Have you seen the pretty pictures of brain scans that supposedly prove that addiction is a brain disease? Unfortunately, these brain scans are always presented as part of an incomplete argument, and they don’t prove that the addict’s “free will is hijacked by drugs”. They merely show us what goes on in the brain of an active substance user. This doesn’t matter to those who promote the brain disease model of addiction though, what matters to them is that the brain scans are persuasive. Not being able to put together a sound argument, they opt for putting together a convincing/persuasive argument to accomplish their main goal of convincing us that addiction is a brain disease which robs the user of the power to choose to stop abusing substances. They rely on our trust in modern science, our lack of experience in interpreting research data, and their authority as scientists to con us into believing a theory they haven’t been able to prove
When we hear and see these random facts and “evidence” we easily lose sight of the fact that there is no logical explanation tied to them. A recent study examined the effect of adding irrelevant mentions of neuroscience information to otherwise unsound explanations of psychological phenomena. In the study they showed good and bad explanations of psychological phenomena to 3 groups of people- neuroscience experts, psychology students (both before and after the completion of psychology classes), and lay-people who know nothing about psychology. They presented the descriptions both with and without additional, completely irrelevant neuroscience information, specifically they used the phrase “brain scans indicate” to present the irrelevant neuroscience facts. The results:
“Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones.But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.”
Furthermore, the authors explain why this happens:
“Seductive details, related but logically irrelevant details presented as part of an argument, tend to make it more difficult for subjects to encode and later recall the main argument of a text. Subjects’ attention is diverted from important generalizations in the text toward these interesting but irrelevant details, such that they perform worse on a memory test and have a harder time extracting the most important points in the text.”
So the use of these brain scans and other neuroscientific “proof” of the disease of addiction are effective because us ordinary people are easily smokescreened with this stuff. We often hear phrases like “brain scans indicate..” and suspend our judgment from the rest of the shaky argument presented. But just because this happens and just because we’re not experts doesn’t mean we can’t stop to question their logic. If you really take the time to think about this brain disease theory of addiction you’ll see that it never adds up. Beware of this tactic, don’t be fooled by colorful brain scans or pretty charts and graphs – examine the facts and see whether the conclusions logically follow.
For more on the brain disease theory, see Addiction is NOT A Brain Disease
Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, Jeremy R. Gray, The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20:3, pp. 470-477, 2008