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October 30, 2006

Science, Religion, and Policy

Once it's recognized that what we now call Science is simply a skeptical way of thinking about reality in which nothing is taken for granted, its historical conflict with Religion immediately becomes clear. What we now think of as the scientific method began in Western Europe when Gutenberg's printing press democratized scholarship. Relatively quickly, two new optical inventions, the telescope and microscope, disclosed whole new worlds which could not have been previously imagined, but which the brilliant theories of Galileo and Newton interpreted with undeniable clarity. The new technology which science gave rise to quickly enabled Western Europe to exploit advantages already gained from the 'discoveriy' of the Americas and to extend its influence over the rest of the world.

Next year will mark only 560 years since invention of the the printing press; yet the technological blessings of science have since allowed our species to flourish dramatically, both in numbers and longevity. Sadly, we have been far less successful at devising systems of government that would allow us to live in harmony. In fact, quite the opposite; the more wealth our greater population and enhanced technology creates, the greater the strife over who controls it and the more severe the environmental and human damage that strife produces. More recently, we are  also discovering that population growth may have come at an environmental cost that threatens catastrophic changes in weather patterns long considered  permanent.

And so on... what does all this have to do with drug policy in general, and pot prohibition in particular?

Scientific knowledge is derived from healthy skepticism in which past assumptions are supposed to be constantly tested against new observations. Religious (and political) orthodoxy thrives on the deductions of living authorities from 'truths' considered 'eternal' (revealed or 'self-evident'). We have a drug policy enabled by Supreme Court decisions based on century old assumptions about addiction which have remained untested, and yet are still assiduously protected from review. Even worse, the  results produced by precipitous expansion of that  policy nearly forty years ago have also been successfully protected from unbiased scrutiny.

One of the very rare political successes of the movement bent on reforming US drug policy has been 'medical marijuana.' Unfortunately, those in control of the reform bureaucracy are like other successful bureaucrats: better at raising money and exerting control than at scientific thinking. Thus they have remained blind to the opportunities offered (only) by Proposition 215 in California.

Why that is so is best understood by recalling that scientific truth is not known in advance and should always be tested. On the other hand, proponents of religious truth, no matter their differences, uniformly resist any scrutiny of key assumptions made by their dogma. Reform's assumptions about the 'medical' use of marijuana have not been critically examined in a clinical setting since 1996. There are many reasons why that is so; but sadly, the reluctance of reform's political leaders is a big one.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at October 30, 2006 07:55 PM