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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 14th September 2011

What’s in a name? I won’t finish the quotation as I’m sure you already know it or rather think you do. A lot of people cite it as ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ but the original is ‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’. And I can’t help thinking that it should be brought up to date by the addition of ‘assuming it’s not one of selectively bred roses where the grower put flower colour and disease resistance above aroma so it doesn’t smell at all.

But, I digress. My point is that names often impart preconception. We respond to a name in a way that is conditioned by our understanding of what that name should mean. With scientific names, there’s a preconception of reliability in the information if it comes from someone with a sciencey name.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

I’d be surprised if you’re not familiar the ‘Bad Science’ columns written by Doctor Ben Goldacre in the Guardian. (If you’re not, have a quick look at the sort of subjects he tackles.)  A key theme that Goldacre keeps returning to is that you should always look at the source work rather than relying on a newspaper report or a university press release. The assumption is that ‘proper’ scientists can be relied on to report only what they can prove. Goldacre, himself, often writes about cases where this is not so and today I want to look at three examples where a sciencey name can lead you astray.

Since I’ve been writing about a doctor, let’s start with ‘doctor’. I came across a blog post written by a doctor. Now, there is, clearly, something a little odd about this doctor because, as well as running a medical practice, he is also a real estate investment manager for some bizarre conglomerate that includes a law firm, a fast food outlet selling chicken meals, a crystallography laboratory and an industrial products' manufacturer.

But writing as a doctor, though, he admits, at the behest of the conglomerate’s PR department, he presents an article about ricin, the poisonous extract from Ricinus communis. Now I’ve blogged about ricin before, most recently when the New York Times tried to make a book puff look like serious journalism, so I won’t go over all that ground again. But the good doctor says ‘there's a great interest in weapons of mass destruction’ suggesting that ricin is one such. He goes on to describe ricin as ‘Easily available, easily produced and highly toxic’ making it of interest to the ‘terrorist on a shoestring’. To drive home this point he states that ‘They can grow in the poppy fields’. Now that’s a new one on me so I assume the doctor has put it in to try and make a link with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort

There then follows the usual nonsense about tainting food and breathing it in as well as injecting it. ‘Excuse me, sir, I’m a terrorist would you please roll your sleeve up so I can inject you with a deadly poison’. But then, after going on about how easy it is to make and use he finishes by asking what would happen if a ‘highly skilled chemist’ produced it in bulk and found an efficient delivery system. I’ve got news for the doctor; highly skilled chemists first tried to weaponise ricin during the First World War and they soon concluded that it wasn’t the way to go. The trouble is, because he is a doctor, people may believe this rubbish.

Then let’s turn to ‘professor’. I won’t repeat what I wrote about Professor Knottenbelt on 6th September and his, let’s say ‘poor’ to be charitable, presentation of claims that Jacobaea vulgaris is a plant causing widespread deaths in horses. Incidentally, I’ve submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University of Liverpool in the hope of getting the statistics that the professor was unable to provide. The deadline for a reply, under the FOI Act, is 12th October so I’ll be returning to this plant when I get a response.

For today, what concerns me is that people who persist in misunderstanding ragwort or won’t even read factual guidance from the government will cite the professor, the tone being that if a professor said it, it must be true.

Our third name is ‘journal’ or, rather ‘peer-reviewed scientific journal’. These are supposed to be the gold standard for the publication of scientific information especially the results of research. Unfortunately, some groups with a fixed agenda have realised that they can give added weight to their viewpoint by creating a ‘journal’ and giving the appearance that this is a ‘peer-reviewed scientific journal’.

Cannabis sativa

Cannabis sativa

‘The Journal of Drug Policy and Practice’ (JDPP) is more like the house magazine of ‘The Institute on Global Drug Policy’ which is itself an offshoot of the Drug Free America Foundation. Obviously, a journal directly linked to the Drug Free America Foundation would be making its agenda rather too clear. If you take the time to look at the author guidelines for JDPP and compare them with the author guidelines for, say, ‘Addiction Journal’ you will find that JDPP says that the editor will decide if peer review of an article is required and gives authors the opportunity to specify people they would not wish to act as reviewers. For ‘Addiction Journal’ all research reports are peer reviewed and the choice of reviewers rests with the editorial board.

But, actually, you don’t need to do any of the work to realise that JDPP is not the pillar of reliable science it would have you believe. In a brief paper published on its website, it says that ‘animal cruelty and marijuana crimes are undeniably connected’. This is based on the fact that dealers in illegal substances will often have large dogs around them to offer protection and to deter dissent from customers. The assumption is that some of those dogs are being treated less than ideally. But, note that JDPP doesn’t say that drug dealers are linked to animal cruelty; it says ‘marijuana crimes’ and, since possession is a federal crime in the USA, it is trying to make you think that there is some causal link between the desire to use illicit psychoactive substances and ill treatment of animals.

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

It is such a ridiculous proposition that it’s worth trying to understand what the message is. It seems to me that this is another attempt to fight against the rising tide of people who say the prohibition of Cannabis sativa should end and its use should become properly regulated. Painting cannabis users as cruel to animals is a very silly attempt to undermine the sense being spoken and written about the harms caused by prohibition because the evidence being put forward is impossible to counter other than with the ‘because we say so’ argument that governments have relied on since 1961.

So, just because information comes to you clothed in a sciencey name that, unfortunately, does not always mean that the information is science rather than opinion. But, it is not just people with sciencey titles who may have the ear of the public. Celebrities will often say something that has no scientific basis but their fans might believe it.

I heard something on the radio, this afternoon, said by Sienna Miller (in January 2010, it seems, so I’m not sure why it is back now). Ms Miller is well-known as a smoker and she was reported as saying “I love them (cigarettes). Love them. I think the more positive approach you have to smoking, the less harmful it is.”