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October 31, 2009



Of course there has been a massive media campaign for more than a generation publicicising the view that drugs are unacceptable. Thats a lot of advertising agencies, journalists and sponsors (some of whom were government agencies and others were private)who fear looking very stupid. and these people depend on credibility for their income.
There is also the problem that politicians don't want to alienate potential voters, who they assume all believe the horror stories. Lets hope politicians discover soon that the public isn't that silly.


It is interesting that in the surveys cited here:


the major group in favour of stricter and harder penalties for cannabis use were the police.


"The function of representatives in representative democracy, it seems, is take all the idiocies of public opinion, and when these are insufficient, to then add some of their own."

Is't this a touch kind to our present Ministers. They have observable opinions of their own on just two subjects: that they collectively should stay in office; and that individually they merit higher office than they now hold.

All their other statements of government position - apart from one or two mistakes hastily retracted - can be predicted by diligently noting who is shouting loudest.

Mark Wadsworth

"It seems that when public opinion is wrong - for example on immigration - politicians pander to it, but when it is right they ignore it."

True. But two can play at that game. For example, the majority of people in the UK are quite correctly climate change sceptic and EU sceptic, but the politicians ignore them on that. But, on some things, like the death penalty, the public majority is wrong and the politicians are right.

And as to "immigration", Labour opened the doors to mass immigration in 1997 (the statistics prove it) despite it not having been in their manifesto, and despite most people having been perfectly happy with the status quo for the previous few decades.

So whether the public are "right" or "wrong" on immigration, politicians completely ignore them.

I, personally, like foreigners on the whole, but I usually meet foreigners who've come here to work and actually do work, not the kind that people complain about.


"majority opinion - just - favours some legalization of drugs."

If public opinion is so evenly balanced and confused as that, it probably has no effect. A politician who switched opinions one day to agree with the majority, might have to switch embarrassingly back the next day.

Much better to keep saying the same thing, and get credit for consistancy.


Chris, you have to remember that cognitive biases aren't always wrong. In fact, if they have any evolutionary permanence, they are more often right.

1) Fear of the unknown - good idea. The upside of drugs is a transitory good feeling. The downside is ..., well, we don't know until we're in too deep.

2) Status Quo bias - they weren't that good a band, but I guess opinions might differ on this. (Really, is "status quo bias" an official cognitive bias, or is it just something else in disguise - fear of the unknown perhaps?)

3) OK, I agree with this one - the law of unintended consequences is the one law we know will be passed.

john b

"on some things, like the death penalty, the public majority is wrong and the politicians are right"

point of order: the public now opposes the death penalty, except when the poll's conducted after a particularly vile child murder or domestic terrorist attack. you were right for the 30 years 1965-1995 though.


Public opinion as raw numbers is not the only thing to be taken into account. It is also important how strongly views are held and how important the issues are thought to be.
I suspect that those who are against legalisation of drugs might hold their views more strongly and think the matter is more important than those who are in favour. Politicans have ways of detecting strength of feeling and it is not surprising if they respond to it.

Richard Lawson

You ask why is it that public opinion is more supportive of drug laws?

But the Government's consultation showed a clear majority in favour of keeping cannabis in class C. Even the health professionals. Only the police authorities wanted it in class B. So guess who the Home Office ran with? http://bit.ly/lqlsv


It's really rather funny when you ask in para. 2 "...why is it that public opinion is more supportive of drug laws than the evidence would warrant?", and then in para. 6 you say: "...majority opinion - just - favours some legalization of drugs".

Maybe all the sound and fury about "cognitive biases" is just a little misplaced?


Tode is right. People who favour legalisation tend not to care so deeply that they'll change their vote over the issue; if they did, the Lib Dems would have a bigger share of the vote than they do. But there are a large number of social conservatives who might very well abandon a party that didn't call for a hard line on drugs.

It's like changing the tax system: Those who benefit won't be nearly as grateful as you'd like, and those who lose out will hold it against you forever.


This government have been ignoring all points of view that diverge from their own for a long period of time. In the public sector they have been ignoring evidence from systems thinking, including the damage caused by targets and inspection because it suits the the regime of control that they have built. As more control has been applied people have become self-regulating instead of learning and exploratory. Time to free people and make themselves accountable again.

john malpas

Don't worry.
When sharia law arrives you will have it all sorted out for you.no real politicians and no democracy.

alanm crisps not dunked

They should at least own up to their rejection of evidence based policy making.

They are at liberty to make laws based on hunches but those of us still living after the Englightenment can then judge them accordingly.


My reading of it was that the scientists started weighing into the policy debate thus trying to force the hand of the minister... all too much. The Minister ended up sacking them.

Policy is still decided by politics and politicians, not evidence. Evidence informs policy, doesn't decide it. Ok the minister might be making policy that blatantly contradicts the evidence but it is their right to do so... although they should be held to account for their decisions.

The flipside is a society dominated by technocratic bureaucracies rather than by inconsistent, fallible, egocentric crowd pleasing human beings in the form of elected representatives.

And sometimes the technocratic solutions fail - their are unforeseen factors, or simply the mode of policy or delivery does not work or have the intended consequences.

In my job (a public sector economist dealing with economic policy) we always like the technocratic side of things, but then we say, well lets just ask business what they want! and business people, although they might be good at business, of course are inconsistent, fallible, egocentric crowd pleasing human beings...

And then there's ministers... hm.

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