The folly of saying “no comment” struck me this week as I was listening to BBC Radio 4 when the pharmaceutical industry refused to put up a spokesman to take part in the Moral Maze.
In this stimulating discussion programme experts submit themselves to combative cross-examination by the likes of Melanie Phillips and Michael Portillo. This week’s topic was inspired by the news that “sex addiction” is to be officially recognised as a medical condition.
It sparked a debate about “the medicalisation of misbehaviour” and posed this question: “If any socially-unacceptable behaviour is a symptom of a condition that can be treated with drugs or therapy or both, where does that leave those quaint old moral terms good and bad, right and wrong?”
Among the expert witnesses was Richard Bentall, a professor of clinical psychology, who poured contempt on those such as the pharmaceutical industry who were reclassifying certain types of behaviour as medical conditions that could be treated with drugs.
He gave as an example depression, which in the 1950s had not been thought of as an illness. There was precious little evidence for the notion that it was due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, he said, adding that anti-depressants had hardly any effect. The main cause of depression was bad things happening in people’s lives.
He then turned his fire on Ritalin, prescribed in vast quantities to children believed to suffer from ADHT (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). There was no evidence that it had any long term beneficial effect on children’s behaviour, he said.
Now, I had no knowledge of this subject and no opinion on the efficacy of these drugs, until I heard this damaging and highly disturbing condemnation of them by the professor.
I would like to have heard a balancing argument from the other side. The programme’s chairman, Michael Buerk, said the BBC had gone to strenuous efforts to get a representative of the drug makers to take part in the programme but no-one had been available.
Why were the makers of these drugs not prepared to the defend them? Why was there no-one available to challenge the Prof Bentall’s evidence? Was it because they knew he was right?
If you were an expert in your field and believed in the rightness of your work why wouldn’t you be willing to argue your case?
My point is that by not taking part in the argument the drugs companies lost the argument. And this thought will have been sown in minds of tens of thousands of listeners: “Maybe these drugs are morally indefensible.”