Sad Sacks

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

As a UK adviser is fired over politically unpalatable advice and an English teacher is suspended over an article about animal sexuality, the fate of facts is on the line.

Illustration: Mike Pick

The forced resignation of the UK science adviser David Nutt is this week’s top story. And while others have had fun with their headlines, it really is no laughing matter.

The controversy started when Nutt suggested that the UK’s move toward increasing penalties associated with marijuana and ecstasy use is not in line with data on their relative harm. On Friday, Home Secretary Alan Johnson demanded that he resign.

“He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy,” said Johnson. Prime Minister Gordon Brown backed that decision, saying that Nutt’s statement meant the government was sending “mixed messages” on drugs.

To recap: the UK government’s top science adviser on drug policy was just fired for giving advice the government didn’t like.

There’s been an outpouring of support for Nutt; at least two of his colleagues have already quit in protest, and the media response generally seems to be on his side. But there was one notable exception, courtesy of the Daily Mail: an editorial by A.N. Wilson with the epic title “Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth.” Yikes.

Things only get worse. Check out this choice line: “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.”

Right. Empirical facts don’t represent the real world, and are a bad foundation for decision-making.  That statement is so wrong, on so many levels, it makes me want to buy a plane ticket to London and smash a pint glass over someone’s head before it’s too late. See Big Think’s David Berreby for a more reasonable response. 

Sheepin’ it real

Seed was involved in its own job-jeopardizing controversy last week, when high school teacher Dan DeLong was suspended after including an article from our June 2006 issue in an assignment. The article, “The Gay Animal Kingdom” by Jonah Lehrer, is an investigation of whether Darwinian natural selection can be reconciled with homosexuality, which is found in humans and hundreds of other species. 

Though the theories of the principle source in the piece, biologist Joan Roughgarden, have been the subject of some debate in the scientific community, there’s no question that this article was a serious investigation of animal behavior and evolution. But it seems that a parent of one of the students in DeLong’s honors English class found the article inappropriate and took it to the school board. 

Fortunately, DeLong’s suspension was met by a tremendous backlash from current and former students, and was quickly overturned. The official line, as demonstrated by the forced apology read by DeLong at the end of his six-hour hearing on Monday, was that Lehrer’s article was not “age appropriate” due to its sexual language, not for its discussion of homosexuality specifically.

Which brings us to the most disturbing aspect of the whole affair. While things turned out better for DeLong than they did for Nutt, the theme running through both is that empirical facts themselves are being seen as agenda-laden.

This isn’t to say the practice of science is apolitical or immune to personal biases; indeed, Lehrer notes how Roughgarden’s sexual identity played into her research interests, and Nutt has had run-ins with the previous home secretary on the issue that got him fired.  But to say that clinical descriptions of animal sex in the context of a science article is inappropriate for 16-year-old honors students is to say the real world is inappropriate. Let’s hope the school isn’t planning any field trips to zoos; the kids could be permanently scarred by accidental exposure to real world animal behavior.

Of course, this is all taking at face value the school’s explanation that the suspension was not a result of kneejerk homophobia. (ScienceBlogger Eric M. Johnson of The Primate Diaries isn’t.) But owning up to that failing would be better than perpetrating the idea that scientific information is catering to prurient interest a la Miller v. California.

From this decision, we have the Miller test, which means that obscenity—“the morally depraved interest in sex”—is determined by community standards. And though it seems we’ve piqued a bit of that kind of prurient interest, judging by some of the search terms that have led people to “The Gay Animal Kingdom”, it’s disingenuous to suggest that that is the primary objective of articles such as Lehrer’s. Successfully railroading a teacher for making this kind of information available sets a dangerous pedagogical precedent, and totally undermines science education and journalism.

Likewise, to censure a science adviser for his suggestion that policy decisions don’t square with the science for which he is employed to be an expert completely undermines the concept of scientific advice.

If there’s one silver lining in these clouds, it’s that, evidently, the US is in good company when it comes to its refusal to conduct adult conversations regarding sex or drugs. If you think that David Nutt, were he an American adviser, would have been immune from that kind of political retribution in this post-Dubya era, take a look back at what happened to Jocelyn Elders under President Clinton.

ScienceBlogger Bioephemra has a great post on the public perception of scientific research on illicit drugs. It seems that even studies attempting to break addiction’s hold on people in dire need of help get the hairy eyeball; we’re “wasting” our money on these moral failures. Make sure you watch the sneering video from Fox and Friends at the end.

Hey, another silver lining: an expansion of my vocabulary for synonyms for “utter contempt.”

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published November 6, 2009

Tags policy politics public perception truth

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