Monday, June 16, 2014

AA's Critics, Pseudoscience, and Anti-Religious Bias: Considering a Recent Challenge to AA. (Part 3)

This is the third part of a consideration of Lance and Zachary Dodes' critique of AA. In the first part, I called into question their claim that AA helps only about 10% of those who pursue it, and is damaging to the other 90%. In the second part, I consider how they mischaracterize AA's twelve steps--in a way that parallels the distortion of Christian theologies of grace.

For the final installment in this series, I want to (briefly, for me) consider how the Dodes' suspicion of AA may be linked to the deeper science/religion wars. The Dodes' make claims about the ineffectiveness of AA that are far more confident than is warranted, and they impose an uncharitable interpretation of the twelve steps when a more charitable one is available. But why? What lies behind these kinds of errors?

My answer is admittedly speculative--a bit of an exercise in "psychologizing." But I think there are clues in what the Dodes' say that point towards a diagnosis

Let's begin with the title of the Dodes' essay: "The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous." This title is ambiguous. It might refer to pseudoscience in the study of AA, or it might be accusing AA itself of being a pseudoscience.

While concern about the former seems appropriate, calling AA pseudoscience is a category mistake. AA isn't an empirical study of the world, but a way of life and an underlying way of thinking about life that aims to help those who participate in it overcome addiction and live clean and sober lives.

Unfortunately, the Dodes appear to have more than just the former in mind. This comes out especially when they walk through the twelve steps. As they begin to examine the steps one by one, they set up their discussion by asserting, "Twelve steps sounds like science." That is, they begin their walk-through of the twelve steps by setting up a kind of straw man: AA should be considered a science and evaluated in those terms. But then it's found to be more like religion in its language and aims. And this becomes the basis for a kind of condescending dismissal.

Let's think about what's going on here in a broader context. A common feature of the modern culture wars is the tendency to pit science against religion as if the two were essentially opposed. I think this tendency is a disservice both to science and to religion--and it is, unfortunately, fueled by agendas on both sides.

It's a disservice to both because treating them as competitors leads to distortion: On the one side, it leads to a "scientism" that unjustifiably treats scientific descriptions of the physical world as if they were offering a metaphysical worldview--that is, a view about the fundamental nature of reality and the meaning of life. This happens when it is assumed without warrant that the limits of what science is suited to investigate are identical to the limits of what is real.

On the other side, the conflation of science and religion leads to a superstitious fundamentalism wherein something meant to provide a way of seeing and responding to the world of physical facts is instead reduced to a set of dubious factual claims. When religion sets itself up as offering the best path to answering empirical questions, it has lost touch with what religion is for. It is attempting to do the sort of thing that science does, except badly. In other words, it has devolved into pseudoscience.

For example, instead of offering a religious worldview that invites us to see and respond to the world (the one described by science) as a reality that springs from a vast and creative intelligence, we get the Young Earth Creationist claim that the best way to decide the age of the earth is to deduce it from clues left in the Bible. The creationist then has to scramble for some semblance of scientific credibility in the hopeless attempt to compete with the results of sober and objective research.

Some Young Earth Creationists even find themselves driven to say that their God has systematically deceived us by planting an overwhelming body of evidence for an ancient a test of our faith in what the Bible "teaches" (as if we should trust God after accepting their assertion that God is the perpetrator of the greatest hoax in history).

This is what happens when religion pretends to be science. And there's plenty of it going on out there. But some overreaching critics of religion have taken this distortion of religion for religion's essence, as if there could be no religion without pseudoscience. And this mistake leads to the prejudicial dismissal of ideas and approaches to life that smack of religion. Even those who pay lip service to the social value of religion will often fall prey to this unconscious prejudice.

Such prejudicial dismissal, when it happens, is rarely spelled out explicitly. But if you read through the Dodes' treatment of the twelve steps, what you find is a critique that relies extensively on invoking the labels of "unscientific" and "religious" as if they were equivalent--as if, in establishing that AA is pseudoscience, it is sufficient to show that the twelve steps retain much of their religious origins.

It's not sufficient. And one reason it's not sufficient is precisely this: In an effort to be ecumenical and welcoming to the diverse array of alcoholics within its fold, AA has needed to treat as inessential the very things that are at risk of turning religion into pseudoscience when treated as essential.

Consider: AA has seen the need to set aside specific doctrinal claims, including in the interpretation of its own twelve steps. In the same stroke, it has lost the need to be "right." It is that need that leads so often to assertions that a specific text or institution or prophetic leader is an inerrant authority. And it is the need to stick by this supposedly inerrant authority, to preserve its inerrancy even when that authority makes claims that are about empirical facts rather than transcendent meaning, that so often paves the way to pseudoscience.

Put another way, AA offers a good model of what religion can look like when it is freed from the propensity towards pseudoscience. Focusing on a general way of approaching life and responding to its challenges, but without the demand for doctrinal conformity that prevails in fundamentalistic religion, AA offers a broadly religious way of life that is resistant to the pseudoscience that springs from the insistence on inerrant authority (and the concomitant cries of heresy).

This is not to say that no such fundamentalistic leanings ever infect isolated AA meetings. It is not to say that individual AA members never bring their pseudoscientific ideas into their home groups. Rather, it is to say that AA overall is not a source of pseudoscience in the way that fundamentalistic religion has proven itself to be.

Of course, the same can be said for many progressive expressions of traditional religious faith, which are friendly to good science and its conclusions (even if they are not friendly to a scientism in which invalid inferences from science underwrite metaphysical claims). But too often, those who have been burned in one way or another by fundamentalistic religion see all religion through the lens of this species, and are prone to dismiss progressive faith as some kind of bad-faith attempt to cling to comforting ideas while throwing off religion's irrationality. "Real" religion is the stuff that stands in opposition to science.

My speculative hypothesis, then, is this: The Dodes' critique of AA, riddled as it is with the errors discussed in previous posts, is colored by an underlying prejudice (perhaps a quite unconscious one). That prejudice is born out of two things: first, the fact that AA is not only historically rooted in religion but retains religious and spiritual language and aims; and second, a derisive attitude towards religion springing from (a) the scientist's wholly appropriate disdain for pseudoscience, and (b) the unfortunate prevalence of pseudoscience in fundamentalist religion.

The problem, of course, is that not all religion is the same. And to the extent that AA is religious, it is (largely) a form of religion that can live happily alongside science done with integrity.

Of course, if that is true, then AA members should be willing to engage seriously with careful scientific study of the efficacy of AA's methods relative to alternatives. While I don't think the Dodes' have offered anything critical of AA that would qualify as such a study, should there be serious academic research that demonstrates ways of improving the outcomes of AA's efforts, the AA community ought to be willing to engage with that research.

But, of course, most AA members are not researchers qualified to assess the merits of such research. And they aren't in AA to do research, but to stay sober. To say that the AA community should be open to seriously engaging with such research is not to say that AA members should be skeptical of a way of life that has worked well for them personally.

If you've become a brilliant pianist through a distinct method, a study suggesting an alternative method works better for most people who learn to play piano shouldn't inspire you to jeopardize your achievement by switching to an approach that may not be suited to you. It might, however, mean that if other methods are available and comparably accessible to your students, and some of those students aren't flourishing with you, you might suggest that they try one of the alternatives.

But AA members routinely say, "If you find something that works better for you, go for it." AA is a way of engaging with and thinking about the world, not a scientific study of the relative efficacy of such ways. Furthermore, because of the interpretive flexibility built into AA, there is not a single monolithic approach that falls under AA's rubric. Even within AA, there is room for asking which approach works better, and for whom.

More often than not, the answer to that question comes from personal discovery rather than scientific study. This is not to say that the latter should not be attempted despite the range of practical difficulties discussed in my first post. But it is to say that AA isn't a science. And it is to say that personal decisions about the path to sobriety typically need to be made based on something other than the outcomes of scientific research. Sometimes that path with adopt the forms and language of religion, extracting from religious traditions the fruits of centuries of collective practical experience, fruits which have yet to be scientifically assessed.

And none of these facts imply that AA is pseudoscience.

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