Where Science and Politics collide
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.