Giffort Explores the Medical Legitimacy of Psychedelics in "Acid Revival"

Published on 25 May 2021

As a sociologist who studies health and medicine, especially as it relates to knowledge production, Danielle Giffort, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis, has always been drawn to empirical cases where there is an absence of knowledge.

"Science studies scholars often refer to absences of knowledge in empirical cases as nonknowledge or scientific ignorance," Giffort said. "Not in the sense of public ignorance of science, but scientific ignorance in the sense of what topics are scientists not studying, why are they not studying them, and what consequences come from that nonknowledge. Psychedelic drug research is a great empirical case to study the production of nonknowledge."

Research on psychedelic drugs, like LSD and psilocybin, was at its height in the mid-20th century, but today, the presence of psychedelic drug research and its potential therapeutic applications in modern medicine are hardly recognized.

In her book, "Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy," Giffort explores why research on psychedelic drugs became nonknowledge and what researchers today are doing to address the gap created by that nonknowledge, in their attempts to restore legitimacy and credibility to psychedelic drug research.

"The book is focused on a group of mental health professionals trying to bring back psychedelic therapy into mainstream medicine and how the past history of psychedelics in medicine continues to impact their efforts," Giffort said. "In my interviews with current researchers, I wanted to get their perspectives on what they thought went wrong during the so-called "first wave" of psychedelic therapy that spanned the late 1940s to early 1970s and how their explanations shaped their actions to revive psychedelic medicine.

"All of their stories point to the same person — Timothy Leary. Leary, a psychologist and researcher at Harvard University in the 1960s, studied psilocybin, among other things, and came to symbolize what I call the 'impure scientist.' He didn't respect, and even intentionally defied, the boundaries of science, such as the lines between subjectivity and objectivity, and his presence came to have this polluting effect on the legitimacy of psychedelic therapy. In the minds of this group of contemporary researchers, the misbehavior of an individual had contaminating effects on their whole field."

Giffort explains that these contaminating effects created an "anti-Leary" movement in contemporary researchers' attempts to revive credibility in their field, directly influencing how they conducted their research, including focusing on hypothesis testing methods that warrant scientific credibility or avoiding any discussions of personal experience with psychedelic drugs.

"Leary is so central to these researchers' stories and to the revival because he is the site of all the continuities and divergences between the first and current wave of research," Giffort said. "What I hope readers take away from the book is not just learning about the history of psychedelic science, but how the ways that people construct reality has an effect on their actions."

The social construction of reality and how it shapes science and perceptions of drugs is a concept Giffort also brings into the classroom.

To encourage students to think critically about the way drugs are classified, for example, Giffort conducts an exercise where students are given a list of four nameless drugs with objective facts assigned to them, such as physiological effects and the risk of dependence, withdrawal and fatality. Once the students have made their assessments about which drugs should be regulated or even made illegal, Giffort reveals the names of the drugs.

Without knowing which substance they are ranking, students almost always place alcohol, which is currently not scheduled by the Drug Enforcement  Administration, in the most restrictive category while they consistently rank marijuana, currently categorized as a Schedule 1 drug, as a substance that should be available with a prescription. The point is to help students think critically about cultural perceptions of drugs and how this impacts the ways in which they are or are not regulated.

"What sociologists and historians show repeatedly in their work is that the ways in which a drug is classified reveals more about the context in which it was created than any sort of objective assessment of its chemical properties or physiological effects," Giffort explained. "The exercise highlights how the way these drugs are classified is greatly based on culturally and historically specific beliefs about body and morality, which change across time and place depending on those factors."

The innate curiosity that Giffort brings to her research is the same curiosity she hopes her students learn to embrace when dealing with the ambiguities that sociology presents.

"There is a tendency to study science as an objective, contained realm, but science is a social endeavor, which means it is subject to the same social influences in any other realm," Giffort said. "My goal with sociology is to show students that there is so much more complexity to things we often think are black and white. You just have to be curious and not be afraid to ask questions."


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