Paul Vallely:A great servant, but a poor master

04 November 2009

Some scientists seem to act as if science trumps all other issues says Paul Vallely

It is a tempting phrase, “the arrogance of science”, but it is not science that is the problem, so much as certain scientists. Whatever the rights and wrongs, dangers or exaggerations, about the use of cannabis and Ecstasy in this week’s row between the Home Secretary and his erstwhile chief drugs adviser, there has been a revealing undercurrent to the debate.

In many circles, Alan Johnson’s decision to sack the unfortunately named Professor David Nutt has been condemned as an example of the Government’s “appalling contempt for science”, and portrayed as a threat to the freedom of academic speech. The heroic professor is depicted as a martyr to the populist prejudice of the politicians. It is a battle of scientific rationalism against emotive intolerance. The phrase “evidence-based” is routinely trotted out as an argument clincher.

But science takes you only so far, or ought to, at any rate. Professor Nutt’s idiosyncratic example — that Ecstasy-taking is less dangerous than horse-riding — illustrates the point succinctly. So does the Home Secretary’s rejoinder: “Not in my constituency it isn’t.” Horses are not a particular health-and-safety risk in Hull, it seems. In arguments such as this, personal experiences and private judgements are as important as scientific statistics.

So, too, is the need to place into the scales the views of those charged with enforcing a law in which the relationship between soft and hard drugs, often supplied by the same criminals, is entangled. A Home Secretary who is seen to be ignoring the views of the police might find himself in much more political difficulty than one who ignores his scientific advisers.

There are also judgements of practical politics. Alcohol may well be far more damaging than cannabis or Ecstasy, as Professor Nutt argued. But the precedent of Prohibition is not an encouraging one. And it is a purist logic that suggests that something harmful should not be banned, just because there are more dangerous things, which, by accident of history, are allowed. In such a politically complex situation, there is an arrogance about those who insist that science trumps all other considerations, or imply that no one apart from scientists can properly understand the issues.

It is far from an isolated example, as the issue of organ donation also demonstrated this week. The Royal College of Physicians called for the general population to be compelled to decide whether we would permit our organs to be transplanted when we die. Without such compulsion, the rest of us would, apparently, never get around to obtaining an organ-donor card, out of inertia, idleness, or base superstition.

Implicit in this extraordinary condescension is the assumption that non-scientists have a general inability to make proper sense of the world. The idea that people’s reluctance might stem from a lack of trust in doctors and scientists, or a fear that they might turn off our life-support machine prematurely in their eagerness to get an organ needed for a vital, more medically interesting transplant, appears not to have entered their consciousness. Nor does the suspicion that Australian-style enforced voting might produce a backlash of the kind that, were it to be introduced in General Elections, would probably ensure in Britain only that the Official Monster Raving Loony Party experienced such a surge in the polls that its leader would be invited on to Question Time.

For all the low opinion that some scientists appear to have of the rest of us, the truth is that science must be subjected to social values rather than be a substitute for them. Science is a great servant, but a poor master — especially when the ethics that are deemed to be implicit in it constitute an unarticulated utilitarianism.

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