I was enraged by the sheer, bare-faced hypocrisy and ill-deserved pomposity of this statement. As soon as a piece of research emerges which seems to vindicate a piece of legislation, the government are all over it like slavering wolves. See, they say, it just goes to show, we were right all along. But this self-righteous, sanctimonious surety reeks of disingenuousness. Do we imagine that, had the research showed otherwise, our political overlords would have said Well, you can’t say fairer than that, we’ll hasten to rectify the law? Of course not. They would bury the research far away, and, if they could, fire the individual responsible for it. I refer, of course, to the now infamous incident that Ben Goldacre has christened the Nutt Sack Affair.
In 2009 Professor David Nutt, a government advisor on the misuse of drugs, wrote an editorial in which he compared the harm caused by taking ecstasy to the harm caused by horse-riding, which he rather drolly dubbed equasy. What followed was a huge brouhaha. Jacqui Smith, who has the Home Secretary at the time, renounced Nutt for trivialising the misuse of ecstasy and forced him to issue an apology to all those families who had lost loved ones to the drug. I notice Jacqui Smith didn’t apologise to the families who had lost loved ones to horse-riding. A few months later Nutt returned to the headlines again, this time having published a pamphlet in which he suggested that drugs should be classified in terms of illegality according to how harmful they were. Following this principle he compiled his own table of drug classification which he hoped, rather optimistically, that the government would adopt. Those of you afraid that this reclassification could unleash dangerous drugs upon our children will be happy to know that under Nutt’s regime heroin and cocaine remained Class A drugs, and caffeine remained unclassified. However, cannabis and ecstasy were brought down to Class C and, most dramatically of all, alcohol and tobacco became Class B drugs. This time it was Alan Johnson, Jacqui Smith’s tentative successor, who kicked up the fuss. It was in no time at all that he, with his big Secretary of State finger, dismissed Nutt from his position as a government advisor.
Some years later I was listening to the radio when this very issue came up, and Even Davis, more I think out of mischief than sincerity, decided to defend the politicians in the whole ‘government vs. David Nutt’ debate. He suggested that the politicians might feel that while, yes, the science might show that some drugs are more harmful than others in this way, it doesn’t send out the right message to the public to overhaul the drugs classification system in such a way. Though the politicians could acknowledge the science of Nutt’s research, they could also exercise their common sense when it came to actually forming policy. Of course I’m sure, my dear readers, that you see the fatal flaw in this logic. What exactly is this common sense, that it trumps scientific evidence? Nothing more than the personal neuroses of the individuals concerned. But surely government policy should be formed on solid evidence, and as objectively as possible. What room is there for the feelings of the individuals who just happen to be in charge? What room is there for this common sense which, being based upon no substance at all, is in fact no sense – nonsense? No room. Alan Johnson defended his dismissal of David Nutt by saying that: “He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.” Here the terrible truth beings to seep in. Nutt could only be a government advisor as long as his advice was inline with government policy. Nutt, the inveterate scientist, followed an objective and evidence-based method when it came to pursuing his research, but it just wasn’t what the establishment wanted to hear. Nothing’s changed since then. In the last few days Charles Kennedy passed away following his long and arduous battle with alcoholism. Following this our TVs and radios were polluted by politicians saying that while, yes, alcoholism is a terrible problem for those who face it, in the end of the day people should have the freedom to buy and consume what they want. As long as it’s not a number of drugs which are arbitrarily classified by the government as illegal.
We come now, at last, to Semmelweis. Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor practicing in 19th century Vienna who tried to address a certain phenomenon which both puzzled and deeply distressed him. He noticed that, amongst the women giving birth in his clinics, the women who were delivered by doctors and medical students were three times more likely to succumb to childbed fever and die than those who were delivered by midwives. Even those women who gave birth in the streets had a lower maternal mortality rate than those who were being looked after by doctors. But why should this be? Semmelweis knew that the process used by his doctors and by his midwives was exactly the same – it didn’t seem to make sense. Eventually he began to suspect that it had something to do with the fact that many of the doctors and medical students would come to deliver children straight after performing autopsies (this was, of course, long before germ theory had been developed). So he commanded his doctors to wash their hands after dissecting corpses and their maternal mortality rate shot down to the same level as that of the midwives. A resounding success, wouldn’t you think?
But the medical establishment weren’t having it. They were no doubt affronted that Semmelweis was basically accusing them of killing women by being dirty. They closed their ears. In those days a jobbing doctor would have a frockcoat that he would always wear in his professional capacity. The more experienced (and therefore, better) he was, the more the frockcoat would be covered in bloody stains. A disgustingly dirty coat was a sign of great prestige amongst the doctors of the 19th century. They weren’t ready to throw all that away. It’s not that the medical establishment wanted women to die in childbirth, or that they didn’t care about the maternal mortality rate. It’s just that they were convinced that their common sense trumped Semmelweis’s evidence. They had spend so long entrenched in their ways, blindly accepting the certainties they traded with everyday, they just couldn’t even begin to see that they were wrong. So, Semmelweis was shunted from society, the maternal mortality rate soared back up to intolerable levels, and it wasn’t till decades later, when germ theory was propagated, that things began to change for the better.
Doctors, politicians, it’s not just them. This extends to all people who imagine they wield authority. All those who are blinded by their experience, who haven’t the courage and creative intelligence to entertain the possibility that they may be wrong. All those who take refuge in their common sense when confronted with reality. Let them expunge that phrase from their vocabularies. No more ‘common sense’. Let the world bloom with a thousand colours when it no longer has to hide behind the presumptions of human beings.
Image captured from Square's Chrono Trigger (1995)