In June, 1975, I had the honor to represent Berkeley’s Alcohol Research Group (ARG), where I then worked, at the 21st International Institute on the Prevention and Treatment of Alcoholism, in Helsinki.(1) I presented a paper to the Epidemiology Section meeting (2) — a group that would later split off and become the Kettil Bruun Society following Kettil Bruun’s death in 1985.
It was my first international conference and I was pretty excited to be there. Helsinki was beautiful in its lush green setting and the conference organizers did a wonderful job hosting. At a conference dinner one evening I had the good fortune to be seated next to Dr. Max Glatt. He was the leading proponent of alcoholism treatment in Britain and as well a staunch supporter of the disease concept of alcoholism.
Glatt was friendly and open as we chatted and enjoyed a fine meal of venison with a currant sauce. At some point our conversation turned to the disease concept. In June, 1975, I was 31 and still, I hate to admit, in my piss-and-vinegar, know-it-all youth. I asked Glatt if he were familiar with Karl Popper’s notion that potential falsifiability was the true test of a genuinely empirical scientific theory or hypothesis. He said yes, he was.
“Well then,” I continued, “if the disease concept of alcoholism is a genuinely empirical assertion, what observation or observations would in your view falsify or disconfirm it? In other words, what sort of data would convince you that alcoholism was not a disease?”
Glatt thought for a long moment and then responded that he wanted to think about the question more. He’d give me his reply tomorrow at dinner, he said. The next evening, as promised, Glatt brought a response.
“None,” he said. “There’s no observation that would disconfirm that alcoholism is a disease.”
“So,” I responded, “therefore the disease concept cannot be said to be a scientific proposition in your judgment.”
“No, I guess not,” he replied, “Not entirely.”
At the time, I felt a sense of gotcha triumph at Glatt’s reply. Yet, and in due course, I came to admire his candor and his reply. It would have been good to hear his reply fully elaborated in a long discussion that evening. But Glatt said no more on the question. I don’t remember what was served for dinner that evening but I’m sure it was terrific.
(1) I published a brief account of the meeting in ARG’s house organ – see “Alcohol epidemiology: Helsinki1975,” The Drinking and Drug Practices Surveyor 11:1, 43-54, 1976.
(2) My paper was titled “Drinking and Drinking Problems: Some Notes on the Ascription of Problems to Drinking,” and is available here: http://www.roizen.com/ron/ascription.htm.