Saturday, 31 October 2009

Whither Government, Whither Science?

If you live in the United Kingdom, and you're reading this, you must have also heard about the latest disgrace by the British government, namely the sacking of one of its scientific advisers. The reason? The government minister did not like the advice. It didn't quite fit with government's own view, and probably with the view of the countries "moral majority". But was the advice scientifically incorrect? No. Not as long as current scientific evidence is concerned, as well as the opinion of the government's own, now sacked, expert, professor David Nutt, is concerned.

So what was such a hot topic that motivated the government to make politics override science? Drugs, of course.

Professor David Nutt dared challenge the current ranking of drugs in Britain, especially re-classifying cannabis as Class B drug last year, again contrary to the scientific advice. Why the then minister in charge did it? Because she felt the public wanted it that way. But shouldn't the government be there to provide the best, evidence based, governance? Isn't that what we elect them for? Apparently not. And in the long run, this hurts either public health, public trust in government, or worse, both. How so?

The trust in government is the easiest to explain. Surely an expert in the field can give better advice than a minister. There should really be no discussion about it. And if the minister explains the sacking by essentially saying he didn't like what science had to offer it makes it even worse. Mind you, at least he didn't try to claim he knew better. You can almost feel for him, being upset by someone rocking his boat. You are probably right, but since I don't like the truth I am going to decide otherwise, and you can get lost. I'll find a worse scientist next time, one that will sing from my song sheet, however wrong it is.

But how is public health hurt by classifying a drug as being more hurtful than it really is. Surely that will help people stay away from it better than if it was classified as less harmful or not harmful at all? There's two problems with this. First is one of the very points the government chose to disagree with from what professor Nutt had to say. Harsher classification does nothing to stop people using the drug. It just makes them more likely to get arrested and put in jail with exactly the wrong kind of people. It also pushes the drug availability more underground making people having to deal with more criminal elements in obtaining it. And these same criminal elements will have properly bad drugs available to push, too. So, in one fell swoop you criminalise a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be, and make them more likely to get drawn deeper into really bad drug habits. The one everyone should always steer clear of.

Probably the worst effect is making people less likely to believe the government overall, regardless of the topic, and the merits of the policy. And what good is a government people do no trust? So let's just not go there, and instead make policies follow scientific advice when it is available. Otherwise we'll just undo all the gains democracy won in the past few hundred years. And in the process we're all going to be a bit less safe, and a bit less healthy.