Politician disses Hawking's research analysis (it doesn't go well)

Commentary: As the renowned physicist defends the UK's health services, a government minister says on Twitter that Hawking doesn't know good science when he sees it. Oh.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

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Stephen Hawking
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Stephen Hawking

Not so good at looking at research?

Niklas Halle'n/Getty Images

It's not a good idea to criticize a scientist's ability to do science if you're not that good at, say, science.

Climate scientists have borne the brunt of this is recent times, as some politicians have told them that they don't know what they're talking about.

On Friday, UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave Stephen Hawking -- of all scientists -- an F for his analysis of research.

Hawking, you see, had penned an article in The Guardian defending the UK's National Health Service. The NHS tries to ensure that, you know, people don't die in the streets when they're sick simply because they don't have enough money.

It's an imperfect system, but one, some would say, with a heart.

Hawking said the service had saved his own life, since he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1962. He said Hunt was trying to turn the NHS into a pure, American-style business. He added that the politician had "abused" and "cherry-picked" scientific research to support his politics.

Hunt, a member of the ruling rightish Conservative Party, took to Twitter to upbraid the famed physicist: "Stephen Hawking is brilliant physicist but wrong on lack of evidence 4 weekend effect. 2015 Fremantle study most comprehensive ever."

Please, I'd prefer not to get too deeply into the grimy details of the weekend effect. Essentially, it's the suggestion that patient care deteriorates at weekends, relative to weekdays. 

In the case of Hunt vs. Hawking, it's the Twitterish contemporary psychology that fascinates far more.

The minute Hunt decided to take on Hawking on Twitter, he was met with a barrage of criticism. 

For example, this from Labor Party politician Clive Lewis: "Well, 1 gave us complex theories on blackholes & alt universes.The other left a blackhole where the NHS was & covered his back with alt facts."

But that's just a politician. What do scientists think?

Consultant psychiatrist Dr. Lauren Gavaghan offered: "@Jeremy_Hunt-we kindly request Mr Hunt, that you come on live tv & attempt to make your case against Stephen Hawking. It is time."

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett chipped in with: "Worst health secretary ever tries to school the world's most famous scientist on numbers and evidence. Soooo 2017."

You'd think a politician might have anticipated that he'd get some criticism. Especially piling on to Twitter against one of the world's most celebrated scientists.

Hunt didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. He was, though, not for turning.

On Saturday, he followed up with: "Most pernicious falsehood from Stephen Hawking is idea govt wants US-style insurance system. Is it 2 much to ask him to look at evidence?"

Hawking believes he has. Indeed, he said in the Guardian: "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."

Hawking is, indeed, a lifelong critic of right-wing politics, especially of Donald Trump. It would be hard, though, to imagine him compromising his scientific credentials. Too many scientists might notice. 

Sadly, though, much of the world has lost its belief in objective evidence. Instead, emotions and beliefs drive us, and we try to find the "facts" to suit them.

Yes, we've all become politicians.