How two farm-boys-done-good could change the world

While everyone loves Commander Chris Hadfield, it's Iowan James Hansen who really needs the attention.

One was a farm boy from Ontario, the other the son of itinerant Iowa farmers. Both are now world-renowned scientists and activists with the attention of global leaders. However, the public only listens to one of them. The wrong one.

Commander Chris Hadfield has expanded our horizons, making the International Space Station an accessible place to virtually visit, and giving us wonderful views of our planet photographed from space. When the Canadian astronaut recorded a version of David Bowie's Space Oddity for his departure from the ISS, it was played on national news broadcasts across the globe and has been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube.

It's a stark contrast with the stern-faced Iowan caution of James Hansen. The world's most renowned climate scientist has little joy to bring. Instead of heart-warming photos of electric lights blazing from the surface of Earth, he has dull graphs showing the slow, steady advance of the global warming apocalypse – ironically, caused in part by the electric lights that have made Hadfield's pictures so popular. Hansen doesn't have a song.

He doesn't even have a particularly motivating speaking style. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Hansen was a firebrand. He gets arrested in protests over environment-damaging mining practices and the construction of a pipeline that will bring the world's dirtiest oil to market. NASA has tried to gag him – and he gathered evidence of this and then took it to the New York Times. He has lobbied national leaders the world over. But Hansen is a fact-driven, cautious speaker who is careful not to get emotional over his message.

That is probably why it hasn't made any headway. If you heard the sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth in central London last night [16 May], it was because Hansen was giving a talk. The howling from the LSE lecture hall wasn't outrage over climate change - everyone in the building already appreciated those facts. What became increasingly clear as Hansen spoke was that there is no way to make anyone in power do anything about them.

Being informed is not enough. In April, Hansen retired from his position as director of NASA's Institute of Space Studies in order to be able to sue the federal government (government employees are not allowed to sue their employer) over their lack of action on climate change. The federal government's defence is likely to be, "well, it was all so dull, James."

By Hansen's own admission, the whole subject is "too technical for the public". He has tried to soften the message by framing the issue in terms of the world that we are bequeathing to his descendants. In his book Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen allowed himself "one graph per chapter" he said last night. It was still too much: the book was dismissed as dry. He is currently forcing his message downwards in complexity by working on another book that is composed of a series of letters to his first grandchild, called Sophie's Planet. He's not confident it will make any difference at all. An audience member asked how he would reach the people who mattered: the ones who didn't fancy coming to hear him speak. "I don't really have a good answer to that," he said.

It would be interesting to know what Hadfield's answer would be - if he were allowed to speak. Hansen was in Europe to give testimony to the European Parliament about the folly of using oil from the Canadian tar sands. This is not something a Canadian scientist can do: if they receive government money, they are not allowed to talk about environmental issues without government permission, which is rarely forthcoming. Coverage of government-funded climate change research has dropped by 80 per cent in Canadian media because reporters can't access the researchers.

By now, however, Hadfield surely has the global currency to take off the gag without fear of reprisals from the Harper government. Perhaps he could even write the protest song that Hansen so desperately needs. At the end of the 1960s, the Apollo astronauts' experience and photography of Earth from space kick-started the modern environmental movement: their photographs made us fall in love with Earth. Hadfield has successfully repeated the trick for the age of social media – now he should use his power for good. If he were to join forces with Hansen, it's conceivable that two farm boys might just save the world.

The crew of the ISS, including Commander Chris Hadfield, return to earth. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage