Saturday, February 11, 2012...2:47 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.


  • Here, here. I listened to a discussion about this on Radio 4 and it made no sense at all.

  • Wonderful critique. I enjoyed that – thank you.

  • This response is bizarre, not least because you seem to have fundamentally (wilfully?) misunderstood Goldacre’s point. His tweets here are not designed to be pro or anti NHS, nor say anything more widely about the current debate. Rather he is refuting the specific argument that what doctors have to say now is not relevent because of their supposed opposition to the creation of the NHS.

    For instance, if someone claims that “x are against y” how can it be argumentum ad numerum to provide data that “90% of x support y”? If he was saying that x is good because 90% support then you’d have a point but that’s not his argument.

    You don’t seem to realise that your “back when we ruled India” comments are precisely supporting Goldacre. He argues against Simon Burns that employing 70 year old examples to the debate is, in his language, moronic. It would appear that you agree. It is profoundly odd that you don’t notice that.

  • No – my point is that Goldacre is claiming to refute an argument utterly with logic that is deeply flawed. Which goes against his whole “we must be totally scientific and rational” schtick.

    Goldacre is, in effect, saying that because 90% of x are against y that y is flawed. It may be true that y is flawed – but the numbers against it are not definitive proof of that.

    My “back to India” comments are used ironically, to show that one of Goldacre’s points could be criticised using his own flawed argument. But that it shouldn’t be – because such a method of argument is nonsensical. It’s not profoundly odd that you didn’t notice it – but it is a bit…

  • No. Goldacre is arguing against Simon Burns’ point – that doctors’ opposition to the current health bill is invalid as their predecessors in 1948 opposed the creation of the NHS. His use of the 90% stat is specifically to refute Burns’ contention that doctors were opposed to the NHS’s creation.

    Again, that stat in itself forms no part – in this usage – of any pro or anti NHS argument. The 90% could be right or wrong, but Burns cannot state doctors opposed the creation of the NHS in 1948 in the face of Goldacre’s evidence that 90% supported it.

    For example, if you were to state “everyone wants Man City to win the league”. If I then produced survey data showing 90% of people wanted Man Utd to win the league. Am I producing an argument ad numerum to show Man Utd are best? No, I am using a data point to refute your contention that “everyone wants Man City to win”.

    What, in your view, would be a logically consistent way to refute a contention that doctors in 1948 opposed the NHS?

  • Sorry, poor form to comment twice without reply I know but while I’m here I thought I’d offer a commentary of my own. Bear in mind that this is based on what Goldacre was actually doing – refuting Simon Burns’ dismissal of current doctors’ concerns because of supposed historical contrariness.

    Point 1: Here Goldacre attacks the currency of Burns’ criticism, saying in effect that Burns bringing up events of near 70 years ago is irrelevant to the current discussion. He does this, in part, by choosing another example – royal support of Nazism – and asking the rhetorical question of whether our view of the royals now ought to be shaped by their supposed attitudes then.

    Point 2: Here Goldacre is setting the background for doctors’ initial opposition to the NHS plans in 1945. Basically, he suggests, that doctors were opposed in 1945 (not, you will note, 1948) because it represented a sudden change to what had been a desirable, self employed lifestyle. He is arguing here that Burns’ tying together the supposed opposition of 1948 with the actual opposition of 2012 is unreasonable because of the hugely different circumstances of the groups. Or, to put it another way, doctors of 1945 had a totally different mindset to doctors of 2012. To compare the viewpoints of the two, as Burns does, makes no sense.

    Point 3: This is again to provide background to the opposition to the NHS demonstrated by doctors in 1945. Goldacre argues that doctors of 1945 opposed being nationalised and that any other profession faced with a similar proposal would present similar opposition. This is relevant because of the turnaround in doctors’ opinion seen between 1945 and 1948, as clearly signalled by the last sentence of the point.

    Point 4: As discussed in my comment above. As an aside, the author here seems to ignore that Goldacre’s tweets form a cumulative argument and treats each as a single point. The reason this tweet is here is, firstly, demonstrate the turnaround in doctors’ views between 1945 and 1948 and secondly to directly contradict Burns’ assertion that doctors of 1948 opposed the creation of the NHS. Goldacre does not, although he could, go on to draw a parallel with doctors of 2012 to note that the direction of travel of opinion on the NHS is opposite to that of the 1940s; another reason why Burns’ parallel is inappropriate.

    Point 5: This is argument ad absurdum. Here, Goldacre takes Burns’ logic at face value – that the opinions of 60 year predecessors ought to inform one’s perception of the 2012 debate. If that logic holds true, he argues, then Burns ought to be as concerned (if not more) about the Conservative Party as doctors given that, while doctors were persuaded to support the NHS in 1948, the Conservatives accepted no such persuasion. Instead, Goldacre is noting that Burns is implicitly accepting that one group of people – Conservatives – can change their contrarianism without issue, another group of people – doctors – cannot.

    I say again, the author here has fundamentally misunderstood Goldacre’s point. Goldacre does not here make any substantive comment on the effectiveness or otherwise of the NHS reforms (although he does so extensively elsewhere). Instead he seeks solely to refute Burns’ specific point regarding the attitudes of doctors in the 1940s and the relevance of those attitudes to the current debate. He concludes that those attitudes are irrelevant even if correctly represented, which he suggests Burns does not.

    Goldacre in these tweets seeks only to dismiss a specific argument made by Burns so that the debate on the reforms can continue without the irrelevant point on doctors attitudes to reform in the 1940s. Goldacre does go on to give his own views in many other tweets, but all this series does is dismiss a particular argument raised by Burns. This author’s attempt to read more into Goldacre’s tweets here is why I called this response profoundly odd.

  • Yes. Goldacre is aiming to refute Burns’s point. But he fails. Because his logic is flawed. According to the rules of logic. That’s what the post is about. That’s ONLY what the post is about.

  • Yes – I know that’s what he’s doing. But he doesn’t do it very well. Also, he’s not refuting “a contention that doctors in 1948 opposed the NHS”. They did oppose it and he acknowledges this. He’s trying to refute the idea that it is relevant now to talk about the medical opposition to the NHS in the 1940s.

    But Burns in effect is saying that this is evidence that doctors are biased towards the status quo – which is in their financial interests. A reasonable point. Goldacre is trying to rubbish this point using badly thought through logic. I am critiquing Goldacre’s arguments, because they are poor. They don’t really stand up to scrutiny and they tend to contradict or undermine themselves.