I admire Stephen Hawking’s achievements. His work on quantum mechanics and black hole dynamics is to say the least, extremely admirable, and can be more aptly described as revolutionary. I would never doubt or question his achievements in the field of science, since I am in no authority to do so, nor do I possess even 0.1% of his scientific knowledge. But in these past few days, specifically during one lecture and one article in particular, Mr Hawking used some outrageously incoherent arguments to justify an equally incoherent political position. For a man whose pet topic revolves around the scientific method, the use of empirical evidence and logic, this is a strange occurrence. But in spite of Mr Hawking’s popularity, I am willing to say what needs saying. Stephen Hawking was wrong about the NHS. He was wrong to say that the NHS is being Americanised, wrong to criticise privatisation, and wrong to hail the apparent success of Britain’s healthcare model.
Intelligent people can be wrong…
It has been a mistake of many to use Hawking’s unquestionable capacity for intelligent thought to justify his position almost instantly. To some, his position is correct simply because he is bright. But this style of argument is unjustified for anyone who glances at it for more than ten seconds, perhaps explaining why such simple and irrational points gain so many retweets on twitter. A particle physicist studies particle physics, not politics or the intricacies of healthcare. Just as the study of biology does not improve a person’s capacity for Persian History, the study of particle physics does not extend Mr Hawking’s intellectual purview to the field of public policy and economics. Even if Mr Hawking had displayed, in his long life, even the most small display of capacity for political rationale, it would not justify his incoherent position, for the most intelligent people are not always the most truthful, and certainly aren’t always right. His speech on the NHS is merely one example of many where intelligent people can make stupid points.
Mr Hawking argued in his article and speech against the Conservative management of the National Health Service and against Jeremy Hunt himself, while praising the NHS as a public institution which benefits us all. Naturally, in this country driven by a cult-like romantic obsession with total nationalisation of the healthcare industry, his comments went down well with the public. Nonetheless, it contained a number of irrational, and ill-informed arguments, which can only be described as extremely misleading. The title of his article in the Guardian last Friday, and a phrase he used regularly in his speech to the Royal Society of Medicine, “The NHS saved me”, is the first of a number of misleading and untrue statements. The first fallacy is that it puts forward an underlying claim that without the NHS, there would be no healthcare, or there would be worse healthcare. In those four simple words, he dismisses all other healthcare systems across the world, and the incredible work of their doctors and nurses. It would be far more accurate for him to have said “Doctors and Nurses saved me”; and that those doctors and nurses would have been present in any other system seen in the developed world, especially, I might add, in the social insurance systems seen on the European continent. It is an insult to doctors and nurses in other nations that he did not do this.
The NHS Myth
In fact, looking at avoidable death rates, Stephen Hawking may have been more likely to have survived in the Netherlands, or Belgium, or Germany. Of course, I understand that he survived within the NHS, but this is totally different from saying he survived because of the NHS. But because of this basic logical misconception, he suffers from a respectable attachment to the National Health Service with noble intentions, but that attachment is based on emotion, not reason. It is a shame considering that scientists ought to be the most open minded people around, yet Mr Hawking refuses to broaden his own mind to potential alternatives to the NHS. Instead, he joins a bandwagon of scaremongering narrow-mindedness seen in almost every major British politician, pushing three myths about the current state of the health service: that the NHS is the best healthcare system in the world, that we are moving towards a US-style insurance system, and that the US model is the only alternative to the Beveridge model. All of these myths are just that: myths. The NHS is certainly not the best in the world. In reality, it ranks very poorly, especially in EHCI and WHO reports. Its largest area of failure came, by far, in patient outcomes. As the Guardian once put it, the NHS’s main fault is its “poor record in keeping people alive”.
The Americanisation of Healthcare?
With regard to the second myth, Mr Hawking in his speech claimed that the NHS under Jeremy Hunt was moving towards a US-style insurance system, a claim which can be most aptly described as, if we use Hawking’s phrase, a “cherry picking of evidence”. Only around eight percent of NHS services are provided by private firms, up by 3 or 4% since the beginning of the Conservative government in 2010 (as a percentage of DH spending). And even in spite of this, the private provision that the NHS uses does not nearly resemble the US-model of non-universal healthcare with large insurance fees charged at the point of use by monopolistic providers; it far more closely mirrors healthcare policy across the Channel in Western European nations: universal, cheap, high quality.
If Mr Hawking had followed his own advice to “base healthcare policy on evidence”, then he would have never made such a claim, and instead would actually advocate a move to the far more effective systems of healthcare seen in the Netherlands or Switzerland, or any other of the dozen countries that rank ahead of the UK. Instead he suffers from the same misapprehension of healthcare policy that millions in Britain do today, that the only alternative to the NHS is a US-style insurance system. But a scientist, one who looks at the evidence, would know that the Earth is a planet of around 196 countries. Disregarding the US system, that’s another 195 healthcare systems for Mr Hawking to consider before announcing the British model to be the only acceptable one available. But reading Mr Hawking’s article, and his comments on the NHS in the years prior to this week, I can see he went through no such scientific analysis, and instead came to the wrong conclusion from a misjudged hypothesis.
Not Mr Hawking’s first political misconception?
But Mr Hawking has made a habit of misjudged political thought in his many decades, which would help to prove the earlier point that although he may be a justifiably well-esteemed scientist, his capacity for politics is merely the mathematical reciprocal of his knowledge of black holes. To give an example, in 2013, Stephen Hawking withdrew from a conference in Israel. He cited his support for an academic boycott of the country based on advice from Palestinian academics as his reason. As a man of intelligence, and as a man of science, this is more grossly dismissive of his principles than anything else he has said in the political realm. An academic boycott of a country which has produced revolutionary scientific achievements, and boasts six Nobel Chemistry Prize winners, is laughable for a scientist to even consider, and yet, he went ahead with it. He refused to attend a conference which could have produced, for all he knew, brilliant new advancements in physics he was thus far unaware of. He, and other scientists who participated in the boycott, acted as a disgrace to their profession not only in their rejection of a country that has made incredible contributions to science, but of a country which promotes freedom of speech and freedom of religion, values which are essential to scientific advance itself, in a region where they are severely lacking.
I must now conclude in as simple fashion as possible, with hope that these views shall pass on to those not deluded by a Hawking fan club style perception. I will continue to admire Stephen Hawking for his contributions to particle physics and all other fields of science. But, I can never admire him for his unwarranted and unjustified contributions to politics. His anti-Zionism and anti-privatisation agenda insults science and rationalism itself. On the NHS, privatisation, and Israel, Stephen Hawking would benefit from a better application of the scientific method and empirical evidence. Until such a time that he does, his opinions are to me nothing more than invisible Hawking radiation, directed from the black hole that is Stephen Hawking’s political capacity.