A view from Dave Trott

A view from Dave Trott: Is big data the answer?

The current thinking is that big data will solve everything.

Once we have enough data, the right answer will fall into our laps.

But what if the data gave us an answer we didn’t want?

Would we still use it?

Apparently not.

Between 1982 and 1995, John Marks was in charge of the drug programme at a GP surgery in the Wirral.

He ran a test to see what effect free prescription heroin would have on 400 addicts.

The common perception of addicts is: criminal, filthy, disease-ridden, homeless, unemployed and unemployable.

They either die from an overdose, from violence or from Aids.

What Marks found was the exact opposite.

Among the addicts in his trial, none had Aids, none had any diseases and none overdosed.

All those who received free prescription heroin led normal lives.

They had jobs, homes, cars and families.

Free prescription heroin allowed them to live productive lives like anyone else.

Police statistics revealed burglaries in the area fell by 93 per cent.

It also resulted in fewer people becoming addicts.

Marks compared Widnes, where the test took place, with the similar town of Bootle.

In Bootle, heroin wasn’t available on prescription.

By the end of the trial, Widnes had 12 times fewer addicts than Bootle.

How could this be?

In the opinion of the medical experts, the data proved one thing clearly.

The problem wasn’t the heroin, the problem was the law.

The data gave a clear answer: legalise heroin. But the data gave an answer the government didn’t want. So the trial ended

Where the heroin was prescribed, it was clean and safe.

Where the heroin wasn’t prescribed, it was neither clean nor safe.

Scarcity and cost meant addicts had to dilute it as much as possible.

So they could resell it to get more money to buy more heroin.

It was cut with milk powder, talcum powder, baking powder, crushed bleach crystals and cement dust.

That was what people injected into their veins.

It gave them diseases, it made them unfit to work or care about anything but money for their next fix.

And if they couldn’t work, the only way to get money was crime: robbery or drug dealing.

Which, in true capitalist fashion, meant creating a market.

So the addicts became sellers, creating new addicts to sell to.

With free prescription heroin, they didn’t need to do any of that.

They had a clean, hygienic product, so they didn’t get sick.

They could hold down jobs, so they had no need to steal or create other addicts.

The data gave a clear answer: legalise heroin.

But the data gave an answer the government didn’t want.

So the trial ended in 1995.

During the 13 years the trial lasted, there were no drug-related deaths.

Within six months of its end, 20 of the participants were dead.

Within the next two years, 40 were dead.

Between 2009 and 2013, there were 3,611 heroin deaths in the UK.

Heroin still accounts for more deaths than any other illegal drug.

Marks summed it up like this:

"Whatever gave you the idea that people in authority operate according to reason?"

For data to give us the answer, it has to be the answer we want.