The Daily Mail Versus Science: Arrogant Gods of Certainty (Versus Scientists)


MSS-member and recent émigré to Canada Dr. Chris Hassall wades in on the David Nutt affair and the horrific anti-science rhetoric of the Daily Mail.

Usually when the Daily Mail says something stupid I read about via friends. It can be anything from a mangling of a political issue to bigotry, hypocrisy or racism. In this case they have attacked scientists as a group. And they can fuck right off.

The row between the Government and its scientific advisers blazes on like an out-of-control forest fire. It began with that difficult customer Professor David Nutt, who was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He told the Home Office that alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than the banned substance cannabis, and horse-riding was more of a risk to your health than ecstasy.

…and backed what he said up with facts…

But he was not content simply to give advice, of course. What he appeared to want to do was to dictate to the Government, and when it refused to acknowledge his infallibility, Professor Nutt started to break ranks and to denounce the country’s law on drugs.

Right, here we get into the anti-intellectualism. A high-ranking scientific advisor who understands the issue better than other people (that’s why he’s advising!!!) sees his advice completely ignored. It is not his job to go to the press and seek that the government actually pay attention to evidence when formulating policy, though. He is only paid to “advise”. However, so strong was his feeling on this issue that he sought to make his views known in an attempt to change things for the better.

Now he has been sacked, the scientific establishment is in an uproar of self-pity and self-importance. How dare mere politicians question their judgments? They are scientists, aren’t they? And what scientists say must be taken as true.

Scientific advisors should be listened to and their advice should form the basis of policy. That’s why they are there! If scientific advisors are just for show or just to be heard when they agree with what the government want to do, what is the point of having them?

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

That’s right, the Daily Mail is criticising scientists for using “facts” too much. I agree – we should all be like the Mail and use puffed-up, bile-fuelled hyperbole and wild speculation instead!

It is one thing to argue Professor Nutt’s case in a university common room or over a Hampstead dining table, but another to translate his arguments to murkier parts of our society.

And here we are again – scientists apparently just sit in ivory towers and cannot possibly conceive of anything beyond those shining walls. Bollocks. Social sciences research can be frontline stuff. Having spoken to academics who conduct research on drugs, the sex trade, gender issues, etc., they collect data from “the field”, i.e. out in the big wide world where these problems are actually affecting lives.

Try saying that ecstasy is safe in the sink estates of our big cities, where police, social workers and teachers work to improve the lives of young people at the bottom of the heap. Try saying it to those who see, every single day, the devastation wrought not only on the youngsters themselves, but on whole communities by the casual abuse of drugs.

This is a strawman argument – Prof Nutt never said ecstasy was safe, but that it was as safe as horse riding. Equally hurling yourself off a ten storey building is as safe as throwing yourself in front of a bus. Stupid appeal to the public’s emotional response.

If you add together all the winos and self-destructive alcoholics, then throw in the smokers who’ve died of respiratory or cardiac disease, the total will far outstrip the number of young people who die after taking an ecstasy pill – and you could conclude from this that smoking and drinking are more dangerous than ecstasy.

More of the same strawman argument… He said that cannabis, not ecstasy, was safer than alcohol or tobacco. I think if you do the stats on the actual comparison that he made that you will find that Prof Nutt is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!

That does not mean it is safe to take ecstasy nor that it is desirable to tolerate a druggy culture among the impressionable young.

He’s not advocating that. The journalist has put words in his mouth to misrepresent his position.

This whole debate between David Nutt and the Government is about much more than the simple academic question over the relative dangers of cigarettes, drink and other drugs. What is on trial is the reputation of science.

I agree that the wider issue of government advice from leading scientific advisors is something that needs to be discussed. The Bush administration was renowned for censoring scientific research (particularly on climate change) because it did not fit with their policies. Why is this any different?

Of course, it would be folly to deny that we all owe a vast debt to scientific discoveries, made by patient, intellectually rigorous men and women over the past few centuries. Just think what we owe to developments in medicine, let alone all those technologies we now depend upon, from cars to computers. Nor would I ever wish to suppress scientific inquiry or to undervalue the good which scientists have done for our world.

What’s the point in doing scientific research if you don’t implement it in policy? I am sure that the Mail has at some stage criticised “blue skies” research for having no apparent application to the real world (a charge which is utterly false) so why criticise it also when it does?

But there is an increasing presumption among many intelligent and good-hearted people that science is an absolute truth, that its methods of arriving at the truth are infallible and that scientists must be listened to at all times.

What other methods should we use to derive our legislative framework? Perhaps “the voice of middle England” should allow their collective emotional impulses to guide policy development? Maybe all scientists should kowtow to the irrational, ignorant and ill-informed masses, lest they should actually do some good!?

A Home Secretary who sacks a plucky little scientist for daring to speak his mind – correction, daring to speak ‘the truth’ – is surely worthy of our contempt? That is how the scientific establishment has portrayed the story as they line up to denounce Alan Johnson.

Hang on, now – I’ve heard about Prof Nutt and two of his colleagues making a point about the role of scientific advisors, not “the scientific establishment”. And good for them if they want to make a point. I’m sure that they would not do so without due cause.

Before we get carried away by their bluster, we should recognise the arrogance for what it is. What the scientists are saying basically is that they will brook no contradiction.

No, what scientists are saying is: “We have conducted vast amounts of research into this particular issue and we have come to certain conclusions about what course of action should be taken. We are in the best position from which to make suggestions as to where government policy should go and therefore it is logical that we should be listened to. Furthermore, this is an issue which daily risks and claims the lives of thousands of people around the country and therefore deserves the best possible facts (which the Daily Mail hates so much) so as to make the most prudent decisions”

And this is where the journalist starts to go gradually insane…

Yet if we examine the history of scientific experts – and, in particular, scientists advising governments – they do not have a very happy record. Do you remember the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001? All reasonable farmers and vets believed that the epidemic could be contained by vaccine, or simply by isolating animals. But the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, David King, insisted upon a massive cull.

You see, I thought that it could be cured by humming gently in the animal’s ear. We could have saved so many of the poor animals!! Why oh why didn’t they listen to me?? The fact is that scientific advisors weren’t called in until 35 days into the crisis, by which time it was damage control that was needed, not an aversion of the crisis. The disease had past its peak by the time vaccination was even agreed to be the correct course of action (for more details see here, particularly the summary).

Millions of sheep and cows were destroyed, and every hill and valley, which once echoed to bleating or lowing was silenced and despoiled. Did we ever hear a word of apology when events proved this government scientific adviser wrong?

More bloody emotional outrage… The scientific advisors weren’t proven wrong. Where’s foot and mouth now, eh? If you can invent a time machine and demonstrate that an alternative course of action would have worked out better then I’ll take this point seriously.

We hear a lot about the bovine brain disease BSE which was passed onto humans, and the possible cures which science might effect. But how often do we hear that BSE was almost certainly passed on to other cattle because scientists had encouraged farmers to force their animals to eat concentrated foods which contained beef products?

Lack of knowledge of an emerging disease is not grounds to accuse the scientific advisors of causing the BSE outbreak!

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals. But the Nazis did not invent these things. 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.

Godwin’s law kicks in and we get a nice little reductio ad Hitlerum… I mean, it’s almost like the journalist is suggesting that British scientists are currently conducting experiments comparable to those which were allowed in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia!

I am not suggesting that any British scientists are currently conducting experiments comparable to those which were allowed in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia.

Oh, ok, I stand corrected…

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.

Are yes, we aren’t actually conducting the experiments… But we’d like to! Bwahahaha…

The worship of science is the great superstition of our age. The scientific adviser speaks and we are all supposed to believe him, whether he is promoting crops genetically modified to withstand huge doses of poisonous weedkillers and pesticides, or tampering with the origin of human life itself in so-called stem cell research.

Hmmm… Two emotive issues brought up here… Who are we to trust when it comes to deciding how safe emerging technologies are? Should we listen to the scientists who have spent years researching the topic, have published research in peer-reviewed scientific journals, have written briefing documents for government ministers and have survived in an immensely competitive profession to rise to the top of their field? No! Let’s not use THE FACTS!

Those who dare question scientists are demonised for their irrationality.

No, government ministers who are in charge of safe-guarding the lives of the people of this country are chastised for ignoring the facts of the issues at hand as presented by scientists who are experts in their respective fields.

Global warming may or may not be a certainty…

Woo! We get a feel for where the journalist is coming from by this stage…

…but anyone who queries it has his sanity questioned.

Not true! We welcome you questioning these things! That is what science is all about! If an interested member of the public wishes to find out about climate change, there are a thousand peer-reviewed scientific articles out there just waiting to inform that person. But don’t start arguing from an emotional stand point or because of something some bloke down the pub said. Use the facts!!

Cast doubt on these gods of certainty and you are accused of wanting to suppress free expression – which is the argument now being used by Nutt and pals against the Home Secretary.

This isn’t about freedom of expression you stupid tit! Anybody can say whatever they want! But when you employ an extremely well-educated, well-informed and well-qualified person for the express purpose of listening to what he or she has to say but then brazenly ignore it that is JUST FRICKING STUPID!!!

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.

I had to walk away from my keyboard when I read that… Anybody who knows anything about the so-called “MMR controversy” knows that the only controversial thing about it is that the disgraced scientists at the heart of it have not been punished sufficiently. The scientific establishment fell-upon that “one hospital doctor” because he gave a press conference making statements that were not backed-up be research. He was attempting to discredit the MMR vaccine because he had financial interests in doing so. It is probably possible to attribute the death toll of children to that greed. That is what science is about and one of its strengths. When we see bad science we try to eliminate it. It was the media (including the Daily Mail) who took that “one hospital doctor”, did not question the veracity of his claims and created a media furore over the issue. They are also partly to blame for the resulting drop in vaccine uptake. Indeed the Daily Mail (and, in particularly, the odious Melanie Phillips) have been defiant in their claim that the MMR vaccine is still a threat, completely contradicting a unanimous scientific verdict.

The point here is not whether he was right or wrong…

Oh well that’s ok. The facts don’t matter…

– it was the way in which the scientific establishment closed ranks in order to assassinate him. There was a blanket denunciation of his heresy…

For “heresy”, read “greed”, “bad science” or “publicity seeking” – you choose.

…just as there is if anyone dares to point out some of the mistakes made by that very fallible genius Charles Darwin.

For fucks sake this is ridiculous, now the journalist has questioned global warming and evolution, defended the disgraced scientist at the heart of the MMR debacle and stated clearly that scientists have no morals.

Science rules

Hell yeah!

– and it does so with just as much energy as the old Spanish Inquisition that refused to allow any creed other than Catholicism

We still haven’t heard anything about the alternatives to science that the journalist has in mind…?

…and with the Inquisition’s need to distort arguments…

Pray tell, where has science distorted arguments…?

…and control the brains of men and women who might otherwise think for themselves.

I thought we hadn’t told people about the mind control drugs in the water, yet…?

In complex areas – medicine, agriculture, astronomy – the politicians who make our laws inevitably have to consult ‘experts’.

Thank goodness Wilson finally admits this. And why are these the only “complex” areas? Does it follow from this that constitutional law, educational theory and economics can be done by anyone?

But this is not to guarantee that such experts are always right. As Margaret Thatcher once said: ‘Advisers advise…

…what is the best course of action…

and ministers decide…

…whether it would win any votes. (For an interesting interview with David Nutt and Sir David King on their experiences of advising government see here).

To be governed by politicians is a necessary evil.

I agree that it is evil. To be governed by a group of individuals whose sole purpose is to seek re-election is at best ridiculous and at worst outright frightening!

To be governed by arrogant scientists would truly be hell on earth.

Why are we so arrogant? I never really understood that… And he never really justifies why it would be so bad to be ruled by scientists… I think it would be fun!

Listen to the way these scientists are describing one another as they huff and puff at the Home Secretary’s treatment of Professor Nutt. ‘It will be hard to find a replacement of comparable expertise and stature,’ says one pompous ass in the letters column of a newspaper. Stature? Nutt? Like so many scientific experts, his arrogance is matched by his naivety. Like them, he cannot bear to be contradicted.

Hang on now… The ad hominems have gone on long enough. Stature and expertise within a field are fairly objective. This is not “pompous” of the writer. David J Nutt MRCP MRCPsych FRCPsych FMedSci, is professor of neuropsychopharmacology (that’s “the effects of drugs on the brain” to the rest of us) and heads the Psychopharmacology Unit in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Bristol and the Neuropsychopharmacology Department at Imperial College (ranked as the 5th best university in the world). This suggests that there aren’t many people of his “expertise and stature” around…

And to every one who thinks otherwise, I would ask them to carry out a simple experiment. Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?

Nice, end with a stupid piece of rhetoric. It’s good to see that Wilson has really attacked the science of the points rather than attacking the individuals involved… Given that he hasn’t stated any facts in this article, I’m not sure that it really qualifies as journalism…

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  1. #1 by Gittins on November 5, 2009 - 11:31

    The comments on the actual daily mail article are quite funny. At least it shows that not everyone is stupid enough to share the author’s views.

    Drug policy in the UK seems to be held to ransom by the right wing press. David “hypocrite” Cameron himself admitted smoking a few spliffs in his younger days, but no doubt he’ll maintain the current policy when elected.

  2. #2 by Davey Boy on November 5, 2009 - 12:13

    Wish I could read the comments, for some unknown reason they appear to be “unavailable at this time”. I wonder why?

    This has to be one of the most ridiculous articles I’ve read in a long time. Basically encouraging emotional, knee-jerk responses regardless of the evidence presented.

    Am I the only one that gets the feeling that this article has a hidden undercurrent that the author feels slightly unnerved about the whole issue? Years of being indoctrinated on the evil’s of recreational drug-use has come crashing down in the face of a highly-qualified and thoroughly researched, expert opinion…how do you cope with this? Ah yes, attack and discredit the scientific community and the scientist responsible for it. Don’t re-visit the evidence, re-consider and re-formulate an opinion. Dig in your heels, get angry and demonize the opposition to maintain your “drugs are bad m’kay” mentality.

    Fucking Daily Mail. You don’t half spout some bollocks!

  3. #3 by Michael on November 8, 2009 - 18:22

    I do agree with Prof Nutt’s findings. I also agree with Alan Johnson’s decision to sack Prof Nutt. Advisers should advise. I know this as I have been on an advisory panel. You sign a piece of paper which forbids you to give out information to other parties as the Government has paid for this advice and owns the data and any conclusions thereof. Oh and the Daily Mail are Fucktards!

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