We must stop shying away from science and start scrutinising it

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PHOTO/Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών

Last Monday, Newsnight was again dominated by furious debate about drug policy. Peter Hitchens made his first appearance on the programme since a previous controversial confrontation with Russell Brand and this time was joined by actor Matthew Perry. What followed received widespread attention and the video clip quickly clocked over 500,000 views on YouTube. The episode was concerning on many levels – Hitchens’ intolerant views lacked empathy and clearly overlooked medical and scientific judgement. Moreover, for a debate centred on noxious substances there was an obvious lack of consideration or engagement with science, and it only served to further isolate the British public from the scientific community in a situation which now seems commonplace. 

Hitchens, in his usual antagonistic approach, was quick to label drug addiction as a “fantasy” and it is here where it was most obvious that an injection of reason was needed into an ailing discussion. It seems clear (and is widely accepted) that addiction is not a “fantasy” – strong evidence shows that drug addicts experience neurological changes in numbers of dopamine receptors in the neostriatum, a reward centre of the brain.

Drug-taking also causes neurobiological changes in the cingulate gyrus and the orbitofrontal cortex which are involved in impulsivity and compulsive behaviours. As well as this, studies have found that exposing addicts to drug-related cues, such as the sight of cocaine, causes dopamine release in the neostriatum, contributing to the pathophysiological mechanism of addiction. To claim that substance dependence, or drug addiction, is a fantasy overlooks mounting evidence that addiction is based on very real, neurobiological changes in drug users.

Yet this evidence wasn’t referred to in the programme, and the closest the scientific community got to representation was Matthew Perry’s meek description of addiction as “an allergy of the body” and “an obsession of the mind”. Obviously it is vital to include ex-addicts on any debate about drug policy, and a high profile figure always helps to generate publicity. But this shouldn’t come at the exclusion of evidence and reason. It is barely a surprise that there is doubt over substance dependence, when, instead of utilising the opportunity to engage with strong evidence, the media instead rely on familiar, vague phrasing. I’m not advocating a situation whereby scientists are given executive decision-making power, but we must grant science a legitimate voice in our policy discussions.

This neglect of science doesn’t just come with the cost of a ranting article about an unrepresentative TV debate. Too often, our newspapers, broadcasters and politicians deal with science in a very curious way. We pick and choose the science we engage with – the Daily Mail are content to cherry-pick studies and brashly label different foods as being associated with cancer. Yet, unsurprisingly, when these claims are collated by this website, it is found that many of the articles are directly contradictory. If our media were to thoroughly examine these claims, instead of accepting what a scientist says because they are a scientist, then perhaps the routine misleading of readers would end.

We have a culture of either automatically respecting what scientists claim when convenient, or of ignoring science entirely. There is nothing inherently complex about science – but it suffers from a community that struggle to express themselves and a media that is reluctant to engage. Statistics can be manipulated in any way, yet they dominate our politics and media with little interpretation or analysis. To accept what ‘scientists’ claim in a newspaper article is no more scientific than ignoring scientific evidence entirely. We must stop blindly surrendering our judgement and critique to so called ‘experts,’ and instead we must listen and question their claims.

It may have been that, after considering some evidence, the Newsnight panellists came to the conclusion that the scientific evidence of addiction wasn’t conclusive and that it was impossible to determine whether substance dependence should be classified as a legitimate disease. Although this seems unlikely given the extent of the evidence, such a situation would’ve been science in its purest form. After all, the scientific method consists fundamentally of the presentation of evidence followed by peer review. The media must accept their role in this process as should the public – we have a right to critique evidence and scientific arguments before agreeing with them.

Our relationship with science seems even more bizarre when we compare how we respond to studies in other fields – while the phrase ‘scientists claim’ seems enough to legitimise an obscure belief of a minority of scientists in a newspaper article, studies from economists, education experts and  sociologists are openly engaged with and criticised. Consider how we deal with reports from economists about the top rate of tax, or from sociologists about the cause of the 2011 riots, or the education experts that call for a change in the age children start schooling. Like scientists, these figures have vast, in-depth knowledge of their field, yet we still engage with and question their arguments and ideas. It’s time that science got the same treatment.

At a time when scientific knowledge is arguably more useful than ever, with the potential to determine our attitudes towards healthcare, climate change, technology, industry and food shortages, we need to revolutionise how we engage with science. The words ‘scientists claim’ can no longer be enough for us to surrender our critique and decision-making – to do so is entirely undemocratic and foolish. Likewise, it is perhaps even more dangerous to ignore science in our discussions altogether. If we want to have truly informed debate, we cannot continue to wilfully neglect science and our media must embrace this.

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