31 October 2009

The Nutt case

If ever there was a politically bad decision it is the 'sacking' of Professor Nutt. Dr Grumble has met Alan Johnson. He has shaken his hand and heard him speak. He has even been photographed alongside this great man. This wily former postman is too shrewd to make an elementary political mistake. So who would have been behind this decision? Who is the politician intent on shooting himself in the foot? The answer is probably in the video.

Well said, Mike. But you know very well that your advice is unlikely to be followed because there are no good reasons.


Anonymous said...

Don't think the other lot will be any different.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said the sacking had been "an inevitable decision" after Prof Nutt's "latest ill-judged contribution to the debate".

Prisoner of Hope said...

I am struggling to untangle the elements behind this episode and think Sir David King's reflection on the role of advisers to government is worth reflecting on to assist us.

Of course it's simple to see this as an example of "shoot the messenger" and decry the politicians. But as Gerd Gigerenzer (who I have just started reading courtesy of Ben Goldacre's recent reference) reminds us in his book Reckoning with Risk it behoves us all and at all times to recognise the possible "illusion of certainty".

While all scientific minded observers will see the sense of what Nutt has said about relative risk involved - an adviser's role remains to provide advise and "hope that the government heeds it". As Jackboot Smith said "a foray into policy is not what his job is about".

I cannot find the quote but I think I heard reported that Nutt criticised the politicians for ignoring the science and responding instead to populism. While true this was an ill advised course to pursue

Sir David King's approach to restate clearly to the public the science behind the advice which politicians choose to ignore still seems to me to be vaild.

Sir Richard Dannat also got very close to overstepping a line. While the incompetence of politicians makes it more likely than not that advisers will wish to criticise - I think they should to do that after having resigned not while still in post, which almost forces their sacking.

Perhaps Postman Pat felt this was the principle that was at stake rather than shooting the messenger

Dr Grumble said...

I think you have it right, Prisoner of Hope. Nevertheless there are certainly scientific committees whose advice is almost always taken. For example the committees that deal with drug safety. Mostly the decisions these committees make have no political element though there are occasional exceptions such as RU 486.

The way it should work is that the committee should give its advice. The government should really take that advice but if there are political reasons why they do not want to they should be upfront, give the reasons and make it clear that they are not taking the advice they were given.

But the way Professor Nutt describes it happening suggests that the government wanted a particular answer and sent its advisors away to provide scientific justifications. That surely is wholly wrong and a topsy turvy way of doing things. How can any scientist with a reputation collude with such an approach? If Professor Nutt had agreed to falsify the data he would have risked the wrath of the GMC. And rightly so. In my view he would undoubtedly have deserved to be struck off.

If as a government expert you are put in such an invidious position just what are you supposed to do?

If baying newspapers with no specialist knowledge are allowed to govern the thinking of politicians it is not entirely obvious to me that those with special knowledge should be forbidden from pointing out when the government is making decisions which ignore the evidence base. After all what we all really want is the right decision and not the politically expedient or popular one.

As Professor Nutt has pointed out, there are parallels with interest rates. What politicians might want for interest rates with, say, an election looming may not be what is best for the economy. That was why the Bank of England was given autonomy. It would not be unreasonable for politicians to set the rules for drug classes and have experts determine which drug should go where. It sounds as if that is how it was supposed to work until Gordon Brown put his political oar in.

Whatever the rights and wrongs it does seem to have been politically unwise to remove Professor Nutt in this way. There is not much news around at the moment and it has been nothing but bad publicity for the government. It has certainly weakened Alan Johnson in the eyes of many.

Prisoner of Hope said...

I agree with you Dr G that when governments ignore the advise of their own specialists they should be obliged to state their resasons. I think this is also what Sir David King supports.

I think what is missing is something akin to "Rules Of Engagement" that professional bodies like the GMC could negotiate with Governments.

In the light of these they could then advise individuals what actions they can take when faced with both type 1 and type 2 errors of politicians after being presented with the prevailing body of scientific evidence.

This response might result in a continuing professional engagement with policy makers rather than the stance of taking bat's home even if as anon suggests the next lot may be no different.

dearieme said...

Prisoner, I am appalled that you learnt of Gerd Gigerenzer's excellent "Reckoning with Risk" from that lightweight Ben Goldacre rather than from my own heavyweight songs of praise to the book, all over the interwebby!

As for Nutt, the pols have to have the power to ignore, and dismiss, the advisers. And Nutt has to have the right to go on the telly and decry them. And I have the right to think the pols idiots to ignore him - though he may have asked for it by opining rather than just summarising his facts - just as I think them idiots for believing their advisors on Global Warmmongering.

As for David King, I snort at the very idea of taking his views seriously on anything much except, I suppose, his speciality of surface chemistry. He was, in my view, a bloody embarrassment as Chief Scientist.

Serious question: over the years I suspect that almost everything I've seen in the papers about Drugs has been scare-mongering, and certainly almost everything seems to have been devoid of science. Since I'm perfectly capable of avoiding the bloody stuff without being lied to, I take offence at this dereliction of duty by the media. Have I got the right end of the stick here - is there a strange reluctance to get past the screeching and down to the facts?

Prisoner of Hope said...

Dearieme, No I think you are right in wanting to get beyond the noise and heat being generated at the moment and try to throw some light onto some of the underlying themes and problems that are caught up in the current vortex.

I suspect we are getting close to that stage - in an industrial relations dispute - where both sides know they need to find common ground but do not want to lose face by being seen to back down.

No telling how long it will be before clearer thinking emerges but I suspect even more red herrings will be added to the mix in the next week or so.

Perhaps Dr G might return to this issue in a few months with another post that reflects on what the various sides of the argument may have learnt.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure if the dust will ever fully settle on this. We are witnessing a clash of cultures. The politicians are really only interested in their own skins and they want to do what they believe the public wants them to do. The public do not understand the issues because their source of information is the press. "Nobody has ever died of an overdose of cannabis" does not make much of a headline.

Meanwhile the scientists cannot grasp why their carefully worked out advice is ignored. They cannot stay mum because their job is to communicate what they know to others. This incenses the politicians who know perfectly well that their policies make no sense but don't want that to become apparent.