What Time Do You Want It To Be? Finessing Science at the National Council on Alcoholism and at Yale

Over the course of the second half of the 20th century Mrs. Marty Mann and her National Council on Alcohol (NCA) became the best known public advocates of the disease concept of alcoholism in the United States.  Mann’s great campaign, however, harbored a vexing rhetorical weakness.

All the News that’s Fit to Print

From its outset–with NCA’s (1) launch in the autumn of 1944–Mann’s organization purported to convey ostensibly sound scientific knowledge and facts about alcoholism to the American public.  Mann was a publicist, not a scientist; more to the point, scientific knowledge about alcoholism (including even whether such a phenomenon might confidently be said to exist) was scant and unreliable.  This awkward behind-the-scenes circumstance created some equally awkward and unlikely back-stage interactions between NCA and the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies.  NCA relied on the Yale group for scientific support.  Yet–as contemporary correspondence shows –Yale scientists weren’t always ready with the goods; neither did the Yale group’s scientific work always comport with Mann’s group’s aims.

Uncertain Science and Cross-Influences
One of Mann’s objectives in NCA was to shift the American public’s image of the alcoholic from that of the skid row derelict to that of the average Joe or Jane.  Some sort of credible statistical data were needed to support such a shift.  What had Yale science to offer?  In 1957, Mollie O’Connor, NCA executive assistant and fact-checker, wrote to Robert Straus (formerly at the Yale group but by then at the University of Kentucky), asking permission to use Straus’s estimate that 10 to 15 percent of alcoholics “were of the visible skid row type…” (2).  Straus’s reply was the soul of candor.  “I have been trying to recall,” wrote Straus, “just when and under what circumstances I might have made such an estimate….To my knowledge this factor has never been counted or measured and any statistics must necessarily be guesses” (3).  Straus closed his reply to O’Connor with a broad disclaimer:

In short, what I am really getting at is the fact that I have no legitimate basis for providing statistics on the relative percentages of skid row or other alcoholics.  Were you to ask me for my opinion, I would say that probably no more than 15 to 20 percent of our problem drinkers represent the skid row group.  If you feel that this would have any value, you may quote this as a personal opinion.

In a similar vein, NCA wished to lower the age distribution of alcoholics, thus also eroding the image of the aging skid row bum. O’Connor wrote to Selden D. Bacon in 1957 asking permission to quote from an article in which he’d written that three out of four alcoholics were between the ages of 35 and 55 (4).  Bacon’s reply cannot have offered O’Connor much confidence in his estimate:

Selden Bacon, 1945: “Truthiness” Before it was Hip

I suppose it’s all right for you to quote the age-range figure.  Nobody knows, and this sounds just as worthwhile as many other statements which purport to be factual.  I think the statement would be somewhat better if it started with “probably,” but this might so weaken it for your purposes that you would prefer to have it as it is in your letter.  So, go ahead and, if anybody challenges it, we’ll just counter-challenge them to produce a better figure (5).

Marty Mann sometimes tried to influence the future path of scientific research at the Yale group.  In 1948, for example, she penned a detailed letter to Howard W. Haggard arguing that the group should do more physiologically oriented research on alcoholism.  Near the close of this missive, Mann wrote:

Incidentally, I want to add here, that I feel strongly the need for more and more physiological research under the Yale plan.  I get more questions on that, than on any other phase of our work excepting on how we help them to do something ([6] original emphasis).

 On another occasion, Mann complained bitterly in a letter to Haggard that that a Yale group author was employing the term “drinking habit” in a forthcoming Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol article.  She wrote in part:

On the surface, this perhaps does not seem very important, but from my point of view, it could scarcely be more important.  The entire burden of my talks and efforts is directed toward a new concept of alcoholism and a new and more enlightened attitude toward its victims.  This concept and this attitude depend [sic] very heavily upon phraseology, for after all, words embody concepts.  The hardest job I have is to overcome the too familiar phraseology of the ubiquitous “drys” a phraseology which bears in its train the associations they have given to certain phrases.  Since practically all school teaching on this subject has been under their control for at least fifty years, most adults have at some time learned the typical temperance teachings, and whether or not they agree, the use of certain phrases inevitably calls up some of these associations (7).

Up Next: The Unsound Science of the AA Grapevine Survey.

Notes:

(1) At its founding, Mann’s organization was the “National Committee for Education on Alcoholism”; its legatee is the “National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.”

(2) Mollie O’Connor to Robert Straus, Nov. 1, 1957, Box 1, Folder “Facts on…,” Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

(3) Straus to O’Connor, Nov. 7, 1957, Box 1, Folder “Facts on…,” Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

(4) O’Connor to Selden D. Bacon, Nov. 14, 1957, Box 1, Folder “Facts on…,” Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

(5) Bacon to O’Connor, Nov. 18, 1957, Box 1, Folder “Facts on…,” Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

(6) Mann to Bacon, Aug. 10, 1948, Box 5, Folder “Yale Summer School,” Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

(7) Mann to Bacon, Feb. 26, 1946, Box 5, Folder “Yale Summer School,” Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.