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Understanding addiction research will require us to argue our corner but be flexible to change corners.

Posted Nov 08 2010 7:38pm

Hello everyone,

My name is Christopher Russell, I am a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. My addiction research interests are wide and varied, but my core interests are in addiction theory (“why people do what they do”), the issue of freedom to control when using drugs , interpretations of addiction research  evidence , and the use of licit and illicit drugs in the law.

Respect and rational debate of addiction research

Dr Adi Jaffe has very generously asked me to become a contributor to A3 and after reading about what A3 stood for (the mission and the abbreviation) and what Dr Jaffe is trying to achieve through A3, I am delighted to be a part of A3. Adi noted in a previous post that we do hold some different opinions about the nature and course of addiction. Above our differences, however, I respect that Dr Jaffe and I are able to debate addiction research rationally, respectfully, and vigorously without either of us resorting to ideological proclamations, disrespect for the alternative view, claiming a moral high ground or attacking each other’s moral character, or worst of all, name calling! Such people are hard to find in the academic world! The truth is that I, like Dr Jaffe, am still learning about addiction, and I’m not foolish enough to believe that my way is the way! If addiction research over the past 100 years has shown anything it is that a researcher would be foolish to hang his hat on any interpretation and proclaim it as fact – for example, for the past 200 years, masturbation was considered the most prevalent psychiatric disorder until it was replaced by drug use, and up until 1973, homosexuality was still diagnosed and treated as a form of mental illness ! We must be willing to bend with the wind, to accept when addiction research evidence invalidates our beliefs, and to respond to falsifications by constructing models which stand up to our efforts to falsify them.

A3 and the fluid landscape of addiction research

The landscape of addiction research changes by about 50% each decade, as do many scientific ideas, so it is important that we all hold our beliefs about addiction lightly and be willing to consider that some dearly held addiction “truths” may not be as truthful as we had thought, perhaps hoped. Scientists are constantly revising what they thought they knew, changing their approach to measuring and conceptualising the problem, disseminating the latest findings to the public; like any good scientist, those who are involved with addiction, either personally or professionally, should always try to update their model, and sometimes, evidence can arise which causes us to question everything we thought we knew about the nature of a problem. Such evidence may require us to not merely adapt our exisitng models of the problem, but if called for, to abandon them in favour of more potent models which need not necessarily be liked or fully understood.

Hearing what addiction research is telling us, not what we want to hear

However, despite our pledges to be good scientists, our basic ways of thinking tend to get in the way of building better models of a problem. For example, a classic contribution of psychology research has been the finding that people prefer to try to discredit a new piece of evidence about a concept which doesn’t fit with their existing understanding of that concept rather than assimilate the new evidence into our understanding because it is cognitively easier to leave our belief structure as it is. This phenomenon is quite common in the addiction research community; some people just refuse to believe that addiction could be something other than what they had long thought it to be, and no amount of validated, replicable evidence to the contrary will move them to revise their beliefs. It is regrettably common that, for some, beliefs about addiction are based on an unwavering ideology rather than a science-grounded conclusion. Addiction researchers cannot afford to be this pompous, lazy, or inflexible; too many people are counting us to get the right answers to them, no matter who they come from or what form they come in. I know that my contributions to A3 are only useful to the extent to which they help get people from where they are to where they want to be. To achieve this, I must argue my corner but be willing to bend when the wind blows. We all must.

In the hope that I can be both teacher and student of A3, I believe that the value of my arguments will be measured by how well they hold up in the face of your most passionate, insightful criticism. Therefore, I invite all those who read my contributions to criticize, refute or support any of my arguments when you feel it is warranted. I will always try to give an intelligent answer and I swear to never resort to clichéd answers, bumper sticker answers, or the “it just is because it is” answer, which is in effect, no answer. And I will never resort to name calling (except when you really deserve it!).

I look forward to providing you with thought pieces, philosophical contributions, reviews of evidence, and most of all, interacting with you the readers, the lifeblood of A3.

Christopher


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