Much of my work involves trying to ensure that policies are based on the best possible evidence. This is often far from easy. From at least the early 1960s (and indeed, if we look carefully enough, even before that) that smoking causes lung cancer. We have even known for about 30 years that breathing other people’s smoke is dangerous. Yet it will only be on the 1st of July that smoking will be banned in public places in England. Long after their position became ridiculous, the cabinet, and in particular the then Health Secretary, Dr John Reid, held out against a comprehensive ban. His favoured alternative would be to exempt bars that did not sell food, precisely the places where the most disadvantaged people congregated. The fact that this was entirely incompatible with the government’s stated aim of reducing inequalities did not seem to worry him, but then this is a government that has never had any difficulty in pursuing more than one mutually contradictory policies at the same time.
But what about the government’s position on evidence to inform other policies. Everyone is, of course, familiar with the notorious statement that the Iraqi regime, under Saddam Hussein, could prepare and fire a weapon of mass destruction in 45 minutes. Unfortunately, no-one in our so-called “intelligence” service seems to have subjected this claim to the simple test of seeing whether it was actually possible, even in the best of circumstances where you did not have weapons inspectors crawling all over you. This is reminiscent of the concerns about the missile gap in the 1960s, when the western powers were alarmed about the large numbers of missiles being built by the USSR, forgetting that the missiles took over 24 hours to prepare for firing and there were only a handful of launchers.
However, the one that causes me most irritation, because I spend so much time at airports, is the rule that you can only take liquids through security of they are in containers of 100ml or less, and they must all fit inside a small plastic bag. At Heathrow Terminal 4 it is common to have 11 people standing outside security handing out plastic bags while the queues build up inside because there is no-one to staff the scanners. We have all seen the ludicrous consequences – in this blog I previously mentioned the Australian couple who had to throw away a container used to contain water when hiking – with a long plastic straw incorporated in it – even though it was empty. It was still a container of over 100mls! However, what surprisingly few people seem to realise is that the scientific basis for this policy is, how shall I put it, entirely non-existent. Now I realise that some people (in fact anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry and some curiosity) has known this for a long time. Yet I guess, like me, they were afraid to say anything. After all, it is all too easy to be locked away as a suspected terrorist these days. However, I now feel able to speak out – simply because someone far more famous than me has done so. In last Sunday’s Observer newspaper, Professor Richard Dawkins was recounting his recent travels and, obviously frustrated by the hassle he was experiencing, listed the web site where you can read all about the junk science underpinning this policy. I encourage readers to look at his article but I’ll leave you to follow his links (his fame may keep him out of trouble – I can’t be so sure about mine!).
I confess, when this policy came in last summer, I was not terribly surprised. After all, this is a government that never looses an opportunity to give the impression that it is tackling terrorism. What I never suspected would be that other European governments would be taken in by it. That was the real surprise. So am I pessimistic about getting evidence into policies in the health sector. Actually, no. We have made huge progress. Where I am worried is about the other areas of government that seem to have avoided concepts such as empiricism and peer review. There lies the problem.