A low point for Hawking

22 Aug 2017

Recent comments about the NHS don’t rank among Stephen Hawking’s finest contributions. They were, in short, irksome. Just as when Benedict Cumberbatch hollered “fuck the politicians” to a crowd of schoolchildren after a performance of Hamlet in response to the refugee crisis, or when Meryl Streep ranted about Donald Trump at the Golden Globes, my reaction to Hawking’s comments was, broadly speaking, ‘why should I listen to you?’.


It is a controversial thing to say of arguably the greatest living scientist, but Hawking’s supreme expertise in theoretical physics gives him no more authority to speak on the relative benefits of a Beveridge health system over a Bismarckian version, than Cumberbatch’s ability to act gives him authority to pontificate about the West’s foreign policy. Hawking has fallen into the trap of thinking that because he is very well respected in his own field, his opinions should be respected in all fields. This is not the case.


As it happens, despite disagreeing with their decision to speak, I broadly agreed with Cumberbatch’s and Streep’s comments about refugees and Trump. I don’t agree with Hawking, whose argument started out by claiming “I would not be here today if it were not for the NHS”, followed by fatuous applause from a thoughtless audience. This cannot be taken seriously. Presumably what Hawking meant to say was that he would not be here today had he received no healthcare at all, but that is patently not what opponents of the NHS are suggesting. It is ludicrous to suggest that, had Hawking been born in Germany, who also have 3.73 doctors per 1000 people compared to the UK’s 2.71, he would have stood less chance of surviving.


Having been given 2 years to live in 1963, Hawking is understandably immensely grateful to the expertise of healthcare professionals who have kept him alive, but it is a fallacy to extend this gratitude to the system itself. The World Healthcare Organisation ranked the French universal healthcare system (in which Hawking, suffering from a chronic condition, would have had all healthcare costs covered by the state) the best in the world, and France has the fewest healthcare preventable deaths amongst OECD nations.


Hawking proceeded to attack Jeremy Hunt, who he claimed has “cherry picked research” with regard to weekend mortality. Setting aside the tangential debate about weekend care and the new junior doctor’s contract, it should be noticed that cherry picking research is exactly what proponents of the NHS do. The only major study of healthcare systems that ranks Britain favourably, the Commonwealth Fund, is also coincidentally the only study that is widely quoted by UK news organisations and politicians. 


This ignores the fact that Commonwealth Fund is an American thinktank that opposes a fully-privatised system and is thus biased in favour of its opposite, a fully state-funded system. It focusses disproportionately on inputs, and adds as a mere aside “the only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive.”


Every other reputable study, from the WHO to the OECD via the Adam Smith Institute and others beside claim the inferiority of the NHS. The Adam Smith Institute argues that “‘Bismarck’ systems are generally better for patients than single-payer ‘Beveridge’ systems”, and also suggests that “if Britain is going to reform its health system, it should stop tinkering with the NHS (i.e. trying to make socialism work) and ditch ‘Beveridge’ altogether.”


Hawking is a national treasure who, in his own words, has “contributed to major advances in our understanding of the universe”. He ought not to risk or tarnish his reputation by getting involved in political squabbles.

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