Unhealthful News 157 – Never trust anyone who claims their policy is "science based", Drug Czar edition

Oops.  I should have waited a day on yesterday’s “Never trust…” post, because today the US drug czar (officially, but never actually, known as Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy), Gil Kerlikowske, posted a response to the Global Commission on Drug Policy.  You cannot beat the drug warriors for examples of who not to trust and why.

Kerlikowske voiced the standard hard-line, tough-on-crime American party line.  As I have noted before, contrary to stereotypes, the center-right US administrations – the current Democratic party as well as the Republican Nixon administration that declared the War on Drugs – are more hard-line than the right-wing administrations.  This seems to be because center-right presidents are deathly afraid of being called leftist, so they appoint cops like Kerlikowske as their drug policy people and take a militant stand against drugs.  (This is kind of ironic, since it is not even possible to say what a left-leaning administration would do, since there has not been one since the 1960s.)  Tough drug policy is a great political game for politicians like Obama because it is a litmus test issue that older swing voters support, but that the politicos do not really care much about.  Most people care more about drug policy than they do about most of what comes out of Washington, but since the ruling class can pretty much ignore the drug laws, they do not much care what they are.

Anyway, Kerlikowske objected to the Commission’s call for decriminalization and other humane and sensible policies.  Some readers might think he had a real case below the surface of bluster, but here is the clue that he really did not:

Our National Drug Control Strategy is science-based [sic].

That statement is a warning, and pretty close to compelling evidence, that the writer is trying to mislead you.  First, there is no such thing as science-based policy.  Policy can be informed by science, and should be, but cannot be based on science.  It is ultimately based on objectives (which should be openly declared, as I discussed yesterday), ad these are based on preferences (call them “values” if you prefer).  Science can then inform us about how effective a particular policy is at fulfilling those preferences.  Anyone who claims that their policy is science based (that phrase, incidentally, should only have a hyphen in it when acting as a modifier of a noun that follows it) is trying to hide the true basis of the policy, their preferences.  It is possible that they are so fanatical about their view that they do not even realize that there are other possible objectives/preferences, and so they actually think everything just follows from the science.  But it is not clear whether such blindness is better or worse than just trying to trick readers into thinking that a particular preference was somehow scientifically determined.

The second problem is that activists with very partisan objectives, like Kerlikowske (or anti-tobacco extremists, or food police, or activists on either side of forbidding abortion, etc.), tend to employ science like a scavenger hunt, finding some support somewhere for what they have already decided they believe in.  What he wrote after the previous quote was:

And science shows that illegal drug use is associated with specialty treatment admissions, fatal drugged driving accidents, mental illness, and emergency room admissions. Illicit drug use has huge costs to our society, outside of just criminal justice costs.

Notice that there is nothing in his “science” that tells us whether decriminalization and other liberal and humanitarian changes in policy would make things better or worse.  Medical interventions might increase with increased usage, but they are more likely to decrease with quality control and use in controlled settings (as evidenced by Insite).  Mental illness causes drug use and could be better dealt with if users did not have to stay underground.  Driving under the influence might or might not be made worse by liberalization – it is certainly not obvious.  There is nothing scientific about cherry-picking a few results that seem to support your objective, especially when even the cherry-picked claims do not really do so.

Lying with statistics is easy, after all:

…cocaine production in Colombia has dropped by almost two-thirds, and the very same U.N. World Drug Report cited by the Commission concluded that, “Demand for cocaine in the U.S. has been in long-term decline.”

The US crackdown on cocaine in Columbia, which militarized that country, shifted production elsewhere.  Demand for cocaine is down because methamphetamine – a drug that is nastier in most every way – emerged as a substitute as a direct result of import interdiction efforts.

Third, the myth of “science-based policy” is often used to declare that non-scientific points are science.  In this case:

As I’ve often stated before, drug use should be addressed as a public health problem because we know drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated.

 Drug use can be characterized as a choice, a disease, a desperate act of people with no options (which we might see as falling somewhere between choice and disease, with an element of structural social problems), or a crime, among other things.  The supposedly enlightened drug warriors like Kerlikowske and Obama pat themselves on the back for declaring it is a disease rather than a crime.  By doing this, they skirt around the obvious points that it is also a matter of liberty and a symptom of the miserable socio-economic state of so many Americans (who the Obama administration, catering to the right-wing and the oligarchs, refuses to help).  They anchor this rhetoric on the pseudo-scientific claims about disease (which is whatever we define to be disease – science does not create definitions) and addiction (which is not even defined well enough to use in a scientific context). 

Once again, the game is to use nonsense about “science” to trick the reader into not noticing the statements of preference/values.  By discussing the concept of disease, Kerlikowske defines away the benefits of drug use and distracts the reader from noticing his failure to acknowledge the central issue of individual rights.

As an aside that does not offer any general lessons, it is kind of amusing that Kerlikowske cites Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderón, as supporting US drug policy.  This is the guy whose country seems on the verge of becoming a failed state due to the gang wars created by current US drug policy, so there is kind of a Catch-22:  If he is crazy enough to support the policy, surely we should not trust his opinion.

Finally, you just cannot beat Kerlikowske’s final paragraph as evidence that you should not trust anything this guy and this administration says about the subject:

It is, of course, tempting to opt for seemingly easy answers to the world’s drug problems. They appear intractable at times. But we have made real progress and the steps we take in the future must be rooted in science and evidence-based policies that will make our communities healthier and safer.

He makes the absurd claims that miserably failed policies must be best because the alternative seems easy (it really does not, but why would easy be bad?), he claims progress that does not exist, and makes an appeal to “evidence” while presenting no evidence that actually supports his case.  Asserting that a policy is informed by science and evidence (setting aside the misuse of “based”) is not like declaring that a food is “gluten and soy free”.  The latter is something that is a simple matter of fact that is best communicated by declaration.  But the former is something that can and should be demonstrated, not asserted, presenting what the science shows and how that is being used to pursue a preferred objective.  Absent that, the claim should inspire no more confidence than if he said the policy is the will of a deity.  A simple assertion that a policy is evidence/science based is bluff and bravado, a lot like someone’s assertion that he’s got game:  If he is telling you it is true rather than demonstrating it is true, it is probably not true.

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