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Monday, September 8, 2008

Addressing Science to Inform Politics

(This doesn't have to do with religion, just an experience I had tonight with science advocacy in the realm of politics.)

Tonight [Friday] was the first general meeting of my atheist and skeptics club. It was quite successful with over thirty people turning up for a discussion session. We addressed the topic of science advocacy and why it is important. We then broke up into four groups, each led by a club officer, to each discuss a specific topic of: intelligent design (of course), stem cell research, nuclear power, or marijuana prohibition.

The last two were meant specifically to address the need of science advocacy in the realm of the politics of it. Liberals are overly opposed to nuclear power whereas conservatives are overly favoring marijuana prohibition. One of the officers in the club who is a liberal took on the discussion group of nuclear power. I, being a conservative, took on the discussion group of marijuana prohibition.

One of the things I stressed was the need to address the science in order to inform the politics. Too often we are guilty of addressing the politics to inform the science. It reminds me very much of the creationist political cartoon where it juxtaposes evolutionary scientists versus creationist "scientists." The scientists say "here are the facts; what conclusion fits?" The creationists say "here is the conclusion; what facts can we fit in?"

This is a personal issue I have brought up on many of my late night discussions with the president of our club, who is a liberal. Too often we let ideologies, partisanship, religion, and preconceived notions clout our analysis and lead to cherry picking data and taking a bias. It has been particularly bad this year due to the nature of our presidential election. Lately the partisan politics that I observe from politicians and the public alike has almost led me to become apolitical as I go from being a skeptic to a cynic in the political realm. Dinesh D'Souza attacking Edwards and claiming it the bankrupt values of liberal and liberals attacking Palin with criticism they dismissed towards Obama.

So, this is a message I tried to hammer in my discussion group on marijuana prohibition. This is a topic where people generally are not passionate about because they are largely ignorant of it. The most common concerns I hear from people are effects on driving, the gateway theory, and it making people habitually lazy. So, this at least is not an issue where you have to break through people's biases to address, but it is an excellent topic to show how science can well inform the politics. I gave two common ideologies and beliefs we need to set aside before approaching the topic: the common liberal position that you should be able to do whatever you want with your own body and the common conservative position that it would "send the wrong message to kids" (which I actually quoted from John Edwards). Both of these are valid political stances, but they are completely irrelevant to the analysis and can only serve to unduly influence it.

I gave a brief history of marijuana prohibition, including the racist and ignorant roots of it. I went through a timeline of the War on Drugs and primarily the impact on incarceration rates and prison statistics. It was not difficult to see the effects of "tough on crime" legislation on the prison population. The penalties for marijuana possession, including mandatory minimums and the death penalty, were especially shocking.

We then moved into a discussion on the medical effects and benefits of marijuana. We not only discussed the benefits, we also discussed the effects of marijuana on the user (such as the negative impact on memory). We then discussed the common objections to it: the gateway theory and effects on driving. Luckily, the effects of marijuana on driving have been well researched; however, the media don't report on it. The impairment caused by marijuana on driving is of a very, very low risk. The gateway theory is just an excellent exercise in critical thinking, logical fallacies, and bad statistics.

At the end, I told them: We have now spent about half an hour addressing just the science alone; we can now have that inform the politics. I put forth several solutions:

1. Maintain the zero tolerance approach we have taken and keep it as a Schedule I drug "having no medical benefit and high probability of abuse."
2. Medicalize it: Allow doctors to prescribe it, and likely lower it to a Schedule II drug.
3. Decriminalize it: It remains illegal, but you aren't prosecuted for possession or free transfer (of certain quantities).
4. Legalization with strict regulation: Basically bring it to the legalized status of tobacco or alcohol.
5. Legalization: Basically make it as regulated as aspirin.

No one voted for the zero tolerance approach. The common stance was #4 and the other being a fusion of #2 and #4 -- allowing doctors to freely prescribe it in any quantity and then allow the public to buy it at restricted, monitored quantities (like cough syrup).

At the end, I think they did quite well and we discussed how we could apply this to other issues. I think they still had this idea of "we must control it for some reason." I would personally go with #5 as I don't think the reasons are there for the #4 classification: it isn't very harmful to your physical body and doesn't have the serious adverse effects on you while impaired.

That's a very brief slice of the issue and discussion, but this post wasn't meant for any big message anyway.

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