The Points Interview: Danielle Giffort

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Danielle M. Giffort, assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Liberal Arts at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. She’s the author of the new book Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. 

Acid Revival is about how a group of mental health professionals is trying to bring psychedelic-assisted therapy back into mainstream medicine and how they struggle with the past history of psychedelic drugs in medicine as they do this. My book looks at how these researchers grapple with this past by telling stories about what went wrong during the “first wave” of psychedelic therapy—a period stretching from the late 1940s to mid-1970s. And their stories all point the blame at one person: Timothy Leary, the infamous psychedelic researcher-cum-countercultural guru. 

For today’s researchers studying psychedelic therapy, Leary symbolizes what I call an “impure scientist”—a bad expert who does not respect and intentionally defies the boundaries of science. And in defying these boundaries, his presence supposedly had a polluting effect on the legitimacy of psychedelic therapy. So, researchers would tell me how Leary “contaminated” and “poisoned” psychedelic science. To contain that threat and offer an antidote to that poison, they perform as the Anti-Leary—a phrase I heard from several researchers. Another term bounced around was that they are “sober scientists.” So, essentially, the book tells a story about how, in the minds of contemporary psychedelic researchers, the misbehavior of an individual had contaminating effects on their whole scientific field—it boils down to a “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” story. 

But these boundaries between impure and sober scientists are porous. That’s the thing about boundaries—they aren’t given; they are constructed. The ways in which we draw lines in the sand between this or that is the result of struggle and those lines are subject to change across time and place. And the way that we see this happening in psychedelic science is this: these researchers push away from the pollution of the impure scientist by enacting the sober scientist persona, but at the same time, they still draw on the practices of the impure scientist. For example, among other things, they criticize Leary for failing to follow conventional scientific methods in his psychedelic research, so they actively work to follow the kind of hypothesis-testing methods that grant scientific credibility. But at the same time, they actively incorporate Leary’s insights about the psychedelic experience into their therapeutic models. Leary is so central to their stories and to the revival because he is the site of the continuities and divergences between the first and current waves of research. And from this discussion, I hope readers learn more about not just the history of psychedelic science but about how the ways in which people construct reality has real effects on their actions.  

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