There has been a disturbing trend developing, one that extends from the highest levels of government through to the general public. We are entering a phase where science is taking a backseat to rhetoric; where rationality is being suspended in favour of populist rabble-rousing, and at the risk of pointing fingers, blame for this phenomena can be apportioned pretty squarely to certain sections of the media.
One incidence of this can be found in Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s recent decisions regarding the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The members of the ACMD have historically been the go-to guys for drugs policy — they are leaders in their fields, with unrivalled expertise, which the Government has respected by following the advice they are given. But in the last two years, the dynamic has beeen gradually shifting, culminating in Johnson asking for the resignation of the Council’s chair, Professor David Nutt, last month, in response to his speaking out against misleading drug classifications. Nutt’s assertions — controversial as they may have been — were based soundly in the realm of evidence-based fact: for instance, that alcohol is more harmful than ecstasy. Johnson’s reaction, however, came about as a result of the fearful hysteria that seeming ‘soft’ on drugs will alienate voters, which itself is a product of the combination of news journalists’ profound lack of scientific understanding, and their desire to create exciting narrative.
Evidently, October was an especially bad time for the empiricist movement, because it also saw the Pew Research Centre release statistics showing that the number of Americans who accept the evidence in support of climate change has dropped sharply — from 44% in April of 2008, to 35% last month.
This regressive culture of scientific philistinism will undoubtedly continue for as long as scare-mongering sells newspapers — and placing so little value on reasoned thinking is as dangerous as any of the drugs Nutt and Johnson debate over.