David Nutt is not the new Galileo

The curious Cult of Nutt, backed by both dopeheads and scientists, is actually denigrating scientific truth.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Yesterday, on Remembrance Sunday, they gathered on Whitehall to honour the dead. The day before, on Saturday, it looked like the dead themselves had assembled on the political street that cuts through the heart of London. Outside Downing Street, wasted-looking young men and women, pierced, dyed and musty, some with gaping holes in their ears, one accompanied by an inevitable dog, shouted for the reinstatement of their hero, a ‘modern-day Galileo’ no less, whom they claimed had been silenced, victimised and oppressed by Gordon Brown’s evil government: that is, Professor David Nutt, the sacked drug adviser to the government.

Yes, the Cult of Nutt, that curious combination of pro-dope campaigners and defenders of science, was out in force. I say force. In truth there was nothing very forceful, or even convincing, about the assembly of 50 or 60 people to ‘demand the reinstatement of David Nutt’. It worked better as an advert for why you shouldn’t smoke dope. One quite elderly woman handed out a pamphlet advising ‘Cannabis: Legalise and Utilise’ while chanting ‘Bring back David Nutt’ in a raspy, barely audible voice. A woman from 1983 (pink and purple hair, New Romantic get-up) made a speech that no one could hear but which everyone applauded. A man who I think was the organiser of the demo asked: ‘Does anyone have any ideas for chants?’ Hardly. The vacant, staring couple with dreadlocks and gaping holes in their ears looked like they lacked ideas for how to get home, never mind for toppling a tyrannical government.

Since he was ousted by home secretary Alan Johnson from the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on 30 October, for publicly contradicting the government’s line on cannabis, Nutt has become a cult figure for an eclectic group of people: dopeheads, liberal commentators, the science community. Saturday’s demo was organised by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (I am in principle opposed to any political movement that has the word ‘sensible’ in its name) and was attended by at least one scientist (the clean-shaven guy in a blazer). More than 4,500 people have signed up to the Facebook group ‘Reinstate Professor David Nutt’ and nearly 6,000 have signed a pro-Nutt petition on the No.10 website.

Saturday’s protesters made extraordinary claims about both Nutt’s mistreatment by the government and his apparently implacable scientific standing. ‘Free speech for scientists!’ declared one placard, somewhat overlooking the fact that you could be living under a rock, or even in a bedsit off your nut on dope, and still not be able to avoid Nutt’s pronouncements on everything from the medieval nature of the New Labour government to the evil impact of alcohol on young people’s minds. Far from being silenced, Nutt has enjoyed almost unprecedented levels of media and science-world exposure, his ideas and his campaigning sanctioned by everyone from the broadsheets to opposition politicians and scientific research bodies. Another protester held up a makeshift banner declaring ‘The World Is Round: we didn’t get to where we are today without Galileo…’

And there you have it: Nutt is a modern-day Galileo, a scientific giant broken on the wheel of government authoritarianism and opportunism. Only he isn’t. At all. Galileo was a leading figure in the Scientific Revolution and a daring proponent of the idea that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, while Nutt thinks he is the centre of the universe and has built his reputation on ploughing through published research papers about potential links between cannabis and schizophrenia. Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his views and then spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Nutt is never off the BBC.

But even more importantly, where for an individual like Galileo the pursuit of science was an open-ended endeavour, a search for possible new truths, an attempt to rise above worldviews based on rigid faith or prejudice and to discover something new about the world, for Nutt and other contemporary scientists the line between their evidence and their desire to moralise, between their research and their own reactionary views, is becoming ever thinner.

Some have responded to the Nutt case by instinctively standing up for ‘the expert’ against philistine New Labour. Others have opted to defend democracy against a scientist whom they claim is wrong about the dangers of cannabis (he says it isn’t dangerous; his opponents say it is). Of course it is right, as spiked has argued, that the formulation of drugs policy should be a democratic process, infused by open, public debate and moral questions about freedom and choice rather than decided by experts who stand above what one newspaper ridiculed as ‘the public mood’ (1). But the Nutt affair is not about ‘good science’ or ‘principled democracy’. In fact it shows how both those things have been denigrated almost beyond recognition by the rise and rise of research-led policy and its ugly twin: policy-led research.

For the government, ‘evidence-based policymaking’ – a reliance on the authority of expertise – springs precisely from its lack of real democratic mandate and collapse of moral vision. As spiked argued last week, ‘Lacking the political conviction or moral authority to lay down the line on drugs (and numerous other issues), and fearful of engaging with the public in any meaningful way, the government has surrounded itself with experts, hoping that their evidence-based findings will drive everything from education policy to climate-change strategies’ (2). Yet when the experts’ arguments run counter to the government’s pretty much predetermined policy, the government kicks them out and decides to talk up, opportunistically, its democratic authority. It would be entirely legitimate to reject expert advice, even correct advice, in the name of democracy and elevating the public interest over ‘the facts’, but that is not what the government has done: it has merely used the cover of democracy to deal with one troublesome expert, while continuing to surround itself with an army of debate-replacing, democracy-substituting experts.

Yet while many people can spot the opportunism of the government in relation to research-led policy – where it embraces facts it likes and discards facts it doesn’t – they are utterly blind to the detrimental impact that this process is having on research itself, on science, on the pursuit of knowledge and truth. The courting of experts as a stand-in for grown-up debate and decision-making, the use of science as a new form of post-religion, post-moral authority, is changing the nature of scientific research, too. It is giving rise to policy-led research, which frequently, and semi-consciously, moulds itself around the expected outcome, around the desired future policy. This is most clear in relation to the debate about climate change, where there is an increasing seamlessness, an overly cosy relationship, between scientists’ allegedly open-ended investigations into climatic variations and governments’ extreme authoritarian solutions to the climate change problem.

As a consequence, scientists can easily flip from being apparently disinterested researchers to being prejudiced moralisers. So over the past week Nutt used his apparently implacable scientific findings on cannabis to demonise alcohol (which he reckons is far more dangerous than dope) and to call for authoritarian measures to restrict access to booze. Alcohol ‘will kill your kids’, he hysterically warned parents, before demanding that we raise the minimum drinking age to 21 and increase alcohol tax (3). The ease with which Nutt can shift from being a Galileo-style defender of the truth to being a Mary Whitehouse-style campaigner for new political measures and clampdowns on morally lax youth demonstrates how blurred the line has become between science and ideology. Those who defend Nutt imagine that they are defending an expert, when in truth they’re defending a new breed of super-politicised, ideologically muddied ‘expert’, who, in playing both scientist and moraliser, has further blurred the lines between research and reaction.

Anyone interested in Knowledge with a capital K, in the pursuit of truth whatever uncomfortable facts we might discover, should forget about the self-regarding Nutt. And anyone interested in real democracy, in meaningful debate about the big issues of our day, should challenge the whole fetishised notion of ‘evidence-based policymaking’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

After the sacking of David Nutt, Brendan O’Neill called the ‘revolt of the experts’ revolting and Tim Black reflected on why New Labour is so dopey on cannabis. Frank Furedi deplored today’s tyranny of expertise, and reviewed a book which showed that governments are bypassing the democratic processby outsourcing their authority. Elsewhere, he explained why politicising science is a bad idea. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Drugs: Prejudice and political weakness have rejected scientific facts, Observer, 1 November 2009

(2) See This ‘revolt of the experts’ is revolting, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Professor David Nutt attacks ministers over ‘failure’ on alcohol, The Times (London), 5 November 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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