Saturday, 7 November 2009

Revolutions & Drugs Policy

The idea that the sun revolves around the earth went unquestioned for along time, supported, as it was, by an unassailable authority - scripture. The relevant passages (King James) are:

“the world is stablished, that it cannot be moved”
psalm 93:1
“the world shall be established that it shall not be moved”
psalm 96:10
the Lord … “who laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed for ever”
psalm 104:5
“the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved”
1 Chronicles 16:30

Heliocentrism – the new idea that the earth revolves around the sun – was probably considered in Classical times, but the credit for its reintroduction in the early modern era goes to a German/Polish cleric and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. Although he had worked on his theories & calculations for around thirty years, his ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’) was only widely published in 1543, shortly before his death.

The book attra
cted a little controversy: not much and not immediately. In fact, it was dedicated to Pope Paul III. It was another sixtyish years before the book was ‘suspended’ in 1616.

So who threw the frog among the gherkins? One of Copernicus’ champions, an astronomer and philosopher named Galileo, was instructed by the Inquisition not to
hold or broadcast his heliocentric ideas, a request with which he initially complied. When finally invited to publish and comparison between the two models, his work became grounds for his trial for heresy in 1633. He was found guilty and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Which leaves us with a conundrum: why did it take so long for the Church to get its hair-underwear so contorted in its pious crevices? If the issue really was heresy, surely this would have been clear immediately, and actionable upon first appearance?

Galileo’s personality has been cited as a factor, and it’s a valid point. He had explicitly been invited to publish a comparison of the two celestial models, but seems to have made his own viewpoint clear in rather insulting terms. Perhaps he was attempting to trade on his good relationship with Pope Urban VIII, a bond which dissolved under such provocation. Or perhaps he was just a passive-aggressive pillock with autistic-spectrum levels of social intuition.

But I think there may be another factor – timing.

The idea of heliocentrism took a while to gather both a momentum and a backlash. This period co-incided roughly with the Counter-Reformation (reckoned to have started with the Council of Trent: started 1545) and the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). During this vulnerable period, the Catholic Church protected its magisterium even more vigorously than before. An edifice on the back foot was engaged upon a propaganda war.

It took ‘til 1835 for Copernicus’ and Galileo’s books to be dropped from the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. The episode is seen today as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge. The ‘wisdom’ came before the evidence; the cart was put before the horse.

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has sacked Professor David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In July, Professor Nutt gave a lecture on the assessment of drug harms. This included a drug-harm scale with nine parameters which are:
  • Physical harm (acute, chronic and intravenous)
  • Dependency (intensity of pleasure, psychological dependence, physical dependence)
  • Social harms (intoxication, other social harms and health-care costs).
In this lecture, the Home Secretary claimed, Professor Nutt had crossed the line from science to policy.

But since the contents of Professor Nutt’s lecture could probably have been anticipated since 2007 when his ‘Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harms of Drugs of Potential Misuse’ was published in the Lancet, the Home Secretary’s outrage now is harder to understand.

The controversial aspects of Professor Nutt’s approach seem to be:
  • The inclusion of legal drugs, specifically alcohol and nicotine/smoking, with the illegal ones in the scale. Indeed, the placing of alcohol and smoking shows them to be more potent dangers than their availability would suggest.
  • Disagreeing with the reclassification of cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug
  • Applying statistical comparisons to drug use which illustrates their danger in comparison to other leisure activities. Jacqui Smith was famously upset that he compared horse-riding and ecstasy use.
Alan Johnson has defended his action, saying: “He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”.

But on what is that policy based if not evidence?

Especially when the sole justification for restriction of certain substances is that they cause harm.

Professor Nutt’s sacking has been followed by the resignation of other highly-qualified scientific advisors on the ACMD. Not surprising really: if your academic integrity (therefore reputation and career) must be sacrificed to tow the governmental line, then there will be fewer capable and qualified experts on the payroll.

It’s all the more of a paradox that Professor Nutt has been fired by a government which legislated to allow 24 hour drinking hours. The view of the ACMD’s former chair on alcohol use in general? ‘I believe that dealing with the harms of alcohol is probably the biggest challenge that we have in relation to drug harms today’.

But then the present government changed the licensing laws several years ago in a very different political climate. It is now an edifice on the back foot, engaged upon a propaganda war. Perhaps in the future, we’ll regard Professor Nutt’s dismissal as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge, to put the ‘wisdom’ before the evidence, the cart before the horse.

That’s the marvellous thing about history - it’s all about the present.

Jourdemayne would like to thank one of her familiars for the inspiration for this blog.


  1. Should Professor Nutt have been sacked- Yes. He was appointed as an advisor to the Government and should behave accordinigly. My recolection of events is that about 8 months ago cannabis was upgraded to a class B drug. At that time the panel, lead by Nutt, made it clear that they disagreed with the Govts reclassification, and that should have been an end to it. ie. Govt gets advise from drugs panel, Govt takes advise from many other sources, Govt reclassifies cannabis, drugs panel leaks or otherwise let's it be known that they think that the Govt are wrong. So far so good.
    A couple of weeks ago I hear Nutt on the radio slagging the Govt of because they didn't take his advise. It is this behaviour that got him sacked. Others have sort to defend Nutt on all sorts of grounds - free speach, scientific independence, the fact that he may well be correct in his scientific analysis. But the fact is you can't advise somebody with one hand and brief against them with the other simply because they didn't take your advise. Anything else is simply an effort to muddy the waters. This is an arguement about how Govt advisors should behave. If you don't like it, don't become a Govt advisor.

  2. What scientists should do when asked about an issue, whether it is in the context of advice to the Government, a media interview or an invited lecture, is to give their honest opinion based upon the best available evidence. That is precisely what Prof Nutt did.

    The alternative, apparently supported by the comment above, is that scientists should either refuse to respond or give dishonest answers if their views contradict official government policy. One assumes that Prof Nutt was appointed as an advisor because of his knowledge and expertise on this topic and that he reasonably assumed that his role was to provide advice based upon empirical evidence. Otherwise, what is the point of having government advisors? Is their role simply to be that of "yes men"? If so, don't ask a scientist to do the job.

  3. When the article talks of legal and illegal drugs - this is a convenient misnomer; drugs are either controlled under the law or not. Controlled means they are subject to proportionate interference to realise the objects of the law. This does not mean that controlled drugs need to be prohibited, the law can and is supposed to be used as a tool of regulation.

    Nutt's scale of harm is actually much closer to the way govt misinterprets the law than what the law says - according to the law the reason for controlling drugs is the social harm they cause, whereas Nutt's scale includes many factors which primarily impact upon individuals. This is because risk taking must be separated into categories depending upon the harm they cause the participant and the harm they cause to third parties. In fact alcohol must be ahead of heroin and cocaine in a scale of social harmfulness.

    The reason why Nutt was sacked is that he is set to expose the reasons given by govt for their refusal to administer the law rationally - historic and cultural precedents. These are the very same indices of discrimination that caused homophobia and racism. See

  4. On of the issues that is glossed over - Alan Johnson and his catamites use of the word 'campaign' applied to Professor Nutt's work. He's a jobbing professor whose work is on Drugs, their psychological effects, and risk assessment. To claim that doing one's paid work is a 'campaign' is an out right lie.