Saturday August 5, 2006
Certain areas of human conduct lend themselves so readily to bad science that you have to wonder if there is a pattern emerging. Last week the parliamentary science and technology committee looked into the ABC classification of illegal drugs, and found it was rubbish. This is not an article about that report, but it is a good place to start: drugs, they found, are supposed to be ranked by harm, in classes A, B, and C, but they’re not; and the ranking is supposed to act as a deterrent, but it doesn’t.
Watching this small area of prohibition collapse like wet tissue paper got me thinking: how does the world of prohibition match up against our gold standards for bad science, like the nutritionists or the anti-MMR movement? Have any of the prominent academic papers been retracted? Yes, they have. Professor George Ricaurte, funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, published an article in Science, describing how he administered a comparable recreational dose of ecstasy to monkeys: this dose killed 20% of the monkeys, and another 20% were severely injured.
Even before it was announced – a year later – that they’d got the bottles mixed up and used the wrong drug, you didn’t need to be Einstein to know this was duff research, because millions of clubbers have taken the “comparable” recreational dose of ecstasy, and 20% of them did not die. It’s no wonder animal rights campaigners manage to persuade themselves that animal research makes a bad model for human physiology.
That’s before you even get started on workaday bad science. Like the food gurus, prohibitionists will cherry pick research that suits them, measure inappropriate surrogate outcomes, and wishfully over-interpret data: a prohibitionist will observe that less cannabis has been seized, and declare that this means there is less cannabis on the streets, rather than less police interest.
For textbook bad science we’d also want to see the media distorting research: overstating the stuff it likes, and ignoring stuff it doesn’t, especially negative findings. We used to read a lot about cannabis and lung cancer in the papers. The largest ever study of whether cannabis causes lung cancer reported its findings recently, to total UK media silence. Lifelong cannabis users, who had smoked more than 22,000 joints, showed no greater risk of cancer than people who had never smoked cannabis.
While no journalist has written a single word on that study, the Times did manage to make a front page story headed “Cocaine floods the playground: use of the addictive drug by children doubles in a year,” out of their misinterpretation of a government report that showed nothing of the sort.
There are even optimists who believe in quick fix treatments for drug habits – the heroin detox in five days, or painless withdrawal in just 48 hours, under general anaesthesia.
Why are drugs such a bad science magnet? Partly, of course, it’s the moral panic. But more than that, sat squarely at the heart of our discourse on drugs, is one fabulously reductionist notion: it is the idea that a complex web of social, moral, criminal, health, and political problems can be simplified to, blamed on, or treated via a molecule or a plant. You’d have a job keeping that idea afloat.
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[I'm going to be really self indulgent and mention that in my head, well in my book really, this was a smashing 2,000 word thesis with 8 examples in it, and by the time I'd chopped it down to a 600 word column with four crammed half examples it had kind of stopped holding water. I've been playing a bit of Go recently, which always takes my brain over completely, and this column was like trying to fit four battles on a 9x9 board.]