Indeed, having used both psilocybin and LSD myself, I have experienced these states. Not only did I have a disregard for my own death, I spent half an hour during one trip considering whether I ought to chew off and eat my own fingers. Happily, I chose not to, and overall I recall the trips of my youth fondly. But the visions they gave me were not real or true; they were the result of overstimulation of specific brain centers by a chemical. Allowing credulous patients to alter their entire life outlook and philosophy based on such experiences is, I think, fundamentally unethical, whatever the positive side effects might be.
Imagine if a study proposed to hypnotize patients, to tell them to believe all sorts of nonsense, and then to wake them up and leave them with those beliefs for the rest of their lives because it was expected that the nonsense beliefs would produce positive clinical outcomes. Would such a proposal pass an ethical review panel? I would certainly hope not. That situation is precisely parallel to the hallucinogen studies, except that instead of the doctor whispering falsehoods into the patient’s ear, it is the drug given by the doctor.
Department of Biology
GRIFFITHS AND GROB REPLY: We were glad to read that Haller did not eat his fingers. This is not surprising, however, as hallucinogen-involved trauma is very rare under the haphazard conditions of illicit use—which we nonetheless caution against—and it is virtually unheard of within supervised research settings. Haller dismisses the philosophical statements by psilocybin study volunteers as “false.” We regard them as unfalsifiable, and so, as scientists, we take no position for or against them. We do note, without judgment, that they tend to align with the mystical teachings of the world’s religions. The analogy with hypnosis is spurious, because in our psilocybin sessions we do not introduce explicit content to the patient.
During informed consent, candidate volunteers learn up front of psilocybin’s potential effects, including lasting changes in philosophy and outlook. Our ethics committees have approved our studies, which we stand behind. The risk-to-benefit assessment for this research is favorable. Preliminary studies in patients and healthy volunteers suggest substantial and sustained positive effects.
THE ROAD MORE TRAVELED
In “Know-It-All Toll Roads” [“World Changing Ideas”], Tom Vanderbilt claims pricing the roads is a better alternative to sitting in traffic. We thoroughly disagree. Free-market principles work fine for commodities that can be produced by several competitors, such as TVs. For public goods such as roads, however, there is usually only one best route and all others are much less desirable. “Ration by queue” gives all people equal access to the best option. The fact that so many people are willing to sit in traffic is proof those routes are more desirable for everyone. With “ration by price,” only the rich could afford the desirable routes. It sounds like an absolutely terrible idea and would set a dangerous precedent.
Steven and Luci Jones