January 29, 2003

Better Willing Through Chemistry, or, More Reasons the Staff of the National Review Should Be Squirming in Front of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Right Now

Back when I subscribed to magazines like Mother Jones and The Nation, it seemed that every few issues they'd run a piece saying psychiatric drugs were overproscribed so that pharmaceutical companies, aided and abetted by soulless allopathic conventional Western medicine, could profit from turning the common problems of life into treatable disorders. As you can tell, this irritated, for a number of reasons. The most important were matters of temperament and prejudice. Because I would like materialism and mechanism to be true, I like the idea that, even if some of these conditions have up to now been ordinary ills that flesh is heir to, they could be dealt with by fairly simple chemical means --- and dealt with better by more subtle chemical interventions. Even more, I am generally inclined to think that soulless allopathic etc. medicine is a Good Thing, and that conditions which respond to physical treatment are real. And the articles themselves always seemed to employ two incompatible reactionary tropes, those of futility ("you can't medicate away unhappiness") and jeopardy ("medicating away human spontaneity"). And an awful lot of them seemed to be written by talking-cure shrinks...

In those pieces, Ritalin was always a particular object of scorn, as something used to keep prole-spawn in line. Now, I was (and am) willing to believe that many teachers, school administrators, etc. would like nothing better than to have zombies for students. But saying ADD/ADHD doesn't exist, or that Ritalin doesn't help it, or that it turns boys into something from The Night of the Living Dead, is just absurd, and flies in the face of extensive scientific evidence.

Imagine my surprise to learn, from professional conservative Michael Fumento writing in The New Republic, that most professional conservatives are saying that ADD is yet another liberal P.C. myth, and make lots of the same charges the people on the other side do. The exceptions are those movement conservatives who have ADD kids, or who have actually bothered to learn anything about the subject. Nonetheless, a little digging now turns up a steady stream of right-wing pundits saying ADD is a hoax and Ritalin is "kiddie cocaine".

An anecdote might make vivid what acting on those ideas would mean. One of my best friends is an excellent mathematician who is, in writing, incredibly inarticulate --- we joke that he proves the theorems, and then his co-authors translate his papers into English. But by all odds he shouldn't be writing papers at all, since he's dyslexic and as a boy he had severe attention-deficit disorder --- he really could not concentrate at all. Fortunately, he was treated with Ritalin for years on end, which kept the ADD "down" enough that he could learn to control his own attention. (In fact, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his typically-excellent New Yorker piece on Ritalin, this process of medication making it easier to acquire normal self-control is a fairly common outcome. [Someone should look into how this connects to Vygotsky and Luria's ideas about the social development of self-control.] But it wouldn't be Gladwell without at least one weird speculation, viz., that more teenagers have ADD because fewer of them smoke.) Were it not for the fact that his condition was admitted to exist, looked for, recognized and treated, he'd most likely be a dropout, or in jail. Instead he's a productive member of society, or at least as productive as any expert on high-dimensional dynamical systems theory can be.

One of the sound tenets of conservativism is that one should be most leery of harming actual, concrete human beings in the name of abstractions. But this is precisely what the conservative claim that ADD is a myth would do: ruin the lives of people like my friend, for the sake of abstract principles about "opposing political correctness". In the name of enforcing personal responsibility, it would deny those people the modest tools they need to become responsible.

Is it puzzling that people who frequently fuss about threats to the heritage of Western science would make up whatever sounds convenient and echo each others fabrications, rather than actually consult experimental findings? Not at all; while there are individual conservative activists who are genuinely dedicated to science and reason, the movement as a whole has no use for those ideals, other than claiming to defend them. Making-stuff-up is the charitable description of professional conservativism's mode of argument; often it can only be described as blatant, self-serving lies about crucial subjects. While people who write for, and read, Mother Jones can irritate me, people who write for The American Spectator, and their paymasters, can deny people like my friend the things they need to grow up decently, and can choke us all in sooty filth. Much of the left has, sadly, faded into crankishness; the right is a well-organized band of cruel, dangerous, selfish liars. It's not a hard choice.

Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Natural Science of the Human Species; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted by crshalizi at January 29, 2003 12:45 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth:   Hosted, but not endorsed, by the Center for the Study of Complex Systems