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The Arrogant Gods of Certainty

That sage of our times, Homer Simpson, once remarked, “Facts are meaningless – you could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true“. Advice which would seem to have been taken to heart by the current UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who in the last few days dismissed Professor David Nutt from his position in the government drugs advisory board for stating that alcohol or tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis.

Politicians have always been slightly schizophrenic on drugs; coming down hard on illegal drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and marijuana, while continuing the status quo when it comes to legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, irrespective of the actual risk factors involved with each, but they are seldom forced to acknowledge publicly that their policies are often based purely on personal hunches rather than any sort of investigative study. In the last few weeks they’ve not only chosen to ignore advice from their own advisory body on drugs, but also an education study which recommended that formal learning in school should be put back till children are six.

Now, I wouldn’t claim to say that politicians should be forced to accept the recommendations of their advisers, but if these groups are set up to contain the people who are the experts in their particular fields, it would seem prudent to at least consider their recommendations and have a well reasoned argument why they shouldn’t be accepted. Governments are more than happy to point to advisory decisions which they happen to agree with, but if you’re just going to dismiss the ones you don’t, then why have them at all? I don’t believe that it is asking too much for us to expect our leaders to allow us to take educated decisions with evidence and for the media to present that evidence to us.

At the heart of this discussion is a complicated balance between assessing the physical harm that an individual drug can cause to an individual, the wider social harm which can result from use of the drug and the ‘Daily Mail’ factor – how likely is changing your view on the issue to upset the tabloid press. This is clearly a difficult equation to resolve, but it does no-one any favours to try and pretend that all of those issues aren’t there.
Politicians currently like to emphasize the personal danger of drug taking, but they’re actually more worried about the social harms which can result. That’s why, when someone like David Nutt stands up and points out valid inconsistencies in their policies, they get very edgy as they don’t trust us, the public, to weigh up the evidence and take what they think is the right decision.

This isn’t a trial of the ‘reputation of science‘ as AN Wilson in the Daily Mail would like us to believe. It’s also not a battle between rationality and political thought. What it is, is yet another call for our politicians to be more open about why they are making decisions. If you have made a personal choice to ignore scientific recommendations on a particular issue then say so, but admit that it is a personal choice, not one based on evidence. People may agree with you, they may not and ultimately they will decide on election day.
Once you’ve made that decision however, don’t blame scientists for doing what they are trained to do and certainly don’t claim, as AN Wilson does, that they cannot abide being contradicted. Scientists are happy to be contradicted, providing you have evidence to back up your claims and will even be known to change their minds.
The same doesn’t generally apply to politicians.

[Footnote: I can’t be alone in thinking that Professor Nutt should immediately add ‘Arrogant God of Certainty’ to his business cards]

[Footnote 2: AN Wilson once published a biography of John Betjeman, including a letter supposedly written by Betjeman to a mistress of which the first letter of each sentence spelt out “AN Wilson is a shit”. I’m just saying.]

[Footnote 3: Any media-savvy politician should realise immediately that headlines which can feature the words ‘Professor’ Nutt’ and ‘Sack’ are going to hit the front page of any paper, irrespective of the story]

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