Confirmation bias and misreporting plague psychedelic research


Following several decades of pseudoscience surrounding and impairing the academic understanding of psychedelics, new investigations reveal the medicinal and therapeutic applications that psychedelic drugs such as LSD have to offer.

The science of psychedelics revolves around a categorization of drugs that evoke hallucinogenic and psychedelic reactions from the drug user. While the exact mechanisms of the drugs are yet to be fully understood, it is known that they, via the serotonin receptors in the brain, “induce states of altered perception and thought, frequently with heightened awareness of sensory input but with diminished control over what is being experienced,” as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica.

While psychedelics have had a colorful history — well-known for their popularity among “hippies” in the 1960s and 1970s — they have also been susceptible to a history of misinformation that has served detrimental to the science of hallucinogenic drugs.

The misrepresentation of psychedelic drugs begins with a wrongful categorization of the drug. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, drugs are categorized into five “schedules,” with schedule I consisting of the most dangerous drugs that are likely to cause addiction and excessive dependence. However, psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin are acknowledged by experts to not be addictive. When asked regarding this miscategorization, the chief of the Drug and Chemical Evaluation section of the DEA, Terrence Boos, concluded that the lack of medicinal value was enough to categorize psychedelics as schedule I drugs. Research disproving the medicinal value, however, was not made available by either the DEA or the Food and Drug Administration to coordinate such investigations.

This miscategorization led to prohibitive policies regarding psychedelic drugs that date back to former President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs around the late 1960s.

While Nixon’s aggressive political campaign created a severe, negative stigma regarding drugs and is a main factor that contribued toward the misrepresentation of psychedelic research, newer investigations proving the beneficial aspects of psychedelics have called the DEA’s legitimacy of classifying drugs into question.

With the legalization of marijuana in over 24 states — even though the drug still remains classified under schedule I — efforts to move psychedelics into a lower threat schedule classification seem futile.

There have only been 39 rescheduled drugs in the history of the schedule classification system, five of which were moved from the schedule I category into the schedule II category. While this brings the legitimacy of the system into question, the damage is already done by labeling psychedelics as dangerous drugs.

The DEA and FDA’s refusal to publicize research regarding the negative impacts of psychedelics and Nixon’s criminalization of drugs have both contributed to the misinformation of psychedelics. However, the overall negative stigma surrounding psychedelics is not due to the misinformation itself, but the effects that such misinformation has.

For example, Harvard University professor Timothy Leary was fired for his Harvard Psilocybin Project, in which he distributed LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelics to volunteer students from 1960 to 1962 for the purpose of studying its effects on drug users.

This is a direct result of Harvard’s lack of information regarding psychedelics and quick decision to dismiss the drug as nothing close to academic but solely dangerous. What ultimately occurs when negative stigma surrounds lack of information, as we see with Leary’s situation, is a case of confirmation bias, where people believe a concept or idea is true on the basis that they would like said concept or idea to be true.

The negative image of psychedelics was reinforced due to a lack of information and political propaganda that instigated a negative perspective of drugs. As Sam Wong describes this phenomenon in his article for Motherboard by VICE, “Moral panic about its effects on young minds was rife. ... Calls for a nationwide ban soon followed, and many psychiatrists stopped using LSD as its negative reputation grew.”

Confirmation bias is dangerous because it shields the individual from being receptive to logic and reasoning. An example of this was when it was believed that Stephen Kessler had murdered his mother due to LSD use. Following his arrest in 1966, the front pages of newspapers were full of lines that labeled Kessler as the “LSD killer.”

It would only be discovered during the trials that Kessler was intoxicated on alcohol and sleeping pills during his murder, and his LSD use dated a month prior to the incident. People wanted to believe that LSD was bad because that was what they were told based on false information, and thus a vicious cycle ensued in which this misinformation would be spread to others.

Despite its misrepresented history, psychedelic research has seen a surge of new approaches as the medicinal and therapeutic values now include benefits for anxiety, depression, addiction and many mental health issues. For the first time in decades, the DEA and FDA have approved and are encouraging further research on psychedelic drugs.

While it will take time for psychedelics to recover from a history of misinformation and confirmation bias, the situation will inevitably improve as scientific research provides more information about the properties of psychedelic drugs.