If Science Cannot Do Without Nutt...

Presumably if you’re reading this you’ve heard that Alan Johnson demanded David Nutt resign as head of something called the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for comments he made in a speech reproduced as a pamphlet you can download. I have read his speech. It’s quite interesting. It discusses the intentions of the drug classification system, criticises the current implementation, and offers a proposal for and justification of an alternative based on a systematic comparison the effects of a range of drugs, according to criteria decided by the public. This is complete with references, and in short exactly the sort of thing a Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology should be doing and while it’s not perfect I honestly can’t imagine why anyone would sack him for it.

Ann Widdecombe, who can always be relied upon to jump into the wrong side of any issue put before her, offered this dismal attempt at an explanation:

Look, you read your newspapers every day. Scientific advice changes almost as often as the wind.

You can hear this on iPlayer now; I heard about it from @krypto. And she’s right, of course, because the sum total of everything we know about the universe changes when we learn new things. Your choices are to go with what we know now, understanding that it could change in the future, or to make shit up and run with that. If you want to make shit up then fine (it’s called religion), but don’t foist your made up shit on me, and don’t employ a scientific advisor to make it look credible or else exactly this is bound to happen.

The Daily Mail’s A N Wilson also defended Johnson, who presumably wishes he wouldn’t, saying

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.

This was accompanied by an inset photo of Hitler until The Jan Moir Police made them take it down.

While obviously Wilson’s biggest crime against reason in that quote is kidnapping the word ‘only’ and dumping it, lost and confused, in front of an idea well outside its comfort zone, he’s also quaintly ignorant. Hitler was a big fan of science in principle, but corrupted it with quackery and racist ideology, and all but banned theoretical work as ‘Jewish science’ (except secretly where it might help his war effort). Anyone caught doing science that didn’t fit the racist message was fired. One mathematician even attempted to prove quantum mechanics and Nazism were the same thing. All of this is covered in John Grant’s Corrupted Science which I presume the Daily Mail’s A N Wilson hasn’t read, because it is a book.

Melanie Phillips, also of the Mail, implied pretty strongly that Nutt’s claims were simply wrong, which would at least be a legitimate defence of his sacking, were it true.

The reason they are casting the Home Secretary as the villain of this episode is that the chattering classes have bought into the idea that soft drugs are indeed less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. They therefore think Nutt is the voice of scientific reason. But he is not.

She does, at least, appear to have read his speech, as she criticises it piece by context-free piece, which is perhaps as strong an endorsement as a scientific claim can get. Melanie Phillips’ views on science are almost uniformly opposed to reality. Take, for example her butchering of the Cochrane report on MMR or her support for ‘intelligent design’. Incidentally, Nutt’s speech cites the MMR fiasco as an example of harm done by ignoring evidence. Phillips doesn’t mention this. (For a better cricism of Nutt’s ideas, see the Transform blog post about the original paper.)

On what I will generously refer to as ‘the left’, Alan Johnson himself defended his actions by saying

Professor Nutt was not sacked for his views, which I respect but disagree with ... He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. This principle is well understood and long established.

Widdecombe also made this case. And it’s true, although irrelevant. This was a lecture about scientific work, not a campaign. In any case, I think it’s equally well understood and established that you can’t ignore science and expect your science adviser to sit there and let you get on with it. Even if Nutt had crossed the line into campaigning, I think he would have been justified in doing so. As it is, Nutt did little more than present an alternative idea for consideration and present arguments in its favour (i.e., science). Gordon Brown believes Nutt should be fired for this, “because we cannot send mixed messages”, an argument pre-emptively demolished by Nutt himself on page 12 of the PDF transcript.

Martin at LayScience.net points out [with my annotation in square brackets] that

nobody hearing Professor Nutt speaking about the government is going to confuse him with a Labour minister [and it was made clear Nutt was speaking only as a scientist], so the problem that Gordon Brown is referring to is the problem of a senior scientist publishing and publicising research that contradicts the government line. In Gordon Brown's world of control freakery, such dissent is not to be tolerated.

which sounds familiar but I shan’t comment on why because I’m not sure what happens if both sides of an argument are compared to Hitler.

Don’t listen to these people, and don’t listen to me. Read Nutt’s speech for yourself. If you’re a scientist, you’ll find its structure and tone familiar and start to wonder what all the fuss was about. If not, just read it and then ask yourself if you’d consider it ‘campaigning against government policy’ or ‘a man telling a class what he does at work’.