He Blinded Me With Science

The story so far:

In January 2004, in an astonishing display of common sense the government downgraded cannabis to a class C drug. This didn’t play well in the shires and in January 2009 it was reclassified as Class B. Last week, Professor David Nutt, head of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said what every rational person knows – that the reclassification was a political decision which completely ignored the scientific evidence. He was sacked by the Home Secretary. Over the weekend two other members of the council resigned in protest.

This has lead to a lot of discussion of the relationship between scientific evidence and government policy. Today the Daily Mail (who else?) published one of the most ill-informed articles on the subject that it would be possible to write. It’s written by that most highly respected of science writers, A N Wilson. In the future, this article will no doubt be used as the basis of introductory level courses on the philosophy of science where students will compete to find the largest number of logical fallacies in the piece.

Let’s pick off some of the easier targets.

But [Professor Nutt] was not content simply to give advice, of course. What he appeared to want to do was to dictate to the Government, and when it refused to acknowledge his infallibility, Professor Nutt started to break ranks and to denounce the country’s law on drugs.

That’s putting a more than slightly biased slant on events, of course. Professor Nutt was employed for his expertise on drugs. He can’t be expected to change his opinions to fit in with government policy. Science doesn’t work like that.

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

Oh no! Those troublesome scientists with their “unimaginative” empirical facts. If only they had a bit more imagination so that they could make up facts that better fitted the policies that the government want to implement.

Try saying that ecstasy is safe in the sink estates of our big cities, where police, social workers and teachers work to improve the lives of young people at the bottom of the heap.

Ah, yes. But nowhere has Professor Nutt suggested that ecstasy is safe. He is saying that it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. That doesn’t mean it’s safe. This is a blatant misrepresentation of his views.

If you add together all the winos and self-destructive alcoholics, then throw in the smokers who’ve died of respiratory or cardiac disease, the total will far outstrip the number of young people who die after taking an ecstasy pill – and you could conclude from this that smoking and drinking are more dangerous than ecstasy.

Well, yes. No-one is likely to disagree with this. But saying this in the middle of the article strongly implies that this is how Professor Nutt and his colleagues reached their conclusions. And that, of course, won’t be the case at all. This shows, at least, a terrible lack of knowledge of the scientific method or, perhaps, a shameful attempt to misrepresent the amount of work that will have gone into Professor Nutt’s research.

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals.

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

Ok, now we’re really on dodgy ground. This is getting dangerously close to saying that all scientists are one experiment away from becoming Dr. Mengele. It’s like Wilson has never heard of Godwin’s Law. Originally, the online version of this article had a picture of Hitler next to these paragraphs. This has been removed in the last hour or so.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Mail is sending out mixed messages here. Surely a comparison to the Nazis is showing some kind of grudging respect to the scientists.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

Isn’t it astonishing that the Mail is still banging on about this? Wakefield was wrong. And his deeply flawed study would had been given no publicity at all if it wasn’t for papers like the Mail jumping on the bandwagon without doing the smallest amount of research on the story.

And to every one who thinks otherwise, I would ask them to carry out a simple experiment. Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?

See? That’s Wilson’s idea of a scientific experiment. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He needs (in fact most journalists who write about science in the popular press need) a course in the scientific method and basic statistics. It should be law that you can’t write about science until you’ve read and understood Bad Science.

I’m glad to see that Wilson is getting pulled apart in the comments. But people reading the paper won’t see the comments. The Mail needs to publish a retraction. And Wilson needs to be stopped from writing about things he knows nothing about.

One comment

  1. Since we’re doing lazy Hitler comparisons, how about this for a compare and contrast? -“Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?” – AN Wilson, Daily Mail, November 3, 2009″If I offer a child the choice between a pear and a piece of meat, he’ll quickly choose the pear. That’s his atavistic instinct speaking.”- Adolf Hitler. December 28, 1941. Section 81, HITLER’S TABLE TALK

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