More Questionable Science and Reporting

Quite a while back, I wrote about the manipulation of scientific evidence to support anti-smoking legislation. Well, today I ran across this article claiming a direct link between long-term marijuana use and psychosis.  Apparently, people who regularly toke up for six years or more have a massively increased rate of “psychotic outcomes” including delusions and hallucinations.  The medical evidence seems to suggest that pot causes folks to go crazy.

While the headline of the article does use some terms like “may” and “more likely” instead of definites, there is little doubt that the point being made is that pot causes this stuff.  Interestingly, however, there is a small paragraph early in the piece that seems to create a pretty clearly mitigating factor in the study, as well as call into question the conclusions.  It reads like this:  “The study also suggests that more research is needed to determine whether people who are predisposed to psychosis might be more likely to smoke marijuana earlier in life and for longer periods.” In other words, while we’re busy telling you that pot causes the crazies, we don’t really know if these results mean what we say they do or if they came about because people pre-disposed to this kind of issue turn to pot to deal with it.  That’s a pretty big if, don’t you think?

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to find out if that was the case before you release to the press your “evidence” that pot makes you psychotic?  Of course, then, it might be a little more difficult to jump on the demonizing bandwagon that research science has become.  If, in fact, marijuana isn’t causing this, but instead is being used by people with delusions to their aid, that kind of undermines the whole “pot in completely evil” line we’ve been taught since birth to support the prohibition and the counter-productive and massively profitable war on drugs.

To me, this is reminiscent of the gateway drug myth.  It was a long-held belief that marijuana use led directly to harder drug use, and this has been one of the leading points made to support the criminalization.  This was illustrated most commonly by a 1991 study that purported to show pot smokers 85 times more likely to move on to cocaine.  This study was cited and referenced by just about every drug policy organization going for years before finally falling to the wayside.  Today, only vague references are made to the gateway effect, with a corresponding note that researchers are still looking into it, as we see here on the National Institute of Drug Abuse website. But, even though much anti-pot policy was based on the gateway effect, the study in question showed no such thing.  In fact, it showed just the opposite, that 83% of marijuana users never moved on to harder drugs.  The 85 times more likely number came from, you guessed it, a distortion of facts that basically showed cocaine users liked the reefer.  Here is a pretty good refutation of the point.

Just as with the smoking debate, no one is arguing that these behaviors are healthy, but that we as supposed free people should be allowed to make up our own minds.  This kind of junk science makes those choices more difficult as they cloud actual facts with slanted, agenda-driven statistics and points of view designed to support ends that have nothing to do with reality.  As for the reporting of these kinds of studies, shouldn’t the author have asked some important questions about the three-ton elephant in the room, namely the glaring hole in the study that could completely blow up the hypothesis?  Of course, that would require some actual reporting rather than simply rewriting a press release.

Much has been made about the downfall in journalism currently being suffered due to massive declines in the industry.  I’ve made the point before, and I’ll make it again here, that journalism was in full-on decline a long time ago and it’s only now that there is much more information and many more voices out there that we can see how glaringly bad it’s become.  Somewhere along the way, our reporters have lost the ability to ask difficult questions, and turned to presenting slanted PR with a byline as all the news that’s fit to print (or download).  That can be particularly damning as “scientific evidence” is often used to support new law or enhance current law and our politicians have shown that, no matter how questionable the study, if there’s some numbers in there they can spin to their advantage, they will only too readily do so.

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. You should beware that journalists tend to be a mixture of idiots and people intent on giving articles the “right” angle. It does not automatically follow that the scientist were guilty of the error of jumping to conclusions, just because the journalists were. (They may or may not have; they may or may not have had a hidden anti-marijuana agenda; but the interpretations made by the journalists are not proof in either direction.) I have seen such absurd errors made by journalists, in a leading, nation-wide, newspaper, as discussing the age of the universe in light years…

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