Skunk control and the Clinton puff


Governments want to solve the problems of drug abuse. But programs of drug education are sadly ineffective. This suggests that politicians need to change if they are to escape the suspicion that they are untrustworthy spinners of tales in the interests of personal agendas

The overall thrust of this post is how the public is influenced by thought leaders, particularly in the context of issues of public health such as the dangers of vaccination and of drug-taking. The post opens up several issues which will have to be developed in subsequent posts.

A specific incident triggered this note.

My story begins with an exchange of views between a BBC broadcaster and someone calling in to a morning chat show. The phone-in was on BBC Radio Five live. The format is very much customized by long-established practice, and tends to invite text, emails or calls from listeners. Issues are picked up mostly from the popular issues of the day, with a steer from the early morning news media. The approach has never been accused as a dodgy means of cash from callers. The interviewer generally plies his trade in a bright and intelligent fashion.

The selected issue on the morning of Wednesday 25th July 2007 was that of drugs, drug dependency, and the impact of government initiatives. The interviewer permitted himself to be hooked into a pub-level exchange of views about the validity of the scientific evidence over the dangers of cannabis.

‘There’s no evidence’ asserted the caller.
‘There’s lots of scientific studies’, replied the BBC moderator.
‘Not proper, thorough ones’.
‘Yes, I’ve got the information front of me … [reads from his video feed]. …The evidence is endorsed by the British Medical Association…’.
‘That’s not proof, that’s propaganda’.

Interviewer now intent on winning this one, calls up yet more evidence on to his screen.

‘Alright. There’s another example from New Zealand. A longitudinal study with a thousand subjects shows that cannabis use led to more mental illnesses and hospitalization’.
‘A thousand people! That’s nothing. What sort of sample is that? I’d be laughed down by those medical experts if I said Cannabis was safe on evidence from just a thousand people’.

At which point, the interviewer ended the discussion, politely thanking the caller for sharing this point of view.

Monty Python and what the Romans ever did for us

The debate reminded me of a famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, about what the Romans had ever done for the ancient Britains. In the film, each counter-example of what the Romans did (aqueducts, roads, central heating, and so on) was grudgingly granted as one little example insufficient to win the argument.

Today, the claims of the New Zealand study were similarly brushed aside.

Does this matter a Clinton’s non-inhaled puff?

I rather think it does. There is a need to improve public awareness of medical findings. A current debate is emerging around the dangers of cannabis use. A recent example with adverse consequences to public health was tragically demonstrated during the MMR vaccine case, where public opinion was violently polarized. For a while, there were two views, each supported by influence figures or thought leaders. Eventually, the evidence overwhelmingly lined up behind the view endorsed by the British Medical Council. The vaccine was safe. Its use did not have the side effects that were concerning parents, and leading them to hold back on vaccinating their children.

But a proportion of parents remained in denial about the trustworthiness of the conclusions reached by the medical authorities. The popular view had been shaped by thought leaders who had aired plausible arguments which fed through into public assertions on web sites and in workplaces. When the topic was aired on chat shows, politicians seemed unable to counter views rejecting the credibility of the authority of the conclusions of the British Medical Council.

My depressing conclusion is that the political figures had an inadequate grasp of how medical research works. Also, I’m not sure the BBC mediators could elevate the level of discussion, even if they abandon their commitment to promoting ‘unbiased’ debate.

In other words, a few thought leaders with dubious arguments retain credibility, because of a lack of general education of others who might have been figures of influence.

Ttis may be a bit much to ask of primarily commercial broadcasters. But the BBC holds to its mission to entertain, but also to educate and inform.

What might help in such discussions?

A greater awareness of medical methodology is needed among politicians. Researchers worry a great deal about the appropriate design of an investigation. They know otherwise they will not be able to draw conclusions with any confidence. They also know that every research proposal will be scrutinized carefully. If the work goes ahead, the results will be even more carefully examined by other researchers (peer-review).

Sample size does matter. But the general public could be quickly introduced to a few principles or guidelines. How studies often only show association of a few factors, not causal links. Why some kinds of study require a few hundred individuals while others need far fewer.

A thousand people included in the New Zealand trial makes it quite a major one. Its longitudinal nature made it possible to consider causation, not just connection or association.

My point is that these ideas are not difficult to introduce into more widespread currency. That we all become less vulnerable to uninformed opinions taking hold. We accept the thought leaders after a more informed reflection of their arguments.

What’s this got to do with the Clinton line on drugs?

Bill Clinton serves as an excellent example of how some thought leaders operate. Audiences believed him, and went on believing him, even as evidence began to pile up to the contrary. In England, Tony Blair was having pretty much the same effect on his audiences. Their charisma worked its influence through a rare combination of charm and eloquence. Their most powerful weapons for attaining political leadership were their thoughts, their speech acts.

Clinton could find ways of explaining how he didn’t really smoke cannabis or how he didn’t have really have sex with that woman. And so on. Tony Blair convinced voters that old labour had been replaced by new labour which could be trusted by all sectors of the community. David Cameron is engaged in a similar exercise in thought leadership at present as h struggles to change the conservative party.

There is still much work to be done on the fascinating topic of thought leadership. I suppose I’m arguing for the benefits of efforts that educate people to become more are capable of assessing ideas on grounds that go beyond the skills of gurus, and charismatic thought leaders.

A note on thought leaders

I have indicated some doubts about the current state of knowledge of thought leadership. This has not prevented the enthusiastic espousal of the term by various management consulting organizations. But even Wikipedia is a bit sniffy, describing thought leadership as:

a buzzword or article of jargon used to describe a futurist or person who is recognized among peer mentors for innovative ideas and who demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights

The authors of Dilemmas of Leadership are also suspicious, although they suggest that the term may be theorized by connecting it to social identity theory, which would help understand the features attributed to thought leaders.

Where is this taking us?

Arguably there are several stories jostling to emerge here. One suggestion is how public education into issues such as medication and drug abuse will require a different kind of thought leadership. Another is the dependency which is associated with exposure to that other kind of dangerous drug, the words peddled to us by charismatic thought leaders.

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