18 Feb 2015
February 18, 2015

Dr Goldacre will abuse you now


Dr Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor, writer and public personality. He writes books and a super, genuinely valuable, weekly column for The Guardian which criticise the misleading use of statistics and ‘science’ in public life. Yesterday, he tweeted this link to a short BBC Newsnight package he’d made about how politicians should be ‘punished viciously’ for misusing statistics. It’s a typically interesting piece and well worth a watch.

It’s absolutely true that politicians often misuse data. Generally, they do this for party political benefit and their intent is usually transparent. However, it’s also true that vested interests all do the same – from big business to trades unions to every lobby group there is. With professional bodies and ‘experts’, the misuse of data is almost always done for money or benefits, and such intentions are rarely transparent. Significantly, also guilty of this same practice is the most powerful lobby group of them all – way more powerful that MPs – and that is doctors. So I replied to Dr Goldacre: “V good stuff. Next, you should do one on how GP lobby misuses data re: tuition fees, income levels and much more”.

There was no need for Dr Goldacre to reply, of course. But he did. He ignored what seemed to other tweeters a reasonable point, and instead posted half a dozen wholly abusive replies. He flagged my Wikipedia page, which contains many libels (and also truths) and which I make no effort to correct, to his nearly 400k Twitter followers, and expressed at length the view that as someone with criminal convictions I was beyond the pale, and undeserving of a reply. Even after I had replied to ask him not to abuse me (“Please stop being abusive, Ben. I put a fair question. Also said ‘cheerio'”), and other Twitter uses had complained to him about this comments, he continued the assault. He even maintained a pseudo dialogue and sign-off long after I’d gone, dishonestly mis-conveying to his followers that he was replying to ‘messages’ I was sending him (I’ve never messaged him).

I’m largely inured to trolling, but I must admit I was taken aback by the unprovoked viciousness of a qualified doctor and scientist prepared to flag a libellous Wikipedia page as a source, then write off a human being they have never met or corresponded with because they have a criminal conviction. It made me wonder what he’d like be like with patients (around a third of the adult male population has a criminal conviction).

While in my original tweet I had no intention other than to praise his piece and flag very politely the misuse of data by Dr Goldacre’s own professional group, I think I can answer the question of why Dr Goldacre so readily turned abuser.

I’ve had quite a few letters from doctors over the years and, with the honourable exception of one about Palestine, every single one has been about how and why they should be paid more. It’s most striking with GPs. In public dialogue, questions about pay-levels, working hours, availability to patients, personal benefits and relationships with the conventional private sector are typically hedged around by the lobby. Data are kept opaque or even concealed and, where it serves the lobby’s interest, data misrepresentation – of the type Dr Goldacre expresses an interest in – is rife.

GPs are by far the highest-paid professional group in my constituency (one year’s GP salary buys a decent 3 or 4-bed house in Falkirk) and those of most other other MPs. Through their relationship of trust with their patients, as a profession (though not always as individuals) they command justly high respect and prestige. And the GP lobby deploys with ruthless self-interest the power that respect and prestige translates into. In sum, doctors do an often remarkable job in the public interest; they save lives on a daily basis; they are revered. They are also well rewarded for all of this and they are collectively highly aggressive in their pursuit their own self-interest. But because doctors are so powerful and indeed so often make profoundly valuable contributions to public debate, politicians are often afraid to point out where the lobby’s public misuse of data and actions act powerfully against the public interest. Dr Goldacre’s reply, as a prominent member of that interest group with a great deal of media clout, is wholly typical of the dismissive and truculent letters I’ve received from local GPs when I’ve dared question their vested interest.

While I’ve noticed, too, that Dr Goldacre sometimes criticises doctors whose comments may undermine the status of doctors as a profession – underlining the fact that at one level he’s a ‘trust-me-I’m-a-doctor’ lobbyist – I’d certainly encourage you to read his books and column. He’s a genuinely interesting writer and most of his work is certainly in the public interest. He isn’t alone in keeping quiet about the failings of his own powerful interest group or in trolling on social media people they’ve never me. My message, I guess, is always listen carefully to the valuable arguments of experts like Dr Goldacre, but also interrogate their vested interests too.

It’s an occupational hazard for people like me to have to accept trolling and abuse; another that vested interests often scepegoat politicians as a sleight of hand aimed at deceiving the public eye about their own intentions. It’s a fact, too, that some people are awfully good at giving it but not so very good at taking it. There’s a sound evidential basis for each of these assertions…..