Friday, 17 December 2010

How the 'war on drugs' increases psychosis

In a previous post I argued that Humanists should be concerned about the international prohibition of recreational drugs. I cited evidence to show that the 'war on drugs' has been lost and that much of the harm associated with drug use is due to illegality not pharmacology. I did not make the libertarian case; though humanists ought to take it seriously.

I did not and never have claimed that the use of street drugs was risk-free. I've always believed that heroin, for instance, is very harmful to most of its users. But cannabis is surely different. When I first became interested in this topic - 40 years ago - the evidence against cannabis seemed very slight - and generally contradictory. Yet I've had to accept from more recent evidence that cannabis use is associated with an increased risk of psychosis.

So I was wrong? Sort of. But the truth is more complex.

Cannabis has several active ingredients notably tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Laboratory and field studies show that it's THC that creates the risk of psychosis whilst CBD has a protective effect.

Over the years the 'hash' and 'grass' of my youth have been replaced by 'skunk'. Skunk contains a higher concentration of THC than the hash of yesteryear and, critically, much less CBD. It's therefore much more likely to provoke psychosis.

This change in composition is not some random effect of climate or fashion; it's a consequence of prohibition. Over the years street cannabis supply has switched from imports from high hills in hot countries to domestic cultivation under intensive lighting. The intensive lighting appears to drive the replacement of CBD by THC.

This would probably not have happened without prohibition and if it had happened in a regulated market then the regulator could have intervened to reverse the trend.

The current incidence of cannabis-related psychosis is therefore a consequence of prohibition. There would be some cannabis-related psychosis in a regulated legal market - cannabis is not risk-free - but if we care about health we will abandon prohibition and seek a policy that might reduce the harm from drug use.

Monday, 6 December 2010

I'm a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!

I’m a Scientist get me out of here is a science dialogue event where school students talk to real scientists online for two weeks. It’s in the form of an X Factor style competition between scientists, who compete for a prize of £500.

For two weeks students read about the scientists’ work, ask them questions, and engage in live text chats with them. The students vote for the scientist they want to get the money. The scientists with the fewest votes are evicted until only one is left to be crowned the winner. The event is supported (by Wellcome Trust) by carefully developed and tested resources which develop students’ skills and deepen their understanding.

Evolution Zone
Ceri Thomas won £500
in the Evolution Zone of
I'm a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!
Ceri Thomas says 'My favourite thing to do in science is talk to other people about ideas- good ideas, bad ideas, crazy ideas- communication is one of the best ways for scientists to discover new things and challenge their own perceptions about problems. I love learning something new every day and I love pondering the BIG questions in animal evolution: What did our earliest ancestors on earth look like? How and when did animals evolve? Did they like to drink as much tea as I do? More...

Here's my pick of some great questions!

Question!Does evolution proceed toward increasing complexity?

what are your opinoins on how the world began?

Question!Will there be any other substances that arn’t in the periodic table that are here today innit?

Question!did dragon’s ever excist or are they just a myth

Question!why do people become addicted to drugs

Question!Why do animal’s have a shorter life then us ?

Question!how big is space

Question!If extinction is a natural part of life on Earth, why should we care about protecting endangered species?

Question!If evolution is true, then why are there so many gaps in the fossil record? Shouldn’t there be more transitional

Question!do u belive in ghosts and if you do have you ever seen one

Question!According to evolution, the diversity of life is a result of chance occurrence. Doesn’t that make evolution wildly

Question!Will there ever be a cure for cancer and are scientists makiong any progress of dicovering a cure?

Question!People say that we only use 20% of our brain power, do you think it is possible that we could do extraordinary things

Question!is it posible that humans could one day invent eternal life

Question!if smoking is so bad why did they invent it

Question!What do you like about science?

Question!Hello Ceri, Is it possible that some people in the world can see ghosts?! please reply :D

Question!Do you believe in the after life and past life? if so, why?

Question!how does are brain work :)

Question!what are your opinoins on how the world began?

Question!hello i wana ask u a qustion and dat question is that is it true dat humans evolved from monkeys

Question!Why was Darwin’s idea considered dangerous?

Question!Why did the ancient peoples who immigrated from Africa develop white skin?

Question!can gravity be produced at any planet ? or can gravity be produced on any specific object?

Question!Is there a relation between worms and humans? If yes, what is it? :)

Question!Although our bodies don’t use the appendix, what do you think it was needed for before?

Question!im not very good at science would you advise me to be a scientist

Question!if you werent a scientist what would you be?

Question!why dont black holes suck in the INTIRE universe, and what would happen if they did?
View all answered questions.

What a great way to get kids interested in science!!

Prof. Colin Blakemore - Humans do not have free will

The Case For God?
BBC1 6th September 2010

With religion coming under increasing attack from atheists and sceptics, The Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, goes into the lion's den, putting his faith publicly on the line by debating with some of the sharpest critics of his faith. Howard Jacobson believes ritual demeans religion, Alain de Botton doubts that any one faith has the truth, Professor Colin Blakemore thinks science makes religion redundant, and Professor Lisa Jardine questions why God allows evil and suffering in this world.

Here Sacks interviews Colin Blakemore:-

Sacks 'Colin Blakemore says rationalist explanations made by science make faith obsolete.'

Sacks 'Once science has explained something does science 'explain it away'?'

  • Blakemore 'their are explanations & accounts that are verifiable, testable of how things happen
  • Sacks 'the beauty of Beethovens cannot be explained away by science explaining the music centre in the brain'
  • Blakemore 'wait and see what science is capable of delivering; their are many things that science has beautifully explained, for which there could not have been a conventional explanation in the past, for instance Biochemistry has explained much of what we understand about 'Life' - their is no 'life force' need to explain these things '
Sacks 'could we be anything other than what we are?

  • Blakemore 'I am the sum total of all the causal influences on me at the moment; events have anticedal causes; humans are not set aside from the rest of other living beings or the universe. The curious sense of a 'self' or of choice or a helmsman deciding absolutely what to do something irrespective of what the world tells them - is wrong.
Sacks 'science JUST explains things away

  • Blakemore ' TBC

What does BHA Distinguished Supporter Colin Blakemore think about the Public Understanding of Science?

I'm interested to I find out what British Humanist Association (BHA) Distinguished Supporters think about:-
  • The Public Understanding of Science. 
  • Why they support the BHA
  • Inter-relationships between Humanism and Science
  • How should Humanists convey the importance of Science to other Humanists and wider society
The method I've used here is a brief online literature research. I've added links (all except those in red) and my emphasis is in bold.

Later I hope to make podcasts of interviews of Distinguished Supporters, possibly in association with The Pod Delusion.

Blakemore at the Oxford University
Scientific Society social event in 2009
Professor Colin Blakemore is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association:-

'Colin Blakemore was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in June 1944. After winning a place at the King Henry VIII grammar school in Coventry, he went on to win a scholarship to study natural science at Cambridge and then completed a PhD at the University of California in Berkeley. After 11 years in the Department of Physiology at Cambridge University, he became Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University in 1979. From 1996–2003 he was Director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford, and was Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC) from 2003-2010.

Professor Blakemore was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association) in 1997-1998 and its Chairman in 2001-2004. He has been described by the Royal Society as “one of Britain 's most influential communicators of science”, and he has been awarded many prizes from medical and scientific academies and societies. He is committed to promoting dialogue between scientists and the public, and to defending medical research using animals despite regularly receiving threats of violence from animal rights extremists. Over the years he has been a frequent contributor to radio and television programmes, including the BBC Reith Lecture in 1976 ('Mechanics of the Mind') and the 13-part BBC2 series The Mind Machine. His books for the general public include Mechanics of the Mind (for which he won the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science), Images and Understanding , Mindwaves, The Mind Machine (see 'Look Inside' page 86), Gender and Society and The Oxford Companion to the Body.

In July 2001 he was one of the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools, and he was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who signed and sent a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, concerning the teaching of Creationism in schools in March 2002.  He was also one of the signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles’ Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on February 12, 2003, and sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

Colin Blakemore is also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association.

More about Colin Blakemore at Wikipedia (which I've updated today).

In 2004 Colin Blakemore as the new Head of the Medical Research Council, was interviewed and asked in the last question 'Do you feel there is sufficient public understanding in science? How would you encourage more?' Colin Blakemore said:-
  • It all depends on what one means by “understanding”. There is, contrary to received wisdom, remarkably strong enthusiasm for science amongst the general public, and considerable confidence in scientists. 
    • In opinion polls, 
      • three-quarters of the population said they were “amazed” by the achievements of science. 
      • Another poll found that people admired Einstein more than David Beckham! 
      • an annual Mori poll shows an unchanging two thirds of the public who say that they trust scientists to tell the truth. 
    • On the other hand, the near-hysteria about such topics as 
      • GM foods 
      • MMR vaccination and autism reveals that the public are not well informed about the processes of science. 
    • Understanding of risk and how to assess it is poor. 
      • The public expect infallible pronouncements from scientists and are confused when they hear researchers expressing differences of opinion in areas of genuine uncertainty. 
    • In my opinion, we, the researchers who benefit from public funds, have a responsibility to keep the people informed about how we spend their money. 
    • Even more important, we must trust the public to guide us in areas of ethical concern. 
    • But if we are to have confidence in the public’s rightful role in determining how far science can go, they must understand how science and scientists work. 
      • Of course, busy researchers will ask why they should bother to give their precious time to public communication, when there is no professional recognition for that effort. 
      • I think that the universities, the research councils and other funders... should acknowledge that public communication is a legitimate professional activity. 
Watch (9minutes) Colin Blakemore at the 'Science is Vital' rally in London on 9th October 2010 talking about Science Funding in the UK (he is introduced by BHA Vice President Evan Harris):-

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Brian Cox - Science: A challenge to TV objectivity

Thanks to Matthew Coussell, a member of my HASSNERS group, for recommending this programme to me.

reposted from: (view on iPlayer until 8th December 2010).

Prof Brian Cox presents the Huw Wheldon Lecture 2010 on the topic: 
Science: A challenge to TV objectivity

1'15": our reliance on science and crucially the scientific way of thinking has never been greater".

5' 15 - 5'50" science is very simple indeed: science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. As long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is the statement of the obvious. Everything we take for granted in the modern world; from atoms, to electricity, from our understanding of the stars, to medical imaging - is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it. The  great English biologist Thomas Huxley summarised it beautifully: science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic.
7'55": science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature.