Thank you, Doc, but we’ll just go with our instincts

Scientists tell government some pesky facts about drugs; government brushes aside pesky facts, makes decision on other grounds, ‘having taken account of “public perception” and “policing priorities”.’

The refusal to accept the expert views of a council set up to judge the relative harms of different drugs went down badly with the scientific community in general, and Professor Nutt in particular. Today, he warns of the negative consequences of what he calls, a “highly politicised” process…The government view, though, is that they should adopt a precautionary principle. “Where there is… doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public,” as Jacqui Smith put it last year. Professor Nutt attacks the ‘safety first’ approach arguing that “it starts to distort the value of evidence and therefore I think it could, and probably does, devalue evidence”. He recalls the scare about the MMR vaccine. “People were concerned, on the basis of false science, that the triple vaccine might cause brain damage. This led to a reduction in vaccination uptake and now children are getting lung and brain damage from measles,” he states. “The precautionary principle with MMR has been clearly shown to be wrong,” he continues. “It has harmed more people than it has helped.”

In other words the precautionary principle isn’t really precautionary, it just seems to be. It seems to be because people so often forget to take into account the risks of doing whatever the alternative is. They think (apparently): MMR, risky; no MMR, no risk. But ‘no MMR’ itself has risks, so thinking all the risk is on one side of the ledger is a mistake.

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