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December 25, 2013

Good and Bad Blunders

I'm currently reading an interesting new book by astrophysicist Mario Livio. Entitled Brilliant Blunders, it examines unlikely errors made by respected scientists. Among them: Charles Darwin, Fred Hoyle, Linus Pauling and Albert Einstein. The point Livio emphasizes is that everybody makes mistakes at one time or another- and stellar scientists are no exception. However what often saves them is a collegial spirit that allows colleagues to work with, as opposed against each other in ways that reduce the impact of errors and may even enhance their results when one is corrected. Livio's first example is Darwin, who originally propounded The Origin of Species as a somewhat lonely theory without a mechanism. Amazingly its basic concept was rescued and expanded by Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk he'd never met. Mendel's brilliant, original work on genetic inheritance in fruit flies and legumes established the "gene" as the theoretical mechanism Darwin's theory required and even- more amazingly- preserved it in a way that was consonant with the structural mechanism DNA would become after its structure was published in 1953.

What Livio stresses throughout is that the cooperative spirit and collegiality that dominates science can result in a mistake proving helpful.

His description inspired me to compare his Darwin example with the blunders of the CSA, a repressive policy based- not on cooperation- but on a perceived need to punish drug users as criminals. The nullification of Harry Anslinger's marijuana Tax Act by the Warren Court in 1969 would have been an unpleasant surprise for just-elected President Richard Nixon. The last thing he would have wanted would be for the hippies then protesting the Vietnam war to escape from the "control" of the criminal justice system. His "solution" was the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) which he and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell put together rapidly enough for passage with little debate in 1970. Rather than a desire for truth and protection of Public Health, Mitchell and Nixon was were clearly motivated by their desire to punish what they considered criminal behavior.

The result was a punitive law based on fear that not only broke broke every rule in the canons of Science, but was based on a total ignorance of drugs and their effects. Whether

Nixon and Mitchell intended it to be as bad as it would eventually become is moot because both men died long before the CSA's worst effects became manifest. However it is difficult to imagine a worse cascade of adverse consequences from any public policy.

Two unique factors clearly played a critical role in 1970. The young protesters the CSA was aimed at were not regarded favorably by their elders for their 60s behavior: aggressive drug use and a reluctance to serve in Vietnam. Another factor was that cannabis ("marijuana") had remained an unfamiliar substance to older Americans because its market had remained insignificant from 1937 until the early Sixties.

Finally, Nixon and Mitchell knew very little about drug use themselves. As a result, the Controlled Substances Act which they based on 3 absurd new "principles" sought to justify criminal prohibition of drug use over all other outcomes.

Unfortunately it would create the worst imaginable public policy, one that would worsen progressively as it evolved beyond the possibility of remediation or repeal. Over the four decades since its passage it would become a disaster both domestically and abroad. Nevertheless, it would continue to enjoy the protection of the two dedicated federal agencies created by Nixon right after its passage: the DEA (in 1973) to enforce his law and NIDA (1974)to defend its threadbare intellectual flanks.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at December 25, 2013 11:57 PM