“Sober sprints” like Dry January are a chance to experience the many payoffs of low-level drinking to ourselves and others, transforming them from abstract knowledge into a practical method for improving our mental, physical and financial well-being.
A scientific outlook, and the healthy scepticism that goes with it, are no reason to ignore the need to form beliefs we can apply. Such beliefs provide us with a rugged, reliable and reassuring guide, like a pocket compass.
Some important science does not need to be kept so close at hand. This has little to do with its scope or even its complexity. It has more to do with the demands our belief in it places on us.
Accepting the sun-centred view of our galactic neighbourhood or the mind-boggling basics of quantum theory require an enormous leap of the imagination, but our belief they are true is rarely tested.
Few doubt the sun will rise tomorrow, because this scientific likelihood simply reinforces our experience. And we are unlikely to come to much grief if we occasionally imagine the sun going round the earth or that photons are particles and not waves.
Keeping a firm grip on earthbound, everyday findings is a far bigger challenge for us. The more humdrum the topic, the more difficult it can be, and no more so than when the subject is what we choose to eat, drink or smoke.
We connect with these subjects physically, emotionally and socially, forming an intimate relationship managed by our astronomically complex brains. The statistical results of understanding this relationship often confound our intuition.
As self-centred animals we are fairly hopeless at connecting with statistics, a type of scientific result especially open to manipulation. And, given a choice, we will tend to believe our senses over numbers on a chart.
But the solid statistical evidence of the long-term harm of, say, trans-fats, alcohol or tobacco smoke require us to alter our behaviour or they are are no use at all. We need to embrace beliefs that allow us to benefit.
Beliefs provide the motivation to be wary of tempting forbidden fruit and are even more helpful because we may initially suffer for heeding scientific advice, as we do with nicotine or alcohol dependency.
It may seem to be an impossible to establish facts in our argumentative “post-truth” world. But in the case of alcohol, about which I write, appearances belie broad agreement.
It is hard to maintain a low alcohol intake. Beyond this it fuels anxiety and depression, interferes with sleep and memory, increases the risk of heart and liver disease, cancer and contributes to all manner of accidents and blunders.
Science also indisputably shows there is an effective remedy to minimise alcohol-related problems, one offering large financial, emotional and health returns: to moderate or, more simply, to stop drinking alcohol.
Believing any initial suffering is common, will disappear, and be rewarded makes any hardship far easier to endure. So the dramatic, scientifically-recorded improvement of tens of thousands of people who have done it already is immensely reassuring.
More broadly we might look to evidence that sacrificing the euphoria-on-tap we can get from alcohol tends to help us achieve robust, long-term happiness. Happiness, as people experience it, has been found to be distinct from euphoria.
It is not always easy to do what science says is best for us, especially when people try to deter us. Having scientific beliefs at hand, like a pocket compass, makes it far easier to stay on course. Sober October offers a chance to develop them. ■