A Brief History of Controlled Drinking – the Irrationality of Science

In a recent blog a few days ago I challenged some of Gabrielle Glaser’s “evidence” in her article   “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous “, which purported to demonstrate the so-called effectiveness of “controlling drinking”.

Glaser cited the following in her article

“ To many, though, the idea of non-abstinent recovery is anathema. No one knows that better than Mark and Linda Sobell, who are both psychologists. In the 1970s, the couple conducted a study with a group of 20 patients in Southern California who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence.

Over the course of 17 sessions, they taught the patients how to identify their triggers, how to refuse drinks, and other strategies to help them drink safely. In a follow-up study two years later, the patients had fewer days of heavy drinking, and more days of no drinking, than did a group of 20 alcohol-dependent patients who were told to abstain from drinking entirely.”

I responded to this as follows

” What Glaser failed to mention was that in a subsequent study (4) 10-year follow-up of the original 20 experimental subjects showed that only one, who apparently had not experienced physical withdrawal symptoms (thus possibly not alcoholic), maintained a pattern of controlled drinking;

eight continued to drink excessively–regularly or intermittently–despite repeated damaging consequences;

six abandoned their efforts to engage in controlled drinking and became abstinent;

four died from alcohol-related causes;

and one, certified about a year after discharge from the research project as gravely disabled because of drinking, was missing.

Why did Glaser failed to mention this research, a follow up study to the one she mentions and cites?”

The authors attempted to justify this choice in a statement that seems to clearly demonstrate their bias: “we are addressing the question of whether controlled drinking is itself a desirable treatment goal, not the question of whether the patients directed towards that goal fared better or worse than a control group.. .” (Pendery et al., 1982, 172-173)

The interesting aspect about her article for me (and most worrying) was that it highlighted a controversy that goes back to the 1960s – can alcoholics ever control their drinking?

In this blog we will address the origins of this “controlled drinking debate” and demonstrated how it is a castle built on sand.

The original study which supposedly demonstrated so-called controlled drinking or asymptomatic drinking in it’s alcoholic participants did no such thing.

So we now have an ongoing debate about controlled drinking when it has continuously been based on dubious research, bogus findings and bad science.

It is the researchers that Glaser champions that could be accused of irrationality.

The methodological madness started way back in the 1960s.

 While scattered reports of controlled drinking outcomes had occasionally appeared in the scientific literature before 1962, most commentators date the beginning of the controlled drinking controversy to the publication that year of a paper entitled “Normal Drinking in Recovered Alcohol Addicts.” In this paper, D.L. Davies, a British psychiatrist, reports that, in the course of long-term follow-up of patients treated for “alcohol addiction” at Maudsley Hospital in London, 7 of the 93 patients investigated “have subsequently been able to drink normally for periods of 7 to 11 years after discharge from the hospital.” (Davies, 1962, p. 94).

At least two different studies have challenged the findings of Davies:-

“Evidence suggests that five subjects experienced significant drinking problems both during Davies’s original follow-up period and subsequently, that three of these five at some time also used psychotropic drugs heavily, and that the two remaining subjects (one of whom was never severely dependent on alcohol) engaged in trouble-free drinking over the total period”


“A subsequent follow-up of these cases suggested that Davies had been substantially mislead”


So four decades of research into controlled drinking were inspired by a study which did not actually demonstrate controlled drinking in the first place!

In addition to the Sobells, Glaser also mentioned the Rand Report of the 1970s.

“In 1976, for instance, the Rand Corporation released a study of more than 2,000 men who had been patients at 44 different NIAAA-funded treatment centers. The report noted that 18 months after treatment, 22 percent of the men were drinking moderately. The authors concluded that it was possible for some alcohol-dependent men to return to controlled drinking. Researchers at the National Council on Alcoholism charged that the news would lead alcoholics to falsely believe they could drink safely. The NIAAA, which had funded the research, repudiated it. Rand repeated the study, this time looking over a four-year period. The results were similar.”

The first Rand Report was attacked as being methodologically weak  – e.g  it suffered from sample bias (80% of subject dropped out).

The Rand Corporation did a follow up 4 years later.  This time they reported that a smaller figure of 14% of the sample  continued to drink in an unproblematic manner  but other researchers reanalyzing the data arrived at a corrected estimate of 3-4% of the sample were drinking in a nonproblematic manner.

3% is somewhat less than the 22% – why does Glaser not cite these other follow up studies again?  It is difficult to accept any of her arguments as  she picks only studies that support her biased arguments.


It was also noted that alcoholics can often be expected to drink in a non problematic manner for brief periods. In my own experience, I have often heard of alcoholics share about a relapse and state that they thought they had their alcoholic problem licked as they started off drinking in what appeared to be a controlled manner only to find in a matter of weeks that their alcoholism had progressed far beyond it’s original severity prior to the relapse. In other words it can take a relapse some weeks to kick start into even more profound alcoholism than previously.

Researchers need to spend more time around alcoholics to observe what we have learnt through very painful experience, instead of theorising about this reality from academic ivory towers.

As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states in Chapter 3  “Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death. We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed. We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals –usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better.”


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