Academic steroids

Ken writes: There have been a couple of stories in the news recently about what might be called mental performance enhancing drugs. For example in the Independent, and in the Times. Actually, I say ‘recently’, because of the Independent article, but if you go to the BBC webpage, or the Guardian and search through the archives, you’ll see articles on this from all through the noughties. The drug mentioned a lot is modafinil (a.ka. Provigil and other names). I understand it is prescribed as a means to combat certain sleep disorders but it has also been discovered to help increase memory and attention.

I must admit, when I read about it, I thought ‘Damn, I’ve got to get me some of that stuff!’ but Dot won’t let me. We had an animated discussion about it this morning over breakfast, but we didn’t reach much of an illuminating conclusion so I’m blogging about it as a means of thinking it through. It raises a quite a few interesting issues.

Some of the claims seem quite incredible, such as that people will be able to work 22 hour days will no ill effect. But suppose it is true, surely then once everyone was able to take these pills everyone would be expected to work 22 hour days. The precedent is there in what happened with two income families. It must have been terrific to have twice the income in a world where the price of everything was premised on single-income families. Now it is virtually impossible to survive on a single income. So, if one is going to go down the path of academic performance enhancing drugs, one should adopt them quickly, in private and do one’s level best to discourage their use in others.

Another issue that occurred to me was how one could come to be compelled to go on taking a drug, though not exactly because of an addiction. Suppose you took some of the drugs and wrote an article that was published in a major journal that earned you plaudits and promotion. Or suppose it was just very very good. You might doubt whether you could do work of that quality without the drug. If you easily and quickly produce stuff everyone can see is objectively better than the sort of thing you do, with difficulty, without the drug, then you would feel very substantial pressure to keep using it no matter how harmful it is.

OK, but now suppose the drug works. Should you take it? The drug is prescription-only and not prescribed for ‘improving the quality of one’s academic work’ so it would involve either lying to a doctor or ordering the drugs over the internet from someone who doesn’t ask too many awkward questions. But is that wrong? Presumably, it is only controlled to keep people from harming themselves, but that sort of law is paternalistic. Would it be wrong to break that, if one felt adult enough to make up one’s own mind?

In any case, one hopes that the drug does not have very damaging side-effects or that they are unlikely. We don’t know. But suppose the side-effects were quite damaging but that the academic results were truly impressive, would that make a difference? I think the case is interestingly different from performance enhancing drugs in sport. The benefits a drug offers in sport are ultimately pointless, just as sport is pointless. People may make a well-paid career out of it, but ultimately sport is pointless. Even lasting sporting records are trivial. Academic or artistic achievements, on the other hand are of lasting value. A good academic paper, in its own small way, extends the frontier of knowledge and pushes back ignorance and darkness. It is just as useful to people who come afterwards as to author; often more useful as the practical off-shoots of theoretical work is often only apparent many years later.

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7 thoughts on “Academic steroids

  1. Laura

    The question is, can you arrange a supply for me?
    Really, though, I don’t see a problem *if* in fact there were no harmful side effects. Yes, they go after athletes for using steroids, but that’s because the assumption is no one in the competition is using. If they all were using, the olympic games would still be a competition. And, of course, steroids have lasting harmful effects.
    So if there is a drug that would help with academic pursuits, I’d take it, but I don’t believe I could deny that I was using it when lined up against others in some sort of comparison. Furthermore, I’d liken such drug use to vision “enhancement”. One might have perfect vision, someone else needs glasses, and another might go in for laser surgery – or wear special goggle that gave him eyesight better than 20/20. It might be good for a marksman or pilot. It’s an advantage.
    Now, do you think the risk might be that an evil genious could use such a drug to enhance his plotting ability to destroy things and therefore we’d have to screen people to find out their intent?

  2. Since the beginning of humanity humans have used whatever advantages they can muster to live better. Hands, tools, wild plants, alteration of animals and plants to sustain us more reliably. Medicine has never been about merely curing, always it has been about expanding our existence also.

    If a mentally slow person uses these drugs to allow them to have average intelligence is that wrong?

    But all of this, as you have pointed out, supposes the drugs work. I’m not that concerned about them because I don’t think they will work. I’m not going to be a guinea pig. Just as I would never take anti-depressants — I don’t accept that they definitely work and I’m not willing to suffer any unknown consequences.

    Oh and, frankly — what I got is good enough. Who needs pills? I wade through genius like a fisherman of bright.

  3. Also, memory does not equal genius. Does the pill provide the spark of creativity or just allow one to harness the spark? What if the spark stayed out of your reach despite your improved memory?

  4. Ken said: “I think the case is interestingly different from performance enhancing drugs in sport. The benefits a drug offers in sport are ultimately pointless, just as sport is pointless. People may make a well-paid career out of it, but ultimately sport is pointless. Even lasting sporting records are trivial. Academic … achievements, on the other hand are of lasting value.

    I doubt the truth of this claim.

  5. ken

    There are several claims in the quote, but I expect you doubt that academic achievements are of lasting value. I stand by it. I admit there might be a question as to whether they are valuable enough to make sacrificing one’s health worthwhile, but surely they have value. Perhaps the majority are valuable in virtue of being instructively wrong, but that still furthers the scientific enterprise. And on top of this, some work is actually true.

    You are being too cynical.

  6. kenanddot

    Another update: This story appeared in the Guardian today asserting that universities would soon have to deal with a new kind of cheating –students taking these drugs to boost their exams. I don’t think that’s cheating at all. You might as well say studying before hand was cheating. It’s not like people are born with an innate level of ability and must not do better than their innate level permits. Cheating is doing something that means you can get good results wihtout having to learn the material, but someone who takes brain-enhancing drugs takes them to be able to learn more and recall more of what they’ve learned. That seems to be a different kind of thing entirely.

    Dot still hasn’t let me buy any of these things by the way.

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