Speaking truth to power

The sacking of Professor David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has led to a spirited row between politicians and scientists. Colleagues in ACMD are resigning, refusing to be used as mere rubber stamps for pre-determined agendas. The home secretary seems to want to reorganize it to his liking.

The origin of the conflict is Nutt's staunch harm-reduction and evidence based policy position: he thinks drugs should be legally classified by the harm they do, not so much by political expediency. Alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis, taking ecstasy appears to be less risky than horse riding (when counting injuries and death). Hence he has criticised policies ministers for upgrading medically less harmful drugs. While certainly controversial in the anti-drug community his arguments appear to be based on solid science. As a scientist he should also sound the alarm if the government is "devaluing and distorting" the scientific evidence.

Alan Johnson sees things differently: "He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy." The role of an advisor is only to advice, while the government decides policy. But if the policy is against the evidence, should not the advisor advise to change the policy?

In many ways experts advising politicians exist to reflect some of the
trust we feel for them onto the less trusted politicians. Which of
course turns into the opposite situation if the politicians happen to
disagree with the trusted experts. From a political perspective
independent experts should have the grace of not being too independent –
especially in areas where politicians are wrong. But from a practical
and ethical perspective we are better off if experts do show
independence and disagreement with bad policies.

Alan Johnson also writes: "As for his comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point." But that is a matter of empirical evidence, and it seems to be on Nutt's side (there is a 1 in 350 risk per exposure of a riding injury compared to a 1 in 10,000 risk for ecstasy). Since politics should at least partially be based on factual considerations, scientific points could be quite political. Pointing out that a certain policy would kill X people unnecessarily may be entirely factual, yet have strong political implications. Johnson said that Nutt's comments "damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs". But this seems to assume clarity is more important than correctness.

It can be rational for a politician not to support a true statement if the voters would not support it. If voters think alcohol is no problem but ecstasy is an immense problem, then even if they are wrong it could be unwise to go against them. It would be both personally unwise to risk chances of re-election, and politically unwise to lose political capital that might be spent on things one believes are far more important. But similarly (as Johnson is discovering) it can be unwise to disagree too strongly with experts. So far the government has largely ignored the inconvenient advice, but the current affair has brought the discrepancy between advice and policy into the limelight.

From the political side it has been claimed that it is an important
principle that advisers should present advice to ministers but should
not campaign against their policy decisions. But advisers might find that their best advice to the government is that it should reverse policies. This is unacceptable to politicians who have an interest in appearing to know what they are doing and having a set course. But the whole point of independent advise is to provide less biased, even uncomfortable, information.

Professor Nutt was not a civil servant nor politically appointed. Had he been, there might have been some obligations of loyalty to the home office or the government. But he was appointed to speak the truth as he saw it, supported by the best available evidence. It would be both incorrect and impractical to demand that an eminent academic should stop speaking in public about his field and how it intersected existing policy just because he was on an advisory board. Open societies thrive on free criticism: it is the way of correcting mistakes. If we want evidence-based politics for real, then advisory boards should be allowed to shout loudly when politicial considerations diverge from reality.

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3 Responses to Speaking truth to power

  • Cristobal Orrego says:

    At this point of the development of liberal societies, it should be clear (regardless of the matter) that scientists do not enjoy freedom of speech, if, and when, their purportedly scientific views clash with current ethical or political orthodoxy. Political pressure will be exerted upon anyone who, for example, (i) denies global warming, (ii) doubts the effectiveness of anti-vih campaigns, (iii) affirms that homosexuality is a psychological illness (for the APA has declassified it as an illness), (iv) intends to prove that some differences in race or gender are essential(v.gr., if someone suggests that women are less clever than men, or that blacks are genetically inclined to crime). These are common examples of issues about which scientists themselves, and politics, have evolved, and it is not science, but ethics and politics that says whether or not the evolution has beed ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. Surely racist scientists would think that it was incorrect. (By the way, I would disagree, but NOT on scientific grounds, but on ethical ones).

    The same applies to the orthodoxy on drugs. It rules over purportedly evidence-based science. And the contention that drugs should be classified according to the actual harm they cause IS NOT a scientific/empirical thesis, but a political and/or ethical one, because science cannot provide the evaluative criteria of what is to be considered as harm. Science cannot assert whether to kill more people is better or worse than to distroy their characters by drug abuse, since to value biological human life more than psichological character, or moral virtue, is not itself a biological thesis, but a moral one. So the politicians have the right to exclude from their advisory bodies those scientists who, going beyond their scientific credentials, try to pass on their moral views as if they were scientific truths. This was clearly seen even by Aristotle, in giving politics a directive character over science.

  • Evil Rocks says:

    Democracy depends on the electorate groping towards reality (however flawed the image the public bases their votes upon). When the government begins manipulating that which is constituents consider reality, her voters can no longer vote with the assumption they’re getting accurate information from their government. When democracy begins to create alternate realities for her subjects to inhabit and base their votes upon, she should lose the mandate.

  • Is harm reduction a non-scientific thesis? In a narrow sense one can argue that harm is outside science, since it has a value component. But an advisory board writing reports about how to *increase* the number of drug related deaths in order to be neutral would likely not remain long – there is a broad understanding across society what constitutes harm, and this serves as the natural starting point for examining policies. All things being equal, we prefer policies that reduce harm to policies that produce harm.

    The real battle lies in the fine details of harm, which often do have a moral character besides the obvious sociomedical consequences. Saying that scientists should stay out of it would make the advisory board unable to do anything. If I remember right, there are a few moral philosophers on the board too. Are they supposed to not give politicians any advice whatsoever?

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