Science and substances

The case of Professor Nutt, lately chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has been the subject of much recent debate. He has by overly focusing on what he sees as the science, and by failing to take into account wider social and moral issues, gained the notoriety he was probably seeking and the opprobrium he deserved.  I don’t claim for a second to be an expert but I will comment on what I do know.

His claim that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than many illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and cannabis, is bizarre, his methodology suspect.  They are so radically different in their effects, they cannot be compared.

He claims that ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding. As the Home Secretary wrote to the Guardian:  ‘There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.’

Death is but a small, albeit more permanent, part of the damage ecstasy can do. Ecstasy may be safe is small doses and the short term for most, but for some it has an immediate and very damaging psychological impact, which can last for months or years. Longer term the effects on those who have no short-term effects from the drug are unknown. It is irresponsible to make a public judgement about a drug on the basis of one headline-catching fact, and downplay its other consequences.

Likewise, cannabis, about the reclassification of which Prof Nut went public, in my own experience (which goes back many years but is significant) impacts perception in a way quite different and more insidious than moderate doses of alcohol.

Prof Nutt when challenged agreed that a Royal Commission on the subject of the decriminalisation of drugs would be a good idea. I part company with him sharply here too. It may be that decriminalisation would spare a multitude of minor offenders a criminal record, and make treatment more accessible, but more than balancing that is the damage that freely available drugs would do. If all were as harmless as alcohol in moderate quantities then we’d have little to worry about. But a multitude of drugs with the capacity to do a multitude of harms, and freely available, is a recipe for social licence and social disaster.

If you dictate a note of moralising in my tone you are right to do so. We’re talking here not only about social consequences broadly defined but of the deeply personal consequences for all those who suffer as a result of drug  misuse and for all those who would be more likely to do so if an abundance of routes to recreational escape and ecstasy were available.

I leave to last the very dubious nature of the classification chart that Prof Nott used to make his case. He claims that ‘alcohol ranks as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco is ranked ninth. Cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, while harmful, are ranked lower at 11, 14 and 18 respectively’.

Nutt and colleagues used three factors to determine the harm associated with any drug: the physical harm to the user, the drug’s potential for addiction and the impact on society of drug use. The researchers then asked two groups of experts to assign scores to twenty different drugs. Each category is given the same weighting, which is enough in itself to invalidate the process.

The categories themselves are deeply suspect and to a layman look to be an inappropriate basis for scientific analysis. Psychological harm, arguably the most insidious and damaging factor of all, comes under the heading physical harm, when it has to be considered in its own right. Addiction is an extension of psychological harm, with its own specific social consequences. Countless people suffer lonhg-term psychological harm without becoming addicted, or indeed suffering from schizophrenia , another of the extreme conditions (death – see earlier – is another) which Prof Nutt uses to over-simplify the argument.

Sadly it seems much may be explained by Prof Nutt’s role as a psychopharmacologist, with links to the drug industry, and a pro-drug (anti-depressants) and anti-psychotherapy (an oversimplification, but broadly true) stance. In other words he is parti pris, on one side of an old argument, to many the wrong side, and an inappropriate person to be heading up a government body. I have to wonder why he was appointed to chair the Advisory Council in the first place.

Prof Nutt’s categories are a poor basis for research. Scientists have responsibilities to society but also to their own science. Prof Nutt has failed on both counts. If by their actions they discredit science they do great damage, and an over-focus on the supposed verities of their own specific disciplines, combined in this case with a suspect methodology, has just that effect.


We don’t often associate virtues with public life. Virtue in the singular, yes, that’s open to our own personal definition, and we can be very free with damning those who, or whose policies, we don’t like.  I’ve been thinking rather on virtues in the plural, specific virtues, present often in our relationships with loved ones and family, but harder to find in social and especially political life.

Patience, humility, giving, silence all come to mind. It’s easy to argue that it would be a funny old world if we practised them all. So we don’t think we have to bother too much. We’d all be waiting, deferring to the next man or woman, giving until we had nothing to give, and we wouldn’t be communicating either. The world would grind to a halt.

Or would it?

Let’s take silence. We usually think of silence as the opposite of noise. We take a break and maybe a few deep breaths, but while we’re silent the noise in our heads keeps thundering on.  Or maybe we meditate, and still the noise, but when we stop the noise comes flooding back. We’re playing a game of opposites.

It doesn’t matter what kind of noise it is, we’re only comfortable when there is noise. TV, radio, the press all keep up an endless cacophony, distracting us taking over our lives, and kidding is that their agenda of fame and fortune, love and hate, pride and prejudice, achievement and failure are our agendas too.

And then when there’s no-one around it’s the noise of our own thoughts, dwelling on past happinesses or hurts, present issues, future plans. Deep down we daren’t do without them, because if we did we tell ourselves we’d be bored, and we’d be frightened. We’d equate silence with solitude, and solitude with loneliness.

So arguing for silence that isn’t a temporary respite but is our real nature isn’t going to be easy.  We’ll instinctively resist because that’s the way our lives are programmed.

But it’s only if we understand silence that we understand how all the noise of life traps us, carries us along, sets its own agenda, and turns us into people we’re not – with all the hurts and jealousies and triumphs that normally mark the passage of time.

‘If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts…’ (Thomas Merton) Merton was a Benedictine monk, a Trappist, and for him it was Christ who spoke in the silence.

For Buddhists silence is an aspect of emptiness, where we escape all the trappings and myriad identities of self.  

For followers of the Tao in silence we find the rhythm of life, which Merton also well understood when he wrote that the rhythm of life ‘develops in silence’.

For all three in silence we abandon our sense of self, and if we abandon self we find a freedom we didn’t know existed.

Real silence, where we experience life as it really is, not a rush of noise and words, doesn’t separate us from the world, but commits us to it. We sense not only the deeper rhythms of life, in nature, in waking and sleeping, eating, working and playing, we also sense the suffering and the disharmonies that break those rhythms.  

Some of us will look inward, to discover something deeper if we can, others will look out, out into the wider world, and out of the silence find a commitment to social justice, equal opportunity, integrity,  compassion, to allow the natural rhythms to reassert themselves.

Nelson Mandela comes of course to mind, as one who has found calm in the storm. There are one or two others who approximate, but how can you find calm when there is no room for silence?

What are then the characteristics of a life of silence lived in the world?

Silence challenges the world, and all our actions. We aren’t apart from the world, but engaged with it, but it is compassion not emotion and self-interest that drive that engagement.

Self is all about assertion, making our mark. Silence recognises how absurd all that self-promotion can be, and let’s compassion show the way.  

Silence goes deep, goes to the very heart of us. If we have opinions about silence, if we see silence as ‘time off’, if it’s just one state of mind among others, if it’s something we think we can dip in and out of, then we don’t understand it. Silence isn’t an intellectual state, a function of a rational mind, silence is the mind itself, silence is that point at which you can go no further, when freed from the everyday we can appreciate the wonder of existence, and show thankfulness (to what or whom in this context doesn’t matter) for being a part of it.

Silence is then also our lodestone, our measuring rod. If we get too drawn into the world, silence can pull us back from all the pride and anger and anxiety than can mislead us, and our fellows.

Some of us may retreat from the day-to-day to find silence, and there’s a danger that silence once found may become escape. If that’s the case we’ve lost our way, defined silence in terms of self. Silence isn’t about activity or inactivity, it’s more akin to standing on a set of scales and seeking instinctively to balance them.  There’s nothing abrupt or rushed about balancing.

Silence is to be found in meditation but more importantly it is part of the very fabric of life. Just as for Buddhists form and emptiness are interwoven, so action and silence are interwoven, the one impossible without the other.

For politicians silence should be a key part of their understanding, so they can bring an objective focus, even-handedness, calmness of mind and compassion to their activities. We should welcome silence instead of answers, be wary of instant responses, opposed to TV, radio or newspaper journalists who press for them. We should recognise that if they have time to reflect they are as likely to change their minds as the rest of us, and we shouldn’t hold it against them if they do.

So, finally, back to our starting-point, and going one step further, are silence and a social and political agenda inconsistent?  Do we need righteous anger, fear of suffering, pride in our achievements and even our country to drive humanity forward, recognising that even the stop-start progress, close-to-the-brink events of the last century are better than quiescence?

Well, yes we do, up to a point. Our day-to-day world will never know silence. There’s too much potential for disturbance in the briefest social encounter, a missed opportunity, even a grey or wet day. On a larger scale a minor perturbation becomes a massive injustice, and it’s those imbued with righteous anger who will be the first into the trenches to fight. But conflict is ultimately resolved by coming together, by compassion, and at the heart of compassion is silence, the still small voice at our core.

So I’ll keep my interest in politics, and argument, in film and fiction, but I’ll also keep alive within me that silent core to take me back to my real self if I ever venture out too far.


The argument about altruism lurks just below the surface in many debates. In Superfreakonomics it’s addressed head on, with evidence cited that suggests that it’s maximising gains that matters, and that we don’t have an offsetting innate sense of fairness. Matthew Taylor’s response in his blog is too cautious. ‘Even if we think human beings are, in their interactions with strangers, overwhelmingly self interested this doesn’t mean we should be champions of laissez faire economics and a minimal state. The reverse could be true.’

Taylor allows the altruism argument to go by default here. It’s one thing for research to suggest that the generality of people behave according to self-interest. It is something else to assert that everyone behaves that way, that it’s human nature. It could equally be argued that beneath the carapace of self-interest we use to protect ourselves there is an innate sense of the worth of others, an innate sense of fairness.

We look beyond all our delusions, our fears, our pride, and what do we find? Still the same self-interest, or instead a sense of the worth of others that we’ve hitherto denied? We see that worth in our family, our parents, children, close friends – leastways many of us do. But we too often deny it to those beyond our family and any local groups we’re affiliated to.

The Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa, harmlessness, is helpful here. It means doing harm to no-one and as far as possible no creature and, taking it further, no-thing. If we can only appreciate the sense of freedom that comes from following this path, and the joy we experience, then it’s so much easier to argue that helping others is innate.

The argument it seems to me should not be about whether or not altruism is a part of human nature, but rather about how that altruism can be allowed to express itself.

Going back to the Cameron post-bureaucratic model if we want to remove pressure from above and argue for engagement and accountability below, then we do have to accept that we will be acting out of altruism and not enlightened self-interest. I don’t believe in a social order where we act in a social manner because we have to, aware that if we don’t society will implode. There simply isn’t enough glue in the notion to hold society together.

Society in a Hobbsian sense is no more than survival management, with mechanisms imposed to save us from ourselves, and we should expect to move from crisis to crisis, holding on by the skin of our teeth.

Society as a moral entity is something very different. It functions not because we seek an accommodation with others, or contribute in some indeterminate way to the general will, but because we seek the betterment of others. In the absence of a generally-recognised external morality to provide a motivating force, we have to find it within ourselves.

Unfashionable as an argument because the consensus holds that morality belongs to the private, not the public sphere – and should stay there. That fundamentally, Mr Cameron, is what has to change.

Getting engaged (2)

I’ve already has a brief look in an earlier blog at aspects of the criminal justice system, where the wrong conclusions have been drawn, and the argument for more prisons and prison places has driven the debate. But we also read in both the Economist and Prospect about attempts in the USA and now in Glasgow to implement a much more locally-based approach to dealing with macho street culture by calling in and engaging with local gang members. With significant reductions in violence and murder it’s a policy which is already proving how much more effective engagement (however difficult) can be. This is just the kind of approach I would expect Cameron and his team to be arguing, but instead we’ve a focus on incarceration. Good for the grass-roots, bad for making any real progress with the issues of crime reduction.


Turning to education we have Michael Gove, who to his great credit has put himself and his policies on the line, out there, radical, and at the core of Tory thinking after their expected victory, which isn’t to say that there isn’t something wild and worrying, and overly top-down, about much of what he has to say.

Why wild?

Giving parents the right to set up new schools, for one. In an area where provision needs to be planned and balanced, intended for the good of all, reliant on experience and employing best practice, this seems quite simply to be dangerous. Parents have expectations of the best for their children but they have no insights into education as such, other than what their own education has given them. They don’t normally have expertise to bring to bear, and if they have ideas about education they are as like as not to be doctrinaire, backing their own ideas and assumptions. The most vociferous parents are likely to win out, without any regard for what the real best interests of children and schools may be.

Most parents don’t want involvement in the running of schools. They recognise their own limitations of time and experience. They are willing to trust the experts in teaching and also in school administration, which as anyone who has ventured near it knows, is a complex matter.

It is not as if parents can bring business skills to running schools, or explore different approaches to education, as academy schools are doing (an area of some controversy in itself) at the moment. The only justification can be that parents have somehow a better idea about how to run schools than the current powers-that-be. We may think as passengers we could run Network Rail, or South West Trains, or as patients run the NHS, or as tax payers run the Inland Revenue…. I don’t wish to take the point too far, but while parental input is vital to the effective functioning of the educational system, they shouldn’t have any involvement in running it.

Finally, it’s a recipe for chaos, with a variety of different schools, run differently, with the ethos varying from school to school, some self-managing, others under local authority control… I’d argue passionately for experimentation in the school system, but not in this fashion.


Behind all this lies another Tory shibboleth, more recently borrowed by New Labour, and that’s freedom of choice. I’m in favour of freedom of choice. The threat of reduced rolls and the reduced income that follows is a very real one: no school can afford to be complacent about standards, achievements or ethos. But notions of parental freedom can’t extended to setting up schools. It would be a freedom only a few parents could enjoy, and the benefit of the few could easily be outweighed by the detriment of the many.

As a final point, evidence of the performance of academy schools suggests that newness and new finance may be more the driver of improved performance than anything else.  There may well be an initial surge in performance in parent-established schools but there is little to suggest that as an educational model they would longer-term be in any way superior to other schools.


An area where Michael Gove is listening to parents, and to teachers, is on the subject of inclusion, whereby a small minority of children with little or no interest in learning can seriously impair the education of the majority. Teachers need to be able to create an ethos for learning, and that in many classrooms with disruptive pupils foisted on teachers can be difficult if not impossible.

On SATs he may be listening to the more vociferous elements in the teaching profession, but not so much to parents. He  should be taking on board the pressures testing can put on both teaching and pupils, but not to the extent of replacing all external assessment before GCSEs by teacher assessment, as the headteachers’ association, the NAHT, and the NUT more predictably, argue.

Parents need more than teacher assessments to judge a school. There’s a conflict here between interest groups at grass-roots level, between the providers, the teachers, and the customers, the parents.


One more policy statement to end with: the right school will have to opt out of local authority control. We’re back to the directly-supported schools of twenty years ago, back to a twin (and more)-track approach. For just how long does Michael Gove plan to persevere with the muddle of academy schools, opt-outs and local authority schools? How does he expect to keep local authorities, clearly seen as out-moded and incompetent, motivated? Has he thought how governors who put in so much time will consider being sidelined?

(We hear much of the Swedish model but opted-out schools there only make up something like 10% of the total. Is Michael Gove anticipating something on a much wider, more radical scale? The implication of his policy is that he is.)

Stripping out local authorities and governing bodies and replacing them with ‘parent councils’ or similar, which will be toothless, runs counter to the arguments for genuine local involvement and accountability.

Local authorities shouldn’t be dismissed as obstacles. Barnet is one council which is trying to make grass-roots involvement more a part of local government. However controversial and maybe misguided it may be, it is at least asking some of the right questions.  Reform of local institutions where needed is likely to be a more effective way forward than ditching them altogether.