Thursday, June 29, 2006

Taboo research

Olivia Judson, the biologist and journalist, wrote recently in her blog about the taboo of researching the genetics of the brain.

She noted that recent papers about genes that are involved in the growth of the brain led to such intense political speculation, one of the scientists retired from further research.

I offer this story as a kind of parable — an illustration of some of the grave difficulties in this field of research. And indeed, the difficulties are myriad. On the scientific side, there’s the problem of trying to figure out what different genes do, how they interact with the environment (this is crucial), and what we can say about our evolutionary past. Then there’s the usual job of interpreting results and of revising the picture as we learn more.

But that’s the least of it. As you can imagine, it is virtually impossible to work in an area as poisonously political as this one. On one side, you have neo-fascist groups twisting the most innocuous data out of shape; on the other, well-intentioned anti-racists who don’t even want the questions asked. Worse still, as the popular success of the “intelligent design” movement shows, it is not always easy to make sure that science is discussed rationally. Result: most geneticists are totally unnerved — and who can blame them?

As you read this, you realize that this can be applied to research in the area of drug use and abuse. Any research into the beneficial effects of the use of large classes of drugs is taboo.

Anyone who watched on C-SPAN the 20 minute debate in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 28, 2006 on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to limit DEA's prosecutions of medical patients who use cannabis in the states that permit such use must have been flabbergasted at the misuse and misunderstanding of science and data.

When intellectual dishonesty is the norm, serious people will seek to work in other fields where there work can be taken seriously.

Those of us who work in drug policy reform MUST remember that a critical part of our mission is to spread the domain of intellectual honesty into this field, not simply to win political battles. We have an obligation to respect and acknowledge facts -- even when they don't seem to support our conclusions or objectives. We have an obligation to reason correctly, not sloppily or lazily. It may be that some of our opponents are cruel, or hateful, or even sometimes racists, but it is not an argument to simply label them.

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