Saturday, 31 October 2009

Smoking up a storm

yes ok I'll stop with the bad titles, this is the last one, maybe.

On to the actual purpose of this post: it appears that the government of our dear island has sacked Prof. Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The reason? saying that by changing the classification of drugs to "scare" people from them you were "devaluing" the evidence. The BBC report on the sacking can be read here and the report on his comments here.

My main gripe with this is the lack of respect that politicians (of all parties) seem to have for the people who advise them. If you are employed to offer advice on a policy your agreement with that policy shouldn't be a contingent of your employment.

In this case I think that the Prof. Nutt has a very good point: we allow the use of alcohol and tobacco (which can cause, among other, things cancer and cirrhosis) but ban the use of cannabis (a chance of developing psychosis or other neurological problems).

Moving on from this to a more general outlook this seems to highlight one of the main problems currently experienced by the scientific community: our expert advice (a few dozen years studying a small field) is routinely being over thrown based on 'gut-instinct' and anecdotes. There is a distinct distrust at all levels of society of those with expertise. This would be less worrying if it wasn't for the fact that often this expertise is replaced by much more dubious sources of information: how many people now will take the advice of someone who uses 20 minutes at the university of google to discover that vaccines are bad over someone who has spent a greater portion of their life researching and studying exactly how vaccines work.

I think this is more than just a new anti-intellectualism (which it is), I think it's the beginning of global future-shock. As technology and knowledge moves on people are becoming increasing terrified by the change and looking for simpler explanations of how the world works. The continued inability of science to do what people expect of it (why do we still have AIDS why isn't my car flying yet) has given people the impression that as a group scientists are detached from the concerns of pretty much everyone else.

This leads me back to the reports on the BBC: people no longer want experts. They don't want people who are willing to tell them that we don't have all the answers yet, to tell them that actually drug abuse is endemic in pretty much all societies and has been for years. People are actually losing a lot of the rationality that drove us to where we are now. I'm not saying that we are going to back-slide, just that we might move sideways a bit. As this century progresses the number of new technologies in people's lives will drive many to consider it magic. People won't want to be told that the nanotech injection they just received is very carefully molded to them specifically they will want to just know that the magic juice will cure their cancer.

Science has raised us so much higher than we have ever been before and now most people cannot see the difference between it and magic. It's a shame but for many people I think that the 21st century will be one of magic and will miss out on the wonder that we can create.

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