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Hey It's a Library!
Responses to Some Common Criticisms
by E. Erowid & F. Erowid
Jun 2004
Citation:   Erowid E, Erowid F. "Hey It's a Library: Responses to Some Common Criticisms". Erowid Extracts. Jun 2004;6:20-21.
There are a number of common misconceptions about Erowid that both individuals and the mainstream media rely on when attempting to dismiss or discredit it. One of the ongoing challenges of the project is to help visitors contextualize the information they find and read it with appropriate perspective. We hope that by sharing some of our responses to common complaints we can help visitors better understand our editorial choices and help those who support our mission respond to others when discussing these complex issues.

First and foremost, Erowid is an eclectic library of documents. It contains everything from fanciful writing to the latest scientific research, from psychedelic art to police photos, from extensively edited and carefully reviewed articles to error-riddled, poorly written exhortations. The site serves as an archive of historical documents, a publisher of new information, and a hub to collect cutting-edge data.

It's an error to expect all the types of information to fit into just one of these categories--to see the site as a book rather than as a library. This leads to some of the following criticisms.

"Erowid is Pro-drug"
Perhaps the most common reason given for dismissing the information found in our collection is the idea that "Erowid promotes the use of psychoactive drugs". Most often this seems to be a short-hand way of saying that we aren't like mainstream prohibitionist publishers; we do not exclusively publish warnings and negatively-framed information. Somewhat more novel terminology was used in a New England Journal of Medicine article mentioning Erowid, where we were grouped in the set of "partisan" websites, as opposed to the (apparently non-partisan) websites of groups like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the expressly political Office of National Drug Control Strategy.1

The fact is that Erowid includes a far wider breadth of information and links than any of the prohibition sites. We go out of our way to collect and publish positive, neutral, and negative information. We show negative experience reports, write about dangerous interactions and behaviors, document and link to stories about psychoactive-related deaths and hospitalizations, and discuss research detailing the health risks of psychoactives. We link to hundreds of prohibition-oriented sites, despite knowing that these links will increase their search rankings and will never be reciprocated. We respond to angry criticism with polite requests for specific corrections and suggested changes. In fact, Erowid has been criticized for being too willing to publish negative information--by people who strongly believe in the beneficial use of illegal psychoactives.

While we try to discourage irresponsible behavior, our primary role is that of a library. It's not the place of the reference encyclopedia or the medical library to make the types of filtering decisions that might be made when producing a drug education book designed to be read by children; Erowid is designed for adults and is used for many different purposes. Not discouraging use is very different than encouraging use.

"Mixed Messages"
A similar criticism we receive is that the site doesn't provide clear, explicit guidance to readers about what they should or shouldn't do. As stated in a 2002 article about "recreational drug web sites" published in the journal Pediatrics, "Mixed messages about other drug use permeate the Erowid drug site."2

Those who bring up this criticism seem to hold strongly to the view that information about psychoactives should consist solely of scare stories, negative health claims, moral warnings and lectures to stay away from a poorly defined set of "bad drugs".

There is a huge disparity between how different people view the basic facts about psychoactives. One of the goals of the Erowid project is to collect and give voice to a range of well-considered opinions. Aside from our intent to help document diversity, it's clear that libraries and large collections should necessarily contain "mixed messages"; indeed, it is integral to their purpose.

As we wrote in our response to the Pediatrics article, "Should a library have a single 'message'? Not a library that most of us would like to use [...] It is our position that an information source with a ‘single message' will be seen as untrustworthy and biased by many readers: including those who choose to use psychoactives and those who choose to conduct research on them."

"Erowid is Run by Druggies"
Major media outlets are usually a little too polite to call us "stoners" or "druggies", but this doesn't stop smaller news organizations, individuals and the Usenet crazies.

Sometimes, the charge seems to serve as a disclaimer to protect the author from sounding too positive when they go on to make statements about Erowid's usefulness or interest. In a story published in the Salt Lake City Weekly on Jan 8, 2004, the author writes: "It's a site for stoners by stoners, people who like to get good and baked, and legitimize their dragon-chasing by proclaiming a Timothy Learyesque pursuit of self-discovery. (Not to malign them. I'm all for people getting ripped if they're truly not hurting anybody. But let's call a stoner a stoner.)"3 The overall tone of the rest of the Erowid mention is positive, but the "stoner" tag seems to frame the site as the probably-accidental output from lazy people who only stopped "dragon-chasing" long enough to upload their latest rant.

In other contexts, the terms are used solely as insults intended to discredit the content of the site. We're bound to get pinned with the "drug user" stereotype simply because of the role we play. Erowid gives voice to current and past psychoactive users of all types: some who are self-proclaimed "stoners" and others who are the exact opposite. But the "druggie" insult is easy to throw, can quickly serve to discredit all work associated with the site, and is bound to get a laugh.

The most damning implication of the "druggie" criticism is that all of the information included on the site is suspect because those in charge would only post information that justifies their own (clearly depraved) use. This is sometimes accompanied by the suggestion that any errors found are the result of the site operators being too high to do anything properly. These are cases of using ad hominem attacks to discredit us personally rather than trying to make substantive arguments about the site that can stand on their own merit.

Each reader evaluates Erowid based on their own beliefs and values. While we want to maintain both a presentation style and overall site feel that can at least be tolerated by mainstream visitors, it is more important to us that we maintain credibility among those who need the information most. We realize this will inevitably lead to accusations that the site is run by "stoners" and we continue to consider the impact of our content and aesthetics choices.

Erowid is an enormous project that has grown out of the work of dozens of individuals. It involves a lot of complicated, stressful, technically demanding work, and very long hours. This has been underway for over nine years. The collection includes tens of thousands of documents and images and has provided source material for thousands of books, magazines, and lectures around the world. It is difficult to imagine this is what detractors have in mind as the product of a typical "druggie".

How to Read Erowid.org
  1. Check Authorship. The articles published on Erowid are written by literally thousands of authors. When evaluating an article, readers need to ask: Who wrote this article? What are their qualifications? Have they written other articles?

  2. Check Publication Date and Edition. A document's age and how recently it has been edited are essential keys to knowing how to contextualize an article. Is the document marked clearly as to when it was written and last edited? Is there more recent data that could refute this article? Is it talking about laws or news that are likely to have changed?

  3. Know the Document Type. Different types of documents have different levels of review, editing, and expectations for publication. What someone says in an Experience Report should be taken differently than something someone says in a research review article.

  4. Look for References. Does the article give links or references for the facts it states? Does it make it clear how it reached its conclusions? For facts you care about, does the author provide enough information to actually track down the original material?
"Erowid Contains Errors"
Another complaint resulting from a misunderstanding of the nature of the collection is that "there is incorrect information on Erowid". With surprising frequency, we receive questions like "Hello, I'm writing a report for school and I want to know if everything on your site is true?"

There are many errors on the site and it would hardly take an expert a few minutes to point out a dozen inaccuracies or misstatements. As with any archive of eclectic documents, there are many authors with many different levels of expertise, out-of-date documents, and documents that contain typos or transcription errors. While a portion of the documents we archive are actively maintained as up-to-date representations of our current understanding of the topic in question, a majority of documents have been archived in their original format and will never see further edits or corrections. This is the style of journals and magazines everywhere, which publish articles that, a year or two later as knowledge advances, will be found to contain errors.

Imagine a librarian going through all the books and journals in their collection and blacking out the parts they think are incorrect. Now imagine them adding new sentences or paragraphs to the words of the original authors with no practical way to tell what has been changed. Imagine if the works of Aristotle had been "corrected" over time by well-meaning librarians bent on making sure that Aristotle was "up-to-date" with the current state of knowledge. It is not hard to see how damaging this would be to the historical record.

It is part of our stated mission to improve the availability of past data and this necessitates including information that may be proven incorrect later. Data of all kinds become incorrect that were correct when they were written (statistics, government laws and policies, social facts, etc.) and things believed to be correct are later discovered to be false. The nature of scientific advancement perpetually invalidates past interpretations and highlights problems with past data collection methods.

If "Does it contain errors?" were a litmus test for a good library, no library would pass. We make minor corrections and adjustments to a few documents each day based on reader feedback. But it will never be the case (nor our intention) that everything archived on Erowid is "true".
"Missing Information"
The two sides of this are that some people complain that "Erowid is missing extremely important information" while others say that "Erowid is the one stop" for all their psychoactive drug information needs.

There are many articles, systems, facts, and resources that we know would add a great deal to the Erowid library. We sometimes use the metaphor that our job is like standing under a waterfall of data, trying to sort and capture the most interesting or important bits as they fall by in the torrent. Not only is Erowid clearly missing a great deal of important information, but we also believe that fundamentally no single library should ever be considered the sole source of information on any topic.

Erowid doesn't contain everything one needs to know about psychoactives, nor does any other resource. It's important to look for multiple authors and multiple editorial perspectives when researching any topic or fact. Hopefully, what Erowid helps provide is a useful overview, access to a wide variety of viewpoints, and pointers to additional books, websites, and references where visitors can read more.

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Jun 2004 - Erowid - Originally published in Erowid Extracts.
  • v1.1 - Nov 22, 2004 - Erowid - Published on Erowid.org with minor revisions, including addition of coauthor F. Erowid.