The Separation of Science and State

14 July 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

The misuse of science in British politics is rife. Are the two incompatible?  


Last month, a drug with effects similar to coffee was banned in the UK. It's an African herb called khat (rhymes with "cot"). When chewed it gives users a mild high - which one expert has compared to drinking a few espressos - and it should never have been banned. At least, according to science.

Recent studies by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations both found that khat was not harmful enough to merit prohibition. Last year, the British government's own scientific advisors came to the same conclusion. All their advice was ignored, and on June 24th, this relatively harmless shrub became a class C drug in the UK, equating it with the likes of ketamine and diazepam (Valium).

Lately, the rulers of my Kingdom have been making a habit of this. In the last decade, they've outlawed numerous substances with shaky-to-absent supporting evidence. In a couple of cases, scientists who spoke out were persecuted by the government ...

... I'll save that particular rant for another day. But, while we should certainly be angry when clear evidence is misused, I don't think we shouldn't be surprised.

Different Animals

For all its potential complexity, the job of the average scientist boils down to the search for objective truth. Absolutes. Whether it's forging a theory of everything, or designing the most efficient desk fan, science is largely about unique solutions.

It's worth remembering that politicians are not so fortunate. To them, absolutes are rare things. Their jobs depend on placating voters and negotiating the tide of public opinion - always with an eye on often ruthless power struggles within their parties. While science affords the luxury of black and white thinking, politics is a messy collage of greys.

Take the case of khat. When rigorous scientific studies found that it was not harmful enough to ban, scientifically (read: rationally) speaking, it was obvious what should happen: it should remain legal. Seen through the political lens, though, I imagine that things get a bit skewed. Outlawing khat might actually start to look like a good idea. Logical even. To look "tough on drugs" in the year before an election, for example (the UK goes to the polls in 2015). Just thinking aloud.

We rightly fume when the people we elected to protect us ignore clear evidence, epecially when it relates to something as serious as narcotics. I'm not saying it's not crazy. I'm saying it's politics. But that's not to say it shouldn't change. Or that it couldn't.

Seeds of Discontent

The khat ban marks the fourth time in nine years that a British government has criminalised a drug against the advice of, or without properly consulting, its scientific advisors. The scientific community - and rational citizens in general - must publicize such malpractice more effectively. Because by doing so, we might be able to effect change in the one arena that really sways rulers: public opinion.

Polls show that scientists are far, far more trusted than politicians. Last year, an Ipsos MORI survey found that only 18% of Britons would trust a politician to tell the truth. The figure for scientists was 83%. Accordingly, the more the latter are seen to ignore the former, the more their already shaky public image will erode. But if politicians take the iniative, and start to take the experts more seriously, then they might pick up a few of their valued percentage points.





2 Responses to “The Separation of Science and State”

  1. Philip Strange Reply | Permalink

    I agree with you that khat should not have been banned and it’s a pity that the government chooses to ignore the advice of its Drug Advisory Committee (ACMD). I wouldn’t, however, want people to equate khat use with drinking coffee.

    In the western world, coffee drinking is primarily a benign social activity. In certain communities (East African, Arabian Peninsula, immigrants to Europe from these counties) khat use also has a social function but the broader societal context is very different. Khat use is not like nipping in to Starbucks for your morning latte.

    Have a look at the ACMD report; although they recommend not banning khat, they have some pretty severe recommendations about local policy to monitor usage, they also stress how poor the current scientific evidence is:

    • Robin Wylie Reply | Permalink

      A good point well made, thanks for the input. I'll concede that my first line is a bit leading - although hopefully not outright misleading. It's certainly a true statement. David Nutt, the former chair of the ACMD, recently compared the buzz of khat to drinking four espressos - he's the "expert" I refer to; also, I believe the ACMD have also equated the dependency khat users develop to that of caffeine "addicts".

      You're absolutely right that khat is by no means equal with coffee in its effects and social connotations. I should have made that explicit in the blog. I don't think the evidence shows that it's sufficiently more dangerous to ban, though, and I played up the link to coffee in order to highlight this.

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