Stalin’s children – Western “democracies”
Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-11-03
I propose what seems to be a general rule of politics these days:
The probability of policies being set in harmony with the opinion of experts is inversely correlated to the unanimity of expert opinion and the importance of that policy.
Climate change is but one example where unanimity of relevant experts is near total, yet scientists are ignored at best, and often punished
Economic policy is an example where there is no unanimity, so the politicians choose the expert opinion that suits them or political sponsors.
Nature ("Sacked science adviser speaks out" doi:10.1038/news.2009.1053 2009-11-02) has a depressing interview with a recently sacked advisor on non-therapeutic drug use, who made the following comment.
It just seems to me a nail in the coffin of evidence-based government.– David Nutt
University of Bristol
Almost every toxicologist will point out the irrational way biologically active compounds are regulated, and how the regulations bear little relation to toxicological data – whether we are talking about recreational drugs, food additives (such as the mild neurotoxin Aspartame), herbal supplements, or standard medicines).
Nutt had simply been pointing out the toxicological, sociological and economic data, all of which lead to the inescapable conclusion that controls should be relaxed on certain compounds, tightened on others.
Home Secretary Alan Johnson demanded the resignation of psychopharmacologist David Nutt on Friday, after Nutt reiterated his views on the relative safety of various drugs in a lecture at King’s College London Centre for Crime and Justice. Nutt gave the lecture in July but his comments came to light when the centre last week published a briefing based on the lecture.
But politicians took offence at this, claiming that this strayed into policy, which is the politicians domain.
If straight toxicological data, how dangerous something is, shouldn’t determine regulatory controls on a compound, then what should?
It wasn’t as if the briefing related to national security, so there is absolutely no reason why the briefing should not have been publically available. Indeed, there are good arguments to say that all briefings, apart from perhaps those relating intimately to national security plans, should be publically available.
Sociologists are relevant to the debate on recreational drug policy. They line up with the toxicologists.
Economists line up behind the sociologists.
What right have politicians to lie about these matters in a way analogous to determining that we should teach children in schools that 2+3=23, and exactly like Hilter did with "evidence" against Jews, and Stalin did pushing genetics that conformed to his pseudo-lefty ideology?
Politicians seem to want to exercise their skill in the dark arts of spin, whipping up a storm to appear more hairy-chested than their opponents.
Scientific literacy in the community, and at least some rigorous thinking at school, constrains the ability of politicians to use their dark arts to their own advantage, not that of the community.
Therefore, politicians of all major parties have a major incentive for decreasing the quality of education, while encouraging "grade inflation" so that it looks as if educational standards are improving.
And the dumber the population, the less the population is disturbed by sacking scientists, by castrating or censoring scientific papers.
The politicians are well served by scientists valuing truth more than money – for those scientists will generally be prepared to work for a pittance, and will usually be receiving funds directly or indirectly from government, and therefore, they can be silenced.
In the Nutt case, others on his advisory committee are resigning in sympathy. Perhaps a whole lot of scientific advisors on other committees should do the same. Perhaps if enough scientific advisors "went on strike" the evidence-free preferences of politicians would touch on the minds of the public. No, that’s hoping for too much.
Yet censorship of films or photographs generates huge debate in the newspapers, and the celebrities get out in force.
But then a dumb public can only relate to bread and circuses, give attention to celebrity.
And that’s the way politicians like it.
How is this treatment of evidence by politicians when determining policy any different from a theocracy?
And the god of the modern "western democratic" para-theocracy is….?
- Update: "Nutt decision shows immaturity of marijuana debate" – Derek Barry at Woolly Days 2009-11-04.
- "Drug chief sacking could stifle polydrug research" (New Scientists 2009-11-03)
- "Evidence of evidence" (2009-02-24)
- Update: "Evidence and Policy" (Mike Barnato 2009-11-02) quotes J.M. Keynes:
There is nothing a government hates more than to be well informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult.
- Update: US House Oversight Committee on science censorship in the Bush era … but don’t expect any real change by Obama when political sponsors or electoral gullibility makes evidence inconvenient.