Why “X Is Like Y Chemically” Is Meaningless (And Why It’s Not An Insult To Be Told You’re Wrong)

I was recently in a discussion that invoked the “X is dangerous for you because it’s only one atom/molecule away from Y” argument. In this specific case, the argument being made by Person A was that Drug X was dangerous because it was chemically similar to Drug Y. While the conclusion was accurate, the methods used to reach this conclusion were wrong. Yet, even though the conclusion was correct (in this case), I believe that pointing out why the methodology used is wrong is an important discussion to have.

BUT WHAT WAS WRONG ABOUT IT?

The idea that, simply because an item is chemically similar to something dangerous, it too is dangerous, is an argument built on a fallacy. There are plenty of harmless things (e.g. water) that are chemically similar to something dangerous (e.g. water and hydrogen peroxide) but are not harmful to us. In fact, similar pseudoscience methodologies have been used to prop up arguments of anti-vaxxers and other alt-right and alt-left beliefs.

BUT SCIENTISTS MAKE COMPARISONS ALL THE TIME!

In the case of this particular example, it is true that scientists will sometimes compare drugs to one another. However, drug studies tend to focus on how drugs interact with the body. Any associations between drugs are based on that. Generally, the only time studies on one drug will reference another is to say something like “potential for addiction is similar to Drug Y”. Scientists generally avoid statements like “Drug X is chemically similar to Drug Y and should therefore be avoided” because they know these types of statements are misleading and don’t inherently mean anything.

As stated earlier, Person A isn’t wrong when they say Drug X and Drug Y are chemically similar. They certainly are, but it’s besides the point. The point is: It is poor methodology to use chemical composition comparisons between two different substances to call one dangerous simply because the other is. The comparison is inherently meaningless in itself – lots of harmless things are one atom away from something dangerous. It’s only how the body interacts with each individual substance that provides actual merit to the idea that something is dangerous.

ARE YOU CALLING ME DUMB?

There is no malice or insult in having someone say “your methods for this are wrong and here is why.” There is not even malice or insult in saying “you’re using the same methodology as the alt-right and alt-left”. These are perfectly neutral factual statements and should be taken as such. It’s important to point out these logical fallacies, however, so that people can be educated on the issue and stop perpetuating bad science. Being (told you’re) wrong is the first step to being right – and there’s no shame in that.

SO WHAT SHOULD I HAVE DONE?

If we are trying to make the case, for instance, that Drug X is as bad for people as Drug Y, we should base our argument around the way Drug X affects the body. Because, while this person was 100% right that Drug X can be dangerous, it’s not necessarily because its chemical structure is similar to Drug Y’s (which, as previously stated doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself). By drawing chemical composition comparisons (that are inherently meaningless) we are propping up pseudoscience methodology.

WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL ANYWAY?

This is something we should all be passionate about because these are the types of arguments the alt-right and alt-left use to bolster their anti-science claims. More and more, people on both the left and right are starting to fall prey to pseudoscience – so it’s more important than ever to have these conversations in public so people can get educated. We need to put an end to these methodologies so people don’t ultimately buy into misunderstood pseudoscience and so that those who do buy into this pseudoscience can’t point at us and say, “look they’re doing it too so it must be right!”

Because these conversations are so important, we need to do away with the idea that if someone tells us we are wrong or are using poor methods of gaining information employed by pseudoscience advocates, that it is a personal attack against us. It is not and we can’t take these things personally. These are merely factual statements to help someone better understand where they went wrong and how to do better in the future. Like I said: Being wrong is the first step to being right – and there’s no shame in that.

More than a frame of mind: Misconceptions about mental illness

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When I discussed misconceptions about drugs and addiction awhile back I brought up mental illness — which can be a factor in drug use. Recent comments I’ve seen and heard made me start thinking of misconceptions people seem to have about mental illness as well. Misconceptions like…

…it’s all in your head

“Why do you do this to yourself?” “Snap out of it.” “You need to cheer up.” These are common refrains I hear people say to those suffering from mental illness.

While it’s true that mental illness primarily involves the brain, it’s not all in someone’s head.

Mental illness is caused by a variety of factors. Hereditary factors can play a large part in mental illness, running in families and leaving certain people pre-disposed to developing a mental illness. Biological factors — such as brain chemistry, abnormal brain function, and hormones — can also contribute to mental illness. Environmental factors, such as psychological traumas and stress, also have a role.

Where mental illness is present, many of these factors exist intertwined — but the most important thing to remember is that it’s not something that can simply be willed away and it’s not a character flaw.

…all you need is love

Some seem to believe that love, attention, and a helping hand will “fix” someone with a mental illness. Others believe that a person simply needs to learn to love themselves in order to be fixed. Often these people will get disgruntled when their efforts fail to fix the problem — sometimes even complaining to the mentally ill person about the lack of improvement.

Love is certainly helpful to people with mental illness, but it’s not a solution. And people should never negatively disparage a mentally ill person, especially not one dealing with depression or suicidal tendencies. Negative criticism from those that are supposed to care about them most can undo the improvements a mentally ill person has made or make them feel even worse about themselves and their situation.

Instead, people with mental illness should receive positive reinforcement for the progress they’ve made — and those around them should be prepared for years of patient love. But even then, they’re largely only dealing with the symptoms. In most cases, in order to really cure a mental illness professional help is necessary.

…professional help makes everything better

When a mentally ill person starts receiving professional help, whether with medications or therapy, people expect them to miraculously change over a short amount of time.

In truth, it can take years for a person’s mental illness to dissipate. Medications can help level a person out, but generally it also takes quality psychiatric care to get to the root of the mental illness and begin to fix it — a process that can take a very long time. And any new negative experiences can set back the process.

This is why it’s so important for friends and family to be patient with those with mental illness and positively reinforce them, while understanding that a lack of improvement is not a failing of anyone — least of all the mentally ill individual.

…progress is a straight, upward slope

This is perhaps the biggest misconception I see concerning mental illness. Even once a person gets help and is making visible improvements, people expect the progress to be a straight, upward slope with no pitfalls or setbacks.

Climbing out of mental illness is much like climbing a mountain: There are ups and downs, high winds, bad weather, exhaustion and a variety of other factors to deal with. As previously noted, negative experiences can stunt or set back the progress made. And while progress can certainly be rewarding for the mentally ill individual, it can also be physically and mentally exhausting — especially if they’re confronting deep-seated issues for the first time in their life.

A true helping hand

A mentally ill person is not the way they are by choice. It’s something they are constantly battling every second of every day — every moment you aren’t witnessing the symptoms of the mental illness is a victory that person has made over their illness. But the war is long and the illness is tireless. Progress can be made, but setbacks are inevitable.

When such setbacks occur or when the illness gets the best of the individual, make sure you are a bastion of patience and hope rather than negativity and disappointment. That is truly helpful.

Drug Abuse and Getting Clean: Common Misconceptions

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Nancy Reagan taught us all that drugs are bad. D.A.R.E. programs taught us that users are criminals, they are bad people. No one ever bothered to tell us that the vast majority of them were in need of help from a mental health system that largely doesn’t exist.

DeBie Hive

I’ve seen a lot online lately about drugs. From welfare drug testing to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death to the fact that heroin use is up. I’ve also seen a lot of misconceptions about drug users and addiction. I’d like to clear some of that up.

Drug use = addiction

While it’s true that most drugs have the potential for addiction, from cigarettes to heroin, not everyone who uses drugs is an addict or has a problem. Plenty of people imbibe beer or smoke marijuana without it ever becoming a physical or psychological issue.

Drug users are stupid

There’s no two ways about it, people with higher IQs are more likely to use drugs, undoing the notion that drugs are a fool’s vice. The correlation isn’t completely clear, but experts note that smarter people are often under more pressure to perform and some may also become easily bored and seek the extra stimulation drugs offer.

I’ve also observed that, the smarter you are, the easier it is to become disillusioned or depressed about the world around you. Drugs can be an alluring coping mechanism.

Drug users just want to get high

While it’s true that the high is the reason people begin taking drugs, it’s really not as simple as that. For many drug users, getting high is a means to an end. Drugs seem like a good way (at least in the beginning) to deal with life’s rigors or one’s own inner demons. It’s a fact that drug use is higher in the mentally ill and those who go through traumatic experiences.

There’s also been a rise in prescription painkiller addiction, which may stem from doctors prescribing them more to help patients with pain. Some people have a higher risk of addiction due to genetics, so even something that might seem harmless at first can turn into a serious problem.

Drug users can stop anytime they want

Drug addiction can, sometimes literally, be crippling. And addicts know this. An addict may very well want to clean up and get help, but continues using because it’s the only way to remain functional at work or get through job interviews.

Withdrawal (essentially what “rehab” does) is a MONTHS-long process, and when you have to support yourself or your family, cleaning up just isn’t an option. And even if you manage to get help, rehab (if you can afford it) mostly treats the symptom. Until the root cause is dissected and patched with therapy, there’s a higher chance of relapse. And quality therapy is not something addicts often have access to.

If they do manage to get cleaned up though, the battle still isn’t over. The battle is NEVER over. An addict will be an addict their entire life, even if it’s been 5, 10, or 50 years since they last used.

There can also be social consequences to cleaning up. In order to decrease the chance of a relapse, a person may need to cut ties with close friends and family. If they don’t have a strong social network of sober people to rely on when they take such a step, this can also leave them emotionally vulnerable — which can lead to a relapse.

Drug addicts on welfare are moochers

There is a misconception that there are a lot of drug users who use welfare — and that they use welfare money to buy more drugs.

First of all, the number of drug users on welfare is extremely low and screening costs taxpayers far more than the amount saved in denying benefits to the few who do use.

Secondly, welfare is, in a way, the closest thing the government currently has to “drug rehabilitation.”

As I said above, addicts need drugs to function properly. Without their daily fix, survival is practically impossible. For the insanely low amount of drug users who actually use welfare, it could be helping them survive (whether they use welfare for food, shelter, drugs, etc.) as they attempt to rehabilitate or try to hold down a job.

Remember, for an addict, drugs are as physically necessary as food.

Panhandling homeless people will just spend their money on alcohol and booze

This one isn’t necessarily a misconception as much as a misunderstanding. Drugs — especially alcohol and cigarettes — can be a survival tactic for homeless people. I once heard someone mention that they couldn’t understand why a homeless person would buy cigarettes or booze before buying food.

Here’s the reason: Food doesn’t last long when you have no way to store or cook it. People with homes take refrigerators, stoves and microwaves for granted. Cigarettes last longer than food and can suppress appetite, which makes the little food one is able to scrounge go a lot farther on a lot less cash.

As for alcohol: Everyone knows that it makes you feel warmer (even though it really does the opposite). That can make sleeping and surviving on the cold streets seem a little less harsh. And, for some, alcohol can also help suppress appetite.

The other thing to keep in mind is that those who are mentally ill (and therefore at a higher propensity for addiction) are also more likely to become homeless. It is hard to survive on the streets when you can’t function properly — making it an awful place to get sober.

Drug users are lowlifes and I certainly don’t know any

You might be surprised just how many addicts you know. Most of them hide their addiction — due to shame and social stigma — while they work to support themselves and/or their family.

Right now, in America, there is no easy way for addicts to get cleaned up — especially if they’re on their own or a family breadwinner. Employers will not allow employees to take months off to get cleaned up and there is no real government program (that i know of) that will help support an addict (and their family) while they get sober.

But these people are everywhere. They’re your friends, family, and coworkers. And they’re not bad people.