Sunday, April 23, 2006

Lies and politics

The FDA recently issued a report saying that marijuana has no medical uses, and no one should bother to research possible medical uses, in direct contradiction to reports by the Institute of Medicine, a subgroup of the National Academy of Sciences. I'm sure you've seen the news around, but here's a CNN link, for what little it's worth.

And lots of folks are saying that it reminds them of the FDA's refusal to license Plan B to be sold over the counter/without a prescription nationally (though some states have already licensed it for over the counter, non-prescription sales) despite the overwhelming support of the scientists and medicos on the recommending committee.

Both decisions are political, both bad science.

Most of my students come to school with a great deal of trust in the authority of people in power, which is good insofar as they don't beat me up when I give out grades they don't like or insist that yes, they actually have to do some difficult work. But it's bad insofar as they don't often demand to be told the reasoning behind authoritarian declarations. And therein, I hope, is some difference between the "them" of Washington and me, because I spend a lot of time trying to explain why I think X or why their paper deserved a D.

One of my students is working on a paper on ecstasy.

(Disclaimer: I'm pretty boring about drugs. Let's face it, these days, for me, a walk on the wild side drug-wise involves a third Advil. So, I'll admit that I've never taken ecstasy. I have no financial ties to ecstasy production or distribution so far as I know.)

He wants to know how ecstasy works in the brain, and what effects it has physically and psychologically. In approaching the topic, he talked about how he'd always heard in school that ecstasy was super dangerous, that it would pretty much get someone addicted on a first go, kill them instantly, and so forth. And he talked about not using ecstasy, but knowing people who did use it, and who weren't (so far as he could tell) instantly addicted or dead.

He likened the information he'd been given about ecstasy to the abstinence "information" he'd gotten at school about sex. At school, the training had made sex out to be a huge big deal, horrible, scary, and so forth, and yet in his experience, that wasn't so. The disconnection between authority and experience taught the student to distrust authority.

Now, on one level, this project is great news for people like me: a student is actually questioning authority and trying to find out why policy is what it is, and what the scientific community thinks about a specific question. I'm all for that kind of inquiry because that's what we want our educated citizenry to do, question, investigate, reason.

But the dishonesty of the representation of information in the high schools strikes me as horribly unethical and wrong.

On the other hand, as another student pointed out, maybe my student hadn't taken ecstasy because of the misinformation, and had been saved from a health or legal problem.

My student continued on to ask if his teachers knew "the truth" about sex and drugs, but weren't telling, or if they'd been lied to and hadn't a clue. Where, he asked, though not in so many words, did truth reside? And if his teachers hadn't been smart or cared enough to seek to communicate the truth, how could he respect anything they'd tried to teach him?


  1. I was fairly lucky to have sex education on the east coast during the mid-eighties. So that when I moved to Texas and realized that most of my fellow students never had sex ed...well it was slightly shocking to me.

    We once had a group come to the highschool where they talked to us about all the differnt things you could get from having sex. They only way they offered for not becoming sick nad having ones life 'omg ruined' was not having sex. Yes, like a group of 10th graders were going to listen to this.

    As for drug ed one teacher told us quite frankly that it wasn't the drugs themselves that often killed/messed people up but the amount taken and the purity of the drugs. She pointed out that one can become just as addicted to morphine or ridlin.

  2. The fairly conservative administration at the college where I teach asked one of the professors to give a talk to the first year students about marijuana, hoping she would emphasize how evil it was. She looked at them with kind of a puzzled expression and said quietly, "Well, I am a botanist. And marijuana is a plant. You understand, of course, that if I give a presentation about marijuana, I am going to be celebrating the amazing things it can do."

    The whole tableful of administrators went silent.

  3. Really, just telling students that if they get caught using drugs, they will never get financial aid for college should be enough to terrify them into compliance.

  4. But kimmitt, how many people get caught doing anything? How many people get caught speeding, having affairs or sex without condoms, keeping library books or defacing them, kicking a dog? The prospect of being caught is not a deterrent. Most people do 'bad' things thinking they will be the special ones NOT to get caught. And mostly, they are right, unless they are in some targeted group that gets hassled just for existing.....

    Part of the problem is a total disrespect for truth as an entity. Many social conservatives like to rail against 'relativism' when they are the worst perpetrators of such a thing--all means justify ends even if the means are dishonest, immoral, illegal, dangerous, undemocratic, etc. To stop kids from 'ruining their lives with sex,' conservatives will tell them anything, even and especially lies. And the effects? I have students who firmly believe premarital sex is sinful and the ruin of all black people yet they screw around and go to church Sunday believing they are one of The Saved, salvation already determined and incapable of being revoked. For them, rules and laws are for other people, the direct effect of the Us v. Those Unwashed Heathens thinking of most religions in the US.

    I have similar problems with my students and topics like abortion, same-sex relationships/marriage/adoption/existence, religious faith and the separation between church and state. They are filled with preconceived, pre-digested 'ideas' and it is my purgatory to try to drag them by the nosehairs into the 21st century, to reject superstition and blind faith in favor of reason, evidence, experience, experiment, critical thinking, etc. It's like bashing your head against a wall at times. Other times, you get to see a human mind opening for the first time.

  5. HG - I think that teacher was on to something; if it's impurities that are most dangerous, then tell people THAT. Intellectual integrity matters.

    Jo(e) - OMG, I would have LOVED to see that! I can imagine if someone asked me to talk about... well, gosh, let's hope they never do!

    Kimmit - I totally hate the ways we've focused on drugs, and the war on drugs. If we put that money into fighting domestic and sexual violence and great prenatal and early education, we'd be in a better world.

    And I hate threatening financial aid because it punishes less wealthy kids disproportionatly. It's not like losing financial aid would have mattered to Bush, right?

    G Bitch - That's a good point: our society depends on us to mostly obey the law most of the time because we identify ourselves as invested or something.

    Like you, I think, I see a big disconnect between people talking about responsibility and actually being responsible. If the big shots would focus on greed as the sin that's most damaging, rather than on sexuality, maybe we'd get somewhere.

    I like the image of dragging your students by the nosehairs. OUCH!