Psychedelics may be gaining mainstream acceptance, but their decades-long stigma still lingers. A new paper published in the journal Public Understanding of Science found that psychedelic researchers who admit to using psychedelics are viewed with more skepticism than those who abstain. The research, which is the culmination of three separate studies, surveyed 952 people from the U.S. to gauge their perceptions of psychedelic researchers who openly engage in psychedelic culture. The findings suggest that the stigma around psychedelics may impact how people view the scientific integrity of researchers in the field.
While psychedelic use has seen an uptick in recent years, there’s no way to know the extent of use within the research community. “There is only little data on the prevalence of psychedelic substance use within the (contemporary) psychedelic research community,” explains Matthias Forstmann, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “Back in the day, psychedelic researchers were rather open about their personal substance use. Today, given the legal situation, the picture is less clear.”
“Anecdotally, and according to a recent media article for which the author interviewed psychedelic researchers about their opinion on personal substance use, use of these substances is still prevalent within the community,” Forstmann adds. “However, while some argue in favor of auto-experimentation, others believe such a practice may introduce bias into research programs or that a public admission would negatively affect their reputation or chances of received funding in the future.”
In two of Forstmann’s studies, participants were given fictitious psychedelic research to read about. Forstmann’s team discovered that when the research briefing indicated that the researchers had personal psychedelic experiences, participants viewed them as having less scientific integrity compared to researchers that had explicitly no experience, or whose experience with psychedelics was not mentioned.
In the third study, participants were asked to gauge research presented at a fictitious scientific conference called “Science of Psychedelics.” The conference was either described as including psychedelic social events (drum circles and meditation sessions), or more traditional activities, such as tours of a local brewery. Study participants were also shown photos of the fictitious conference hall, one with colorful light displays and another in a convention conference hall.
The study revealed that the findings presented at the stereotypically psychedelic conference were met with more skepticism than those presented at the more conventional conference.
According to Forstmann, there may be a twofold explanation for the bias. “We believe that people in general (especially older generations) still have rather negative views on psychedelics, presumably due to misguided drug education they received from early on in their lives,” he says. “This is oftentimes further fueled by fabricated or sensationalized media reports akin to ‘man on LSD jumps out of a window because he thought he could fly’. Such a perception of psychedelics in general may negatively affect people’s views on researchers who use them.”
Additionally, says Forstmann, people understand the concept of scientific bias. “If one is too personally invested in their research topic, it may (implicitly or explicitly) motivate them to find something that is in line with their personal agenda — be it that these substances should be legalized or that they are some sort of silver bullet for treating mental illnesses.”
The solution, according to Forstmann, is to continue to perform top-notch research. “I think the exceptional research that is being done nowadays, especially the rigorously controlled laboratory studies on the effects of psychedelics on mental health will help their reputation enormously. So, continuing to do high-quality research will at some point also change people’s minds about scientists’ personal psychedelic use.”
But top-notch research shouldn’t coincide with a loss of objectivity on the part of those performing the research. “I also believe that it is important for scientists to try to remain as objective as possible, to be open to potentially negative effects of psychedelic substances, or at least to limitations with regard to their efficacy. Being less dogmatic in their views would probably go a long way,” says Forstmann.
Image: Nicki Adams using adapted photo by Kuldeep Singh