The Shaky Science Behind the Pseudo-Faith That Is Alcoholics Anonymous March 18, 2015

The Shaky Science Behind the Pseudo-Faith That Is Alcoholics Anonymous

A very interesting article in the Atlantic shines the spotlight on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous — and more importantly, on AA’s dubious claims of efficacy. At about 7,500 words, Gabrielle Glaser‘s piece is thorough and serious-minded, and while I recommend reading it in full, I’m happy to provide a summary here in five easy pieces.

1. The beginning:

In 1934, just after Prohibition’s repeal, a failed stockbroker named Bill Wilson staggered into a Manhattan hospital. Wilson was known to drink two quarts of whiskey a day, a habit he’d attempted to kick many times. He was given the hallucinogen belladonna, an experimental treatment for addictions, and from his hospital bed he called out to God to loosen alcohol’s grip. He reported seeing a flash of light and feeling a serenity he had never before experienced. He quit booze for good. The next year, he co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous. He based its principles on the beliefs of the evangelical Oxford Group, which taught that people were sinners who, through confession and God’s help, could right their paths.

2. It spreads:

A public-relations specialist and early AA member named Marty Mann worked to disseminate the group’s main tenet: that alcoholics had an illness that rendered them powerless over booze. Their drinking was a disease, in other words, not a moral failing. Paradoxically, the prescription for this medical condition was a set of spiritual steps that required accepting a higher power, taking a “fearless moral inventory,” admitting “the exact nature of our wrongs,” and asking God to remove all character defects.

Mann helped ensure that these ideas made their way to Hollywood. In 1945’s The Lost Weekend, a struggling novelist tries to loosen his writer’s block with booze, to devastating effect. In Days of Wine and Roses, released in 1962, Jack Lemmon slides into alcoholism along with his wife, played by Lee Remick. He finds help through AA, but she rejects the group and loses her family.

3. Flawed science:

[In 1946, a] physiologist named E. M. Jellinek … published the results of a survey mailed to 1,600 AA members. Only 158 were returned. Jellinek and Mann jettisoned 45 that had been improperly completed and another 15 filled out by women, whose responses were so unlike the men’s that they risked complicating the results. From this small sample — 98 men — Jellinek drew sweeping conclusions about the “phases of alcoholism,” which included an unavoidable succession of binges that led to blackouts, “indefinable fears,” and hitting bottom. Though the paper was filled with caveats about its lack of scientific rigor, it became AA gospel. [Jellinek later distanced himself from the study and from AA.] …

AA truisms have so infiltrated our culture that many people believe heavy drinkers cannot recover before they “hit bottom.”[T]hat’s akin to offering antidepressants only to those who have attempted suicide, or prescribing insulin only after a patient has lapsed into a diabetic coma. …

Nowhere in the field of medicine is treatment less grounded in modern science. A 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University compared the current state of addiction medicine to general medicine in the early 1900s, when quacks worked alongside graduates of leading medical schools. …

In 2006, the Cochrane Collaboration, a health-care research group, reviewed studies going back to the 1960s and found that “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-step] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence.”

4. Problematic claims:

[AA’s] Big Book [claims] that AA has worked for 75 percent of people who have gone to meetings and “really tried.” It says that 50 percent got sober right away, and another 25 percent struggled for a while but eventually recovered. According to AA, these figures are based on members’ experiences. …

[But] in his recent book, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, Lance Dodes, a retired psychiatry professor from Harvard Medical School, looked at Alcoholics Anonymous’s retention rates along with studies on sobriety and rates of active involvement (attending meetings regularly and working the program) among AA members. Based on these data, he put AA’s actual success rate somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. …

A meticulous analysis of treatments, published more than a decade ago in The Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches but still considered one of the most comprehensive comparisons, ranks AA 38th out of 48 methods. At the top of the list are brief interventions by a medical professional; motivational enhancement, a form of counseling that aims to help people see the need to change; and acamprosate, a drug that eases cravings.

5. The takeaway:

[N]othing about the 12-step approach draws on modern science: not the character building, not the tough love, not even the standard 28-day rehab stay.

Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 2 million members worldwide, and the structure and support it offers have helped many people. But it is not enough for everyone. The history of AA is the story of how one approach to treatment took root before other options existed, inscribing itself on the national consciousness and crowding out dozens of newer methods that have since been shown to work better.

Alternatives to AA, including secular groups, are no longer hard to find. Should you or a loved one struggle with alcohol, check out Secular Organizations For Sobriety (SOS).

If you trust the AA concept but are put off by the higher-power mumbo-jumbo, you can join an agnostic AA group that doesn’t force people to pretend to believe in gods. is good if you’re in or near New York City. Meetings in other locations, including some non-U.S. ones, can be found here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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