Speaking truth to power

Stained glass window of St. Thomas Becket in C...
Thomas Beckett spoke Truth to Power

Professor David Nutt, chairman of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, is now a former chairman. He has joined by other scientists (2 so far) resigning in protest as the government’s heavy handed dismissal of Professor Nutt.  The minister, Alan Johnson, has said he had ‘lost confidence’ in the scientist for something he wrote in a scientific article.

The thought police are out in force once again.  But more important is the apparent abuse by this government minister of the whole point of advisors.  They must speak truth to power. In the absence of the speaking of truth, we will have self-censorship, political correctness, and general bowing and scraping to the political powers.  What the politicians don’t get, and Alan Johnson in particular, is that a candid and often challenging relationship is part of this delicate balancing of truth and power.

Indeed, there is clear abuse of power in silencing critics. There is a candle that burns in Canterbury Cathedral, testimony to this very issue (referring to St Thomas Beckett).  Truth is the first casualty of ministerial hubris.

In the end, we, that is taxpayers, and the general well-being of society, suffer when ministers can be so cavalier in dismissing people they don’t agree with.

Distinguishing between giving advice based on science, and political commentary is difficult navigation, as both scientists hold political views, which ministers may not like, while ministers may express scientific commentary with little grasp of its meaning.  Both can get it wrong, and much nonsense has come out of the mouths of both scientists and politicians.  But rather than shoot the messenger, politicians need to remember that they are in the main wholly dependent on right-minded scientists for advice, ones who will often hold dissenting views from the ‘spin’ that ministers seek to put on science itself. Einstein and colleagues understood this when they wrote to Roosevelt about atomic energy in 1939. It is worth noting that the US government dragged its feet on this letter until at least 1941, and it was not until 1942 that the Manhatten project began.

It is worth listening, even if you don’t like what you are being told. If scientists and advisors must speak truth to power, so power must listen to truth.

Such is the politician’s duty. Pity such duty is so poorly observed.