Drug wars and the power of rhetoric

An Oct. 18, 2013 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Mental illness: is ‘chemical imbalance’ theory a myth?”

Chemical balance theory has fallen in status

The subhead reads: “The chemical imbalance theory has fallen in status from bedrock scientific principle to mere marketing device in the minds of many researchers.”

The assumption is questioned that brain disorders can eventually yield to drugs

An essay by Tanya Marie Luhrmann in the Summer 2012 Wilson Quarterly is entitled: “Beyond the Brain.” The lead-in to the essay reads:

  • In the 1990s, scientists declared that schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses were pure brain disorders that would eventually yield to drugs. Now they are recognizing that social factors are among the causes, and must be part of the cure.

Schizophrenia has a social element

The essay is of interest. The author notes, for example, that in the days that schizophrenia was positioned among researchers as a ‘true brain disease,’ “the illness was said to appear at the same rate around the globe, as if true brain disease respected no social boundaries and was found in all nations, classes, and races in equal measure.”

“No one should ever have believed it,” Tanya Marie Luhrmann adds.

“Schizophrenia,” the essay continues, “has a more benign course and outcome in the developing world. The best data comes from India. In the study that established the difference, researchers looking at people two years after they first showed up at a hospital for care found that they scored significantly better on most outcome measures than a comparable group in the West. They had fewer symptoms, took less medication, and were more likely to be employed and married. The results were dissected, reanalyzed, then replicated – not in a tranquil Hindu village, but in the chaotic tangle of modern Chennai.”

Scepticism of neuroscience claims

A Sept. 9, 2013 New Yorker  article is entitled: “Mindless: The new neuro-skeptics.”

The opening sentences read:

  • Good myths turn on simple pairs— God and Lucifer, Sun and Moon, Jerry and George—and so an author who makes a vital duo is rewarded with a long-lived audience. No one in 1900 would have thought it possible that a century later more people would read Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson stories than anything of George Meredith’s, but we do. And so Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” despite the silly plots and the cardboard-seeming sets, persists in its many versions because it captures a deep and abiding divide.

Brain as frontier

The metaphor of the brain as frontier (Thornton, 2011) comes to mind. As noted in an earlier post (see link in previous sentence), Davi Johnson Thornton views scientific conceptions as a rhetorical space where social actors work through questions about what it means to be human in particular contexts.

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website highlights Thornton’s 2011 study:

  • Brain Culture investigates the American obsession with the health of the brain. The brain has become more than a bodily organ, acquiring a near-mystical status. The message that this organ is the key to everything is everywhere – in self-help books that tell us to work on our brains to achieve happiness and enlightenment, in drug advertisements that promise a few tweaks to our brain chemistry will cure us of our discontents, and in politicians’ speeches that tell us that our brains are national resources essential to our economic prosperity.

Symbolic interactionism

When we speak of drugs we can speak of studies such as Drug Wars (2013).

The above-noted articles and studies question the assertion that we’ve solved the question of what constitutes mental illness.

The effort to address the question is valuable. We have much to learn in the process.

If we seek to explain one thing in terms of another, in the language of science, especially in a manner that is not meant to be taken as metaphorical or figurative, we need to clearly and cogently describe (a) what the one thing is, and (b) what the other thing is that is being used as a means of comparison.

When we try to make sense of the world through such a process, we learn (a) that language and evidence can help us determine the nature of many things; and (b) there are nonetheless limits to what language can explain.

I support the symbolic interactionist perspective that Erving Goffman among others has taken on these matters.

Rational choices of drug addicts

A Sept. 16, 2013 New York Times article is entitled: “The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts.”

Carl Hart, the neuroscientist profiled in the article, is author of High Price: A neuroscientist’s journey of self-discovery that challenges everything you know about drugs and society (2013).

Excerpt from the article: “Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.”

The article adds: “Drug warriors may be skeptical of his work, but some other scientists are impressed.”

The article refers to a British researcher:

A similar assessment comes from Dr. David Nutt, a British expert on drug abuse. “I have a great deal of sympathy with Carl’s views,” said Dr. Nutt, a professor of neuropsycho-pharmacology at Imperial College London. “Addiction always has a social element, and this is magnified in societies with little in the way of work or other ways to find fulfillment.”


An Oct. 15, 2013 Canadian Press article in the Globe and Mail is entitled: “Cops’ reaction based on threat, not threatening person’s mental state, inquest hears.”

A Jan. 15, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Why Cartels Are Killing Mexico’s Mayors.”

A Feb. 22, 2016 New York Tims article is entitled: “For Mark Willenbring, Substance Abuse Treatment Begins With Research.”

An April 8, 2017 Washington Post article is entitled: “How Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the war on drugs.”

A July 26, 2017 Columbia Review of Journalism article is entitled: “Photos reveal media’s softer tone on opioid crisis.”


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