Scientifically manufactured morality?
Science considers what is true, starting out with almost unimaginable ideas (The earth is moving! The future is unpredictable!). The job is to understand these ideas and fit them into a broad and logical picture of the universe. Politics considers what is right. This requires broad understanding and eventual consensus of points of view that often appear incompatible.

-- Edward Teller

The intersection of science and morality always fascinates me.

It strikes me that if you're a scientist, an easy way to grab a headline is to denounce morality as "unscientific." A recent such headline -- "Study: Alcohol, tobacco worse than drugs" -- involved a British study which discovered (surprise!) that alcohol and cigarettes are more dangerous than marijuana and Ecstasy:

Nutt [Bristol University professor, writing in The Lancet] 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 asked two groups of experts -- psychiatrists specializing in addiction and legal or police officials with scientific or medical expertise -- to assign scores to 20 different drugs, including heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, amphetamines, and LSD.

Nutt and his colleagues then calculated the drugs' overall rankings. In the end, the experts agreed with each other -- but not with the existing British classification of dangerous substances.

That's interesting right there. While many good arguments can be made against the propriety of drug laws in general, or individual drug laws, I had always thought such determinations were political, and largely based on harm reduction as well as morality. Are laws supposed to be driven by science? I'm not saying politicians shouldn't take scientific opinion into account, but it's only one factor among many.

It's not that I have any quarrel with the various drugs' rankings, which I'm sure are based on reliable data.

Heroin and cocaine were ranked most dangerous, followed by barbiturates and street methadone. Alcohol was the fifth-most harmful drug and tobacco the ninth most harmful. Cannabis came in 11th, and near the bottom of the list was Ecstasy.

According to existing British and U.S. drug policy, alcohol and tobacco are legal, while cannabis and Ecstasy are both illegal. Previous reports, including a study from a parliamentary committee last year, have questioned the scientific rationale for Britain's drug classification system.

"The current drug system is ill thought-out and arbitrary," said Nutt, referring to the United Kingdom's practice of assigning drugs to three distinct divisions, ostensibly based on the drugs' potential for harm. "The exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary," write Nutt and his colleagues in The Lancet.

I wonder how many other laws are, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary. What about the numerous food products which are known by scientists to be dangerous?

Scientists, like everyone else, are entitled to their opinions, and to sound off on political policy, and none of this would bother me but for the arrogance of assuming that the opinions of scientists should drive political and (in this case) moral policy.

They're dressing up a moral and political argument as science.

The statistics, of course, come as news to no one. But libertarians who imagine that "science" merely advocates hands-off policies towards drugs deemed less dangerous than booze and cigarettes, think again. They're calling for more regulation!

Tobacco causes 40 percent of all hospital illnesses, while alcohol is blamed for more than half of all visits to hospital emergency rooms. The substances also harm society in other ways, damaging families and occupying police services.

Nutt hopes that the research will provoke debate within the UK and beyond about how drugs -- including socially acceptable drugs such as alcohol -- should be regulated. While different countries use different markers to classify dangerous drugs, none use a system like the one proposed by Nutt's study, which he hopes could serve as a framework for international authorities.

"This is a landmark paper," said Dr. Leslie Iversen, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. Iversen was not connected to the research. "It is the first real step towards an evidence-based classification of drugs." He added that based on the paper's results, alcohol and tobacco could not reasonably be excluded.

"The rankings also suggest the need for better regulation of the more harmful drugs that are currently legal, i.e. tobacco and alcohol," wrote Wayne Hall, of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, in an accompanying Lancet commentary. Hall was not involved with Nutt's paper.

While experts agreed that criminalizing alcohol and tobacco would be challenging, they said that governments should review the penalties imposed for drug abuse and try to make them more reflective of the actual risks and damages involved.

Nutt called for more education so that people were aware of the risks of various drugs. "All drugs are dangerous," he said. "Even the ones people know and love and use every day."

It would be one thing to simply rank all substances according to the relative danger to humans who ingest them. But once scientists start saying what governments "should" do, they're proceeding under an assumption that science has a role in writing political and moral policy.

Ditto global warming.

I guess I should be glad they allowed that "criminalizing alcohol and tobacco would be challenging." Yeah, maybe the politicians learned at least something from Prohibition.

But what has science to do with regulating human tastes? (Oh, I almost forgot about banning trans fats. Never mind!) Seriously, what is scientific about the idea that laws should regulate what we consume? That if we ingest the wrong thing, we should be punished? Like it or not, that is morality, not science, and I think when they get into pronouncements related to morality enforcement, they exceed the scope of their scientific authority.

I guess "science" has come a long way.

posted by Eric on 03.23.07 at 10:12 AM


Climatology has the same relationship to industrial regulations as evolutionary biology does to eugenics or nuclear physics does to arms control treaties. Just because they can analyze a situation doesn't give scientists wisdom on what the proper course of action should be.

Karl Gallagher   ·  March 24, 2007 1:47 AM

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