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Hunt vs Hawking: We'll call it a draw

Who won the recent bout between Jeremy Hunt and Stephen Hawking? We'll let you score the cards.
Who would win in an intellectual argument between the world's greatest living scientist and a government minister with a weak grasp of statistics?  
A similar game is played in pubs and playgrounds across the country. Who would win in a fight between a lion and a tiger? What about a velociraptor vs a T. rex? Which is more powerful, a duck the size of a horse, or 20 horses the size of a duck?  
'Asymmetrical battles' is more than just a theoretical exercise. The Romans used to pit a gladiator armed with a sword and shield (a murmillo) against one with a net and a trident (a retiarius), just to see who would survive. For light relief they would set unarmed Christians against lions. (Spoiler alert: the Christians usually came second.) Just last month, a fight between one of history's greatest boxers (Floyd Mayweather) and a mixed martial arts fighter who had never boxed a round in his life (Conor McGregor) attracted a pay per view audience of 8 million and a purse worth $400m.  
So when people heard that Professor Stephen Hawking - Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, intellectual heavyweight, and successor to Albert Einstein as the non-thinking man's idea of a genius - was going mano a mano against Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in a debate about the NHS, everyone sensed a mismatch and rushed for ringside seats.  
Hawking has fought a lifelong battle against motor neurone disease, surviving against the odds to the age of 75. A Brief History of Time was the biggest-selling science book in history, and even those of us who gave up at the first equation could recognise its brilliance from the contents page. He had an Oscar-winning film based on his life, played by Eddie Redmayne, FFS. He's appeared in cartoon form in The Simpsons - the pop culture equivalent of a knighthood - though when offered an actual knighthood he modestly declined. In brief, Hawking is close to becoming a national treasure, much like the NHS he weighed in to defend.  
And Hunt? His main claim to fame is that he was the victim of the biggest Freudian slip in media history, when James Naughtie mispronounced his name on primetime radio. (Not since Dr Spooner has a public speaker made such a mucking fuddle). As Culture Secretary, Hunt was derided, so appointing him as Health Secretary was like throwing him to the lions.  
Being sent to the Department of Health is the political equivalent of exile to Siberia. Few survive the experience without a crushed ego and a blighted career. Kenneth Clarke lived through it, but never smiled again. Alan Milburn won the grudging respect of the BMA, but left politics forever after his stint in the hot seat. Andrew Lansley entered the post pumped up with reforming zeal, but departed 2 years later, a broken man.  
Hunt was tasked with delivering the unsustainable Tory election promise of a 7-day, 24-hour NHS. And like every preceding Health Secretary he faced the impossible brief of squaring the NHS circle: filing a bottomless pit of demand with resources that are actively shrinking.  
No stranger to black holes, Hawking is the perfect advocate for the NHS, having stated that he would not be here today without it. He accused the Conservatives of putting the NHS in crisis through political decisions including underfunding and cuts. And he attacked Jeremy Hunt for picking favourable evidence while suppressing contradictory research in order to suit his argument. For a scientist, there are few greater crimes than misusing statistics and cherry picking evidence.  
After landing this killer blow, you could sense his supporters pulling him back: "Leave 'im Steve, he's not worth it". You felt Hunt's supporters urging their man to stay down and take the count. Bystanders expecting a knockout, however, did not count on the special qualities that come with the title of Health Minister. And in common with many public schoolboys, Hunt has a masochistic fondness for a good scrap.  
Statistics have replaced rhetoric as the greatest weapon in the politician's armoury. A well-briefed minister can throw any opponent off balance with a barrage of specious facts. No matter that the figures are out of date, double-counted or don't add up, if they are repeated loud and often enough, they are impossible to counter. That is Hunt's fight mode.  
Hunt didn't just get up off the canvas, he came out of the corner like McGregor in the 10th round. A responsible referee would have stopped the fight. But Hunt waded on through the flurry of blows. He fought the accusation of cherry picking evidence, by cherry picking more evidence to support his point. And having lost the first exchange, he shifted the battleground to Twitter, adopting Donald Trump's belief that tweeting from the toilet at 3 AM is an effective form of political discourse.  
Hunt wrote: "Stephen Hawking is a brilliant physicist but wrong on lack of evidence." 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?"  
This was a man who believes in homeopathy, lecturing one of the biggest scientific minds on the planet about the proper use of evidence. Hunt's comments provoked a storm of responses on conventional and social media, with a ferocity the Romans would have considered a little bit OTT. But nobody factored in his capacity to absorb punishment.  
Hunt is a man who doesn't know when he's beaten. Not in the figurative sense of battling on against overwhelming odds. He just literally doesn't know when he's beaten. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python & the Holy Grail, balancing on bleeding stumps with all his limbs hacked off, declaring: "Alright then, we'll call it a draw." From Hunt's standpoint, the fight isn't over if you keep getting up after you are knocked down.  
The latest statement from Hunt's corner confirms that they don't let reality get in the way of facts. They say the NHS "has never been better prepared" for the coming winter. This is either an outstanding example of doublespeak, or an admission that the NHS has never been prepared for any winter since 1948, and this year is no different.  
In a war of words, you don't have to out-reason the opposition, you just have to keep talking. Because as long as you are talking, the argument is still in progress, and the one who has the last word wins.  
Say what you like about Jeremy Hunt; he's immune to criticism, impervious to logic and he knows how to take a good punch. What more can you ask from a Health Secretary?  

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge" - Stephen Hawking  

"You. Me. Outside. Now." - Jeremy Hunt (attributed, prob. apocryphal)  

PS To settle one of the above arguments, we have it on good authority that a tiger will easily win a fight against a lion. So will a Christian armed with an assault rifle.

28th September 2017

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