This ‘revolt of the experts’ is revolting

It was wrong of the government to sack David Nutt. But it’s also wrong for experts to pose as paragons of wisdom who are above democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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The ‘mass revolt’ of drug experts following the sacking of Professor David Nutt from the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs shows that scientific experts are becoming a menace to democracy.

The presumption made by Nutt and his numerous supporters in the science and media worlds is that his cool-headed, oh-so-wise, fact-based expertise on drugs should take precedence over what one newspaper snootily describes as ‘political weakness’, ‘prejudice’ and ‘the public mood’ (1). No way. Whatever you think of the government’s drug policy (I’m opposed to it), it is essential that these issues are discussed and decided by democratic institutions rather than collections of experts.

Professor Nutt was turfed out of the advisory council on Friday, by the New Labour home secretary Alan Johnson, after he criticised the government’s policy on drugs. He argued that cannabis in particular is no more medically harmful than drinking alcohol and therefore it made no sense to label it a Class B drug (that is, a dangerous drug that can earn its dealers tough prison sentences). Two more experts have since resigned from the advisory council, giving rise to what one newspaper describes (rather fancifully) as a ‘mass revolt’ in which experts intend to express their ‘horror and disgust’ with Johnson’s stance on drugs and treatment of Nutt (2). There has also been a very public shouting match between Nutt and Johnson, with the former accusing the latter of unacceptably ‘interfering in the scientific process’ (3).

The question that springs to my mind is this: who the hell does Professor Nutt think he is? Of course it is wrong for the government to sack people for speaking their minds (though I have a modicum of sympathy with Johnson’s argument that you ‘cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy’) (4). And I have no doubt that Professor Nutt’s position on drugs – that some, especially cannabis, are not as dangerous as the government has made out – is more correct than the government’s position. But that should not detract from the fact that only the democratic process, and not any tiny revolting clique of scientists, should determine public policy on an issue that pertains to choice, freedom and morality.

The implicit, and sometimes explicit, theme of Nutt’s media-supported revolt against the government – in which he presents himself as the principled liberator encouraging other drugs experts to ‘not continue under the current regime’ – is that expertise is superior to old-fashioned ideological debate and politicking. One editorial argues that ‘prejudice and political weakness have rejected scientific facts’ and accuses the government of ‘bowing to the public mood’ – the sin of all sins in the eyes of experts and their supporters who would prefer that policy was ‘evidence-based’ rather than influenced by flimsy and ignorant public opinion (5). Here it is assumed, firstly that the public are instinctively illiberal on issues such as drugs, and secondly that it should therefore be left to experts – intelligent, aloof, not linked to any filthy political interests or ideological movements – to guide policy in the right direction.

This springs from the contemporary tyranny of expertise. Increasingly, and the New Labour government has played a key role in encouraging this phenomenon, the political realm is being colonised by experts, the purveyors of wisdom on everything from climate change to education to drugs whose views are considered more reliable and robust than those of an ill-informed public. This is very bad for democracy. It excludes the public from serious decision-making and it reduces debate to a discussion of technical, measurable things rather than more profound questions of morality and freedom.

For example, one scientific expert who supports Nutt says: ‘Scientific data and their independent interpretation underpin evidence-based policymaking – and nobody rational could possibly want a government based on any other type of policymaking.’ (6) Really? Well, I consider myself perfectly rational yet I am utterly opposed to the fetishised notion of ‘evidence-based policymaking’. An issue like drugs, for example – an important social and political issue – should not be decided on the basis of laboratory tests or scientific surveys showing that Drug A causes a similar level of bodily harm as alcohol but a lower level of bodily harm than Drug B. This issue is not reducible to expert-driven, scientific, measurable impacts of harm. What about the morality of taking drugs? The importance of people’s freedom to choose? The question of the drugs subculture and where it springs from? All of these political and social arguments – mere ‘prejudice’ and ‘public mood’ – are elbowed aside in favour of the wisdom of our Scientific Elders.

But we should hear and have these arguments. Indeed, it is only through the open, frank and completely public exchange of ideas, ideologies and passions on issues such as drugs that we might arrive at a fully formed and rational public policy. I am outraged by the government’s criminalisation of drugs, not because I think drugs are cool or liberating (I think they’re neither), but because I believe strongly that people should have the freedom to choose what they ingest and how they get their rocks off. Yet scientific expertise is just as much a barrier to freedom as is government morality. If, as one revolting expert says, ‘it is crucial that drugs policy is based on evidence’, and that evidence finds that a certain drug poses a measurable and unacceptable risk of medical harm, then that drug will still be banned.

Indeed, the experts’ main motivation in questioning the government’s position on cannabis is not a love of liberty but, as Tim Black argues elsewhere on spiked, a loathing of alcohol, which is seen as being far more measurably harmful (see Why New Labour is so dopey on cannabis). On the basis of evidence and in the name of expertise, scientific and health experts such as the British Medical Association have become key, temperance-style campaigners against the evil booze. The end result of both cut-off government moralising and super-aloof expert deliberations is the same – a deeply patronising campaign to protect the public from themselves. But at least the government moralising, unlike the scientific deliberations, is carried out by an institution that the public can – and probably will – eject from office.

It is not only nauseating to hear scientific experts contrast themselves to ideologically-compromised politicians, as if ideology were a bad thing – it is also deeply disingenuous. Scientists can be as prejudiced and ideologically motivated as any politician. They might dress their views up as purely evidence-based expertise but it is frequently driven by their own belief systems. For example, Professor Nutt has spoken not only about the potential medical harm of drugs but the ‘social harm’, too, the question of drugs’ alleged impact on social stability and social wellbeing. ‘Social harm’ is an ideological category, underpinned by ignorance about the various complex factors that drive people’s interest in drugs and a fairly wacky belief that society can be pacified or improved by restricting access to certain substances. And to present such ideology as expertise is to deny the public any real right to consider it and debate it – we’re just not qualified, you see.

Of course, the government largely has itself to blame for this state of affairs. Lacking the political conviction or moral authority to lay down its 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 scientific, evidence-based findings will drive everything from education policy to climate-change strategies; indeed, as Nutt has self-servingly pointed out, governments have been surrounding themselves with experts and advisers, especially on the drugs issue, for the past 30 to 40 years. And now the experts are revolting, assuming that their views should take precedence over the views of elected ministers who are too swayed by an ignorant ‘public mood’. In Iran they have ‘religious experts’ who are forever interfering in the political process; here we have ‘scientific experts’ with designs on doing the same. Experts should be treated as a discrete source of information as and when it is suitable, but public policy should be decided through mass debate, passionate argument and, yes, even some ideology.

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

Rob Lyons said drugs should be decriminalised, but not celebrated. Rob Johnston criticised Labour’s schizo drug policy. Neil Davenport called cannabis the political class’ drug of choice. He also asked why everyone loves ‘Dopey’ David Cameron. Jamie Douglass looked at Charles Clarke’s bad trip and drug use in schools. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

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

(2) David Nutt’s sacking causes mass revolt against Alan Johnson, Guardian, 2 November 2009

(3) David Nutt’s sacking causes mass revolt against Alan Johnson, Guardian, 2 November 2009

(4) More experts could quit over drugs sacking, Reuters, 2 November

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

(6) Delicate role of government advisers, BBC News, 30 October 2009

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

Topics Politics UK


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