The Points Interview — Peter Ferentzy and Nigel E. Turner

Editor’s Note:  Authors Peter Ferentzy and Nigel E. Turner describe their new book, The History of Problem Gambling: Temperance, Substance Abuse, Medicine, and Metaphors (Springer, 2012) in today’s Points interview. 

1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Ferentzy-Turner-coverNT & PF:  Our book examines how the idea of gambling as a disease came into existence and how that concept changed over time. We point out two current disease models – the public health and the chronic disease model – and explore their roots. We also explore the metaphoric utilities of these models, examining what these metaphors both can reveal and can hide about the concept. The idea that metaphors reveal and hide information is important. It is not always recognized that how one categorizes a phenomenon affects how it is understood. This is true for all categorization but perhaps more so for mental health phenomena. Viewing gambling problems as a chronic disease harbors the implication that the disorder is difficult to overcome, that it is not the person’s fault, and that it obligates lifelong abstinence for those who are vulnerable as the only viable approach to the disorder. If on the other hand we view gambling as a public health problem the focus shifts to the game and the administration of gambling, rather than the gambler. Now, issues relating to the game’s availability, its design, and the role of public health policy in addressing the problem rise in salience. The public health perspective shifts attention to prevention and self-control, rather than abstinence per se. Our book discusses how both models also hide facts about the disorder. It’s important to be aware of the metaphors one is using and not mistake metaphors for literal truths. Otherwise they can become a mental trap preventing one from understanding the reality of the phenomenon. We examine how metaphors associated with problem gambling have changed over time.

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

NT: The book brings together a number of ideas from disciplines that have not interacted very much in the past. We reject some of the accepted ideas about the dichotomy of the disease vs. public health model, and explore problem gambling with a new perspective in terms of what these models reveal and hide.

Nigel Turner
Nigel Turner

We also spend a lot of time on the history of addictions, including the history of ideas about alcoholism and how that history is related to gambling. So yeah, historians may find that of great interest. Again, we synthesized ideas from the substance abuse field and examine how they apply to gambling.

PF:  While addiction historians such as Musto and Courtwright have discussed how perceptions of drug users changed drastically in the early 20th century, we are the first to identify this change in relation to the emergence of the idea that addicts need to hit bottom in order to recover. Only in a setting where addicts of all stripes were seen as the lowest form of life possible – only in such a setting could this vicious (and inaccurate) idea take off: that an addict must first suffer extremes of degradation in order to recover.

3.  Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

NT:  Our book is a true collaboration in that neither of us could have written it by himself. We have drawn upon different backgrounds to synthesize information. My favorite part is actually in chapter 2, where we examine the history of our understanding of probability theory and its effect on gambling technology (e.g., the invention of the table game house edge). Probability theory lead to the commercialization of gambling and thereafter to the identification of problem gambling as a medical issue (e.g., a type of monomania). This history also played out against a background of changes in alcohol technology (e.g., distilled spirits) and the emergence of the temperance movement. All these threads are interrelated. The most recent technological development was the continuously running random number generator, which allowed the gambling industry to make gambling machines into more efficient financial vacuum cleaners. This technological change has prompted an increased awareness of problem gambling, its identification as a medical disorder, and a dissatisfaction with the chronic disease model because of its excessive focus on the gambler rather than the game.

Peter Ferentzy
Peter Ferentzy

PF:  The notion of metaphor as inherent in thought processes. Long before I knew Nigel, I had observed, for example, how Levenstein compared morphine withdrawal to alcoholic DTs rather than to opium withdrawal. So Levenstein relied on the most prominent prototype. Our book explains how such maneuvers have marked subatomic physics and other sciences. Nigel did his dissertation on figurative language, and I learned a lot from him in that area.

4.  Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

NT: I would like to push the history of problem gambling back further in time. In particular, I’d like to know more about the ancient world’s view of problem gambling. We have found some hints in Roman law, Jewish law, and Hindu mythology, but the topic is rarely addressed clearly and is not addressed as a medical issue. The mention of problem gambling in Hindu mythology is particularly interesting in that the mathematical scholars in India may have been the first to be able to compute probability.

PF:  I would like to go more deeply into the origins of the “hit bottom” philosophy. The religious origins – beholden probably to the two “Great Awakenings” – would be worthy of further exploration. I would also like to explore in more detail how addicts – then and to this day – participate in their own demonization by means of contrived experiential accounts.

5.  BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

NT: Captain Jack Sparrow from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, no reason, I just love the way Johnny Depp plays that character, savvy.

PF: Ice-T – why? Hard to say. But I really like his raps.