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Bullshit Hell in a handcart

Who needs facts when you have faith?

There’s a truly extraordinary article by AN Wilson in today’s Daily Mail which, after something of an online storm, has been tweaked – so it’s no longer illustrated with a picture of Hitler, as it was this morning.  I’m not going to link to it because I’m increasingly convinced that the Mail runs really crazy stories for no other reason than to boost traffic.

It’s incredible, though.

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts

Imagine people relying solely on empirical facts!

Mr Wilson then compares scientists with their empirical facts to Dr Mengele, and suggests that Science = Hitler. I’m not making this up.

The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth

Here was me thinking one of the differences was that Hitler was a crazy motherfucker. Apparently not.

I am not suggesting that any British scientists are currently conducting experiments comparable to those which were allowed in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia. But I see the same habit of mind at work in Professor Nutt and his colleagues as made those mad scientists of the 20th century think they were above the moral law which governs the rest of us mortals.

Professor Nutt dared to suggest that government drugs policy was based on politics rather than reality. That’s not quite Mengele.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

That’ll be the hoo-hah which occured when one doctor made shit up and newspapers ran with it, seriously damaging the vaccination programme for no good reason and exposing children to potentially fatal illnesses. The worst offender? Yes, the Daily Mail.

The point here is not whether he was right or wrong

He was wrong. And here we are, years later, still suggesting that Wakefield is a victim rather than an offender (with pure intentions, perhaps, but the effect was still parents abandoning vaccination and exposing children to unnecessary risks). Scientists? It’s the newspapers we should be scared of.

16 replies on “Who needs facts when you have faith?”

“Imagine people relying solely on empirical facts!”

It’s like Stewart Lee anecdote about an argument he had with a taxi driver, who dismissed Lee’s point with “well, you can say anything with *facts*”. Who wants facts when you can have blind, unreasoning prejudice instead?

“Scientists? It’s the newspapers we should be scared of.”

Sounds about right.

> Who wants facts when you can have blind, unreasoning prejudice instead?

What scared me is the thought of most people reading a sentence like that and going “yeah, exactly”.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression.

Absolutely right.

For many parents the decision to terminate will be a difficult and upsetting one, especially later in life, and stories like this make a pretty challenging backdrop for making it. This would have been true even if their figures had been correct

Ben Goldacre, on record as wanting true stories suppressed if the truth not be to his liking.

And here he describes how the Palaeological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the American Geological Institute, and the Geological Society of America were campaigning to suppress the sale of a book.

And here:

Dr Mitchell Taylor has been researching the status and management of polar bears in Canada and around the Arctic Circle for 30 years, as both an academic and a government employee.

… but, despite being one of the world’s leading experts on polar bears, was barred from attending the Polar Bear Specialist Group because his (empirical-fact-based) observation that their populations have increased over the last thirty years was considered “unhelpful”.

It’s not like it’s difficult to find these sorts of examples.

As Richard Dawkins has repeatedly pointed out, the way to win the battle of ideas is to engage in it, not to have the other side gagged. No-one has ever come to accept the theory of evolution because the Bible was banned. Large numbers of scientists do not favour Dawkins’s approach.

> Imagine people relying solely on empirical facts!

The trouble is that the sort of people who want to rely solely on “empirical facts” don’t actually mean that. They want to rely solely on facts from certain scientific fields while ignoring large numbers of facts which are awkward and variable and tricky to measure but no less empirical for that, to do with things like human nature, the law of unintended consequences, tradition, the way populations react to changes in law, etc. Let such tunnel-visioned idiots loose, and they’ll create an absolute fucking nightmare of a world. I’d rather have legislation written by one politician with some knowledge of human nature than a thousand scientists.

> Professor Nutt dared to suggest that government drugs policy was based on politics rather than reality.

Professor Nutt forgot that there’s a difference between being an advisor and being in charge. He gave the Government advice, as do thousands of other advisors every day, but then, when legislation wasn’t based solely on his advice, he started complaining to the public that the Government were wrong to have not done as he told them. Johnson was absolutely right to sack him. If Nutt wants to legislate, he can now stand for election.

> As Richard Dawkins has repeatedly pointed out, the way to win the battle of ideas is to engage in it, not to have the other side gagged.

I’m not sure Dawkins’ bellowing and mockery is necessarily the best approach, but yeah. Isn’t gagging essentially what the government’s tried to do here? They asked a vocal critic of current drug policy to become an adviser. They ignored the advice. He’s a vocal critic and everybody’s surprised. It looks awfully like he was there in the expectation he’d toe the line and rubber stamp the political, not scientific, decisions – that is, he’d realise that what matters is harm reduction in terms of reducing the harm caused to MPs by the Daily Mail.

> The trouble is that the sort of people who want to rely solely on “empirical facts” don’t actually mean that… Let such tunnel-visioned idiots loose, and they’ll create an absolute fucking nightmare of a world.

That’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it?

Wilson’s argument is that this case puts science on trial. If it were up to scientists BSE wouldn’t have happened. Which is an extraordinary interpretation of events: scientists were ignored over BSE because policy said “British Beef! Yum yum yum!”. And that’s essentially what the home secretary is attempting to do here: tell the boffins to shut the fuck up because the facts don’t fit policy.

What’s missing from Wilson’s piece is the role of the media in all of this. If, say, Wakefield’s MMR stuff hadn’t been jumped upon by the Mail et al, then you wouldn’t have the vaccination disaster. If drug policy wasn’t so dependent on not upsetting the Mail, we might have something more sensible than the never-ending war on drugs. And so on.

Dammit, slip of the trackpad deleted loads. Quickly:

> Ben Goldacre, on record as wanting true stories suppressed if the truth not be to his liking.

I really don’t take the same thing from that piece you do. I remember when you blogged about it. The piece is largely about misreporting, and he’s saying that the way the stories are put across – people who don’t terminate are lovely people and proof of a caring society – is putting added pressure on people deciding whether to continue with a pregnancy. He’s not demanding the stories be supressed; he’s saying they should check their facts and stop being insensitive bastards to boot.

> were campaigning to suppress the sale of a book.

To stop government bookshops selling and therefore implicitly endorsing a book, surely?

> I’m not sure Dawkins’ bellowing and mockery is necessarily the best approach

No, he’s a fool in that regard. But it’s still better than the attitude of far too many of his scientific peers, which is that their views are based on science and are therefore facts and therefore dissenters should be silenced.

> To stop government bookshops selling and therefore implicitly endorsing a book, surely?

Oh, come off it. If a state-run bookshop sells a copy of the Bible, it’s endorsing Christianity, is it? What if it sells copies of the Bible and the Quran and the Torah?

> He’s not demanding the stories be supressed; he’s saying they should check their facts and stop being insensitive bastards to boot.

Yes, but at the end he adds the telling detail that he’d still have a problem with the pieces’ publication if they were accurate and true.

> That’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it?

Exhibit A.

> Isn’t gagging essentially what the government’s tried to do here?

In what way has Nutt been gagged?

> They asked a vocal critic of current drug policy to become an adviser.

Excellent. Exactly as they should. Listening to lots of different opinions rather than the usual use of fake charities to claim they’ve had a public consultation.

> They ignored the advice.

No, they didn’t follow the advice. That doesn’t imply that they ignored it.

> He’s a vocal critic and everybody’s surprised.

I don’t think anyone was surprised as much as they were exasperated. He must have been told what the job entailed when he took it. And I seriously doubt Johnson sacked him before having a couple of quiet words with him. Oh, look! Nutt ignored advice! What an eejit.

> It looks awfully like he was there in the expectation he’d toe the line and rubber stamp the political, not scientific, decisions

Not at all. Advisors don’t rubber-stamp anything.

Look, all of this seems to be based on the idea that Nutt was the Government’s only advisor. They have loads, some scientists, some not. The Government are under no obligation to treat scientific advisors as inherently more important than other advisors — in fact, they’d be remiss if they did. Furthermore, plenty of scientists disagree with Nutt on these matters.

Here are a couple of illustrative hypotheticals. Firstly, what if every one of the Government’s advisors on drug policy had decided to start publicly criticisng the Government for not following their advice tot he letter? And then all of those whose recommendations have been fully or partially adopted could have started criticising the first group publicly. And then no-one would be talking about the Government “ignoring science”. The fact is that the Government failed to do exactly as they were told by just one of their many, many advisors, and he threw a hissy fit about it. Government advisors don’t get to publicly criticise government policy. It’s part of the job.

Secondly, what if Roy Meadows were advising the Government on prosecution guidelines? He’s a scientist too. All his evidence relies on empirical facts. What if the Government didn’t do as he told them? Well, they’d be right.

I personally would like to see all drugs, “hard” and “soft”, legalised. Not going to happen, but, if it does happen, I hope it’ll be because enough people vote consistently enough for long enough for the candidates who are liberal enough on drug policy, not because a government just goes ahead and legalises drugs because one of their unelected advisors tells them to. I can vote against the Labour Party. I can vote for or against the Conservatives.

And, you know, for all your scathing derision of The Daily Mail, fact is it sells as well as it does ’cause it has readers, and those readers are a part of the electorate. It is not wrong for a democratic minister to take into account the views of a large part of the electorate. It just isn’t.

> If a state-run bookshop sells a copy of the Bible, it’s endorsing Christianity, is it? What if it sells copies of the Bible and the Quran and the Torah?

We’re not talking about a simple bookshop though, are we? We’re talking about the visitor centres of national parks selling creationist tomes “explaining” how the attractions were created. It’s akin to shops inside hospitals selling books about how doctors are trying to kill you and healing crystals will cure your cancer.

> at the end he adds the telling detail that he’d still have a problem with the pieces’ publication if they were accurate and true.

You said he wanted the stories suppressed. Having a problem with is not the same as demanding a ban. I have a problem with the BNP. I don’t think they should be banned.

> In what way has Nutt been gagged?

By getting the boot.

> And I seriously doubt Johnson sacked him before having a couple of quiet words with him.

No. Johnson leaked the story that Nutt was going to get the boot. From Mark Eaton:

An e-mail sent to the BBC by an official in the Home Office this morning says that “yesterday’s coverage may have some serious repercussions for Prof Nutt and his position as chair of the ACMD”.

The note goes on to say “discussions are being had (at) a very high level regarding this issue and a decision will be taken early next week.”

Professor Nutt knew nothing about the moves to dismiss him when I spoke to him earlier today, but seemed resigned to the possibility. “They are bound to be considering that,” he told me, “thinking about the least worst option.”

> Advisors don’t rubber-stamp anything.

“The panel is being asked to rubber stamp a pre-determined position” – Dr King, who’s resigned from the panel in the wake of Nutt getting the boot.

> all of this seems to be based on the idea that Nutt was the Government’s only advisor. They have loads, some scientists, some not.

Many of whom are resigning over this.

> The fact is that the Government failed to do exactly as they were told by just one of their many, many advisors, and he threw a hissy fit about it.

He didn’t throw a fit. He’s been locking horns with the government on this for some time, arguing that their policies on cannabis specifically do more harm than good.

The government specifically says that there is growing evidence of a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia. As the man with the evidence I think he’s perfectly right to say that the government is lying.

> Secondly, what if Roy Meadows were advising the Government on prosecution guidelines?

I’ve no idea who you mean. It’s early and I haven’t had much coffee yet.

> It is not wrong for a democratic minister to take into account the views of a large part of the electorate.

Editorial policy and readers’ views aren’t the same thing. And in this particular instance, the government had a public consultation and ignored the results. Hardly democratic.

> We’re not talking about a simple bookshop though, are we? We’re talking about the visitor centres of national parks selling creationist tomes “explaining” how the attractions were created. It’s akin to shops inside hospitals selling books about how doctors are trying to kill you and healing crystals will cure your cancer.

No, I really don’t think it is. Firstly, it’s in the US, so a hospital wouldn’t be a state institution. More importantly, a hospital serves a particular function and is run and controlled by a very specific type of person — by a wing of science, in fact. I don’t think national parks are the same sort of thing at all. If a Christian chooses to go to a national park to wonder at the amazingness of God’s work — quite apart from the obvious point that they’re not doing any harm — they’re not doing anything that counteracts or undermines that park’s purpose; they’re not using the park in a way that the state has any right to tell them is wrong. What you (and the groups of scientists who were campaigning against the book) are suggesting is that the state should become the arbiter of metaphysical truth. It amazes me that someone who knows how shit the state is at doing pretty much anything might think that’s a good idea. There are many good reasons to believe in evolution and geology and all the rest of it. “Because it’s the state-endorsed view” is about the worst I can imagine. The state used to endorse a different view, which is what got Gallileo arrested and thousands killed and tortured. Our ancestors found a brilliant and obvious solution to this problem: get the state out of the metaphysics business altogether. Unfortunately, many scientists are beginning to think that a better move would be to get the state to back up their metaphysical views, and it’d all go swimmingly this time, ’cause they’re right. Which just goes to show that being incredibly clever doesn’t stop people being utter fucking morons.

> > In what way has Nutt been gagged?
> By getting the boot.

He’s been disproving your point by appearing on TV since his sacking. Regardless of whether it was right to sack him, neither Johnson nor anyone else has been issuing injunctions against the BBC to suppress his opinions or anything. He’s as gagged as we are, only with a much bigger audience.

> Johnson leaked the story that Nutt was going to get the boot.

Really? Blimey. Didn’t know that. How extremely scummy.

> “The panel is being asked to rubber stamp a pre-determined position” – Dr King, who’s resigned from the panel in the wake of Nutt getting the boot.

That another member of the panel calls it that doesn’t make it so. As I understand it, the Government went ahead and legislated in a way contrary to the panel’s recommendations. That is, after all, what Nutt complained about. They didn’t force the panel to change their recommendations before passing the legislation. The very idea that the panel would need to rubber-stamp anything is absurd. Things get rubber-stamped by people who approve stuff. That’s what the phrase means. So we might complain about the Lords rubber-stamping a particularly nasty bit of legislation from the Commons when we want them to fight it a bit. We might well complain about a minister rubber-stamping an awful recommendation from a committee of bastards, as they often do. But a panel of advisors doesn’t rubber-stamp anything, because the legislation doesn’t need their approval or permission. In fact, one might say that Dr King’s use of the phrase is rather telling about what he thinks his role is in the first place.

> > all of this seems to be based on the idea that Nutt was the Government’s only advisor. They have loads, some scientists, some not.
> Many of whom are resigning over this.

So what? Are you saying that Ministers should obey advisors because the advisors are right or in case the advisors resign? Wrong either way.

> I’ve no idea who you mean.

Oh, turns out I accidentally stuck an S on his surname. Professor Sir Roy Meadow, the man who invented Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, which is now somewhat controversial and generally reckoned to be bollocks but was widely accepted as scientific truth for a couple of decades there and was used to lock up some innocent people and to confiscate others’ children. Struck off for feeding juries bullshit (overturned on appeal, but no-one’s about to use him as an expert witness again).

He had a major influence on policy for years. The fact that his views were scientific and therefore deemed to be correct by default and weightier than the silly views of mere non-scientists turned out to be a huge bloody geat bug, not a feature. The way to fix this bug is not to only listen to scientists who are correct while ignoring the rest — how could you possibly tell? The solution is to not listen only to scientists and not to just do what they tell you because they’re scientists.

Getting back to my original point, this is why I objected to your:

> Imagine people relying solely on empirical facts!

Don’t need to imagine it. We’ve seen it with Roy Meadow and plenty of others. It’s awful.

To clarify, I’m arguing about two quite different things here. Whether Johnson was right to sack Nutt, and whether Ministers should do what scientists tell them because it’s science. Nutt is taking the latter position, and so, as far as I can see, are all of his defenders. Even if he shouldn’t have been sacked, that’s still wrong.

> The government specifically says that there is growing evidence of a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia. As the man with the evidence I think he’s perfectly right to say that the government is lying.

Yes, absolutely, after resigning. Johnson’s point is that you get to choose between publicly campaigning against the government from outside and helping to make policy from inside, but you can’t do both. Apparently, there is now some controversy about whether this has traditionally applied to unpaid advisors as well as paid ones. I personally think it’s a perfectly reasonable principle either way.

> Editorial policy and readers’ views aren’t the same thing.

No, but editorial policy tends to be based on what people will want to read, and people tend to want to read stuff they agree with. There’s a strong if imperfect correlation there.

> And in this particular instance, the government had a public consultation and ignored the results. Hardly democratic.

Don’t know where you might have got the idea I’d defend that. The Governments of my lifetime all seem to have been devoted to trampling democracy, and I complain about it constantly. But deciding not to base policy on the recommendations of scientific advisors and sacking advisors who publicly criticise their policies are two of the very few instances when they’re not.

> You said he wanted the stories suppressed. Having a problem with is not the same as demanding a ban.

Well, I don’t think “suppressed” means “banned” either.

Oh, I think I’ve reached the maximum replies to a post, so I’ll just continue on down here.

> What you (and the groups of scientists who were campaigning against the book) are suggesting is that the state should become the arbiter of metaphysical truth.

Not at all. Just that the whack-jobs’ publications don’t have any right to be in government places, whose remit – if they’re like our ones; I dunno – is to promote education and conservation. Creationist stuff is at odds with that.

> Are you saying that Ministers should obey advisors because the advisors are right or in case the advisors resign? Wrong either way

I’m not saying either of those things. I’m saying that if government is going to assemble a panel of experts to inform policy, and then create policy at odds with what those experts have provided, then they shouldn’t be entirely surprised if the experts express their annoyance. It looks rather like the goverment’s approach to experts is to shop around until you can find one to – hey! – rubber stamp the policy you’ve already decided on.

Let’s face it, we’re not going to agree on this one.

On a tangent, I feel pretty sorry for Gordon Brown. This handwriting story is ridiculous.

You’re right: we’ll never agree. Because you’re wrong. Heh heh heh.

> Not at all. Just that the whack-jobs’ publications don’t have any right to be in government places, whose remit – if they’re like our ones; I dunno – is to promote education and conservation. Creationist stuff is at odds with that.

By using the word “whack-jobs”, you’re making my point for me. You’re suggesting that the state should decide who are whack-jobs and who aren’t. In the case of religion, insults aside, we’re not talking about sanity versus insanity, we’re talking about metaphysical rightness versus metaphysical wrongness.

And Creationist stuff is at odds with neither education nor conservation. Attempts to put Creationism into school science classes are countereducational and wrong, for the same reason that it’s wrong to teach kids how to speak Esperanto in a supposed German class. But there’s nowt wrong with teaching Creationism per se. Darwin was taught that the Earth and everything on it was created by God in six days, and it didn’t stop him thinking, did it?

And a National Park bookshop is not a school.

> I’m saying that if government is going to assemble a panel of experts to inform policy, and then create policy at odds with what those experts have provided, then they shouldn’t be entirely surprised if the experts express their annoyance.

I don’t think they were surprised by that; I think they were exasperated by Nutt’s inability to understand the terms of his employment. As I said earlier, Nutt’s perfectly welcome to express his annoyance, after resigning. Same as every other government advisor. And ministers themselves, come to that. Dan Hannan just did it. Notice the big lack of controversy there.

> It looks rather like the goverment’s approach to experts is to shop around until you can find one to – hey! – rubber stamp the policy you’ve already decided on.

I have to say, that’s what I’d expect Labour’s policy to be. However, an awful lot of the comments I’ve seen from Nutt’s defenders have been along the lines of “But he’s always thought this way and his views were well known long before the Government asked him to be an advisor, so what were they expecting him to say?” In fact, you yourself said

> They asked a vocal critic of current drug policy to become an adviser.

So which is it? They shopped around for someone who’d agree with them, or they found someone who was known to disagree with them? The Labour Government are bloody stupid in a great many ways, but even I don’t believe they’re thick enough to go looking for a yes-man and accidentally pick a vocal critic.

Actually, on second thoughts, they might be.

On a tangent, is it “adviser” or “advisor”? Both look wrong to me now. Maybe I should just go with “adviza”.

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