The inevitability of simplification?

Reading a recent exchange between Doug Belshaw and Dave Cormier on Doug’s blog post Gaining Some Perspective on Badges for Lifelong Learning prompted me to think about the role of simplicity and simplification in teaching and learning. You may wish to check the discussion yourself but I think Dave’s point is to claim simple solutions are possible for complex problems is tantamount to denying the underlying complexity itself. This is argued against Doug’s position that a possible approach to the problem of complexity is to try and provide simple solutions.

I’m with Dave in that I believe reality is ‘actually’ (ontologically) complex, uncertain, multilayered, emergent, and in important ways underdetermined and contingent. I am with Doug in that we have to simplify in order to understand and act. I say ‘have to’ because I don’t believe we have any choice in the matter. If this is correct the question is not whether we should simplify or not. The question is how to simplify without compromising our aims and objectives. This means that our simplifications must map onto actual features of the complex processes we wish to understand and intervene in and find ways to do this that minimise the influence of ideologically informed wishful thinking. I guess this is just another way of saying that some simplifications are better than others and so the debate is about how we can make these distinctions rather than do we simplify or not.

Simplification is what language does (and this includes the language of mathematics). We could not grasp the world or communicate without constructing concepts and categories. Language is profoundly metaphorical. It is a symbolic representation based on multiple forms of simplification – metaphor, similes, signifiers, concepts and categories. This is evident in our most developed forms of knowledge. In sociology we have Weber’s ideal types, Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity, anomie and alienation, competing models of class structure, the construction and selection of independent and dependent variables, and so on. It hardly needs emphasising that the crude mathematical simplifications constructed by mainstream economics are so far divorced from the complexity of the real world of ‘economic’ behaviour and the systemic features of human groups and societies that they are a significant part of the story of our recent woes. It is an interesting lesson that the increasing complexity of the economic ‘engineers’ mathematical models did not bring them one iota closer to predicting or even providing an explanation of the crash. Increasing complexity of the models did not lead to a better fit to the actual complexity of the processes being modelled. Complexification does not automatically equate to the improved ontological fit of the model

In the natural sciences it was Thomas Kuhn (developing the ideas of the scientist Ludvig Fleck) who first demonstrated that scientific theories are simplifications and, as such, develop increasing numbers of unexplainable (in the terms of the current theory) anomalies that scientists initially protect their theories from. Then, at some point, a competing theory is sufficiently developed to both explain what the old theory did and the anomalies. Although this pattern of scientific change is not without its critics and problems there are many historical examples of this sort of process. In physics, from the point of view of the theory of relativity Newtonian Mechanics is a simplification and incorrect in a number of demonstrable ways, despite being adequate for getting humans on the Moon. In geology, the simplification of geological processes according to the once dominant ‘fixist’ theory was shown to be fundamentally flawed with the discovery of the much more complex theory of plate tectonics (the mobilists).

History seems to suggest that simplification is inevitable and unavoidable but the simplifications improve in the face of their application in research and in practical application in the real world. Very often the theories and models become less simple, knowledge more esoteric, but they remain simplifications none-the-less.

As a teacher dealing with complex issues (for instance the relation between history, politics, culture, science, technology, economics, society, ecosystems, etc. in my Society and the Environment module) I am constantly simplifying in order to complexify later. This is, I think, my approach to my own learning as well as teaching. But I am the simplifier and as such make the decisions about what is central to understanding, what can be ignored for current purposes (who’s purpose? my purpose?) and what can be left in black boxes that can be opened later as part of the complexifying process. So simplicity always involves selection on the basis of some criteria, some explicit and known but others due to factors embedded in language, common-sense and taken for granted, unexamined, assumptions. This seems to me to be inevitable. But I have a particular world view and value orientation that leads me to select theorists, data, examples and arguments that emphasise the role and effects of globalising footloose capitalism and its neoliberal underpinnings. I think this is essential to understanding environmental issues. But it would be possible to construct an account of the environmental issues based entirely on a Whig history of science and technology for instance that takes for granted precisely what I want to bring a critical gaze to. My students know exactly what my position is and the assumptions and values that inform my approach to understanding and explanation. They know this because I tell them and then exemplify them in my approach. They are privy to the process of my knowledge construction. They know I am offering a particular view and they can see the nuts and bolts of my construction process. The discussion of the process is integral to the discussion of the knowledge claims. I would argue that exposure to this process is at least as important and maybe more so than the packaged simplifications I offer.

Gramsci said in his article about popular education (Avanti, 29 December 1916) that his most effective teachers where those that insisted students should know about the long, messy social history of the making of the current knowledge they were being asked to learn. This demonstrates an element of contingency in knowledge, at the very least the existence of two entwined strands in the history of knowledge, what Bachelard called lapsed and sanctioned histories. A key result of this approach is that students become aware that knowledge is a moment in a process of change, not a body of final truths and techniques. As students they are entering this process, not consuming its current manifestations as a product or outcome. I guess my approach to the inevitability of simplification is to embrace it but at the same time historicise and problematise it.

As a footnote to this post, I recently came across the video of Richard Sennett’s  Compass Annual Lecture 2012  entitled The Craft of Cooperation in which he expressed some interesting ideas on the pernicious use of simplification. The relevant section of the video is between 20 minutes 20 seconds and 23 minutes 35 seconds although I would recommend the whole lecture. Sennett makes a distinction between declarative speech and subjunctive speech. Declarative speech is basically this is what I think, take it or leave it. It forecloses on the possibility of ambiguity, discussion and negotiated meaning. When people say I want to be as clear as possible they usually simplify and try to be as precise as possible. But, in Sennett’s view, socially this forecloses the ability to have a discussion. He prefers the subjunctive mode of speech that includes maybes and perhapses. I’d be interested to know what others think of Sennetts ideas here. My feeling is that no doubt he is right some of the time but this by no means covers all of what I mean by simplification and its possible roles. There are modes of simplification in different contexts and they do not all foreclose on ambiguity and discussion. You can simplify in the subjunctive mode of speech as well as the declarative. I would like to think I teach and engage in discussion very much in the subjunctive mode. But perhaps not always.

Economics as capitalist science

On Monday 6th February I went to the first in a series of introductory lectures and discussions on economics, Crashing Through Capital: An Introduction to Economics, hosted by The Really Open University at the Space Project. The lecture was given by David Harvie, an economist at the University of Leicester. This post summarises some of the key points and issues as they struck me, so it will not be a detailed transcript of the lecture or the Q&As. A recording of the lecture was made and hopefully this will be made available on-line in due course. If so, I’ll link from here. David has given permission for his slides to be attached to this post – Economists and Commoners (slides).

David opened the lecture by questioning if it was necessary or useful for us, as lay people and activists, to learn about economics. He made it quite clear very early on that establishment economics, which he referred to as a capitalist science, is highly problematic and in some particulars simply wrong. None-the-less we need to know about it so as not to be deceived by it. As, metaphorically speaking, economics functions as a sort of handbook for capitalism, we need to study it in order to ‘know the enemy’.

He made a distinction between two approaches to economics as a discipline – the positive versus the normative. The positive view sees economics as a science that reports on the way the economy works. It claims to be a neutral account, just like any other science, that simply tells us the way it is with no value assumptions or axes to grind. Opposed to this is the view that economics should be normative. It should be based upon and express values. It should be concerned with value judgements about how economies should work, the way society should be. It is clear that the positive view and its assumption of value freedom are highly problematic. David drew our attention to this but did not elaborate. Sufficient to say that the claim that science is value free and simply produces objective models of reality has long been discredited. There is no such thing as a value free science and therefore no such thing as a value free economics. Positive economics that claims to be value free is in fact shaped by values whether its practitioners and advocates realise it or not. In practice these unacknowledged values are based on some underlying assumptions including that capitalist economies are in some way natural.

David introduces another perspective on economics that he favours. Economics is performative. Economics doesn’t just describe the world; it is the basis of policy and action and is instrumental in shaping society and producing aspects of its reality. This is why he is ambivalent about just claiming establishment economics is wrong. It is certainly demonstrably wrong in some of its assumptions about society, human nature and so on. But there is some sense in which it is correct simply because the world it describes has been partly produced according to its theories and models. It studies and describes phenomenon that to some extent have been produced and made real according to its dictates and templates. It is correct in much the same way that a plan (say of a road system) becomes a map once the plan has been carried out and there is a reality that corresponds to the plan. There is a long tradition for this sort of thinking. I immediately thought of W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), the American sociologists whose famous theorem was “if men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Today readers may be more familiar with something like Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ perhaps.

We then had a brief tour of historically influential economists that still shape economics today, starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations. Smith is the founder of political economy, the forerunner of modern economics. Using a series of quotations David established three basic tenets of economics that still inform the discipline today – individuals are selfish, they have a natural propensity to truck and barter, and therefore markets are natural. In addition, when individuals seek their own advantage (as they do naturally due to their inherent selfishness) the cumulative consequence of this benefits the whole of society as if guided by an invisible hand. (Once someone mentions ‘unintended consequences’ my sociological antennae begin to quiver. One description of sociology is the study of the unintended consequences of human behaviour). These assumptions are still alive and well (or ill) in modern economic theory – markets are natural and are the most efficient allocator of goods, the trickledown effect, human beings are naturally rational economic actors (homo economicus), and so on. David appeals to a variety of writers and anthropological evidence to call these assumptions into question and asserts that in practice there is virtually no empirical, historical or anthropological evidence to support any of them. For instance there is virtually no evidence that markets in the truck and barter sense existed prior to capitalism. What economics assumes is natural about today’s economy is actually produced by capitalism and the capitalist state. David referred to the work of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But despite some of his assumptions being incorrect, Smith’s account of the economy was not wrong in any simple way. He described what he saw and offered an explanation for it but in doing so helped to shape the processes he was describing. In this sense his economics was performative. His ideas helped create markets that had not existed earlier and in his own time were highly contested, for instance the food riots where people wanted to pay what they saw as the moral, fair, price rather than what the merchant could get by keeping the produce and taking it to market. The food was taken and sold at the fair price, the money taken being returned to the merchant. This account was taken from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and a later essay, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (1971).

One of the most original and influential insights Adam Smith had was the centrality of human labour to the production of wealth. Before him wealth was seen as arising from the land and agriculture (the Physiocrats) or from minerals like gold and silver (the Mercantilists). He recognised that wealth was produced by human labour but couldn’t explain how it was produced; where profit came from. The answer to this riddle was provided by Karl Marx. At this point David gave a brief explanation of Marx’s theory of value (value basically means profit). In summary, the labourer sells his capacity to work to the capitalist employer for a specified working day. The time it takes to produce the value that covers his wage is, say, four hours. This means that in a twelve hour day (not uncommon then), for the remaining eight hours the value of goods produced goes entirely to the owner. The owner can increase profits in a number of ways. One is to extend the length of the working day so the worker works more hours producing profit beyond his or her wages. Another method is to shorten the number of hours it takes for the worker to create the value of his wages. This latter strategy can be accomplished by either making the labourer work harder and faster or by making the worker more efficient, perhaps by reorganising the work or introducing new tools or technology. Of course both can happen – the lengthening of the working day and the improvement of the workers’ productivity. In practice, as the position of workers has become more powerful (for a number of reasons including collective organisation) the working day has tended to shorten but profits have been increased by increasing productivity – the intensification of labour. But it is the production of value over and above the wages paid that is the source of profit. Of course it is more complicated than this, for instance profit is increasingly made from rent rather than directly from human productive labour, for instance software licenses and other intellectual assets. But it is still the case that the majority of wealth is created ultimately by paying workers less than the value of their work. In this sense the the capitalist labour relation is essentially exploitative, however benignly you care to interpret that term.

Maynard Keynes partyingIn contrast to this we were then introduced to John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), quite a party animal according to David.  Keynes, although radical in his approach to economics with his analysis of the demand side of the economy and the economic role of the state, was by no means anti-capitalist. David illustrated Keynes position with a number of apposite quotations. Keynes was more realistic about how the economy works, recognising that to some extent markets have to be produced and enabled by supporting the conditions for consumer demand. There is no point in capitalist enterprise producing more and cheaper goods if they stay in the warehouses for want of buyers. In the early days of capitalist production the wages of the labouring classes were rarely much above subsistence, if that. Most manufactured goods were sold to relatively wealthy customers. But as production increased the working classes gradually became important as consumers as well as producers. The tendency had been to drive wages down to increase profits but once profits also depended on the purchasing power of the workers in expanding markets the capitalist was faced with something of a contradiction – two drivers of capitalist development that seemed to pull in opposite directions. To some extent the welfare state, inspired in part by Keynes’ argument that the State had a role in supporting the demand for goods, offered a solution to this dilemma by promoting consumption by state expenditure, effectively putting money into the economy and people’s pockets. The freeing and encouragement of debt has had a similar function in recent decades. So like the previous orthodox economics, Keynes’ theory was a theory of the capitalist economy but one that recognised how the modern economy worked in the early 20th century rather than based upon an idealised version of how it worked in the late 18th century. And like previous economics it was performative in that it shaped the reality it described via government policy. Economics is performative in the sense that it is prescriptive as well as descriptive.

However, despite Keynesian economics achieving near orthodoxy in the post WWII era of reconstruction and development, it was largely defeated in the 1970s with the return of something like the positive economics based on the ideas of Adam Smith. There are a number of complex reasons for this including a world recession, globalisation and so on but these were not covered in this lecture. The current performative economics is now represented by the neo-liberal and Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker whose acceptance speech was published as Human Capital (subtitled A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education). David suggested we might like to read this as a paradigmatic example of current neoliberal economic thinking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and found it thought provoking. It left me with a number of questions. David implied (although didn’t say) that the improving share of wealth the working class achieved over the best part of 300 years was due largely to their increasing power and resistance through organisation and collective action. Also, by implication, he suggested that the dramatic fall in that share since the mid 1970s is largely due to the weakening of working class power. Undoubtedly this is of central importance but the rise and fall of the fate of the working classes, including the managerial and administrative classes, is tied to a number of systemic features of a now global capitalist economy that I think we may be addressing in future meetings for this course. My other main reflection is that the lecture and presumably future lectures focus on and study economics as a performative discipline. However, what emerges from this first lecture is the notion that the concept ‘economy’ as used in economics is an abstraction from a social reality where ‘the economic’ does not exist as an isolated separate sphere of behaviour or social process. A critical stance towards economics as a discipline exposes its ideological and partial (and historically contingent) nature and therefore demonstrates the necessity to go beyond the bounds of orthodox economics to make sense of living and working in late modernity. I guess this is what a sociologist would say.

I have reconstructed this account from my near unreadable notes. I would be very happy if anyone else at the lecture wants to take issue with any of this or add anything I’ve missed. Please leave a comment.


For a more detailed account of the way capitalism accumulates value, its impact on the division of labour today and some of the political consequences, in his view, you might find Zizek’s recent article in the London Review of Books interesting . The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie is a short post here and a link to the original article.

I was very interested in what David had to say about the notion of a moral economy. I found the following article about E. P. Thompson’s ideas on this – Moral Economy as an historical social concept.

An interesting paper by Ben Fine (who David referred to as a Marxist economist and a critic of Gary Becker’s neoliberal fundamentalism)  that outlines Fine’s view of modern classical economics, its exclusion of society and even an understanding of its own history, its assumptions and narrow focus, etc. is Economics Imperialism and Intellectual Progress: The Present as History of Economic Thought?

Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming

Provisional notes. To cleaned up when slides obtained and before communicating with Earth and Environment for discussion.

The Centre for Canadian Studies and the School of Earth and Environment, both of the University of Leeds, present ‘Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming’, a lecture on both the history and the future of the science of global warming. The acclaimed Canadian scientist and author, Dr. Andrew Weaver, will explore how international policy, media portrayal and technological solutions can all impact climate change, ultimately asking how modern society can turn the challenge of global warming to potential creativity and innovation. The lecture will take place on Monday, 31st October, 5pm-7pm, in Room 8.119 at the School of Earth and Environment.

Convincing account of the science of climate change. Showed the political  and age demographic of those most likely to doubt climate change is happening. Right wing and older.

Demonstrates that the agreed carbon emission targets designed to keep us below the 2 degrees ‘guard rail’ , even if we succeeed in meeting them, will not limit us to 2 degrees and 4 or more is likely.

Why scientists are bad communicators to the public. Always frame their answers with conditions and uncertainties. E’g of ‘is the sky blue?’ Also misrepresented in the media. Policies needed now to get results for future generations in 50 or more years. Not politically powerful compared with hospitals and so on – the 5 year election cycle. Bottom line: do we owe anything to future generations?

Showed how the  less developed nations who contribute less towards the problem are the most likely to be affected and the least able to mitigate or ameliorate. A Canadian emits250 time more carbon than an Ethiopian, e.g.

Continued growth on present scales is unsustainable. Equilibrium will be met but may not include humans. Gave the tragedy of the commons as a reason why we are in trouble. Individual advantage of an extra cow on the commons while costs are shared with all the others. But breaks down if all follow the same logic. Tend towards over grazing and destruction of the resource. Advocated technology as a solution – solar panels would only take up a very small are of the planet for instance. In addition the externalities should be priced in to reflect the true scarcity and cost of the resources used so that the markets work efficiently. In answer to questions about capitalism he said that a fixed capitalism woudl be prefereble to a Chinese command economy and would be possible. Why not have corporations that, having achieved a certain level of production, flatten and stop growth? A zero growth capitalism is possible.

How would this address issues of equality, equity and environmental justice? Reminiscent of Urry’s point, hopefully made tomorrow, that climate policy is framed almost exclusively in terms of science and technology coupled to a flawed and crude economic theory as a surrogate for social science. Weaver’s account of policy implications demonstrates this quite well.


Who is running GM food policy?

This has been a busy week for reporting on GM food issues. It started on the 2nd June with the announcement of the resignation of Professor Brian Wynne from his position as Vice Chair of the Food Standards Agency Steering Group on GM food. Brian Wynne is an acknowledged expert on the sociology of science and on the public understanding of science. This announcement was closely followed on the 4th June with a report that the new Secretary for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, supports the introduction and development of GM crops in the UK (Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman backs GM crops).

The FSA Steering Group Brian Wynne sat on has the brief to “shape and manage a public dialogue on food and the use of genetic modification..” (Food: The Use of Genetic Modification – A Public Dialogue). The gist of his complaint and the main reason he resigned was that the “shape” of the public dialogue was being heavily influenced towards a pro GM stance despite the Group’s Terms of Reference stating that no interest should be allowed to dominate and, according to the Group’s Agreed Aims and Objectives, no particular conclusions and outcome should be presumed. In practice the orchestrated and manipulated public dialogue will amount to vast sums of public money being spent to bring the public round to accepting GM foods and the biotechnology industry’s version of their safety for humans and the environment and their benefits for food production.

One of Professor Wynne’s closely related criticisms of the process is that the narrow scientific framing of GM issues ignores the important social, political and ethical aspects of the GM debate. “Genetically modifying food is having devastating impacts in parts of the developing world like South America, where rain-forests and communities are being wiped out to make way for vast GM soy plantations that provide animal feed for UK factory farms.” The scientific framing of the issues tends to focus on field and laboratory trials, local ecological impacts and possible consequences for human health (not that these are in anyway settled yet) rather than, for instance, the consequences of a small number of large corporations having private control of the global food chain (for instance through the patenting and ownership of the technology) or the geographically dispersed political and cultural impacts.

An even more recent report (Sunday 6th May GM lobby helped draw up crucial report on Britain’s food supplies) may well add substance to Brian Wynne’s concerns. It is claimed that there has been close collaboration with powerful biotechnology interests in the production of the FSA’s 2009 GM Crops and Foods document that led to and shaped the terms of reference of the Public Dialogue initiative. The Guardian report also claims the GM interests may have been involved in choosing the membership of the Steering Group.

In his letter of resignation Brian Wynne is incensed that the Chair of the FSA, Lord Rooker, (apparently a GM enthusiast) condemned both the critics of the FSA’s position on GM and the general public (who are to be engaged in unbiased, open and transparent dialogue) as “unscientific”. Apart from betraying the bias of Lord Rooker, this belittles concerns over the social and ethical consequences of the development of GM crops and allows the ‘science’ to dictate – explicitly and implicitly – the political and social policy debates. It seems the Public Dialogue project may well become an example of this process and be worth keeping an eye on, given the Chair of the FSA’s and the Secretary for the Environment’s expressed views in advance of the public dialogue and any public consultation.


The new Secretary for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, recently resigned as a director of the food and biotechnology lobbying company Spelman, Cormack andAssociates which she started with her husband in 1989. It doesn’t appear to have a web site.

Brian Wynne was a key speaker at the BSA President’s event last February, Putting Society into Climate Change. His presentation, although not about GM crops specifically, does give GM science based policy as an example why environmental issues cannot be seen as purely technical and scientific issues. With hindsight you can hear the concern that led to his resignation today. The podcast of his BSA presentation is available from the BSA PG Forum: The BSA Presidential Event was the subject of a post on this blog – How to put society into climate change. The post contains a short description of Brian Wynnes’s talk and the point he made about science based GM policy.

The full text of Brian Wynne’s resignation from the FSA GM Steering Group

Caroline Spelman’s former directorship of the food and biotechnology lobbying company Spelman, Cormack and Associates.
Spelman, 52, set up the firm with her husband, Mark Spelman, in 1989.

Expert knowledge and public policy

In May 2008 the then Home Secretary Jaqui Smith, against the recommendations of her own scientific advisers, reversed the government’s 2004 decision to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug, returning it to its previous status of class B. The reclassification came into effect January 2009. This reclassification caused controversy at the time but this has recently re-emerged with the publication of a paper by Professor Nutt who, until he was sacked last Friday, was chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In the paper Nutt criticised the reclassification of cannabis and the government’s use of the precautionary principle to justify so doing. He claimed that by invoking the precautionary principle politicians had distorted and devalued the research evidence. In a recent appearance on BBC’s Question Time (Thursday 29th October) where Nutt’s paper was raised Smith again supported the use of the precautionary principle on the grounds that psychiatrists’ reports and police views on the development of new stronger types of cannabis indicate greater mental health risks. In the government’s judgement the trends in the increasing strength of cannabis and these reports indicate the possibility of health risks they are not prepared to take. The government’s responsibility is to make decisions and be accountable for them. Advisors are required only give to advice.

A number of interesting issues arise from this fracas. One key issue is the relationship between expert and scientific knowledge and the making of law and public policy. In his latest book, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Zizek tells the story of how in 2007 in the Czech Republic a public debate raged about the proposed installation of US Army radars on Czech territory. Despite about 70% of the population not wanting this the government refused the demand for a referendum and allowed the installation of the radars to go ahead on the grounds that important decisions are not matters that can be decided by voting and that they should be left to the experts, in this case military experts on matters of National security. As Zizek observes, if this logic is carried to its conclusion what is there left to vote for? Should not economic decisions, for instance, be left to economic experts?

A related issue is that the nature of scientific knowledge is nearly always provisional. As most scientists would tell us, it is the best we have at the moment and is rarely certain. In addition, scientific knowledge is always partial in that it tends to focus on artificially separated and therefore ‘decontextualised’ aspects of the reality scientists are seeking to describe and understand. It is precisely because of this that the application of scientific and expert knowledge to social policy cannot be seen as some automatic translation of science into policy. The policy decision-making process has to allow for the provisional nature of scientific and expert knowledge and address the connecting and wider aspects of the policy making context that the scientific evidence does not address. This can be further complicated where there are competing accounts of the science within the scientific community, for instance apparent contradictions between laboratory findings and observations in the field.

As it happens, on the balance of the evidence and arguments as I understand them, I do not agree with the reclassification of cannabis and I do agree with the thrust of Nutt’s criticism of the current drug classification system and drug policy. However, the basis of his complaint that the scientific evidence has been distorted and devalued is problematic as this implies that without the alleged distortion the policy following on from the science would be self-evident. I think the government could have constructed discussable grounds for reclassifying cannabis and at the same time been perfectly respectful of the scientific evidence. The insistence that government has to take into account a range of other issues and considerations beyond the scientific evidence is correct.

On the other hand, I think Nutt’s sacking by the current Home Secretary ill advised and counter productive. Professor Nutt’s opinions and comments are valuable contributions to public understanding and debate, a debate the government should engage in intelligently and constructively. It would have been far better to engage in a public discussion of the various factors and other forms of evidence and opinion that went into the decision to reclassify cannabis. This would include the psychiatrist’s and police opinions and experience Smith alluded to in Question Time and a measured consideration of the views of social and health welfare professionals and those working in the front line of drug use and abuse. However, why this approach was not adopted by the government may have something to do with Lembit Opik’s charge made in the same Question Time discussion, that it the reclassification smacked of vote catching policy making intended to appeal to the readership of  the red tops. The history of government’s exercise of the precautionary principle demonstrates a somewhat cynical and selective attitude to its deployment. On what grounds was it not deployed by the Conservative government during the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis in the 80s and 90s? At the time the government made strenuous efforts to dismiss public fears and the views of experts on the possibility that BSE could be transmitted to humans. In 1995 John Major, Prime Minister at the time, based the government’s attitude and policy on the view that: “There is currently no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes CJD in humans. That issue is not in question”. This was in the face of a great deal of evidence from scientists that this could not be discounted and was in fact probable. It is undoubtedly true that a variety of other forms of evidence, opinion and experience needs to provide a broader context to how scientific evidence is used in policy making. There are factors and issues that have to be considered that individual pieces of scientific knowledge do not, and by themselves cannot, address. However, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the reactions of target voters and possible economic consequences will figure high in a government’s priorities. In fact it would be naïve to suppose otherwise.