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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 3rd March 2015

This is the first in a series of indeterminate length to be posted over an indeterminate time concerning statements and claims made by Peter Hitchens in his book ‘The War We Never Fought’. Hitchens has a tendency, when challenged to provide evidence for one of his claims about the harms of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, to cite his own book as that evidence. I’m not sure whether he truly doesn’t understand what is meant, in science, by ‘evidence’ or whether it is just his willful arrogance coming to the fore.

Whatever it is, I’ve thought for a while that it might be interesting to read the book and just see if there is anything in it that a) can be substantiated as fact or b) though assertion rather than fact I agree with. It is over two years since I wrote about what appeared to be a review of the book by its author but turned out to be simply an extract. In this piece, I debunked the central premise of that segment.

The delay in getting around to reading the whole book is because I did not want to send any money Hitchens’ way. As a published author, I know that you don’t make real money unless your book sells tens of thousands so the amount I was depriving Hitchens of was trivial but I felt the principle worth adhering to. Finally, on Amazon, I saw a second-hand copy for sale meaning none of my purchase money would reach the author and ordered it. I was rather pleased to see that the sheet stuck into the front of the book by the library had not been defaced by any date stamp.

Talking of defacing, I’m not one of those people who make notes in books. I know that, when made by someone famous especially in the work of an enemy, such notes can add hugely to the value of a book and I know that the margin notes left by the leading toxicologist whose library I purchased a number of books from after his death are interesting, but I haven’t scrawled in a book since I was a small child.

With ‘The War We Never Fought’, however, I decided that I should note passages I wanted to follow up and the easiest way to do this would be to make a pencil note on the page itself. Let’s be clear; I’m starting from the position of thinking that Hitchens’ views are abhorrent and add to the harms caused by drugs. For that reason, I want to be sure that I record all the points I think worth exploring to ensure I include those where he seems to be making sense.

Up to the end of Chapter 2, I’ve made 34 annotations so, if I examine every one in detail, this will be a long series of pieces. Perhaps we’d best start and see how far we can get before we need a break.

Building an argument is like building any structure; you need to establish your foundations first. If the structure you are constructing is flimsy or poorly designed, it is very important to appear to have strong foundations. These often take the form of assumptions being presented as universally accepted truths.

Hitchens, who is not really that interested in cannabis per se but wants to use its story to demonstrate his core belief that the modern world is decaying, wants to establish as his foundation that things used to be OK but recently things have gone badly. Thus, in his preface he states;

‘…I think it is important for our society to wonder why it has lately become so ready to accept that human woe can be cured or soothed by chemicals.’

There’s likely to be a common question that arises as I work through the pages – is Hitchens stupid or willful? I don’t want to call him stupid so I have to assume that he is not one of those people who thinks chemicals are a recent discovery and that products can be truthfully advertised as ‘chemical free’. So, if he’s not that stupid then, presumably, he’s hoping his readers are and won’t spot the complete nonsense in that statement.

Given that there are still plenty of examples of the ‘chemical-free’ claims made for products it may well be that there are people who do not understand that when the Egyptians, at least 3,500 years ago, gave children a mixture of opium, from Papaver somniferum, and fly excrement to assist them to get to sleep they were administering chemicals to soothe ‘human woe’. Nor may they be aware that, in medieval Britain, Chelidonium majus, greater celandine, was carefully cooked up with honey to make an eye salve. I’ve just selected two examples; there is evidence of humans medicating themselves for around the past 10,000 years.

Hitchens’ attempt to make it appear that human use of substances intended to modify the performance of the body or brain is a recent innovation, therefore, falls. That is important because it undermines a statement made early in Chapter 1. Hitchens says;

‘Drug taking, which separates reward from effort, walks in step with the sexual revolution, which separates the sex act from fertility, and so also separates it from marriage, patience, fidelity and constancy. It also marches in time with the successful campaign to end the taboo against pornography, ludicrously disguised as a battle against censorship.’

I did say, above, that I would be looking out for areas where I agree with Hitchens. I do agree that the years since WWII have seen a sexual revolution. Attitudes to interpersonal relationships have changed, the development of contraception has altered family life and there is much greater tolerance of the full range of sexuality than there used to be. Where we differ is that I see these changes as overwhelmingly positive.

Hitchens is a clever writer who sets traps for the unwary. He is careful not to claim outright that drug-taking is the cause of these changes so limits himself to saying they march in parallel hoping that readers will make the connection for him. However, as seen above, the use of psychoactive substances is not recent so it cannot be said to be ‘in step’ with the other changes that Hitchens dislikes.

To further illustrate his contention that the world is in serious decay, Hitchens claims that educational standards are falling and quotes a piece in the Daily Telegraph  saying that Oxford University Examiners have reported various failings of students taking their finals.

Hitchens writes;

‘Many [Oxford graduates] have no idea who Mr. Micawber is’

He gives a footnote citing ‘Oxford University examiners’ reports quoted in the Daily Telegraph.

There’s a couple of problems here. First is that the reference to Mr. Micawber is a quote from David Palfreyman, Bursar of New College and director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and not from the examiners’ reports and the second is that the Bursar was referring to ‘kids’ i.e. the raw material arriving at Oxford not graduates who have completed their degrees.

Claiming to quote from an academic document but actually misquoting from a report on that document is the sort of thing Ben Goldacre has a lot of fun with in ‘Bad Science’. Anyone familiar with Goldacre’s book will also know all about cherry-picking. Hitchens wants to show that standards are declining so he relies just on the Telegraph story and makes no mention of this rebuttal just four days after the Telegraph piece.

Ignoring the latest information because it destroys the point is something that Kathy Gyngell and Kevin Sabet and their like strongly favour. I’m trying not to prejudice my reading but I suspect I’ll find more examples of Hitchens doing the same thing as I go through.

These two points, that use of ‘chemicals’ is recent and that standards are falling on many fronts, take care of 5 of the 34 annotations I mentioned above. I’ll break off here and pick up on another day. I’ll have to consider whether I can support a point by point commentary or whether I need to look for similarities and combine several specifics into more general comments. I should like to stick to the point by point approach so as not to be exposed to attack on the grounds of cherry-picking or misrepresenting the overall work but, if the whole book continues at the error rate seen in the early chapters, that may just be impossible.

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