Where Science and Politics collide

Monday, 2nd November 2009 at 9:00 UTC 5 comments

In an era when we’ve become used to Science running the Political landscape, last week’s sacking of the government’s chief drugs advisor was a kick in the teeth for anyone who thought we had entered an era of “rational government”, where science was the true deciding factor on all matters of government policy.

There is a theory that an enlightened, modern society will make all its decisions based on rational evidence. The theory goes that Science, having been victorious over Religion and Superstition, is now enthroned as our government’s benchmark for making the correct decisions. Sadly, at least with regards to drug policy, this hasn’t been the case.

In America, having a needle exchange is illegal in certain states. But we expect that, because we know that those states, predominantly in the South, are run by a tyranny of Religion, and not by rational thinking, or Science. After all, this is one of the key claims to Europe’s superiority over America, as put out by many “Liberals”. We assume that in the UK, the data that shows that needle exchanges reduce drug related deaths and ensure that people maintain some semblance of connection to wider society will be listened to, but in America, it will be ignored, for instance.

What we forget is that next to none of our drugs policy is actually based on science at all. Most of it is based on media reporting of science, and readers of Ben Goldacres’ will deal with that aspersion if you have no idea just how bad the situation is on that score. In the area of drug policy, the government writes the science based on what the tabloids have to say. Drugs with a high take up amongst visible users (the homeless) are therefore worse than those regularly used at dinner parties in posh corners of London, for instance.

If we want a government that runs its decisions by science and not media superstition, it would be good to rally around the beleaguered scientist at the middle of this situation. Anecdotal evidence available to anyone who actually engages with society points fairly firmly to violence amongst cannabis being much lower than amongst alcohol. Therefore, why do we tolerate alcohol? Because it would be politically difficult to do much more to limit its consumption than the government is currently already doing. Why do we make cannabis illegal? Good question, and one with many and varied answers. One of these is the fear of cotton farmers that hemp production will put them out of business. Spurious as that might seem, it illustrates just one of the many different distorting factors in any given drugs debate.

Unfortunately, a lot of this is because of the simple incompatibility of political and scientific culture. A scientific statement is expected to have clarifying statements attached (“amongst risk groups”, “within the range of current studies”) where a political statement is expected to have total finitude about it: “Drugs are Bad” Full Stop. Mixing the two makes for some very interesting fudges. A scientist who refuses to acknowledge the variations in physical and psychological dangers between different substances is a grossly bad scientist. A politician who suggests the same is hailed for their leadership.

Some of this debate, abstracted from the specific issue, relates to government manipulation of scientific data. An example I’m better able to give would be from the field of Climate Science. I’m told much of the science that goes into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports is massively tempered by the compiling committee because of the fear that governments will simply cast it out of hand as alarmist if the worst case scenarios are put across. In other words, governmental interference is accepted simply to get a report acknowledged. I suspect the same might be true of the situation with drugs.

There is, of course, an element of truth in the simple statement that all drugs are dangerous. The problem is, we have such large cultural codes around which drugs and in which circumstances they are acceptable, we often forget to check the science at all. We know that having a bad headache means reaching for the paracetamol, a bad day at work means reaching for a bottle of red and that anyone who is using Cocaine is a druggy and must be avoided at all costs. What we forget is that 8 paracetamol can kill you, a bottle of wine regularly will give you cirrhosis of the liver, and that many well of people do Cocaine without dropping out of society because they moderate its use (but they also do themselves plenty of harm). Much is therefore about visibility. Something done by everyone in the office becomes OK, something done by the person sat in the doorway, regardless of who else is doing it, must be bad.

Of course, whether or not we want science to dictate to society is another matter. Science is not always right, and doesn’t always see enough of the picture to make a firm policy commitment, even if we include Social Science in this categorisation. Nor is it entirely practical; we could just about use science to legitimate a set of (spurious) laws in which people earning more than a certain threshold could get hold of certain recreational drugs, but not people earning less; incredibly stupid and unworkable, but probably fairly true given that those at the bottom of society are often the first to fall off.

The situation is far more complex than normal political discourse can allow, especially when the role of the media is factored in. Instead we are left trying to marry up two completely different sets of values, of complexity and simplicity, and last week reflects perhaps some inevitable fall out. Perhaps therefore, what we need is more of a decision about the role of science, and whether we want to claim, in our Enlightened European ways, to run our country entirely on science. Its a big debate.

Entry filed under: Culture, Drugs, Health, Media, Politics, Science.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Monday, 2nd November 2009 at 13:11 UTC

    Email sent.

  • 2. Greg  |  Monday, 2nd November 2009 at 13:23 UTC

    Since when has politics been simple? The opposite case could be made. While f=m*a and C6H12O6 + 6O2 = 6CO2 + 6H2O, political answers encompass all the realpolitik for which you provide answers. Hence, even if a drug is bad for you, the question of whether to ban it will encompass the users’ denger to society, enforcability of a ban at user level, enforcibility at trade level, civil order, what to do with all the former users, what will spring up in the drug’s place and whether the government’s actions will look good at the next election. The politicians may speak to the press in soundbites, but I doubt they talk to each other in that manner.

    • 3. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 2nd November 2009 at 14:39 UTC

      I’m realising I should have been clearer that I was involving Social Science in the science. Social Science has some very clear answers on things like the efficacy of needle exchanges for want of a better example, but yet many politicians wilfully ignore this.

      By the way, are you/other people aware of the work of Student for a Sensible Drug Policy? I’d strongly recommend reading some of their stuff; whilst not I’m not sold on their position, it should be more talked about.

  • 4. Brain Duck  |  Monday, 2nd November 2009 at 17:48 UTC

    Sorry Graham, think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here.
    All ‘science’ can do is give you a pile of data, & esp with drugs policy there’s always going to be a fairly wide margin of error & lots of stuff we don’t know. Once you’ve got that, politics is about deciding how to use that to change society.

    For example: there’s a reasonable chance based on what we know that cannabis use increases the chance of someone going on to develop schizophrenia. This is inherently hard to get really certain data on, for all sorts of reasons mostly to do with real life being messy, but for purposes of argument I’ll call it that if no-one used cannabis 1/100 people would get schizophrenia, but amongst people who do use cannabis an extra 1/200 people will get it.

    Now, what are you as Ruler of the World going to do about that? You could make a reasonable political argument that you should have life sentences for anyone found with cannabis. Or you could decide that it’s a fairly low additional risk, comparable to other risks that people can choose to accept, and cannabis should be legal. There are all sorts of things you could quite sensibly do with those numbers, just knowing the risks & hazards is where you start from, it doesn’t tell you what to do.

    Politics in a democracy is about having lots of competing ideas, including some really odd ones (such as that it’s worth listening to some bloke who got nailed to a tree a long time ago). That means that you have to listen to what people want you to do, rather than just tell them what’s good for them.

    FWIW I’m not convinced that Nutt is entirely in the clear here. He can either be a government advisor, or a campaigner, both at once isn’t really tenable. IMO if he wanted to criticise the Govt he should have written a very stroppy public resignation letter.

  • 5. Brain Duck  |  Wednesday, 4th November 2009 at 22:27 UTC

    However, it is of course very important to note that the main goal of biomedical research is of course to clone a zombie Hitler.
    I know this is true, the Daily Mail tells me so. Really it does.


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