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.


Mail Watch

Blimey, is it really that long since I posted anything. Sorry about that, I’ve been busy on other projects – in the last week I’ve presented two and a half days of Perl courses and that’s on top of my last few weeks at LoveFilm all being a bit manic. There have also been a few other projects going on in the background and one of those finally went public yesterday.

Many of you will already be aware of the Mail Watch web site. For the last few years, Merk has posted the front page and his vast army of readers have taken the piss. Now, that approach has moved to the next level. Tim Ireland has got involved and he’s brough in an amazing team of writers who are going to endeavour to expose as many as possible of the opinions that the Mail writers present as facts. From Tim’s introductory post:

The purpose of the site is simple; editors will be quietly documenting
outright lies peddled by the Daily Mail, and seeking to bring this
culture of fear and falsehood to the attention of those Mail readers
curious enough to use a search engine or browse the evil underground
world of weblogs.

I’ve been involved with this project in a couple of ways. I’m helping Merk out with some of the day-to-day geekery that goes on behind the scenes (and learning far too much about WordPress in the process), but I’ll also be writing about the Mail’s coverage of IT and consumer electronics – two subjects dear to my heart that the Mail loves to get completely wrong.

I think it’s going to be interesting. Please take a look.


The Press on Dawkins

Richard Dawkins‘ new documentary series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, begins on Channel 4 this evening. He has therefore been doing a round of publicity interviews and the results have been appearing in the press over the weekend. It’s interesting to see how different papers treat it.

The Times ran a pretty straight article about Dawkins and his work (actually they ran another piece a couple of weeks ago).

The Guardian gave the article to Charlie Brooker. Brooker has no time for religion in any form so his piece is as funny and unapologetic as you would hope.

The Mirror’s piece is quite strange. The writer takes the approach that actually, the evidence for evolution isn’t quite as strong as Dawkins claims and that an intelligent person wouldn’t take a firm position in the discussion. The Mirror writer is, it would appear, a fool.

But the strangest approach comes from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both of these papers have found a way to spin the story so that it backs up their xenophobic agenda. They do this by picking up on a remark from Dawkins where he says that many muslims have creationist beliefs and that it is therefore muslim families who are largely responsible for the increase of creationism that we are seeing in the UK. Now, no-one will deny that there are a large number of creationist muslims. Or that their children are being indoctrinated into believing that evolution by natural selection is “just a theory”. But I strongly suspect that this is rather missing the point of the documentary which, from what I understand having not seen it yet, is to explain the power of Darwin’s theory.

But if we’re going to get into the discussion of who is behind the current growth in creationism, it looks to me like the Mail and the Telegraph are ignoring some convenient facts. There are also a growing number of christians who are telling their children that evolution is unproven and Genesis is literally true. Of course that doesn’t sit well with the papers’ agenda. They want to promote the idea that it’s the evil foreigners who are destroying our society. Their argument is as weak as it ever is, but it seems that an argument doesn’t need to be particularly logically coherent in order to convince the readers of either paper.

Oh, and I don’t recommend reading the comments on either of those stories. Discussions of creationism and evolution always seem to attract the hard of understanding and it seems that the Mail and Telegraph readership has more than its fair share of people like that.