Thursday, June 28, 2007

Addiction, Baldness, and Extraterrestrial Life

A few final questions today. I cannot tell you how much I love the things you folks ask. Where else can you go from psychology to humor to physics to ethics to superheroes? Good stuff.

MT asks,

"What is addiction?"
Helpful hint from your Uncle Steve, always beware seemingly simple questions from really smart people, but I'll walk into the trap.

Addiction is an odd concept. It clearly is intended to refer to an unhealthy psychological state in which a desire for the object of the addiction provides an irrational degree of attraction. We want lots of things, but in a normal state supposedly can dispassionately weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing and possibly attaining what we desire and can choose to continue or abort that pursuit based upon sound reasoning. Addiction is a state in which the desire leads us to want the thing to a degree that overrides our ability to put the benefits in perspective, where our desire outruns the actual benefit.

In the long tradition of reducing the psychological to the biological, most talk of addiction is done in terms of bodily chemistry and equilibrium. The idea being that the body works a certain way in which it produces certain amounts of certain chemicals to be used certain ways for various bodily functions. Biological addiction, on this model, is where a substance destroys the equilibrium and causes a lingering imbalance resulting in a continued desire for the substance to bring the body artificially back into something resembling the normal state. The body needs the substance and the lack of it creates a physiological state in which the body fails to function adequately, knows that more of the substance would allow it to restore normal abilities, so it creates a sense which gets experienced as a deep urge for the substance.

Of course, this hinges on a meaningful sense of "normal" for the human body and it is this slipperiness that can allow us to differentiate in usage between the caffeine junkie and heroin addict on one hand, and all of us who need oxygen and food to survive. The first two are not normal where the last two are and addiction requires the abnormal state obtained by ingesting things that are not necessary or normal.

This idea then gets extended to substances that do not cause chemical changes in the body but which are held to be "psychologically addicting." In this case, the move is to speak of chemicals in the brain, neurotransmitters, and say that the act, say gambling, shopping, or over or under eating, cause certain chemical balances in the brain to be upset, thus reducing non-addictive substances or acts to the same status as those which are bodily affective. Doing these things that are not normal cause our bodies to be abnormal and that abnormality causes us to occupy an abnormal and therefore pathological psychological state.

What makes some people, like Thomas Szasz uneasy about such talk is the central place that the notion "normal" plays in this supposedly biological and thereby objective notion. Of course, what is normal is determined by those with social power and standing and so Szasz argues that addiction does not really exist in the sense we usually think of it (indeed the sense we have been conditioned to think of it), but is politically constructed in order to demonize certain behaviors deemed offensive by those with social capital. If something is undesirable, we say those who use it are addicts, and therefore less than rational and since rationality is an essential property of humans, therefore less than human.

We certain have seen this sort of thing in terms of what drugs we keep legal and which ones we don't. Marijuana became a social evil needing to be eradicated when it became associated with jazz musicians and LSD was made illegal when it was associated with those dirty hippies. Wine, on the other hand, is the drink of the well-heeled and therefore we scoff at prohibition.

But this social/political story does not mean that there are not medical effects of certain substances and that we are not capable of habituating certain acts that will cause us to act irrationally. Of course, what we do influences how we think and sometimes this will lead us to naturally adopt behaviors that keep us from living lives that fully enrich us, sometimes creating urges and desires so strong that they undermine our projects and our ability to take care of ourselves and to care for those around us. But while there is certainly some real sense in which there are addictions and they do have a bodily component, we do need to be careful with the word which is politically loaded.

So, what was your hook here, MT? Did I take it where you expected?

AB asks a couple of questions,
What, in your opinion, has been the greatest contribution to science in the last twelve months? Why?

Question 2. Will they ever find a cure for baldness? I only ask because I recall you mentioning that the two areas of medical research which receive the most funding involve the two areas of male enhancement. That doesn’t seem right to me though. Is there some truth to that?
Let's take them in reverse order. First, the claim that I've made (not sure if I've made it on the blog, but we do talk about it in class) is not that these two medical conditions receive the most money, but that they do receive a significant amount of research, development, and marketing money from drug companies that are spending significantly less on problems that affect more people and are far more serious in terms of public health. the idea here is that if we leave medical science purely up to the marketplace, then we come out with some very odd medicine. The resulting priorities are clearly not where one would expect them to be.

The line is that with these drugs that sell well for less serious ailments, there will be more funds for research on less profitable cures, but that's an empirical claim and I'd love to see what evidence there is that the monetary success of substances to help old rich white guys get laid parlays into help for those who really need it (in a different sense of really need it, of course).

As to whether there will ever be a cure for baldness? Yes, it's called the comb-over, but it comes with certain side effects such as auditory disturbances where the user constantly hears people laughing at him.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the last twelve months? I would say, the discovery of a small rocky planet outside of our solar system. We had found large gaseous planets like Jupiter out there, but this is the first one that's like Earth. While this discovery is not shocking and does not advance science very much, it does affect our view of the cosmos as being much more likely to have other life forms in it. If the itsy-bitsy tiny slice of space that we can get anything resembling a handle on looks somewhat like home, there's a really good chance that there's more life out there and that's pretty big stuff. So while it certainly is not the scientifically most important in terms of creating a major paradigm shift in research practice or general beliefs, philosophically I would rate it as very important.