Adventures in Ethics and Science

I guess I suspected that this might be a problem, but it really sank in when a close colleague told me the other day that he was freaked out by it. And I’d hate to have you hear it from anyone else but me.

I’m a decaf drinker.

Yeah, I know. Nowadays you can’t count on a philosopher to smoke like a chimney, or to be drunk off her ass at work, or even to wear a beret.

But just as we can count on gravity to keep pulling matter toward the center of the earth, you’d think you could count on a philosopher to be hopped up on caffeine, preferably delivered via strong coffee in a cafĂ© where people discuss big ideas (or fine distinctions, depending on one’s druthers).

A caffeine addiction is the thread that is supposed to tie even the most abstract philosopher to the fact of her embodiedness, providing nerve-jangling evidence that she partakes in our common humanity. Hell, if the philosopher is captivated by questions that keep her up at night, the java is the silent partner providing the hours of consciousness needed for the contemplation.

But about a year and a half ago, I was sick with flu, so sick that I couldn’t drag myself out of bed to make coffee. The headaches from the flu masked the headaches from the caffeine withdrawal, and by the time I was healthy again, I didn’t need caffeine anymore.

I still love the flavor of coffee (and there is an awesome coffee place that just opened a store near campus), but now I’m only drinking it for the flavor, not the buzz. In lieu of caffeine, I’m opting for sufficient sleep and regular exercise.

I’ll understand if that makes me less of a philosopher in your eyes.

Comments

  1. #1 PalMD
    September 1, 2009

    I’m a decaf drinker.

    You disgust me.

  2. #2 cicely
    September 1, 2009

    Yeah, well. Standards are dropping all over.

    And you kids stay offa my lawn.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    September 1, 2009

    At least compensate by wearing a beret….

  4. #4 DrugMonkey
    September 1, 2009

    but now I’m only drinking it for the flavor

    Not exactly. I mean, sure, you are drinking it for the sensory cues. But the reason that objectively aversive taste is (still) desired by you has everything to do with the reinforcing and addictive properties* of the caffeine. DeCaf and near-beer sales should be viewed as what they are. Evidence of the unbelievably lasting power of reinforcing psychoactives to shape behavior. It strikes me that this may be yet another avenue to improve general understanding of what the drug addict for whom there is no low-psychoactive content substitute is up against.

    _
    *for those of you that argue you like the smell of coffee because you grew up with it in the house, you are just begging the question…

  5. #5 abb3w
    September 1, 2009

    Eh, you still have that oxygen addiction most human philosophers are hooked on….

  6. #6 Bob O'H
    September 1, 2009

    Oh thank God. I thought you were going to admit that you had knowingly interacted with the real world.

  7. #7 Bijan Parsia
    September 1, 2009

    Pfft! You are more the philosopher, and greater, for your ability to subsist so productively on willpower and sense! Fie upon those so tied to their body that they require the mere physical stimulation of caffeine to support their intellectual endeavors and so addled that the thought of functionality otherwise deranges their composure!

    My beret is off to you!

  8. #8 Anon
    September 1, 2009

    So long as you have the philosopher’s long grey beard…

    What?

    Are they sure?

    oh. nevermind.

  9. #9 Patchi
    September 1, 2009

    It could be worse… You could be a decaf TEA drinker – like me.

  10. #10 Erin
    September 1, 2009

    Oh, Janet…you know I think your contract is up for renewal soon…

  11. #11 Nat
    September 1, 2009

    *unsubscribe*

  12. #12 David Hume
    September 1, 2009

    But just as we can count on gravity to keep pulling matter toward the center of the earth

    Objection!

  13. #13 Pinko Punko
    September 1, 2009

    Up with non-conformity!

  14. #14 Sara
    September 1, 2009

    DrugMonkey, you surely have not tasted Stumptown Coffee :P. It does not have an “objectively aversive taste”.

    So, are you seriously saying that the reason I occasionally (a couple times a month) drink coffee (always decaf) is because the 5 mg of caffeine is enough to reinforce that behavior, even though I think I drink it because it tastes good? If so, then isn’t that akin to saying people only drink juice because the sugar is reinforcing? How much caffeine is enough to be reinforcing?

  15. #15 Scicurious
    September 1, 2009

    I am SHOCKED, Janet. SHOCKED I SAY. Though you would look ADORABLE in a little beret.

  16. #16 Pat Cahalan
    September 1, 2009

    I think you lost your scientist hat with that admission, as well.

    Do you have any other marketable skills? Computer technician would also be out…

  17. #17 D. C. Sessions
    September 1, 2009

    Welcome to the club, Sister! (Although I’m in the “engineer” branch, another group which requires massive intake of the brown juice of alertness in place of other forbidden beverages.)

    The hard part is finding suitable coffee. Rich, dark, smoky, etc. For some reason roasters seem to think that “decaf” goes along with “anemic.”

    As for DM’s

    DeCaf and near-beer sales should be viewed as what they are. Evidence of the unbelievably lasting power of reinforcing psychoactives to shape behavior.

    He’s still not accounting for those who have never tasted the high-octane stuff and still like the “imitations.” My kids, for instance, were near-beer drinkers from very early ages [1]. I’ve already gone around with him on caffeine’s lack of beneficial effect on me; neither of us is likely to persuade the other.

    [1] A practice I endorse. By the time their friends were offering them “beer” at parties etc. their tastes had refined to the point where they didn’t want anything to do with the swill.

  18. #18 DrugMonkey
    September 1, 2009

    So, are you seriously saying that the reason I occasionally (a couple times a month) drink coffee (always decaf) is because the 5 mg of caffeine is enough to reinforce that behavior, even though I think I drink it because it tastes good?

    “enough”? Perhaps.

    There are other contributors but I assert that caffeine is a big one. Preference for the taste, objective preference? I assert that is dinky if not non-existent, yes.

    Anything you think of as an “acquired taste” suggests other issues of reinforcement are involved.

    Now I accept that it is not impossible that there are people that find coffee to taste great. Black, first time they tried it and with no social environment that encouraged use. Not impossible. However the huge number of people that either started drinking or continue to prefer coffee sugared/creamed to mask the aversive taste and the population that were (as with my children) indoctrinated socially from an early age that coffee is a very good thing should be illustrative.

  19. #19 antipodean
    September 1, 2009

    But then again not drinking american coffee is just a sign of good taste and excellent judgement.

  20. #20 Rosie
    September 1, 2009

    @drugmonkey
    I’m interested that you state that coffee has an “objectively aversive taste.” Care to elaborate, and perhaps provide some proof for this statement? This is not meant in a nasty way, it just seems that your arguments rely on us accepting this as true, and it seems like an incredibly difficult statement to justify empirically.

  21. #21 Catharine
    September 1, 2009

    Well, I know you’re tempted….but don’t even *try* to become a nurse!

  22. #22 David
    September 1, 2009

    when my wife went decaf for health reasons, I went kicking and screaming after her. About a month later we did an N-of-1 experiment: a multi-phase double-blind crossover trial, in which for a week, we randomly added either placebo or 100 mg caffeine to my morning decaf, with one week washout. The trial lasted for 4 crossover periods. I kept a log of my subjective symptoms (including sleep habits); my wife kept a log of my objectionable behaviors. It was negative. We detected no difference.

    Also, I like bitter tastes. I drink my decaf black.

  23. #23 The Ridger
    September 1, 2009

    While I confess that I started drinking coffee because, in the army, everyone did, I liked the taste of black coffee the first time I tried it. I did not like the sugared, creamed “kiddie coffee” my mother occasionally let us try, although my sister did, and her coffee is still half milk and very sweet.

  24. #24 Jason Dick
    September 2, 2009

    Haha, basically the same thing in physics here. Everybody seems to drink coffee.

    Except me. Can’t stand the stuff. And I generally stay away from caffeine in other forms as well.

  25. #25 Heraclides
    September 2, 2009

    If it’s any consolation towards the end of my Ph.D., as a parting gift when shifting from one flat to another, my flatmates gave me a very large container of decaf coffee. Supposedly a tiny hint to go easy on the caffeinated kind…

  26. #26 Laura
    September 2, 2009

    I happen to love the taste of coffee, but have switched to tea because now coffee makes me incredibly sick to my stomach. It’s not the caffeine, as far as I can tell, since I have no problem with tea or caffeinated sodas. It makes me sad. :-(

  27. #27 Super Sally
    September 2, 2009

    Want your Father’s beret? I could arrange that.

  28. #28 DrugMonkey
    September 2, 2009

    I’m interested that you state that coffee has an “objectively aversive taste.” Care to elaborate, and perhaps provide some proof for this statement?

    Hehe. Your answer is just a Pubmed away….

    Identification of the Key Bitter Compounds in Our Daily Diet Is a Prerequisite for the Understanding of the hTAS2R Gene Polymorphisms Affecting Food Choice DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.03914.x

    You can also easily pull up some papers on the genetics of bitter taste and find that surprise, surprise, there is significant variation in the human population. Some people are relatively insensitive to some sources of bitter taste.

    so yes, I’m being intentionally provocative with my “objectively tastes aversive” comments. It is true for majorities but not everyone. It is not inconceivable that some human tasters will indeed not find coffee and beer inherently aversive. Those of you that legitimately do not dislike the tastes from trial one, with no sweeteners and no long familial associations do not surprise me. as to whether there are objectively pleasant taste sensations, given a person who is insensitive to the bitter? interesting question…

    Nevertheless, I find that the population of those that assert they love the taste of coffee and beer after a long history is apparently much larger than the genetic stats on the bitter-taste-insensitive would support. Also, the population is well filled with those who, on inquiry and prodding, found coffee or beer to be so-called acquired tastes. It is frequently the case that the path of taste acquisition is remarkably similar to that used, e.g., in rats to train them to drink alcohol. See this classic on the alcohol sucrose-fade procedure

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3530023?ordinalpos=104&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

  29. #29 Sara
    September 2, 2009

    I guess that it explains it for me: I am unable to taste any of the different types of bitter. I worked in a taste research lab, so my labmate and I had lots of fun with my inability to taste bitter.

  30. #30 David
    September 2, 2009

    The hTAS2R story explains why some people, like Sara#29, can’t taste bitter foods. But many people, myself included, can easily taste bitterness, and like it. The bitterness of coffee isn’t “aversive” at all. It’s why I drink it. I prefer endive over romaine, brussel sprouts over green beans, and almonds over peanuts. I go through a bottle of Angostora each year. I drink my beer as dark and bitter as I can get it. I like my chocolate extra-dark.

    So, bitter foods “objectively taste bitter” to some, but they don’t necessarily “objectively taste aversive” – the aversion is purely subjective. Chacun a son gout.

  31. #31 Pat Cahalan
    September 2, 2009

    @ DrugMonkey

    One (okay, actually several) question(s) regarding “acquired” tastes.

    I will grant you that perhaps rats learn to drink (a type of) beer to acquire the alcoholic buzz. Are there studies to show whether or not rats then exhibit exploratory behaviors into other beers? How about alcohol in general?

    Do rats who learn to drink Budweiser then turn around and explore Anchor Steam, Guinness, Shiner Bock if they’re offered? Is there a preference among rats who have been trained to like beer for the Budweiser over the Anchor Steam? How about wine or spirits? If you train a rat to drink Budweiser, and they spurn water over Budweiser… will they spurn Budweiser over something with a higher alcoholic content? If you get them to eat somewhat bitter chocolate for the sugar high, will they experiment with coffee if it is presented?

    In other words, rats may learn to try *one* “objectively adverse” substance through a training process that might give them some sort of biochemical reward, but that doesn’t necessarily generalize to human beings learning to be adventurous in trying “objectively adverse” substances on a class basis.

    Are people more likely to become beer drinkers if they were coffee drinkers? Are cultures with culinary extremes (say, extremely hot chili) more likely to have people willing to try beer or coffee? If so, are you trained to like objectively adverse substances via cultural conditioning, instead of biochemical bonuses?

    Let us assume that the premise is correct, and that someone has an initial adverse reaction to coffee then learns to like coffee because they get addicted to the buzz. If that person tries something else that causes initial adverse reactions, is that reaction lessened by having already overcome initial adverse reactions in the past? Can you be acclimatized to initial adverse reactions? If so, you can say that once people overcome an initial adverse reaction, regardless of reason for the initial case, they’re more willing to try whatever regardless of the possible biochemical side effects, right?

    If you can, it sort of belies the “buzz” as the root cause for trying something over initial adverse reactions, doesn’t it?

  32. #32 idlemind
    September 3, 2009

    I came from a family that eschewed psychoactive beverages and so didn’t taste coffee (or beer) until I was an adult. But I had smelled coffee before — our church served it in the lobby before services and I absolutely loved the smell. The taste of actual coffee was a bit of a shock because of the bitterness, but in addition to that were the tastes implicit in the aroma I loved. So I learned to put up with the bitterness and soon didn’t even notice it.

  33. #33 DrugMonkey
    September 3, 2009

    Pat, not really getting your point here. Cues other than the acute pharmacological reward associated with caffeine or alcohol are also important in driving consumption of coffee and beer. Yes. And we humans fetishize orosensory and other cues (like brand identification, social group joining, etc) for damn sure.

    Likewise, both people and animals have a tendency to generalize across related stimuli. broad literature there that does no hinge only on abused drugs.

    Concepts of what is aversive and attractive are malleable with experience… which is my point. The fact that I experience both beer and coffee tastes as pleasurable right now is not some sort of fake. I really do. The reason, however, has nothing to do with the acute interactions at my tastebuds and everything to do with learning to associate those tastes with good things that happen in the central (i.e., brain) reward mechanisms.

    I fail to see where the fact that learning this association is modified by other variables conflicts with my point that the acute reinforcing and the dependence-inducing properties of alcohol and coffee are driving the ship for most people. This is not a preference for brussel sprouts over broccoli here.

  34. #34 cyberthrush
    September 3, 2009

    What next?… we’ll find out PZ drinks Chai!???

  35. #35 ELR
    September 3, 2009

    I for one, welcome my caffeiney overlord.

  36. #36 Militant Agnostic
    September 4, 2009

    Things like this is why tenure is a bad idea.

  37. #37 costanza
    September 5, 2009

    wimp

    who was it that said, “Mathematicians are machines for turning coffee into theorems.” I think the same is true of philosophers. I predict that you’ll be on the good stuff w/i a year.