Stephen Hawking vs Jeremy Hunt, a beloved national treasure going up against somebody who actually knows a thing or two about healthcare systems – in NHS-worshipping Britain, this could only end one way
If your car breaks down in the middle of the desert, who would you rather have come to your aid – the world’s most famous and accomplished concert pianist, or a fully equipped mechanic with a bit of a bad reputation?
Unless you particularly want to die of dehydration amid the sand dunes you pick the dodgy mechanic every time. At least he has some experience with the subject matter at hand, after all. And would you listen to angry protestations from other people who said that the concert pianist was equally entitled to tinker with your car, just because he has been driven around in many cars throughout his career? Of course not. Making use of the functions of an automobile is not the same as understanding how a vehicle works or being able to diagnose technical faults with the engine.
And yet as soon as the national conversation turns toward Our Blessed NHS, this kind of common sense goes out the window. So desperate are many British people to receive confirmation bias-affirming propaganda about “Our NHS” that when theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking got into a debate with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on the subject of healthcare, people essentially chose the concert pianist over the mechanic. Proudly and unequivocally.
This is the mental poison spread by the Cult of the NHS. It warps thinking, is impervious to reason and transforms what should be a measured, rational and unemotional debate about how best to provide healthcare services to a country of 70 million people into a frenzied orgy of emotionalism and unconditional praise for government bureaucracy, combined with a seething intolerance of anybody who dares to question the status quo.
Most unbecoming for a scientist, Stephen Hawking leaned heavily on emotional rather than empirical arguments to make his case, writing in the Guardian:
Like many people, I have personal experience of the NHS. In my case, medical care, personal life and scientific life are all intertwined. I have received a large amount of high-quality NHS treatment and would not be here today if it were not for the service.
The care I have received since being diagnosed with motor neurone disease as a student in 1962 has enabled me to live my life as I want, and to contribute to major advances in our understanding of the universe. In July I celebrated my 75th birthday with an international science conference in Cambridge. I still have a full-time job as director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and, with two colleagues, am soon to publish another scientific paper on quantum black holes.
Whereas in France, Germany, Australia, Canada or Japan he would have been left to die in the street? This is misleading, emotionally manipulative balderdash of the first order. Newsflash, Stephen Hawking – the NHS did not save your life. Doctors and nurses and technicians and administrators did. And all of these professions can be found outside of our own creaking nationalised healthcare system.
Universal healthcare and treatment free at the point of use are not innovations unique to the United Kingdom. Other countries manage to do it too, using a variety of different delivery models – many of which achieve better healthcare outcomes (ultimately the only thing that matters to patients) than Our Blessed NHS.
And Stephen Hawking knows this full well. Yet he is happy to take advantage of the British public’s sentimentality for the NHS and lack of awareness of healthcare in other countries to create a false impression that motor neurone disease patients such as himself – indeed, people suffering from any disease or injury – are somehow left to die on the street in other countries, and that it is only in socialist Britain that people enjoy modern healthcare. This is the kind of dishonesty and low skulduggery that belongs in the field of politics, not science. Hawking should be ashamed of himself.
But he isn’t done yet. He continues:
Last year my personal experience of the NHS and my scientific life came together when I co-signed a letter calling for healthcare policy to be based on peer-reviewed research and proper evidence. The specific issue addressed in the letter was the “weekend effect”. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, had claimed that thousands of patients died unnecessarily because of poor hospital care at the weekend, and used this to argue that we needed to implement a seven-day NHS. I had mixed feelings about the issue. Having spent a lot of time in hospital, I would like there to be more services available at weekends. Also, it seems possible that some patients spend more time in hospital than is necessary because certain diagnostic tests can only be done on weekdays.
However, as we showed in the letter, Hunt had cherry-picked research to justify his argument. For a scientist, cherry-picking evidence is unacceptable. When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others to justify policies they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture. One consequence of this sort of behaviour is that it leads ordinary people to not trust science at a time when scientific research and progress are more important than ever.
Yes, we wouldn’t want to cherry pick evidence now, would we Stephen? Like resolutely pretending that the only alternative to the NHS is “a US-style insurance system”, conveniently ignoring the wealth of other examples out there?
But even more asinine than this is Hawking’s assertion that healthcare policy should be based on “peer-reviewed research and proper evidence”. This is all well and good as far as it goes, but we are talking about designing complex human organisations here, not conducting a controlled physics experiment.
The only peer-reviewed research and evidence that can possibly be brought to bear on the question of how to design an optimal healthcare system for a medium-sized advanced economy will come from the social sciences, which are inexact and often unquantifiable by their very nature. What’s more, in academia the social sciences are populated almost exclusively by leftists and are effectively locked into a self-perpetuating purity spiral. When there is no diversity of perspective or political thought in the field, how can one have the slightest confidence in the outcome of the resulting studies?
Do you really think that scientists check their political opinions at the door of the library or laboratory? If so, where were all the economists during the EU referendum declaring in TV interviews that Brexit might be bad for the economy but still worthwhile overall? They were nonexistent. Why? Because they all started from a place of liking the European Union and wanting Britain to remain a member. Facts and evidence which contradicted this desired outcome were determinedly pushed aside, again and again.
Oliver Norgrove gets it right on this point:
The other issue I have with Professor Hawking’s comments is that they essentially capture the nauseating emotional connection that Brits have with healthcare provision. It is odd because healthcare needs are, by their very nature, private and oughtn’t represent bargaining chips for politicians at election time. ‘Groupthink’ surrounding the NHS is rife and poisonous. I particularly loathe the term ‘our NHS’. In using it we promote unhealthy tribalism, which blockades against meaningful debate about how we improve a stagnant system of healthcare. Diluting this poisonous emotional attachment is perhaps the first step to achieving a market-based system, similar to those seen all around the continent.
Notice also the reliance upon using the American healthcare system as some kind of stick with which to beat free marketeers in Britain. It is as if there are only two structures globally, and we must protect one from becoming the other. Professor Hawking, a clever man, knows full well that by instigating comparison with the United States he can more aptly generate support for the maintenance of the NHS. Which I believe, given changes to demographics, life-expectancy and population-induced strains, is bad for our healthcare outlook.
Increasingly, academics believe that, almost by right, they are entitled to transfer their authority in a particular field to other fields, often for the sake of making noise and boosting their own public profile. This became especially apparent during Britain’s referendum on European Union membership. Of course, I am not saying that academics should not have the right to speak and be heard. Nobody values the importance of free speech more than I do. The issue is that by association alone they are afforded disproportionate exposure and their words a special (and often unwarranted) significance. This is damaging to debate as it promotes laziness and useless conventional wisdom.
And besides, Stephen Hawking doesn’t really want to design an optimal healthcare system. No, he is attached to the present system for emotional reasons, and is busy corralling facts and figures which confirm his own biases and preferences. A rational scientist would start with a blank sheet of paper, not a crayon drawing of the NHS logo with girlish hearts scribbled all around it, à la Hawking.
Yet Hawking preposterously claims to be a dispassionate observer in all this:
A physicist like me analyses a system in terms of levels of approximation. To a first approximation, one can see the situation facing healthcare in this country in terms of forces with different interests.
Quite. So let’s talk about the NHS Industrial Complex, that byzantine and interconnected web of special interests from pharma companies to suppliers to logistics providers to medical schools to clinical staff on the taxpayer dollar, to the army of administrators and bureaucrats required to run what is – astonishingly – the fifth largest employer on the face of the Earth. All of these actors have a vested interest in the current system perpetuating itself – it’s how they get their pay cheques and make their profits. Disruption to steady-state operations is therefore unwelcome and to be resisted at all costs, even if there are potential windfalls for patients.
But these are not the malevolent forces that Stephen Hawking wishes to discuss. He wants to go on a generic leftist rant about the “multinational corporations, driven by their profit motive” – forgetting that the profit motive he so despises helped to spur the development of many drugs and healthcare technologies which save lives every day. He also takes the economically illiterate view that there is a fixed amount of money in the economy and healthcare system, and that shareholder profit necessarily means less funding available on the front line. This is nonsense, as any sixth-form economics student could have explained.
Hawking ends his cri de coeur with this rousing message:
If that all sounds political, that is because the NHS has always been political. It was set up in the face of political opposition. It is Britain’s finest public service and a cornerstone of our society, something that binds us together. People value the NHS, and are proud that we treat everyone equally when they are sick. The NHS brings out the best in us. We cannot lose it.
Isn’t it funny that if you want to make an establishment leftist sound like a frothing-at-the-mouth Ukipper all you have to do is whisper the letters “NHS”, at which point they will immediately start ranting about British culture and values, the importance of our unique island history and our unquestioned superiority over every other country.
And yet we see smug, superior headlines from the likes of the Independent, sardonically declaring “It’s brave of Hawking to take on an intellect like Hunt“, as though Stephen Hawking’s brilliance when it comes to physics somehow automatically translates to the complex political and organisational considerations involved in healthcare reform. This is basic, superficial thinking of the first order – and yet nearly every newspaper clapped along like trained seals, without stopping to think whether Hawking really has any credentials to be pontificating on the future of the NHS. He doesn’t.
Stephen Hawking is little more than an NHS Ukipper, with no more right to meddle in British healthcare reform than your garden variety Ukipper should be allowed to go up against Michel Barnier in the Brexit negotiations. But his ignorance and emotional manipulation are given cover by a bovine public raised to worship the NHS unquestioningly, and by a sycophantic media who prefer to make smartass headlines about Jeremy Hunt’s intellectual deficit rather than stopping to question who makes the better argument.
And as it happens, both men are wrong. Stephen Hawking is busy trying to reanimate the mortal remains of Aneurin Bevan, while Jeremy Hunt is tinkering around the edges of a failing system which needs redesigning from the ground up.
This is what passes for a debate about healthcare reform in this country, and the cost of all the virtue-signalling, NHS-worship and half-hearted reforms can be counted in human lives.
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