John Booth Davies 1944-2017

A tribute from Derek Heim and Douglas Cameron.

Emeritus Professor John Booth Davies, who has died suddenly at the age of 73 years, was a psychologist with a wide range of interests: music, addiction, human factors and safety. He was born near Manchester where he attended Chetham's Hospital School for musically gifted children. At a young age, he was a chorister in Manchester Cathedral choir and played French horn in the National Youth Orchestra. Although he initially failed to get into university, John became a distinguished and well-regarded academic predominantly working at Durham and Strathclyde Universities. Remarkably, Professor Davies made significant and lasting contributions to each of the diverse fields that took his interest throughout his career.

John was an accomplished trumpeter who experienced success recording and touring extensively with the award-winning group Head throughout the 1970s. The first of its kind in Scotland, Head was an important pioneer of jazz fusion when it was truly cutting-edge. In later life, he conducted the University of Strathclyde Big Band for many years. His first book The Psychology of Music (1978) dealt largely with the cognitive psychology of music, though it also included quirky and humorous coverage of other fields. It introduced his DTPOT (‘darling they’re playing our tune’) model of musical aesthetic preferences based on cultural influences and personal memories. This early work helped put Music Psychology on the modern academic map and, along with a handful of other academics, Davies helped establish music as a legitimate, serious and popular field of study in UK university psychology departments.

Davies’ most controversial academic work, developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, centred on challenging the dominant way in which addiction is understood. His provocatively titled 1992 book, The Myth of Addiction, suggested that notwithstanding pharmacological influences, addiction was a causal attribution for undesirable behaviour with personal, social and political functions. These ideas were extended in a later book, Drugspeak: The Analysis of Drug Discourse (1997). The notion that people have no control over addictive behaviours, he argued, is to an extent a self-fulfilling prophecy that is sustained by the wider societal context in which individuals must justify their deviant behaviour. Explaining behaviour in terms of addiction, Davies proposed, serves the important function of allaying responsibility for undesirable conduct. The explanation of addiction, he suggested, directly undermines people’s belief in their ability to change behaviour, which is a strong predictor of actual behaviour change. 

He was regarded as something of a rebel by the addiction research establishment and, as such, his work was stifled and sidelined by those at the forefront of the dominant addiction paradigm, who refused to engage seriously with his orthodoxy-challenging views. Nonetheless, he managed to have considerable influence despite his nonconformist position, and was highly respected and admired by a sufficient number of distinguished and learned people to secure a lasting legacy. Senior addiction specialists voted The Myth of Addiction as one of the most influential books in the field in 1999 and he was made a Scottish Government drugs advisor after retirement. In 1993 he became founding Co-Editor in Chief of the academic journal Addiction Research and Theory which was established to be an alternative voice in the then stultified addictions field and as an outlet for ideas that might otherwise not be heard. He was a staunch member of the New Directions in the Study of Alcohol Group and on the final day of the annual conference traditionally delivered a presentation of startling originality, by turns hilarious and profound. The ingenuity and provocativeness of his thought is summed up aptly by the title of his last book, God Versus Particle Physics: A No-score Draw (2013).

In the 1990s John began to carry out human factors research and in 1996 he founded and directed CIRAS, the Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System for rail safety. This was mandated in 2000 as a national system after the Paddington Rail Crash by the then Transport Secretary John Prescott. It is still in operation today. The contract to run the national system led to the setting up of ‘Human Factors Analysts Ltd’, a University of Strathclyde spin-off company, which undertook research into human factors and safety for the NHS, UK nuclear and defence companies. He also served on the board of NHS Quality Improvement Scotland. John particularly loved the rail project and the ensuing safety systems work, and was particularly pleased to receive his lineside pass to access ‘trackside’!

John also found time for numerous hobbies. He made model aeroplanes, rode motor bikes, mountaineered, was a keen birdwatcher and a committed cyclist. 

John Davies was a one-off: a maverick and complete original. He was without pretensions, had a great sense of humour, was a captivating storyteller, and an unflinchingly rigorous proponent of honesty and integrity. He was keen to get to the bottom of the explanation of any phenomenon and, expecting nothing less in return, loved to argue points to exhaustion, regardless of social convention, embarrassment or the eminence of those with whom he was arguing. John was also a fantastic unyielding mentor, and deployed his considerable intellect in a supportive and thought-provoking manner, encouraging those close to him to push their ideas beyond the constraints of traditional thought and accepted ‘truths’.  

John Booth Davies is survived by his wife of 50 years, Shirley. He will be remembered by his many friends and colleagues with some awe and great affection.

Derek Heim and Douglas Cameron

With help from Tony Anderson, David Hargreaves, Nick Heather, Raymond MacDonald, and Alastair Ross.

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