Posted by: Kevin | October 17, 2006

How to Misinterpret Science, by the Wall Street Journal

From today’s Personal journal section of the Wall Street Journal:  “The Case for Alcoholics Anonymous:  It Works Even if the Science is Lacking” by Kevin Helliker (sorry don’t have a link).  The gist of this article is that a recent study published in the Cochrane Library recently casts doubt on the effectiveness of A.A. because it wasn’t subjected to the normal double blind testing that medical technology is subjected to.  I read this and was ready to rip the study apart.

But first I did a little research.  For instance I took the time to actually read the summary of the study in question (found here).  The line that Mr. Helliker seems to be relying on comes from the conclusion.

No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.

However, if you read the whole summary you find this.

The available experimental studies did not demonstrate the effectiveness of AA or other 12-step approaches in reducing alcohol use and achieving abstinence compared with other treatments, but there were some limitations with these studies.  (emphasis mine)

The point of the study is that A.A. is no more or less effective than other treatments for substance abuse.  However A.A. and other treatments are effective and that different treatments might be better suited to different people.  Lastly, further study is needed to reach better conclusions. 

This is a very different picture than the one painted by Mr. Helliker, and the differences are important.  It is a worthwhile pursuit to determine which treatments are most suitable for substance abuse in a given type of person (family history, socio-economic background, medical history, etc.).  That will make treatment more effective. 

In the meantime A.A. is at least as effective as any other treatment available and free.  The study doesn’t dispute that, which to me is a pretty strong endorsement of A.A. 

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