Thursday, November 05, 2009

summing up the Nutt sack affair

(--> deutsche Version)

I don't know whether anybody outside the UK noticed, but we've had a big debate here over the head of the government's drugs advisory body, David Nutt, who was sacked by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, last Friday (30.10.). Essentially, he was fired because he had insisted that the real danger posed by drugs is completely unrelated to the ABC classification used for law enforcement. (e.g., both cannabis and ecstasy are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco). By firing him, Johnson unleashed a major science v. politics clash.

It was great fun watching this drama onfold on twitter -- the twitter-using science minister, Paul Drayson (@lorddrayson) was caught out by it on a visit to Japan, tweeted his support to the enraged scientists back home, but as soon as he was back in London and under cabinet control order, he fell silent.

Soon there was a petition on the gov. website to get Prof. Nutt reinstated, and the brilliant twitter-hashtag #NuttSack. The tabloid press went berserk: "Cannabis scandal expert admits: My children have taken drugs", but among the serious newspapers, even the conservative ones (Times, Telegraph) backed the scientists side. The collected stories in the Guardian are here.

I think it was ultimately a positive thing, as the scientific evidence about the real dangers of drugs got acres of media coverage rather than being swept under the rug by the government. Plus, the government will probably have to reorganise the way it commissions expert advice on drugs, and it will have to do so under public scrutiny. Thus in a political sense, this was a major own-goal for the home secretary (and Gordon Brown as well who backed him, rather than the science minister who tried to get the decision reversed).

Editorials summarising the whole affair are now appearing, e.g. by David Colquhoun in the British Medical Journal, and by David Nutt himself in New Scientist. Only trouble is that the Tories, who are likely to win the next elections, are just as blockheaded about this as the current home secretary. So scientists will have to vote Lib Dem next time ...

PS the most revealing contribution re. the misunderstanding of science was probably made by the Daily Mail columnist who called scientists (all of them) the "arrogant gods of certainty". Could someone pop down to Waterstones and get him a copy of Popper ? (more about risk and uncertainty in the Times)

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