Hari and the truth

Johann Hari is getting a new wave of attention after a recent TED talk. I’m not surprised he’s getting so much attention. He’s a great story teller with a compelling narrative.

However, while is narrative does contain some important truths, he’s just plain wrong about the cause of addiction.

Over the next few days I will repost some previous posts on his book and articles.

First, I’ll bottom-line his thesis.

  • Do lack of purpose and connection cause addiction? No.
  • Are purpose and connection important? Yes.
  • Could lack of purpose and connection influence the onset and course of addiction? Yes.
  • Are creating purpose and connection important elements in facilitating recovery for many addicts? Yes.
  • Do lack of purpose and connection cause addiction? No.

Hari has a history of playing fast and loose to advance a narrative. I’ll point out just one of those today, his discussion of Portugal.


In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of mind-blowing, and every year, they tried the American way more and more. They punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more, and every year, the problem got worse. And one day, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and basically said, look, we can’t go on with a country where we’re having ever more people becoming heroin addicts.

What really happened:

Hannah Laqueur, a rising young scholar at UC Berkeley, asks a novel question in her analysis of Portugal: Is there any evidence that the 2001 law actually was a radical move from criminalization to decriminalization of drug use? Looking at the 8 years of data prior to the law, she found that the average population of people in prison for simple drug possession was about 21. Not 21% of prisoners but 21 people in a nation of 10 million!. Prior to the elimination of prison sentences in 2001, drug possession convictions accounted for just 0.3% of Portugal’s prison population.

The 2001 law’s removal of incarceration as a penalty was thus simply a formalization of longstanding criminal justice policy. Looking at drug use indicators before and after 2001 and attributing any change to the “radical decriminalization” is thus wrong-headed because no such change occurred.

Not as dramatic, huh?

Why would a journalist make such a mistake? Probably because the truth doesn’t fit with his narrative. And, this is the pattern in Hari’s book–he cherry-picks and massages evidence to support his narrative.

4 thoughts on “Hari and the truth

  1. Thank you for this. I find the pushing of his narrative to the mainstream incredibly disheartening but I don’t have the foundation on which to rebut it.



  2. Yes! This is the same issue I had when I reviewed his book. I see where he’s coming from but he overlooks/denies too many facts to be credible.


  3. I actually think that what he’s saying makes a lot of sense. There are similar arguments being made for mental illness and how it manifests differently in different cultural surroundings.

    The problem is that his solution isn’t as easy as he seems to suggest. First, it won’t work for everybody; second, “love and connection” aren’t as easy to produce, nor as commonplace, as all that; third, people often have much deeper and more extensive problems. Not to mention that changing an entire culture may take a long, long time – so what’s supposed to happen in the meantime?

    Thanks, though, for pointing out the glaring factual problem at the heart of this talk! I do agree that if somebody has a good argument he shouldn’t need to stretch the facts….


    1. It’s worth noting that in 2011 he was accused of plagiarism and stripped of the Orwell prize he had won 3 years earlier. He has also been charged with making misleading edits to his Wikipedia page under a pseudonym.
      [h/t Wikipedia]

      So, buyer beware, I guess?


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