Nov 03 2009

Anti-Science at the Daily Mail

Yes, I know – it’s the Daily Mail. My UK friends tell me this is little more than a rag, not to be taken seriously. But it’s popular enough, and may in fact represent the attitudes of a portion of the public, that sometimes we have to address the claims that are made there. In that way it is like the Huffington Post – a hopeless rag (at least when it comes to science) that sometimes needs a response.

This time the Daily Mail has published an incredible anti-science and anti-intellectual rant by reporter Andrew N Wilson. The article is a discussion of the firing of science adviser, David Nutt, over his recommendations regarding recreational drugs. The Guardian did a decent job of covering the controversy – but also had the moxy to run the headline – “David Nutt Sacked.” Perhaps that does not mean the same thing in the UK as it does in the US – which is hilarious.

There are two issues here – the question of drug policy and how it should be informed by science, and the incredible reaction of Wilson. Interestingly, I find myself siding (just a bit) with Wilson on some points, in that there is a kernel of truth to be had in his screed. Here’s the controversy in a nutt shell. David Nutt produced a report comparing the risks to individuals and society of various substances, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy. He concluded that the risk from the legal substances far outweighs the risk from the illegal ones.

I don’t think these facts are much in dispute, but rather how these facts should inform policy. The Guardian reports:

Richard Garside, director of the centre for crime and justice, said Nutt’s briefing paper gave an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence rather than political or moral positioning.

Garside added: “I’m shocked and dismayed that the home secretary appears to believe that political calculation trumps honest and informed scientific opinion. The message is that when it comes to the Home Office’s relationship with the research community honest researchers should be seen but not heard.

I certainly agree that we would all be better off if honest and objective science informed public policy, rather than opinion and politics. However (here comes the kernel of truth) science can only advise policy – not make it. There are other concerns. For example, alcohol definitely causes more illness and social harm than all illegal drugs combined, but banning it is simply impractical, as was demonstrated by prohibition, partly because of alcohol’s place in the culture. One might argue that alcohol should be banned, but it simply cannot be for practical reasons, but that does not mean that other drugs should therefore be legalized.

The whole question of legalization also deals with moral choices of freedom vs protecting people from themselves and protecting society from the vices of individuals. There is also the question of whether the cost of regulating substances is “worth” any apparent benefit. The point is – science can only inform policy on such issues, but political and moral choices also enter the picture. It is not necessarily a simple matter of politics trumping science (although, of course, that does happen) but rather what is the balance between the two.

And to be clear, overall I think we need to shift the balance more towards scientifically informing public policy. But that does not mean that every time more squishy social, moral, or practical concerns are brought to bear, that equals politics “trumping” science. Everyone wants to have science on their side in an argument, and sometimes that card is overplayed.

To give my favorite example just to illustrate where I am coming from – the abortion issue will never be settled by science, although both sides like to pretend that science is on their side. Yes – science can inform the discussion of whether or not abortion should be legal, in what circumstances, and should it be funded by governments. But science alone cannot settle what is ultimately a personal moral choice.

Before we get to Wilson’s absurd rant, I want to go into one more quick aside. In researching his history (to hopefully put him into perspective) I ran across this interesting story, summarized in Wikipedia:

In August 2006 Wilson’s biography of Sir John Betjeman was published. It was then discovered that he had been the victim of a hoax and had included a letter (to Anglo-Irish writer, Honor Tracy) which purported to be by Betjeman detailing a previously unknown love affair, but which he acknowledged to be a fiction, when it was pointed out that it contained an acrostic spelling out an insulting message to him. The letter was sent to Wilson by “Eve de Harben”, who then wrote to a journalist to reveal the hoax. The acrostic spelt out “AN Wilson is a shit” and “Eve de Harben” is an anagram of “Ever been had”. Bevis Hillier, Wilson’s arch rival and Betjeman’s authorised biographer, was an immediate suspect but initially denied all knowledge. A week after the hoax was publicised, however, Hillier admitted responsibility, stating that “When a newspaper started billing Wilson’s book as ‘the big one’, it was just too much.”

So perhaps Wilson is not as rigorous a scholar as one would like. But actually, his article in the Daily Mail does more to impugn his scholarship than falling victim to a hoax. Wilson begins with the tiny kernel of legitimacy that science cannot solely dictate policy, and then builds that into a monumental straw man. He portrays scientists like Nutt as “gods of science” who arrogantly want to rule the world, and cannot abide mere mortals questioning their wisdom. Wilson’s is a childish cartoon image bearing little on reality. He misses all the nuance in this issue, and takes his unwieldy sledgehammer to it instead.

What Wilson is trying to do is actually similar to, but in the opposite direction, of what he is accusing Nutt of doing – whitewashing over a genuine controversy as if there is only one legitimate side. While accusing Nutt of trying to elevate science to ultimate control, he is trying to denigrate science and intellectualism to irrelevancy. It is a typical anti-intellectual strategy – dismiss the eggheads and clueless and megalomaniacal, the mad-scientists who populate children’s cartoons but not reality. Then, once you have dispensed with the scientists and intellectuals, you can push all your pseudoscientific nonsense on the public.

Wilson mischaracterizes Nutt’s report as being true only in the pristine lab, but not applying to the real world. He completely misses the substance of Nutt’s actual report, which considers the very real-world factors Wilson thinks are important. Again (without backing it up with rigorous scholarship) Wilson is just dismissing egghead scientists as clueless nerds.

Wilson even compares Nutt to Hitler, while coyly stating he is not trying to do so. He writes:

But I see the same habit of mind at work in Professor Nutt and his colleagues as made those mad scientists of the 20th century think they were above the moral law which governs the rest of us mortals.

I am sure you do.

But Wilson reveals himself most completely with the examples he gives of scientists bullying dissenters. He writes:

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

Wrong, Wilson. Andrew Wakefield was not vilified because he dared question conventional wisdom. He also was not censored – he was published in the Lancet. The backlash against Wakefield came after it came to light that he was compromised by gross conflicts of interest (taking millions from trial lawyers to prove their cases), that his research was bogus and probably fraudulent. Wakefield is a terrible researcher with questionable ethics who ushered in an MMR scare that caused much disease and suffering.

Wilson continues:

The point here is not whether he was right or wrong – it was the way in which the scientific establishment closed ranks in order to assassinate him.

Absolutely wrong – it has everything to do with the fact that Wakefield was wrong, and his methods were questionable. But of course, you can make any legitimate scientific criticism into a conspiracy. All you have to do is dispense with all intellectual and journalistic integrity. Done and done.

He continues further:

There was a blanket denunciation of his heresy, just as there is if anyone dares to point out some of the mistakes made by that very fallible genius Charles Darwin.

Of course Darwin was fallible, and he made many mistakes. There was much that was not yet known in Darwin’s time. I am going to now be denounced by my fellow scientists (shudder)? Real scientists do not worship Darwin, as the creationists like to pretend. He was a genius who advanced scientific understanding considerably, but we have moved on with 150 years of advance since Darwin. Evolutionary theory is a robust scientific endeavor. Only creationists pretend it is all about Darwin the man – a straw man they can then take down (and they even botch that).

But no legitimate points of contention about Darwinian evolution are denounced – they are fodder for research and advance. What Wilson must be talking about are the fake criticisms leveled by creationists who do not understand evolutionary theory or the scientific process. Creationist canards that have been dealt with decades ago are not “mistakes” that scientists are hiding.

In short, in this article Wilson has revealed himself as an anti-science and anti-intellectual buffoon. But he represents a type of buffoonery that is all too common – the vilifying of science and scientists by those who want to be free from the constraints of facts and logic.

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