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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

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