Scientific advice? Take it or leave it

The brouhaha surrounding the sacking of Professor David Nutt by Alan Johnson leaves me in two minds.

On the one hand, I think public policy can be enhanced by having the advice of experts. The process of thinking through a problem, adducing relevant evidence and engaging in internal debate with fellow specialists before advice is offered is likely to improve the quality of decision-making. Moreover in this case I am inclined to sympathy with Professor Nutt’s contention that the dangers of cannabis can be exaggerated. Like many IEA supporters, I suspect Britain’s policy towards drugs is bonkers. But that’s another story.

On the other hand, I have some sympathy with Alan Johnson. The scientific issues surrounding drugs policy are not clear cut and in any case are only part of the picture which politicians have to deal with. Rejecting Professor Nutt’s advice in a sensitive area like this is forgivable, and when the Professor went public on the disagreement Mr Johnson was certainly within his rights to tell him to get on his bike.

What I really don’t like is the way that the media artificially set up the idea of all-knowing, altruistic scientists versus venal politicians – which is no doubt why an Evening Standard poll yesterday showed three quarters of those polled supported Professor Nutt.

For experts often go way beyond their brief. Back in a March blog post I drew attention to the proposal by Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales, to impose a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol. Sir Liam is a man with a long track record of telling people what to do based on a debatable reading of evidence. Or take the former Chief Scientist, Sir David King, whose pronouncements on climate change and what we ought to do about it were sometimes extremely contentious.

A further consideration is that, even where experts don’t have an axe to grind, the basis for firm and unequivocal pronouncements is tenuous at best. Most medical advice we are given is based on epidemiological studies which often depend on unreliable recall and in the nature of things can never control for all relevant factors. Much advice on diet, for example, doesn’t bear close scrutiny and different studies often produce conflicting results.

Science is a process of conjecture and refutation, and all scientific knowledge is contestable. Any advice based on it should carry clear caveats. Often it will be sensible for policy-makers to take this advice, but we should never give experts the authority to impose it either directly or by appealing to a public opinion which can change with the weather.

Lord Salisbury said: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inclulated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of inspid common sense.”I’ve been a professor (= ‘expert’) for more than half my life. Humility is one of my strongest virtues, so I realise how little I know.If politicians were merely guiding people choosing for themselves how to behave, that would be fine. It’s the compulsion — the five year jail terms — that causes the problem

“Experts” – especially scientists – have a tendency to use the word “ignore” when it is not appropriate. Gordon Brown may not have ignored scientific advice when he decided to reclassify cannabis. He might have disagreed with it or he might have agreed with it and felt that other considerations were more important (whether rightly or wrongly is an entirely separate issue).

What adds to this problem is that politicians often use ‘the science’ as a convenient object to hide behind. Politicans will accept the word of the scientist when it suits them, e.g. foot and mouth, but reject it when it clashes with their prejudices.Issues like drugs policy are not really answered by science but by a sense of what we as individuals ought to do, and that is the realm of politics. Experts can help but we should not delude ourselves that it simply a matter of presenting the ‘facts’ as Prof Nutt has argued.

Lord Salisbury said: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inclulated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of inspid common sense.”I’ve been a professor (= ‘expert’) for more than half my life. Humility is one of my strongest virtues, so I realise how little I know.If politicians were merely guiding people choosing for themselves how to behave, that would be fine. It’s the compulsion — the five year jail terms — that causes the problem

“Experts” – especially scientists – have a tendency to use the word “ignore” when it is not appropriate. Gordon Brown may not have ignored scientific advice when he decided to reclassify cannabis. He might have disagreed with it or he might have agreed with it and felt that other considerations were more important (whether rightly or wrongly is an entirely separate issue).

What adds to this problem is that politicians often use ‘the science’ as a convenient object to hide behind. Politicans will accept the word of the scientist when it suits them, e.g. foot and mouth, but reject it when it clashes with their prejudices.Issues like drugs policy are not really answered by science but by a sense of what we as individuals ought to do, and that is the realm of politics. Experts can help but we should not delude ourselves that it simply a matter of presenting the ‘facts’ as Prof Nutt has argued.

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