Belly up to the bar, boys. Have a snort! Reach into that pile of needles and raise them high. I’d like to propose a toast to Professors David Nutt [sic], Leslie King, and Lawrence Phillips for proving, via sophisticated statistical modeling, that heroin and cocaine are less harmful than alcohol.
Cheers! Sniff! Snort! Syringe Plunge! Followed quickly by a mix of manic and stuporous applause.
It is true: no drug is more harmful than alcohol. Nutt [sic] and his pals have proved it scientifically, submitted their proof to peer review, and published it in the Lancet, one of the top two medical journals in the world. Nothing beats peer review!
The article is Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis, which, if I read it correctly, means there is still a chance for us in the States, our frozen brothers to the North, you guys Down Under, and for our cousins elsewhere to find another drug more harmful than booze.
Nutt’s [sic] paper is science (right, Luis?). We know this because it appears in a science journal, has been reviewed by peers, has footnotes to other sciences papers, a table, plenty of scientific pictures, and prose thick enough to choke a whale. Just take a look at this excerpt and see if you do not marvel at its scienceness:
MCDA distinguishes between facts and value judgments about the facts. On the one hand, harm expresses a level of damage. Value, on the other hand, indicates how much that level of damage matters in a particular context. Because context can affect assessments of value, one set of criterion weights for a particular context might not be satisfactory for decision making in another context. It follows then, that two stages have to be considered. First, the added harm going from no harm to the level of harm represented by a score of 100 should be considered—ie, a straightforward assessment of a difference in harm.
And then there’s this picture. Look at all that science!
Alcohol has the highest harm score; ipso facto, alcohol is the most harmful. Yes, it’s even worse than LSD, tobacco, ecstasy, crack, and a slew of others.
By now you’re wondering how did science prove such an amazing result, one so far from the one expected by common sense? Why, through multicriteria decision analysis modeling (MCDA), of course. And what is that impressive scientific sounding process?
Well, Nutt [sic] and his co-authors invited some of his like-minded pals over for a drink (tea, presumably), and asked them, “Boys, what drugs cause the most harm to people and to society? What say we create a list and rank these drugs according to our subjective opinion? We should only consider harm and not benefit.”
Somebody in the crowd (almost certainly a beer drinker; an untrustworthy lot) must have asked, “Fine idea, Nutt [sic]. But what criteria do we use to make this rating? How about we score badness across several factors and then add those scores up to create a final badness score? Just to be sure we get the correct results, let’s also weight the individual factors to give some factors extra weight, some less.”
A third party (bottled water drinker) must have chimed in. “I like it. It sounds scientific. Some factors we should consider are injury, crime, environmental damage, loss of tangibles, and of course international damage, by which I mean deforestation.”
This proposal was surely put to a vote—just as the list of harmful drugs would be—and the motions were carried. The gang then elected a leader, who we are assured was “an independent specialist in decision analysis modelling. He applied methods and techniques that enable groups to work effectively as a team, enhancing their capability to perform, thereby improving the accuracy of individual judgments.” What could possibly go wrong?
When they finished, the cabal of voters realized they were on to something big. Their scientific findings were so shocking that they “correlate poorly with present UK drug classification, which is not based simply on considerations of harm.” Press releases would have to be written! Policies would have to change!
The results would be taken seriously because the language used to describe them was serious, because the people who created these results had credentials multitudinous, and because they would appear in a respected science journal. Heads would bow in awe.
Anybody who does think I summarized the paper unfairly is welcome to read it for themselves. I first learned of this paper from a link to the Daily Telegraph, which ran a story of Nutt’s [sic] achievement. A Telegraph reader called “Q46” was kind enough to link to my story on flawed medical research, and his link appeared in my logs. Thanks, Q46!