Historical Expertise

David Nutt is Wrong …

Unfortunately, as David Nutt’s recent comments indicate, journalists, audiences, and scientists themselves too readily assume that universal authority and knowledge inhere science.[1] Expertise in a specific technical scientific domain is readily equated with expertise in general. Knowledge in one domain, however, does not in itself demostrate knowledge in another.

According to The Independent and Reuters and the Times Higher Education,[2] David Nutt has invoked that old chestnut about the anti-science Catholic Church to criticize some contemporary practice: “The outlawing of psychoactive drugs amounts to the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo.”

Thony C., that tireless monitor of the internet and all-around smart guy, has already pointed out that Nutt’s comment is historically inaccurate: “Not banned, placed on the Index until corrected.” To recap Thony’s post:

  1. The Catholic Church did not ban Copernicus’s De revolutionibus.
  2. When Copernicus’s book was placed on the Index, it was expressly a temporary measure until the offending passages about heliocentricity being a fact were modified to mark it as a hypothesis.
  3. Placing Copernicus’s book on the Index wasn’t particularly effective—offending passages were usually modified so that they could still be read and the Index had little power beyond Italy.

Go read Thony’s whole post and then go read Owen Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (it’s expensive, so borrow a copy from somewhere).

Two aspects of Nutt’s statement bother me:

First, at the most basic level, it is factually incorrect (see point #1 above). If scholars want to step outside their areas of expertise and make claims in other domains, they have an obligation to be accurate—or at least to try to be accurate. Sure, this requires some work, especially when scholars venture beyond their area of expertise, but accuracy is the least we should demand of people purporting to be authorities. Scientists of various sorts regularly and rightly lambast non-scientists for making ludicrous claims about science. Scientists, in turn, should be careful when the tread beyond their domains of expertise lest they make ludicrous claims.

Second, Nutt’s assertion is ambiguous and misleading. His implication that the Catholic Church spoke as a single voice to condemn a book is not supported by history. There were many institutions that censored or tried to censor books: the Index was most closely tied to the Papal States and some Italian states that chose to adopt it. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Jesuits established their own mechanisms for censoring books. But the Jesuit efforts met with limited success as most of the territorial princes had their own systems. French officials compiled their own list of prohibited books and largely ignored the Index. Even in Spain the Index of Prohibited Books differed from the Index Rome.

Beyond the Catholic countries governments understandably felt little compulsion to adopt the Index. And the power of the Index could be just the opposite of what “the Church” intended. In England, far from discouraging people to read condemned books, books seem to have sold better if they were on the Index. John Donne put it most directly: “… forbidden books sell best.”[3]

Whatever the merits of his argument about the effects of making certain drugs illegal, when David Nutt ventured into history he was wrong and misleading. His knowledge about neuropsychopharmacology, psychopharamcology, neuroscience, drug research, or drug policy did not translate into knowledge about the past. Expertise is not fungible.

UPDATE: See Alice Bell’s excellent piece.

  1. While I concentrate on David Nutt’s comments here, the journalists who have reported those comments are culpable for spreading the misinformation. Simple fact checking would have revealed his errors and would have prevented their further spread.  ↩

  2. And now now (according to Google) hundreds of other sites.
    The context for Nutt’s comment is a paper that he and two co-authors published—“Effects of Schedule I drug laws on neuroscience research and treatment innovation” in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (behind paywall)—in which they argue that drug laws and controls impede research into how these drugs work and what therapeutic uses they might have.  ↩

  3. John Donne, Fifty Sermons (1649). Donne was not the only person to think forbidden books sold well Thomas Jackson, in his A Treatise Containing the Originall of Vnbeliefe, Misbeliefe, or Misperswasions Concerning the Veritie, Vnitie, and Attributes of the Deitie (1625) remarked: “Now, as Printers sometimes gaine more by forbidden bookes, then by such as are authorized for publicke sale.”  ↩