Opinion | Staff Editorials

Cut ties to CASA

Established in 1992, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University conducts research on drug abuse and its ramifications on society. Since its inception, the research center has been affiliated with Columbia’s reputation and name, and when President Bollinger joined the board of directors in 2002, he only strengthened CASA’s ties to Columbia. But as numerous media outlets and renowned researchers have brought to light, the methods that CASA uses to research substance abuse are shoddy and questionable, and reports of CASA’s “findings” are often misleading and sensationalized. Bollinger’s implicit endorsement of CASA not only tarnishes Columbia’s reputation as a world-class research institution, but it also promotes poor analyses of issues that deeply affect our society. To keep from supporting this kind of work any longer, President Bollinger must resign from the board of directors immediately.

Researchers at the Capital Research Center, the editorial staffs of the Washington Times, the Washingtonian Magazine, and the Chicago Daily Herald, the long-time director of the American Council on Science and Health, doctors, lawyers, and countless others have pointed out CASA’s lack of scholarship. Refusing to consistently submit their reports to peer review, CASA ignores the standard scientific practices that help ensure accurate and reliable results. Investigative journalists who have questioned the center’s studies, such as one that claimed alcohol is involved in 90 percent of campus rapes, have been unable to find any evidence to support the numbers. This absence of accountability leads to a distortion of the facts. The Chicago Daily Herald noted in 2005 that Joseph Califano, the founder and chairman of CASA, had blown up numbers relating to teenage drinking by more than 100 percent. CASA has little to no basis for some of its claims, and makes an insufficient effort to prove otherwise.

As a result, many of the conclusions that CASA’s studies support are extremely suspect. In a study on teen drug use, CASA suggested that a lack of regular family dinners causes children to abuse illegal substances. Researchers surveyed teenagers and found that the ones who use drugs were less likely to participate in dinners with their families. CASA did not control for age (older children may be more likely to use drugs and less likely to be home for family dinners) or income (poorer children may be more likely to use drugs and their parents less likely to be home for family dinners). In other words, CASA is suggesting causation where only correlation can be demonstrated. When asked about this study in an interview, CASA President and CEO William Foster disavowed the use of causal language while defending his own study’s claim that “frequent family dinners make a difference.” But this methodology could lead to a number of faulty claims. If less drug use and more frequent family dinners stem from higher family income, for example, then the organization could have used exactly the same logic to conclude that teenagers with iPhones are less likely to use drugs.

What’s more, Califano has repeatedly published op-eds with dubious claims. Foster wrote in an email that the op-eds represent “the opinions of their author(s),” not official CASA positions. But when prominent figures associated with University-linked institutes write publicly, they trade on the University’s reputation. Califano seems to use Columbia’s credit recklessly—one piece, on menthol cigarettes, suggests an unjustified conclusion through unfair juxtaposition, while another, against drug legalization, exaggerates the scope of its centerpiece example. Califano’s outlandish claims reflect on the integrity of the organization, and unfortunately on Columbia’s as well.

Research that does not always employ basic scientific practices cannot be called research, and the center conducting these studies should not be benefitting from its present connection to Columbia. Moreover, Columbia researchers would never get away with some of CASA’s methodology, and centers that the University supports, however indirectly, should be held to similar standards. Bollinger should remove himself from the board, and thus discontinue any kind of support Columbia has been offering to this questionable think tank.


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Anonymous posted on

Great article.

stevenslate posted on

Great article.  I'd also add that, sadly, your same criticisms of CASA can be applied to most addiction research.  Unfortunately, the use of control groups is the exception, not the rule, in this field.  What's more, causation/correlation errors are rampant - even in the claim that addiction treatment is effective at all!  

CU_Alum posted on

CASA's affiliation with Columbia stems from a contract between the two institutions, not just from Bollinger's status as a trustee.  The contract probably *requires* the university's president to serve as a CASA trustee; George Rupp was a trustee throughout his tenure, and so was Michael Sovern from CASA's founding until he returned to the faculty. Since Bollinger merely took over the seat formerly held by Rupp and Sovern, he did not "strengthen[] CASA’s ties to Columbia" when he joined the board.  His board position is one of the ties that already existed.

Disassociating CU from CASA would require formally ending the contractual relationship.  That may be the right thing to do; the editorial offers good reasons to believe it is.  But the contract is the real problem, of which Bollinger's board position is but a symptom.

Anonymous posted on

I'd like to give major props to the Editorial Board for writing this. This was a well-written article regarding a topic that isn't discussed nearly enough at our own institution.