Sobriety is not a Science

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Sobriety is not a Science

Postby Karl R » Wed Jan 20, 2010 10:08 am

The title on this 1960 Grapevine Article caught my eye being a scientist myself. We often ask "Why does it work?" in regards to the 12 step spiritual solution presented in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The author points out the potential irrelevance and even danger of this question in this article.

accept the fact that to benefit by a new discovery, it is not necessary to understand why it works, so long as we can accept the fact that it does work.

And then try working it for ourselves.

Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc. (August 1960 vol. 17 no. 3 ). Reprinted with permission.


Sobriety Is Not a Science
EARLY in January of 1959 two of us, AA members, called on a man who had wound up in a sanitarium after starting for a Christmas Eve cocktail party given by a colleague. He was a thirty-six-year-old mathematical physicist, an expert on inertial guidance systems, with a distinguished World War II aerial combat record.

During the following months our new baby soaked up information on alcoholism and AA like a sponge. Applying a brilliant mind and a background including doctoral studies at a leading midwestern university, he soon knew nearly everything the textbooks could impart on the chemistry of alcohol in the body.

Nevertheless, he was unable to stop drinking for more than a month or so at a time, and he used sedatives, tranquilizers, pepper-uppers and ease-me-downers continuously.

During 1959 I saw him often, usually in my home, occasionally in hospitals. What prevented his staying sober, he claimed, was that as a scientist he could not find a scientifically satisfactory answer to the question: "Why does the AA program work?" If I could tell him this, he insisted, he would be able to achieve permanent sobriety.

Forced thus, I finally came up with an explanation which serves for me. It is this:

In the strictly scientific sense, I don't know why the AA program works. Perhaps no one knows. But the fact is, it does work. The evidence of at least a quarter of a million arrested cases of alcoholism in the past twenty-five years proves this, in view of the fact that up to the time AA began, the number of known cases of arrested alcoholism was negligible. "Spontaneous" recoveries from alcoholism seem to be almost in the class of recoveries from cancer without treatment. There are a few of these, too.

We are faced with a situation, then, in which a successful treatment is known although the underlying cause, the etiology, as the medical expression has it, is still obscure. For our purposes, of course, it is enough to know that the cause of alcoholism is alcohol. But this is not the same as knowing specifically what alcohol does chemically in the body of the alcoholic to bring about the disease called alcoholism.

Fortunately, the history of medicine affords more than one parallel to this kind of situation. Perhaps the most striking is an event which occured in the year 1796.

In that year an English physician named Edward Jenner decided to act on a commonly observed fact in the part of England where he practiced: that the country people who caught the mild disease cowpox from cows early enough in life did not catch smallpox later. Smallpox at this time was one of humanity's most fearful scourges, with an annual world-wide death toll measured almost in millions.

Dr. Jenner tested his observation by inoculating a young boy named James Phipps, who had never had smallpox, with material taken from an open cowpox ulcer on the wrist of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelms. James caught cowpox, and recovered. Six weeks later Dr. Jenner inoculated the boy in the same way with material from the pustules of a man suffering from smallpox. James did not catch smallpox.

That was the beginning of what we know as vaccination. The name betrays its origin, for it comes from the Latin word vacca, meaning cow.

But here is the point: Today almost everyone has been vaccinated, yet very few know why vaccination works. All we know is that it does work.

Since Jenner's discovery vaccination has saved millions of lives. Yet Dr. Jenner never knew why vaccination worked, nor did any scientist of his time. Sheer evidence forced doctors to vaccinate, although neither the cause of smallpox nor the reason why a previous infection with cowpox conferred immunity was known.

In fact, about three quarters of a century were to pass before it was known that micro-organisms cause disease. And since smallpox is caused not by a bacterium but by a virus, the true viral cause of smallpox was not to be known until almost the lifetime of some of us.

But vaccination worked. The evidence proved it. So people accepted vaccination, trusting to the future to reveal the strictly scientific reason why.

So the AA program works. In the future, researchers may discover the measurable biochemical and emotional x factors underlying our disease and the reasons why the program works.

But I, for one, can't wait for that day. It may not come for a century or more. So I am content with the fact that before the AA program was formulated, alcoholics like me had nothing to look forward to but degradation, misery, insanity, and eventual death. Yet today, although an alcoholic, I am one of the hundreds of thousands enjoying reasonably comfortable sobriety.

So to me it seems fair to say that the AA program, whatever else it may be, is an authentic and major medical discovery.

Certainly there is no mysterious mumbo-jumbo about the program. It is open to inspection and test by anyone. It contains no really new elements. As Bill W. has pointed out, it was created by the putting together of several already well known ingredients. This sort of thing is what historians of science call "a brilliant synthesis of previous discoveries, bringing about a new concept and a new result." The history of science and medicine is full of these syntheses no less startling and strange when they were first pronounced.

Therefore the undeniable fact that the AA program works is enough for me. But how about the thirty-six-year-old physicist? Was it enough for him? No. It contained no mathematical formulae, no chemical symbols, nothing that could be weighed or measured.

He died early this year at the age of thirty-seven, still unable to accept the fact that to benefit by a new discovery, it is not necessary to understand why it works, so long as we can accept the fact that it does work.

And then try working it for ourselves.

C. A.
Los Angeles, California
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Karl R
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