Saturday, February 11, 2012...10:44 pm

Bad Logic: why Ben Goldacre’s 5 Tweets against Simon Burns’ ‘moronic’ NHS comment makes no sense*

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Bad Science author Ben Goldacre is getting in a twist about the NHS reforms. On his Posterous blog he criticises health minister Simon Burns for recently pointing out that the British Medical Association was hostile to the NHS in 1946 (though I can’t find an actual link for Burns’ comment).

In a neat “5 Tweet” format, Goldacre claims to skewer Burns’ point and show why it is “moronic”. But, irrespective of the merits or otherwise of whatever the NHS reforms actually are, Goldacre’s rebuttal doesn’t really stand up.

In order, then, let’s look at Goldacre’s five Tweets and try to critique them using the tools of logical reasoning. Thanks go to the excellent logic primer on the atheist/rationalist web site (Wikipedia also has a more complete list of logical fallacies and definitions here.)

1. This was another world, SEVENTY years ago. An era when some in the royal family supported the Nazis.

There are two flaws here. By implication, this is using the argumentum ad novitatem – “the fallacy of asserting that something is better or more correct simply because it is new, or newer than something else”. In another world, all of 70 years ago, our decisions about organising our health system may have been better or worse than they became in 1948. But Goldacre’s point does not address this at all. It plays on a sense of short-termism that believes old stuff must be bad because all of human life must be progress.

There’s also the non sequitur fallacy where the conclusion is “drawn from premises which aren’t logically connected with it”. So the fact that some people in the Royal Family in the 1930s were seduced by Nazism has tainted the way that healthcare was organised before the NHS was created. Yeah, right.

2.  Doctors in the 1890s, 1920s went into a profession of freelancers. Doctors today sign up at age 17 for a lifetime in the NHS, and have done for generations.

An odd reversal of the argumentum ad novitatem in Tweet 1. This is a kind of argumentum ad antiquitatem –  the fallacy of asserting that something is right or good simply because it’s old, or because “that’s the way it’s always been”.

Here’s the thing – special interest groups (and medical professionals are a special interest group, as well as being angels in human form) very often oppose change that will – or just may – alter their professional or financial status.

So doctors who were used to being freelance before 1948 were against the change to their status caused by the introduction of the NHS. And doctors who were reliant professionally on the NHS after 1948 will be against any change to their status caused by the current NHS reforms. This is inevitable. It doesn’t – by itself – prove which change is better.

Signing up at 17 for a lifetime in any organisation will make you resistant to change. Which is why a lot of Russians still miss the Soviet Union.

3. Imagine nationalising the work of all accountants, or all lawyers, right now, today. Good luck getting them on board with that plan, ever.

OK – so we’re saying that because one group of professionals wants to stay in the private sector, it follows that another group of professionals is absolutely right to want to stay nationalised.

Uh – right. Apart from the fact that this is also a bit of a non sequitur, it also undermines Goldacre’s position. Because if so many different professions would resist nationalisation, how can that make doctors so very, very right to demand to keep it? Unless doctors are super special and intelligent. Oh – Ben Goldacre’s a doctor. Of course. (Not exactly an ad hominem attack – see below. More about pointing out his own special interest here.)

4. And yet by 1948, 90% of doctors had signed on for the NHS.

Ah – the argumentum ad numerum. This is asserting that “the more people who support or believe a proposition, the more likely it is that that proposition is correct”. Which is also implied in the assumption that, just because all the medical professional associations now oppose them, the NHS reforms must be flawed.

It’s a cliche that, to get the medical profession to accept the NHS, the then health secretary Aneurin Bevan “stuffed their mouths with gold”. But there’s no indication it isn’t true. People go where the money is – hence the desirability of investment banking as a career pre-2008. It doesn’t mean that “where the money is” is a good, moral place to be. (See: investment banking.)

5. In 1940s, the tories voted against the NHS. Not once, but on the 2nd, and 3rd readings of the bill. The tories FULLY opposed the NHS.

But that was, you know, another world nearly SIXTY years ago. When we had food rationing. And ruled India. And mostly thought black people weren’t really human. Uh. What’s the point I’m making here?

Oh, yes – it’s probably an argumentum ad odium – the attempt to win favour for an argument by exploiting existing feelings of hostility in the opposing party (in this case, the Tories). Also a bit of argumentum ad populum (appealing to the people or gallery because, as we all know, everyone hates the Tories).

And this is really a non sequitur too. Is Goldacre saying that because the Tories totally opposed the NHS in the 1940s, they would automatically want to wreck it now? That’s simply not demonstrated.

And it flies in the face of the other arguments here (or, really, “arguments”, as they don’t make a lot of sense, logically speaking). If the medical profession reversed its stance on the NHS after it was introduced, why can’t a modern political party have changed its position on the NHS since the 1940s?

There’s also Goldacre’s cunning use of the term “moronic” to colour our perception of Burns’ comment. This is a subtle abusive argumentum ad hominem – by refusing to accept a statement, and justifying the refusal by criticising the person who made the statement. I mean, he must be a moron if his arguments are moronic, right? So there’s no need to listen to him.

All this is not to take any position on the NHS reforms themselves. They may be repulsive, badly constructed and damaging – or entirely necessary and liberating. Or all of the above. Or none. Frankly with all the toing and froing and amendments – and the sheer size of the bill – I have no idea what I think about it all.

Goldacre’s post may be emotive and seem compelling – but it does a poor job of presenting real arguments.

* Also, why SEO-fixated headlines like this also don’t tend to make much sense. Sorry.

Please direct all debate about the logical fallacies made in this post to the comments section. Thank you.

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