November 03, 2009

When scientists lose touch…the case of David Nutt

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If a scientist – or any academic – were fired whenever she said something that her peers regarded as false, then scientists would hardly ever say anything at all, out of fear of rejection. As it happens, science’s own peer review process already induces a certain measure of timidity, but tenured scientists (admittedly a dying breed) can remain gainfully employed while rejected by colleagues. All of this is important to science because free and open inquiry is the only way knowledge truly progresses.

Politics is something else entirely. Politicians are directly affected by the consequences of their decisions. In fact, that is the whole point of politics, especially in a democracy, where politicians don’t exist apart from those they govern. If people don’t like a policy, no matter how well-thought out or well-evidenced it is, then the policy goes and the politicians pay. This explains the long tradition of scientists advising politicians but staying away from actually making policy.

David Nutt, recently departed chair of the current Labour government’s drugs council, has long argued strenuously and colourfully for the declassification of narcotics like ecstasy and cannabis. The scientific side of the argument is quite strong though given the taboos and mysteries that surround ordinary drug use, there is always room to doubt the reliability of what we know. In any case, Nutt is paid to be a scientist not a politician. Once Nutt learned that the government would not implement his position, given how strongly he apparently feel about the matter, he should have simply resigned. And if he wants to get closer to politics, he can still sell his services to a more sympathetic party (Liberal Democrats?) or start a political action committee.

What amazes me is that Nutt had to wait to be fired. Why didn’t he just resign in protest? This is certainly not an unheard of option in the current Labour government! Inasmuch as I am inclined to agree with Nutt’s substantive position on drugs, I find his behaviour incredibly clueless. He clearly doesn’t understand the relationship between science and politics in a democracy. Politicians don’t ask scientists for advice because they want the scientists to rule on their behalf. Scientists are asked more in the spirit of a special interest group, albeit one with considerable mystique, rather like the church. Just as politicians would ideally like to have the church on their side, so too they would like to have the scientific community. However, politicians need to keep a lot of interests and prospects in balance, since in the end it is all about winning elections. And neither the clerics nor the scientists need to face the electorate. It’s as simple as that.

What is perhaps most striking about this episode is the demonstration of political backbone by the Home Office in standing down a formidable and noisy scientific advocate like Professor Nutt. This is a good sign that science is becoming normalised in democratic politics. I also suspect that politicians are becoming more informed about the sociology of science, which teaches not only that uncertainty is always present in science but also that the overall weight of scientific opinion can shift drastically with the appearance of a few well-supported studies. Imagine if Nutt got his way, and then as a conscientious scientist he was forced to change his mind six months later in light of new evidence, and then government policy changed alongside it. It’s hard to see how science’s - or for that matter, the government's - public standing would become stronger in the process.

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  1. Dave Weeden

    I also suspect that politicians are becoming more informed about the sociology of science, which teaches not only that uncertainty is always present in science but also that the overall weight of scientific opinion can shift drastically with the appearance of a few well-supported studies. Imagine if Nutt got his way, and then as a conscientious scientist he was forced to change his mind six months later in light of new evidence, and then government policy changed alongside it.

    I know you’re being a contrarian for most of this post and good luck with that, but I’m astonished at the claim I’ve quoted above. I take it that you have studied some science and that you have even taken the time to study scientists and how students are introduced to scientific thinking and methods.

    Look, all science teaching in schools and universities requires some experimentation. (I know Paul Feyerabend wrote an essay called ‘Science without experiment’ and I’m a great admirer of his.) Doing experiments is what makes science unique. If you want to draw a line round science and say “this is science” and “this isn’t science”, doing experiments (or making observations in the case of astronomy or gathering fossils in paleontology etc) is where the distinction lies. Let’s take a classic experiment of the sort that children are taught: we can test gravity by dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa (although I’m sure you know that Galileo didn’t actually do this). So one kid drops a weight and another kid times the fall. When they get back to the classroom, they’ll find that the times they’ve recorded won’t fit exactly on the curve they’d expect them to if they’ve cheated and read ahead in their text book. What I’m saying here, very ponderously, is that no one serious learns about uncertainty in science through sociology. Uncertainty is one of things that all future scientists encounter first hand via experiment.

    As for your other claim that “the overall weight of scientific opinion can shift drastically with the appearance of a few well-supported studies”, this seems to be a reference to what Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts”. But these only happen when there are obvious problems with the old paradigm. This may be to confess my own ignorance, but I cannot see any parallel with the current state of health sciences and 19th century physics or the discovery of plate tectonics. The harmful effects of cannabis are well-known; I’m not denying that they exist. A study which finds new effects from such a popular drug seems very unlikely doesn’t it?

    03 Nov 2009, 16:45

  2. Steve Fuller

    Actually I think the uncertainty surrounding drug use has more to do with the unreliability of our knowledge of the contexts in which the drug is normally used—moreover, these contexts may change as lifestyles change over time. So while our basic knowledge of drug effects might be quite reliable, the sociology of drug taking, so to speak, might be less so. I’m sure politicians are sensitive to this point. However, this is probably not how Nutt sees the matter; otherwise he wouldn’t be so confident about his own judgement to want to force it down politicians’ throats. Part of the value of science and politics being independent of each other is that they can change at their own pace. Nutt doesn’t quite realize that by politicians relying on more than just scientific judgement, they are giving scientists space to change their minds in the future without having to worry about any political fallout.

    03 Nov 2009, 17:16

  3. Dave Weeden

    With respect, Steve, your answer seems to be unmitigated obscurantism.

    You persist in your claim that our knowledge, while it might appear to be detailed and clear on some point or other, is foggy overall. You come up with something where understanding is a little fuzzy, and from this you build a narrative that we can’t really be certain about anything. This strikes me as quite wrong.

    So while our basic knowledge of drug effects might be quite reliable, the sociology of drug taking, so to speak, might be less so.

    You are employed in a sociology department, aren’t you? I agree that “he sociology of drug taking … might be less [reliable than our basic knowledge of drug effects].” But is it? This is a fairly straightforward empirical question. (I will concede that there’s some judgement to be made in comparing two different kinds of studies.) Is the sociology of drug-taking at an infantile stage? I don’t think so. It’s easy to Google “sociology drug abuse” and come up with lots of hits like Alcohol & Drug Abuse Research Program I’m not a sociologist, but such research sounds challenging, provocative, methodologically difficult enough to attract talented researchers, and is comparatively well-funded. As you say, it might be unreliable. I suspect it isn’t, and I feel your answer is evasive.

    I don’t understand your next sentence. What point are politicians supposed to be sensitive to? That – without checking – the relevant sociology might be unreliable so best forget about it? Don’t you think that large government departments employ advisers to know this stuff? And that the sociology of drug taking actually fell under Nutt’s remit?

    Not do I understand your unfounded claim that Nutt wants to force his position down people’s throats. He’s employed to give advice; it must be very frustrating to be asked to work hard on something and have that work then thrown out. He’s not “forcing” his views on anyone. If anyone is doing this, it’s Johnson. Johnson seems to think that drugs are bad, and that people should be punished for taking them. That’s forcing your views on people. You won’t find the inhabitants of your nearest crack house insisting that you partake or that you be like them. Only one side is doing this.

    Your last two sentences seem to be a call that politics carry on without any information gathering. Johnson isn’t relying on scientific advice at all. And what are you claiming that politicians rely on besides scientific judgement? Prejudice? Gut instinct? The leaders in the Daily Mail? Yes scientists might change their minds in future about anything really. So let’s never do anything ever again. It’s funny how your sociology always ends up backing reactionaries: drug authoritarians, the American Taliban. Yet you’re the one with the nerve to call people fascists.

    04 Nov 2009, 19:41

  4. Steve Fuller

    My basic point is that people don’t necessarily tell the truth about their drug use – not simply the amount they take but the other things they take/do while they’re taking drugs. That reflects the mystique that drugs have in our society – and that’s what the sociology of drug use is about. You cite a well–funded study in Washington State. This is the UK. We’re in a different country. There are national and local cultures of drug use. Moreover, the contexts of drug use change over time, as social fashions change. Any studies, however well–conducted in their day, need to be regularly revisited. None of this affects the basic biological effects of drugs, of course, which I am not disputing. Nevertheless, I do think there is enough wiggle room here for politicians, and they are taking full advantage of it. As you say, Nutt is paid to give advice. The payment ends his formal responsibility for what he says. The politicians, on the other hand, have to live with the consequences of what they do. Nutt is effectively insulated from any consequences of what he tells the government. That insulation means that he may be ignored. In any case, he receives a paycheque. If he doesn’t like it, he can resign and continue promoting his view elsewhere. I say all this, -agreeing with his substantive positon. You – and perhaps Nutt – need to take a bit more seriously that we live in a democracy. If the government’s line on drugs is so disastrous, I’m sure they’ll pay in the election. However, at the moment, this dispute is really a battle for respect between politicians and scientists, both of whom can use all the help they can get. The politicians won this round.

    04 Nov 2009, 20:03

  5. Stephen Clark

    But Nutt explicitly said that the decision to reclassify was a political one: that is, one made by politicians in the light of what they think they can sell to the public. The fact that he was chair of an expert committee (if he was paid, it was as chairman: committee members aren’t generally paid), doesn’t require him to keep quiet about what he supposes to be the relevant medical facts about relative risk. If experts aren’t to be allowed to state, and discuss, the truth as they see it, then the political decisions will be entirely blind. No-one, as far as I know, has required that experts be always obeyed. My own period on similar committees made it quite clear that advice would be rejected when the politicians wished (or when their civil servants disliked the advice): we might mutter about this, but it wasn’t a resigning matter. What would be a resigning matter would be the demand that the committees tailor their reports entirely to what the politicians and civil servants want, and then keep quiet about the discrepancy.

    So, no: I think the politicians lost. Johnson is no longer a credible candidate for Leader of the Opposition….

    08 Nov 2009, 14:03

  6. Kay zum Felde


    I think this is indeed comparable with the freedom of speech discussion. You cannot simply say anything you want without consequences. Freedom is good as long as it not destroys the freedom of someone else.

    Best Kay

    13 Nov 2009, 12:40

  7. You say in any way, Nutt gets a paycheque. No, he doesn’t. He’s an unpaid advisor, asked to give up his time to provide scientific advise. As such, seeing as he’s giving up his time for nothing, I think he can at least expect that his opinions be treated with the weight they deserve.

    19 Nov 2009, 14:37

  8. Steve Fuller

    Thanks, Lawrence, for this comment. I didn’t know Nutt was unpaid. But as your comment already suggests, it makes Nutt’s indignation look simply like a display of vanity. It’s as if he thought he was being generous with his preciouis time because he imagined that politicians would take anything he said as gospel. I’m sure the politicians saw the matter in a much more down-to-earth and public-spirited way—namely, that Nutt wanted to help the government come to a decision on its drugs policy, with the full understanding that the decisiion is theirs, not his. One can take advice seriously and still, in the end, not follow it for a variety of reasons that do not impugn the decison-maker’s competence. It happens all the time in real life.

    20 Nov 2009, 02:58

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