Back at the end of the summer, at a dusty desert gathering, I found myself onstage with Dr. Rick Doblin, Harvard Ph.D and founder of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and Dr. Carl Hart, a Columbia neuroscientist and psychologist and author of the recent and explosively controversial book Drug Use for Grown Ups.
Rick delivered one of his usual uber-menschy storytelling sessions filled with entertaining and uplifting stories about breaking down political barriers and sharing MDMA with cops and Republicans.
Rolling across the aisle, as it were.
I, noticing the packed crowd wilting in the afternoon heat, opted to read a few short sections from my last book, outlining just how difficult and ambivalent any effort to fix ourselves or save the world via psychedelics was probably going to be.
But Carl had a different angle.
He had just landed at this festival to share a contrarian opinion––namely that while a bunch of privileged white folks were hyping psychedelics as mental health and ecological cure-alls, what was really needed was a broader movement to defend radical cognitive liberty (aka consensual adult drug use) of all stripes.
The first part of his argument has been well established for decades and makes perfect sense.
– The differentials in prosecution and sentencing between hedge fund guys getting caught with powder cocaine vs. inner city black folks getting popped with much stricter sentences for crack cocaine amounted to systemic racism, not defensible public health.
Then he cited the difference between crystal meth and Adderall. I wrote about it myself in Stealing Fire to highlight how what's inside the pale of social acceptability can be treated radically differently than what lies outside it.
“Aside from some foul cutting material,” explains journalist Alexander Zaitchik in Vice, “Winnebago methamphetamine and pharmaceutical amphetamine are kissing cousins. The difference between them boils down to one methyl-group that lets crank race a little faster across the blood-brain barrier and kick just a little harder. After that, meth breaks down fast into good old dextroamphetamine, the dominant salt in America’s ADHD and cram-study aid, Adderall.”
This stark and largely pointless divide has been fully exposed by a recent study. It admitted that 30 years of tweaking our kids on Ritalin and Adderall resulted in no measurable improvement in academic outcomes––the entire rationale to drug our children in the first place!
Carl went onto describe cocaine use, and how, if you were to (totally hypothetically) find yourself on a beach in Brazil and come across a local pedaling a gram of pure powder cocaine for $50, and you then repaired to your cabana to snort the lot, that you would, in fact, find yourself in a totally harmless, deeply pleasurable weekend of delight that you should 100% be entitled to enjoy.
One NYU psychiatrist leaned over to me afterwards and admitted, "Carl made that sound sooo good! I've never been so tempted to try coke in my life!"
I appreciated Carl's broad defense of cognitive liberty. I have always subscribed to the belief that the state should have no say in what goes on in our beds or in our heads. He powerfully challenged the psychedelic renaissance's lobbying efforts to expand and include more marginalized groups and not just defend bourgeois preferences.
But a buddy of mine wasn't having it. For the rest of that night, in the midst of dance parties and roaming around on e-bikes, he would chime in, out of nowhere, with hilarious parodies of Carl's argument.
"I mean, why does carbon monoxide get such a bad rap, man? It's only one oxygen molecule different than CO2, and everyone exhales that shit every day! But one mention of carbon monoxide, and everyone's clutching their smoke alarms!"
Or out of the blue at 2am: "I can't understand why junkies and coke heads get marginalized, I mean what band hasn't had their lives and music drastically improved by addiction?"
And that's when I had to admit, that as sympathetic as I am towards Carl's cognitive liberty argument, some of his categorical absolutism (all drugs always ok, no exceptions) had to stem, at least in part from what cognitive scientists call "motivated reasoning."
You see, part of what made Carl's recent book so controversial, and captured a majority of the news coverage, was that he admitted to being a long term high-functioning heroin user. (we can also presume, based on his Coca Cabana story, a dabbler in other white powders too).
So for sure, he's got some skin in this game. He's making an academic argument for a philosophical position that justifies personal decisions he's already made (and may have a hard time unmaking).
Given the wild unspooling of so many things lately, I realized we're absolutely awash in motivated reasoning. And it might just undo us if we don't get much much better at catching it.
From blind boosterism in the psychedelic renaissance, to crypto mania, to sex-cults, to techno-utopian climate solutions, to…[fill in the blank Next Big Thing] we're funding, supporting, endorsing and allowing all sorts of things that don't pass the bullshit test.
But they do promise to fill our wallets, stroke our egos, (or some other body part) and deliver us from evil without much work on our end.
To take a random sampling of topics from our recent newsfeeds...
FTX/SBF. If you're not a gold bullion, money-under-the-mattress sort, you've probably heard of the recent crypto flameout by one young whipper snapper named Sam Bankman-Fried. In less than 48 hrs he vaporized a $30 billion fortune and bankrupted his companies without a trace. (some Game of Thrones moves by his arch-rival Binance's CEO didn't help, either)
Off the cliff, zero skidmarks.
John Ray, the adult supervision and former Enron fixer, brought in to clean up the mess reported to a bankruptcy court that he'd never seen anything remotely like it, and the degree of internal chaos and self dealing broke his brain (and this was the guy who autopsied Enron!).
All sorts of folks, from giant VC firms like Sequoia Capital, to the New York Times and Forbes who'd delivered raving puff pieces, to the Democratic party (who received over $40 million of his money), to Oxford Effective Altruist William McAskill (who socialized the idea that it's better for the world to make shitpiles of money doing questionable stuff and then give it all away, than to labor in a non-profit attempting direct good), to quarterback Tom Brady who was a celebrity spokesman hyping FTX to Normies––all had cartons of eggs on their faces.
(See this recent WSJ piece on the piercing of the Tech Titan mystique).
They'd all glad-handed and cozied up to a kid who'd freely admitted to running a Ponzi scheme last year while hopped up on amphetamines. He boasted of building a "black box" where you put in real money, that spat out mystery tokens, and as long as everyone believed you could "mark those [fictional] tokens to market", the imaginary billions became real ones.
Until they suddenly weren't.
SBFs flameout is just a subset of the broader crypto hype cycle.
But really, when faced with a post-2008 recession where Millennials got knocked off the job ladder and bitcoin wallets replaced 401Ks, and the promise of 100X returns (!) without any real effort or value creation loomed large…
can you wonder how so many were willing to hype the hype that crypto was immune to the laws of physics and economics and would conveniently also save the world?
HODL (hold on for dear life!) indeed.
How bout another? If you've been Netflix and chilling lately, you may have come across a recent cult-scandal documentary called Orgasm Inc. It's an expose of the One Taste organization which blew up about five years ago, after getting tons of coverage in places like Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Body, NYT and Vogue.
It even got a tongue in cheek mention in Stealing Fire:
OneTaste’s founder, Nicole Daedone, entered stage right. Wearing a gray wool dress and a large black apron, she snapped on a pair of latex gloves, dipped her forefinger and thumb into a jar of artisanal lube, and went to work. The reclined subject began mewling. With an entertainer’s flair for the theatrical, Nicole paused, swiveled on a stilettoed black boot, and punched her hand in the air like a rock guitarist. The audience began calling out words to describe their own experience. “Tingling in my groin,” one woman announced. “Heat,” said another. “Tumescence,” blurted a software engineer.
Years ago, Nicole Daedone, the founder of the organization, invited me to give a talk at one of their events because she was hungry to add a layer of scientific legitimacy and gravitas to what was otherwise a glorified clit-diddling operation. "What we do is not sexual!" one male member of the leadership team insisted to me, "it's a spiritual meditation."
Ah, yes, I thought to myself, sure it is buddy!
As I was giving my presentation, I got increasingly hacked off with the level of fuckwittery in the audience. I'd taught middle schoolers who displayed higher executive functioning skills than this addled lot.
I stopped my talk, went over to a flip chart and wrote the heading "5 Telltale Signs You Might Be in a Sex Cult"
"Now I'm not saying any of you are," I reassured them as they squirmed in their seats.
"I'm just saying that if you were, these would be some key signs to watch out for." (this BTW, became the first draft of the Culty Cult Checklist I expanded in Recapture the Rapture)
#1 Mythologized origin story of the founder. (Check: Daedone had an "I was studying to be a nun until one night a stranger told me to pull down my pants and changed my life" schtick down pat from her TEDx talk)
#2 World saving messianic mission. (Check: they were going to save the world via unleashing women's orgasm all over the planet)
#3 In-Group language incompatible with outsiders' understanding. (Check: masturbation=meditation, orgasm = life force, not climax, climax = nothing, orgasm is everything. The rape "beast" isn't violent misogyny, it's masculine wildness, etc)
#4 Closely controlled access to techniques of ecstasy (Check: you had to pay hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars to attend their workshops and everyone got an intimate practice partner guaranteed)
#5 Upsells, confessions or concessions evoked in peak states (Check: their sales machine, borrowed from the darkest high-pressure sales tactics of Landmark and Tony Robbins, relentlessly targeted the rich, weak and lonely and strip-mined credit card installments from employees and marks alike)
Because here's the thing:
As obviously and visibly goofy as the whole One Taste scene was, who was going to call bullshit on it?
Surely not the undersexed thirty and forty-something women who had finally found a place to explore their own pleasure without fear of sexual violence or being slut-shamed.
Surely not the inept twenty-something and recently divorced fifty-something guys who felt boxed out of the dating scene, and needed a safe place to ask a woman to drop their drawers without getting slapped.
None of them were going to upset this particularly rosy apple cart.
Motivated reasoning. Stickier than heroin. So they all played along and let Nicole have her way with them.
Diddling while Rome burned.
Same goes with Effective Altruism.
That's the uber-trendy philanthropic philosophy pioneered by William McAskill at Oxford (and his recent book). It's become the darling of everyone from Elon Musk to the aforementioned Sam Bankman Fried. While it has lots of heartfelt and deeply sincere components to it, it also contains the seeds of some potentially sociopathic incentives.
"You mean to tell me, that I can once and for all resolve my moral dilemma of being a young earnest Ivy League do-gooder, and take that McKinsey or Goldman or Silicon Valley gig and chase obscene amounts of extractive profits (as long as I promise to give away my billions to save the world in the end?")
"What's that you say? If my Aspergery Master of the Universe plans to "disrupt" entire economies or upend the social fabric has some unforeseen collateral damage along the way to making my billions, I can actually justify my actions by alluding to the trillions of yet-to-be-born off planet future humans that I'm actually doing this all for?
"Oh, and when someone inconveniently points out that the killer app I'm building really only targets the top 10% of the world's most privileged and leaves 90% of humanity in the dark, I can respond that we need more (not less) attention devoted to wealthy Montessori kids cuz they're the ones who are going to solve our intractable problems for all of humanity?"
I get to do exactly what I was planning to do all along, just now with an invisibility cloak wrapped around all my conflicting motivations and drivers.
Sounds less like Effective Altruism.
More like Ineffective Solipsism.
Here's another: Drug Legalization.
While we covered the no-holds-barred advocacy of Dr. Carl Hart in the intro, it's important to call bullshit on all the boosters and advocates of "the medicines" these days.
To wit: for every breathy headline about the miraculous effects of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine therapies, and cannabis deregulation, there are four critical issues that rarely get as much press.
P-hacking. That's the fudging of data to pull out a pattern from the research that may not actually be there. If you've heard the trope that psychedelics make people more open and conscientious, more ecologically conscious, and generally groovier and more progressive, you've been the victim of p-hacking).
Remember, Charles Manson loved him some acid. Sidney Gottlieb, the founder of the notorious government program MKULTRA (repopularized by Stranger Things), tripped over 220 times. As did Boston Mobster Whitey Bulger. So too, the San Francisco Hells Angels, right before they beat the shit out of Hunter S. Thompson and stabbed that dude at Altamont.
Jordan Peterson too (and just look where that’s got him!)
Psychedelics do not come with a Bernie Sanders/Save the Whales bumper sticker. They tend to make you more of what you already were. Sometimes, a lot more.
Patient exclusion criteria. So many of these early psychedelic trials have actively disqualified patients with pre-existing histories of a wide range of psychiatric conditions, high level traumas, family histories etc. This understandably boosts the positive effects the drug therapies have on the remaining study subjects, who are, on average, healthier and better adjusted than the tens of thousands of banged up, struggling folks who will flock to these drugs once they're more broadly available.
But with only the hype of the media coverage to guide them, many of those most in need of healing are going to be in for a rude awakening when their mileage varies drastically from that bubblegum reporting.
Ketamine Trials: if you actually read the studies, you quickly realize the results are pretty weak. Not all that much better than SSRIs. But Johnson and Johnson ram-rodded their patented Esketamine nasal spray through the process anyways.
Sure, there's a real impact on ketamine interrupting acute suicidal ideation, and that's obviously life-saving for someone on the razor's edge. But that's not what's getting pushed on TikTok and Instagram, where at-home ketamine therapies are being touted for everything from depression to anxiety to focus, to general world weariness.
So what's with all the hype around ketamine? Simple, it's already legal. Between off-label prescribing and the Covid-era loophole that allowed for more tele-medicine, all the greedy psychedelic VCs have been piling into the space. They're grabbing land and cash-flowing their clinics and just as soon as the other scheduled substances like MDMA and psilocybin come online they can pump them into these existing channels. (Check out this article in Rolling Stone for an entirely predictable post-mortem).
Plus everyone at home, looking to party their faces off, or trip out at festivals, now has easy prescriptions for the stuff they used to buy on the street anyways.
What's not to love?
Cannabis legalization: for years, weed advocates used to mock the Nancy Reagan "this is your brain on drugs/D.A.R.E" fear mongering.
And they had a point.
Turns out, cannabis wasn't actually a gateway drug, and until the last decade, it was arguably a healthier, lower risk substance than beer and cigarettes.
But weirdly, the success of widespread medical and recreational movements across the country (38 states and DC as of Nov mid-terms) and the accompanying market pressures and incentives have created a green monster.
60's hippy weed, even legendary strains like Maui Wowie and Panama Red typically had THC content in the single digits.
Today, super potent extracts routinely clock in at 70-90% THC!
That's as different as potatoes and the vodka you can distill from them.
The physical and psychological impacts are sobering.
ERs across the country are seeing a spike in anxiety, depression, and even acute GI distress in chronic users. One San Diego ER reported 15X more incidents of psychosis caused by acute high octane cannabis consumption than by either crystal meth or LSD!
Another study reported that chronic concentrated cannabis use increases the incidents in psychosis by 50% in someone predisposed.
That's scary stuff, and not to be taken lightly (even if subsequent studies revise/refine those initial stats).
This stuff is absolutely wrecking user's natural endocannabinoid systems (one of the main regulatory systems in our bodies) and we're only just now beginning to track the impacts to mental and physical health.
So the next time you hear someone saying that weed is safer than alcohol, that it's an "herbal medicine," that there's no possible way to OD on the stuff...chalk it up to
Motivated Reasoning. (bubblebubblebubble)
Think about this for a second. How many of those four points about drug reform and research were you already tracking? Why haven't we heard of most of them before? Why isn't media coverage providing us a more balanced perspective?
Advocates obviously believe in this stuff and want to see it through. In their fervor they may overlook or suppress information to the contrary because they believe in the long run, the good they can do massively outweighs the bad. (you can see just a hint of Effective Altruism's logic in this)
But really, it's the Vulture Capitalists and the Hedonists that are most to blame. The former want to drive the hype cycle to capitalize on a frothy space and make billions.
The latter just want better excuses and rationales to do what they were going to do anyways.
Just like the Crypto/NFT/Web3 folks.
Just like the One Taste folks.
Just like Drs. William McAskill and Carl Hart.
Once you see Motivated Reasoning, the telltale signs are everywhere.
If you come across a techno-optimist confidently telling you to stop worrying your pretty little head about climate collapse, because soon we'll be sucking all that pesky carbon out of the air and using it to build stuff and grow things! (See this piece on carbon capture).
…You can pretty much bet they've got skin in the current fossil economy (know who also LOVES carbon sequestration tech? Oil companies. It's the perfect carrot they can dangle to dodge the sticks that are coming for them).
Or maybe they've just got mild anxiety they'd rather rationalize away by watching TED talks by Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley or Hans Rosling and believe that the exact same tech whizzes and market incentives that got us into this mess are going to have a profound about-face and save us in the nick.
"I believe we can all do well, by doing good!"
But really, as the wheels come all the way off, and the hype-rats scurry off the sinking ships, it's time we came to our senses.
Money, drugs, sex, greed and power loom large as perverse incentives that pervert our perspectives. We allow ourselves to be persuaded, because it's often easier that way.
But strip all that away, and a simple truth remains.
No one's gonna save us but us. Same as it ever was.
Same as it ever was.
And if that's not reason to get motivated, I don't know what is.
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