I won't take the time here to show that it is irrational, and has been proved wrong endlessly, beyond noting, as I have here before, (a) the idea that addiction is a purely physiological phenomenon has in fact been in place in America for a century, and Volkow is only the latest embodiment of that idea, (b) the chronic brain disease model doesn't explain the most fundamental things about addiction, like how the vast majority of people overcome it without treatment, (c) there are no measurable biological means to determine whether and when people are addicted and when they are not, nor is there any treatment that addresses the supposed dopamine-based nature of addiction. In fact, the best science and therapy both point towards an entirely opposite real-world way of defining "recovery."

Meanwhile, as the idea of addiction as a brain disease is imbedded in our culture, we simply get more and more examples of brain diseases as more and more things are understood as addictions, and as we spread the idea further and thinner than any possibly scientific explanation can be spread.

This idea is not an expression of science. It is, instead, a cultural myth, one that the best and the brightest are obligated to endorse to be recognized as mainstream thinkers.

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Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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