Shoot The Messenger: When Evidence And Policy Clash

October 30, 2009 at 6:08 pm (government, Media, Politics, Recreational Drugs) (, , )

The BBC is reporting that home secretary Alan Johnson has sacked Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

In criticising the decision to reclassify cannabis to Class B from C, Prof Nutt “accused ministers of devaluing and distorting evidence and said drugs classification was being politicised.” Nutt has also attacked the artificial separation of alcohol and tobacco from illegal drugs.

In response to criticism of the government for distorting evidence and politicising drugs classification, Alan Johnson showed the criticism to be well-founded in his letter to Nutt:

“I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD.

“I would therefore ask you to step down from the Council with immediate effect.”

While Johnson has “lost confidence” in Nutt’s ability to advise government, I have no confidence whatsoever in Alan Johnson and the government’s ability to formulate policy based on the best available evidence.

It seems to me that ministers (and perhaps politicians in general) are too afraid of what the Daily Mail might write about them to take decisions based on advice informed by evidence.

If this is the case, then what is government for? Their job is surely to take decisions and to lead the country – not to meekly follow whatever line the popular press (as characterised by organs such as the Daily Mail) is currently pushing.

Policy should be based on evidence – not on the fear of what journalists will write about you in tomorrow’s paper.


I will be updating this post as I go. See below for updates.

Here is a story from the BBC detailing Nutt’s criticisms. Nutt accused ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith of “devaluing” scientific research. A Home Office spokesman responded by saying: “Prof Nutt’s views are his own.” Yes, they are – but they are based on evidence rather than prejudice.

You can follow this topic on Twitter via the hashtag #AlanJohnsonNuttsack. [H/T @gimpyblog.] Here is a selection of some of the comments so far on Twitter:

Honest NUTT is dismissed for speaking Truth to Power! [@mrjohnwilkes]

Bizarre – nobody will come on to defend Johnson. They prefer to issue statements that can’t be questioned [From Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel Four, who tweets as @krishgm.]

Fire the advisor. That’s the way to show you’re not politicising evidence [@sarahditum]

A sychophantic scientific advisor is no longer a scientist. [From @lecanardnoir – whose tweet reminds me of Edzard Ernst’s comment that An uncritical scientist is a contradiction in terms.]

The Conservatives seem to be no better when it comes to evidence-based advice and policy-making:

Chris Grayling has said the sacking of the Government’s chief drug advisor was “inevitable” following his latest ill-judged comments. [@conservatives]

The letter from Johnson to Nutt (and Prof Nutt’s response) can be read in full here: BBC Blogs. It is interesting to note that Johnson refers to criticisms Jacqui Smith made of Nutt regarding the risks of ecstasy and horseriding. Johnson seems to endorse Smith’s criticisms. This criticism was at the time a source of concern for the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

One twitterer [@EvidenceMatters] has referred to point 8 of the Government Response to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee’s Eighth Report of Session 2008-09 – Science and Technology Committee:

8. SAC members should not be criticised for publishing scientific papers or making statements as professionals, independent of their role as Government advisers. (Paragraph 64)

The Government agrees that the independence of science advisers is critical. It was precisely for this reason that the GCSA wrote to then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to express concern over her criticism, in Parliament, of Professor Nutt (Chairman of ACMD) with regard to an article he published in a peer-reviewed journal. [Link: here.]

It seems to me that this speaks directly to the case of Professor Nutt being sacked by Alan Johnson. Nutt has spoken, as a professional, about the evidence regarding drug classification. Johnson even seems to endorse the inappropriate criticism of Nutt made by Jacqui Smith.

The government may well say that “the independence of science advisers is critical”, but their actions do not match their words.

Update 2nd November 2pm:

The weekend saw two other members of the ACMD resign. The Times reported that Les King was the first to quit and Marion Walker swiftly followed. In a break with tradition, I will now praise media reporting of science and health.

The Guardian print edition on Saturday ran an editorial titled Shooting up the messenger, which made the point that Prof Nutt “knows more about the brain’s responses to anxiety, addiction and sleep than any politician or media commentator” (and yes, this does include you Melanie Phillips).

The Times, meanwhile, had a piece written by Mark Henderson headlined Advisers have a right to speak plainly, without being spun against, and another in which Lord Drayson responded to the suggestions made in the earlier article.

It is good to see the Times and the Guardian running sensible articles about an issue involving science and health. Too often, reporting of science and health is poor. If I had been able to find a good article about the research into curcumin and cancer, I would have been happy to praise and promote it. Sadly, I was unable to find even one.

[Edit, 29th November: there is also this and this from Evan Harris MP.]


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Shoot The Messenger: When Evidence And Policy Clash « Stuff And Nonsense [] on said,

    […] Shoot The Messenger: When Evidence And Policy Clash « Stuff And Nonsense – view page – cached The BBC is reporting that home secretary Alan Johnson has sacked Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. — From the page […]

  2. Cynical OT said,

    Fantastic post jdc. Simple message, well written, devastatingly effective.

  3. jdc325 said,

    Why thank you Cynical OT.

  4. Andromeda said,

    Click on my name to participate in poll on whether David Nutt should have sacked.

    The debate SHOULD centre on the concept of harm and whether this can be quantified.

    If it cannot, then all drugs should be legalised and criminals who commit crimes while intoxicated and addicted treated more harshly.

    This would be the fairest way since harm to the public would then have manifested itself in criminal behaviour and thus become objectively measurable.

  5. Claire said,

    So, to summarise, what Alan Johnson wants is not evidence based policy but policy based evidence?

  6. andromeda07734 said,

    Claire sums it up very nicely indeed. I’m going to quote it on my blog too at

  7. jdc325 said,

    andromeda07734 – I’m not sure that I agree with your statement regarding harsher treatment of those addicted to drugs.
    I do agree, though, that Claire has summed up the situation rather nicely. Prof Nutt’s views are informed by evidence and they are contrary to the line Johnson wants to push.

    It seems clear to me that Prof Nutt speaking the truth was inconvenient to Johnson and once the newspapers had made a fuss about Nutt’s views, Johnson seemed to feel that following the line pushed by those like John Gaunt in the Sun was the way to go.

  8. Politicians and the Skeptical Voter « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] on MMR. There’s also Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnick. Recently, there was also the case of Alan Johnson and Professor Nutt. Elected politicians are vulnerable, as they can be voted out. This may make it worth lobbying MPs […]

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    […] Nutt’s sacking showed what can happen when evidence and policy collide. As I wrote at the time, policy should be based on evidence – not on the fear of what journalists will write about you in […]

  10. The Trouble With Government Policy « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] If drugs policy is not based on pragmatic considerations of harm reduction or on the evidence base, then it can only be based on the moral viewpoint of the government of the day. Or, perhaps, on the moral viewpoint of the newspaper editors and owners that the government of the day is generally keen to keep on side. As I argued here. […]

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  12. Lessons From Feynman « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] course, politicians don’t always make it easy for scientific advisors. As Professor David Nutt could tell you. As Le Canard Noir, author of the Quackometer blog, said at the time: “a […]

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