“the world is stablished, that it cannot be moved”
psalm 93:1“the world shall be established that it shall not be moved”
psalm 96:10the Lord … “who laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed for ever”
psalm 104:5“the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved”
1 Chronicles 16:30
Heliocentrism – the new idea that the earth revolves around the sun – was probably considered in Classical times, but the credit for its reintroduction in the early modern era goes to a German/Polish cleric and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. Although he had worked on his theories & calculations for around thirty years, his ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’) was only widely published in 1543, shortly before his death.
The book attracted a little controversy: not much and not immediately. In fact, it was dedicated to Pope Paul III. It was another sixtyish years before the book was ‘suspended’ in 1616.
So who threw the frog among the gherkins? One of Copernicus’ champions, an astronomer and philosopher named Galileo, was instructed by the Inquisition not to hold or broadcast his heliocentric ideas, a request with which he initially complied. When finally invited to publish and comparison between the two models, his work became grounds for his trial for heresy in 1633. He was found guilty and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Which leaves us with a conundrum: why did it take so long for the Church to get its hair-underwear so contorted in its pious crevices? If the issue really was heresy, surely this would have been clear immediately, and actionable upon first appearance?
Galileo’s personality has been cited as a factor, and it’s a valid point. He had explicitly been invited to publish a comparison of the two celestial models, but seems to have made his own viewpoint clear in rather insulting terms. Perhaps he was attempting to trade on his good relationship with Pope Urban VIII, a bond which dissolved under such provocation. Or perhaps he was just a passive-aggressive pillock with autistic-spectrum levels of social intuition.
But I think there may be another factor – timing.
The idea of heliocentrism took a while to gather both a momentum and a backlash. This period co-incided roughly with the Counter-Reformation (reckoned to have started with the Council of Trent: started 1545) and the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). During this vulnerable period, the Catholic Church protected its magisterium even more vigorously than before. An edifice on the back foot was engaged upon a propaganda war.
It took ‘til 1835 for Copernicus’ and Galileo’s books to be dropped from the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. The episode is seen today as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge. The ‘wisdom’ came before the evidence; the cart was put before the horse.
The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has sacked Professor David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In July, Professor Nutt gave a lecture on the assessment of drug harms. This included a drug-harm scale with nine parameters which are:
- Physical harm (acute, chronic and intravenous)
- Dependency (intensity of pleasure, psychological dependence, physical dependence)
- Social harms (intoxication, other social harms and health-care costs).
But since the contents of Professor Nutt’s lecture could probably have been anticipated since 2007 when his ‘Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harms of Drugs of Potential Misuse’ was published in the Lancet, the Home Secretary’s outrage now is harder to understand.
The controversial aspects of Professor Nutt’s approach seem to be:
- The inclusion of legal drugs, specifically alcohol and nicotine/smoking, with the illegal ones in the scale. Indeed, the placing of alcohol and smoking shows them to be more potent dangers than their availability would suggest.
- Disagreeing with the reclassification of cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug
- Applying statistical comparisons to drug use which illustrates their danger in comparison to other leisure activities. Jacqui Smith was famously upset that he compared horse-riding and ecstasy use.
But on what is that policy based if not evidence?
Especially when the sole justification for restriction of certain substances is that they cause harm.
Professor Nutt’s sacking has been followed by the resignation of other highly-qualified scientific advisors on the ACMD. Not surprising really: if your academic integrity (therefore reputation and career) must be sacrificed to tow the governmental line, then there will be fewer capable and qualified experts on the payroll.
It’s all the more of a paradox that Professor Nutt has been fired by a government which legislated to allow 24 hour drinking hours. The view of the ACMD’s former chair on alcohol use in general? ‘I believe that dealing with the harms of alcohol is probably the biggest challenge that we have in relation to drug harms today’.
But then the present government changed the licensing laws several years ago in a very different political climate. It is now an edifice on the back foot, engaged upon a propaganda war. Perhaps in the future, we’ll regard Professor Nutt’s dismissal as an attempt to use blunt political force to suppress empirical and scientific evidence, to hold the world back in favour of received opinion and pre-determined knowledge, to put the ‘wisdom’ before the evidence, the cart before the horse.
That’s the marvellous thing about history - it’s all about the present.
Jourdemayne would like to thank one of her familiars for the inspiration for this blog.