A nation that lies to itselfBy Melanie Phillips.
May 27 2002
The day after the Home Affairs Select Committee produced its recent report on drugs policy, I happened to speak in a debate on the subject. In it, I laid out some facts about the harm illegal drugs can do and the success of countries with tough drug enforcement policies.
My evidence was drawn from many reputable researchers and medical and police authorities around the world. The response from the audience was widespread incredulity. Despite the abundance of evidence, many members of the audience simply didn’t believe me.
One woman claimed that other studies came to the opposite conclusion. She cited as an example a Swiss report showing that a permissive approach had improved the health of heroin addicts. But her claim fell to bits when a knowledgeable former police officer revealed that this Swiss study had been discredited by international health bodies as scientifically worthless.
These exchanges highlighted a most disturbing phenomenon. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have an informed debate about key controversial issues, because more and more people appear unable to deal with factual evidence and differentiate between truth and falsehood. Rational discussion is brought to an abrupt halt because people appear unable to accept any facts which challenge their already fixed prejudices.
On drugs, this eclipse of truth has become an almost total blackout. People don’t believe that there is so much evidence about the harm done by illegal substances, particularly cannabis, because there is virtually no public body that tells them about it.
Instead, the establishment almost universally dismisses well-founded evidence and recycles the same misapprehensions and falsehoods. The Runciman commission, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Home Secretary, assorted Chief Constables, the Church of England and even our most senior law lord, Lord Bingham, all have swallowed to a greater or lesser extent a whole series of misrepresentations, evasions and bogus arguments to arrive at the same disastrous conclusion, that drug policy should be liberalised.
A number of myths have taken unshakeable hold. Thus, our prisons are choked with people jailed for cannabis possession: not true. Heroin only kills because it is adulterated and would be safe to use if it were legal and pure: not true (as Dr Harold Shipman’s multiple murders through lethal doses of diamorphine, the medical form of heroin illustrated). And legalising drugs reduces crime: but studies in Britain and Sweden, conducted during experiments in which certain illegal drug-taking was treated as lawful, have showed the reverse is true.
The select committee solemnly came up with some demonstrably absurd remarks. ‘Most drug users’, it declared, ‘do not appear to experience harm from their drug use nor do they cause harm to others as a result of their habit’.
Untrue twice over. Take cannabis, which the select committee and Home Secretary are determined to declassify despite all the evidence. It is an extraordinarily toxic drug which persistently alters the molecular mechanisms of the brain.
According to pharmacology professor Heather Ashton, the memory loss and damage to the brain’s thinking processes that it provokes can persist years after stopping cannabis use; and it is associated with violent crime.
Psychiatrists report increasing numbers of cannabis users suffering from psychosis. One Swedish study found young people were 2.4 times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia if they had ever taken cannabis, and six times more likely if they had taken it fifty times or more.
Where tests are carried out, it’s being found that more drivers are involved in road accidents under the influence of marijuana than alcohol. Work being done with British students is showing that even ‘moderate’ weekend cannabis smoking is leaving them unable to cope with their courses.
Yet you can hear minds snapping shut as soon as such facts are mentioned, and not just on the subject of drugs. There is now a whole range of issues where people have a fixed belief in falsehoods and are impervious to the truth.
Take cohabitation. The belief is taking firm hold that cohabitation is as good as marriage for the upbringing of children. This was the assumption behind the amendment to the adoption bill passed by the Commons a few days ago, which paves the way for cohabiting couples to become adoptive parents.
Yet very few children indeed are brought up throughout their childhoods by their cohabiting parents. John Ermisch and Marco Francesconi, the leading British cohabitation researchers, have found that cohabiting couples are twice as likely to split up as married couples, and that the birth of a child makes splitting up more likely.
But people simply don’t want to hear this. When on BBC TV’s Question Time recently, I referred to the instability of cohabitation and the resulting insecurity for adopted children, I was repeatedly hissed by a large section of the audience.
Or take global warming. If you tell people there is no scientific evidence for it, they scoff at such a preposterous heresy. Yet a growing body of rigorous science is showing that many of the claims made to support the most apocalyptic scenarios are demonstrably false.
For instance, when air is measured, the past two decades are revealed to have actually cooled.
We are told the ice sheets are thinning, In fact, the extent of Arctic ice has remained virtually unchanged over the last 20 years, and in the Antarctic sea-ice has actually increased by about 1.3 per cent per decade.
We are told that the 1990s were the warmest decade in history. This completely ignores the fact that in 1200 AD, Europe was 2°C warmer than it is now. And so on.
Or take domestic violence. We are constantly told that one in every three or four women has experienced domestic violence perpetrated by men. This staggering proportion defies common sense. Some of it has been extrapolated from studies of atypical women in battered women’s hostels. The rest derives from skewed research that doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, in which women are interviewed but men are not.
Yet the true facts about domestic violence, revealed by dozens of studies in America and elsewhere, are that women are equally as violent as men in domestic disputes.
So what on earth is happening to make people turn away from truthful evidence and believe a load of rubbish instead?
The most immediate and obvious cause is the abject failure of our education system to teach people knowledge and encourage the ability to think. This is the result of a fundamental attack on the very idea of knowledge, facts and objectivity. Feelings and imagination are what matter instead.
Truth has been undermined in mathematics, where certainty and exactness have given way to guesswork and imprecision. Objectivity has been undermined in history, where the central lesson is that there is no such thing as historical truth and that all of history boils down to competing interpretations.
As facts progressively disappear from the curriculum and knowledge is replaced by ‘skills’ and the promotion of ‘emotional well-being’, in comes propaganda, with children being instructed in sustainable development, equal opportunities and political activism.
This retreat from knowledge is the product of a seismic shift in thinking which goes back centuries and has accelerated in the past few decades. Philosophy, ‘the love of wisdom’, has turned against the very notion of truth. The 18th century philosopher David Hume, who said knowledge was based on the experience of feelings, undermined the whole notion of certainty.
In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche said: ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’. In the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin wrote in Two Concepts of Liberty that the totalitarian slaughters of Nazism and communism had resulted from ideologues believing they knew the truth. It followed inescapably from this that it was better to tolerate lies.
This shift gave rise to cultural and moral relativism, the doctrine that holds there is no such thing as objective truth, and that every value is equal. So it was no longer possible to judge the claim of one argument over another. Everything became merely a matter of opinion.
This process reached its apogee in the 1970s with the French post-modernists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who deconstructed into meaninglessness morality and truth itself.
The result was that the sacred flame of intellectual life itself was all but snuffed out. The universities were traditionally the guardians of truth. Now they became accomplices at its destruction. The American thinker Allan Bloom wrote in his book, The Closing of the American Mind: ‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance’.
It was better to be tolerant and wrong than intolerant and right. Truth was destroyed; non-judgementalism was all. Nietzsche’s famous prediction – ‘nothing is true; everything is permitted’ – was now a reality.
But if no-one can assert the truth, then it follows that in the vacuum falsehoods can flourish. In the universities, a dismaying number of academics have sold their souls to vested interests whose patronage depends on researchers coming up with conclusions that are to their liking. This intellectual corruption has meant that for every worthwhile piece of social science research there are several others that are flawed, tendentious and misleading.
The way has been opened accordingly for charlatanry of all kinds to take hold, from propaganda for drug legalisation, cohabitation, global warming or the demonisation of men all the way to alternative medicine, séances and parapsychology. Not to mention ersatz emotion: the sentimental belief, for example, that all you need is love to mend the broken heart of a child torn apart by its parents’ separation. Hard evidence is being replaced by highly subjective and self-serving personal opinion.
Why, though, has all this taken such hold in Britain? After all, France itself has been relatively immune to its own deconstructionists; and although the United States was affected, American academia tenaciously fought back. But in Britain, the intelligentsia waved its white flag and surrendered.
The key is surely the collapse in Britain of the authority and self-confidence of the church. Anglicanism manages to put itself on the wrong side of just about every moral argument, choosing to believe the propaganda of falsehood – as in its support for cannabis decriminalisation -- rather than upholding reason and truth.
This disintegration of religious authority has meant the loss of a pool of certainty, which gave people the confidence to face up honestly to difficult facts that challenged them to make painful choices. With nothing to lean on, these choices became intolerable.
The result was the creation of pseudo-religions such as environmentalism and pseudo-sins such as the whole gamut of politically correct thought-crimes, while real misconduct in abandoning family or taking drugs could be ignored, along with the facts about the consequences.
This culture of falsehood is spreading alarmingly. But there are still millions of people who have not lost their intellectual and moral senses, who can still tell truth from its negation, and who are utterly aghast at the capitulation of the governing and intellectual classes. Among the young, too, there are signs of a revolt against the amoral values of their parents’ generation; and people are increasingly coming back to religion in those churches which offer certainty.
There is still a hunger for truth. But it is in eclipse; and it is likely to emerge from the shadows only when the consequences of obscuring it become too grave to ignore.`
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© Melanie Phillips 2002.