Saturday, 31 October 2009

Season of Nutts and mellow fruitfulness

So Professor David Nutt has been sacked as the government's chief adviser on drugs, because he criticised the home secretary and the prime minister for not following his advice that cannabis should be classified as the lowest category C drug. I don't have much sympathy for him. Not that I'm disputing the evidence of the comparative harm of different drugs, though it's a bit naïve to compare drugs which have been legally available for centuries such as alcohol and tobacco with those that are illegal (and have a vocal lobby trying to make them legal). What the professor should be able to grasp is that advisers advise but politicians decide. And, as any afficionado of West Wing will appreciate, political decisions are seldom pure and never simple. He is quoted as saying: 'I’m not prepared to mislead the public about the harmfulness of drugs like cannabis and ecstasy. I think most scientists will see this as a further example of the Luddite attitude of this government, and possible future governments, towards science.'
As I recall, at the time of the classification of cannabis as category B by Alan Johnson's unfortunate predecessor, there was no secrecy about the advisory committee's contrary recommendation: in other words, his view was already well and truly in the public domain. And as Sir David King, the former government chief scientific adviser, rightly pointed out, it's not the role of an adviser in the pay of the government to criticise ministers - any more than civil servants may.

What struck me about Prof Nutt's comments is the dangerous subtext - that science should be all-powerful. If scientists say so, it must be true. If scientists say, 'Jump!' then we all have to jump. For one thing, scientists aren't always right, and the advice they give is not always ethical. They, like the rest of us, work within their own moral framework. No one, not even scientists, works without presuppositions. The idea that science is morally neutral is a fallacy, because it's carried out by human beings. And neither is 'Science' a moral absolute. That's because science is always provisional. The boundaries of our knowledge are continually expanding and yet always finite. Don't get me wrong! Scientific study is a wonderful thing. Personally I regard the urge to explore, research and understand as God-given, even as a form of worship - and if you don't think in those terms I regard them as the most human of activities. Like everyone with 'terminal' conditions, I hope that medical research will one day crack the code of MND and discover a cure. But actually that's not what life's all about, although it would be easy to think so. Life's about how we live with each other and how we care for each other - and that's not reducible to a statistical analysis or a formula. It's far more complex than that.

I'm sitting in the conservatory at the moment. I was inspired by Virginia Woolf to turn my comfortable chair round, so that I now look out at the back garden rather than through the house. I can see the results of Jane and Bryan's recent hard work. Autumn clearance is always tough because you have to be quite ruthless with the plants which haven't QUITE finished flowering, to make room for the spring plants. Actually we've left a few for the surprisingly late butterflies that have been hanging around. We're hoping there's enough warmth in the ground still to germinate the grass seed sown where the undergrowth was cleared away. I learned this week a new meaning of 'mellow'. Colin tells me that it's what his father used to call apples which aren't crisp - and he ought to know being from one of the local farming families. Anyway, mellow apples suit me, because they're easier now for me to chew and swallow than those horrible Granny Greens. I doubt whether that was what Keats had in mind when he talked about 'mellow fruitfulness' - but you never know.


  1. I'm not sure on what basis Nutt made his comparison, but I do know I'd much prefer a conversation with someone who'd had a glass of wine or a cigarette, than someone who'd had a joint or an ecstasy tablet.

    Speaking of political drama, have you been watching The Thick of It?

  2. I believe you. I haven't watched TTOI. Having heard a preview which said every other word was swearing, it didn't much appeal, but if that's an implied recommendation..., I might give it a go.

  3. hmm ... yes, I am afraid to say, the preview wasn't wrong. The other words can be quite funny though.