On the border of science & politics

November 2, 2009

By now I’m sure everyone has formed their opinion on the Professor Nutt vs. Alan Johnson drugs debacle. On the one side you’ve got the screaming hordes of Daily Mail believers (I hesitate to call them readers; that might imply they could use that skill to read other media that might occasionally dabble in actual science), and Alan Johnson, claiming that Professor Nutt’s voicing of his conclusions require him to be sacked from the drugs advisory committee, and on the other a significant part of the UK’s scientific community, who are condemning Johnson for sacking an advisor for apparently providing him with advice with which he disagrees.

There’s an important underlying point here, which has been missed in the raging debate over the future of Government scientific advisors, and that’s the relationship between scientific knowledge and political debate. While every party has been quick to reaffirm how important science is for policy making, the Tories have affirmed Johnson’s decision and called Nutt’s expression of his views in terms of ecstasy being relatively safer than horse-riding ‘particularly ill-judged’. Their use of this phrase is telling.

Ill-judged in what sense? Certainly not in a scientific sense; Nutt’s judgement of the risks attached to particular activities is borne out by evidence. Politically, of course, it is a poorly judged comparison – the general public are much more happy to accept certain risks as being palatable than others, and therefore anyone willing to claim that commonly-held impressions of risk are incorrect is likely to cause an adverse reaction amongst the voting public. This is politically trivial.

However, this is not the sort of contrast being put forward by Johnson. He has specifically stated that he disagrees with Nutt’s ‘views’ – as though scientific judgements hold to the same standard of knowledge as political judgements. Since they both cover different domains of knowledge (public opinion and biological fact) and relate to those domains in very different ways, the meaning behind Charles Clarke’s comment about the drug classification system being hopelessly confused becomes clear: while Johnson perceives the classification system as a reflection of public opinion about the potential dangers attached to particular drugs, and thus as a means of representing both action on those drugs and a tool to discourage their use, Nutt perceieves the classification system as representing biological risk. These two approaches are incompatible.

Different standards of knowledge are at work here, and a liberal state requires some means of distinguishing between them. Instinctively, I want to say that science should always have primacy, but in the case of drugs there’s another standard of knowledge and type of judgement to consider, which is moral judgement. Johnson shares the moral judgement that ‘drugs are bad’ with much of the electorate, contributing to the political judgement he has made in this case. This is, again, a different domain of knowledge to scientific judgements, which cannot say which actions are right and which are wrong. Similarly, moral judgements cannot say which drug presents the most biological risk. They can, however, say which type of biological risk is the ‘worst’, and so it is internally consistent for Johnson’s system of morality to keep tobacco legal and cannabis illegal, if he judges schizophrenia to be a worse risk than lung cancer – even if this appears nonsensical.

The drugs advisory council clearly believe that scientific judgement should trump moral judgement in this case, because certain risks can be demonstrably worse for an individual – an individual with schizophrenia is, at least, not dying in the same way that someone who contracts lung cancer may do. However, despite this apparently being a scientific judgement, it is in fact a moral one: it states that death is worse than schizophrenia as an outcome. There is no scientific reason to prefer one to the other without a pre-made value judgement, because scientific knowledge merely indicates how the world is, rather than how it should be.

This presents a problem for liberals. Any form of political decision requires a moral judgement – even something as obvious as cutting waste requires the moral judgement that waste is bad. But part of the reason why I was attracted to liberalism was its clear inspiration from the scientific method: freedom to express opinion and freedom to engage with the economy represent a testing of ideas & plans against the world rather than the judgements of society’s rulers, similar to how scientific hypotheses are tested to determine their veracity. Debate is meant to produce the ‘correct’ outcome, but ‘correct’ is never specified beyond the moral judgements of everyone in our society. This means that science does not have primacy in a liberal state, rather the average of the moral judgements expressed by its citizens as represented by its government do.

Professor Nutt’s judgement about the risks posed by particular drugs is correct. Alan Johnson’s moral judgement about the relative ‘badness’ of the risks given by particular drugs is, in my view, wrong. But in a liberal society primacy is not given to scientists merely because they are scientists, but to the moral judgements expressed by elected representatives of the people. Johnson was correct to sack Nutt for expressing a minimal moral judgement about the status of scientifically incommensurable risks (i.e. schizophrenia and death) – this being the extent to which one could describe his ‘views’ as, well, views. I actually wrote this article intending to express the opposite opinion, but the logic of different domains of knowledge in the context of our society has forced me to change my mind.

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3 Responses to “On the border of science & politics”

  1. Francis said

    Oh God, I’m going to talk about whales again. Bear with me.

    Did you know that the International Whaling Commission hires a bunch of scientists to produce annual reports, which it then studiously ignores. The scientists have been demonstrating for years that Minke whales are abundant in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, and that many depleted stocks of other whale species are recovering at encouraging rates. Which is to say that the resource basis for commericial whaling is broader than to support present exploitation.

    But the political body, which makes the decisions, refuses to set a catch level at anything other than zero.

    It’s not the studies of scientists, but the moral judgement about the great mammals of the sea, the charismatic mega-fauna of the ocean, that sets policy. The moral judgements of people in countries without whaling industries, generally.

    I rather think that a lot of the people who are up in arms against the Government for not taking scientific advice in this case haven’t thought through which of their sacred cows might be slaughtered if the scientists had their way.

    On one hand, dugs policy and prisons policy would be reformed. Hooray.

    But then the whales would be harpooned, and a lot of these right-on liberals would be clucking like outraged biddies at what science had wrought.

  2. Francis said

    Take for example that 29 Liberal Democrat MPs have signed Early Day Motion 95 calling on the Government not only to ignore the scientific advice on whaling, but to rig the IWC by getting landlocked countries to join it, so that countries with potential whaling industries are outvoted.

    I find that hard to square with these same 29 prejudiced MPs, one of which is Chris Huhne, getting uppity about scientific advice in this new case.

  3. declineofthelogos said

    On the whaling issue we’re on the side of the public, whereas on the drug issue we’re not. It’s interesting that the scientific evidence that informs our judgements on both issues would appear to be more likely to justify the point of view that opposes that of the public. Sometimes I suspect the anti-Enlightenment backlash has yet to peak.

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