How Scientists Came to Recognize the Benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous

Every year or so I get a call from a journalist who wants me to come on some show with “Someone who is saying that there is no evidence that Alcoholics Anonymous works!”.

I have learned to respond by asking “How much is their new book selling for?”.

Because AA is a large and respected organization, attacking it when you are trying to promote your book on addiction or your fancy new rehab center is pretty much de rigeur. But scientifically, you don’t have a leg to stand on, as I describe in my piece at Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

The average person, understandably, doesn’t realize how careful scientific research has virtually wiped out skepticism of AA and twelve-step facilitation counseling among researchers. Many scientists — including me — were skeptical of AA 25 years ago, but a series of rigorous outcome studies supporting AA’s effectiveness changed our minds. Unlike in much of popular debate, within science it is generally accepted that if your beliefs don’t accord with the data, then it is your beliefs that must change.

In an addiction research conference today, if you stood up and said that there was no evidence that AA and 12-step facilitation counseling worked, you would be viewed much the same as if you denied climate change at a meeting of atmospheric scientists. The debate over AA’s value will continue in popular culture, but that doesn’t change the reality that the scientific facts are already in and very much in the organization’s favor.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.