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Addiction intervention: David Brooks sets the bar low

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 30, 2010 10:51 AM

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In recent months, the columnist David Brooks has, off and on, taken a bludgeon to one particular straw man: the idea that social science can account for the totality of human behavior. To my knowledge, no sociologist or psychologist has ever made such a claim, yet here Brooks is again, this time on the subject of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Each member of an A.A. group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another.

But if Brooks is worried about the tyranny of statistical analysis, consider the dangers of its opposite number: disdain for statistical study. For his dislike of social-scientific evaluation forces him to state that this the best one can say about A.A.:

It is possible to design programs that will help some people some of the time.

Having reached that conclusion, one then moves on to identifying the salutary qualities of the program in question. Brooks does this with respect to A.A.

But note that there is no addiction intervention--not A.A., Antabuse, Moderation Management, solitary willpower with frequent prayer, solitary atheistic willpower, or even no intervention at all--that does not meet his standard for calling A.A. a success. (It works for some people, sometimes.) Absent comparative evaluative statistics, all that's left is hand-waving for one's favored worldview--in this case, certain ideas about the centrality of human frailty, the importance of peers, and the desirability of arousing "spiritual aspirations."

In fact, of course, the column is founded on a testable social-scientific hypothesis: A.A. is more effective than some other interventions. Which brings us back to the importance of data--in addition to, not to the exclusion of, loftier humanistic thoughts.

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