In the speech, Hawking will accuse the health secretary of “cherrypicking” favourable evidence while suppressing contradictory research to suit his argument.
Hunt tweeted: “Stephen Hawking is brilliant physicist but wrong on lack of evidence 4 weekend effect.”
The shadow health minister, Justin Madders, weighed in on the row: “It doesn’t take a genius to work out the Tories are wrecking the NHS.
“Professor Hawking has given us answers to many of the universe’s most challenging questions, and even he can’t work out why Jeremy Hunt is still in his job.”
The former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “A renowned scientist such as Stephen Hawking questioning your evidence might normally be cause to think again, but sadly it looks as though Jeremy Hunt has joined the chorus of those who have had enough of experts.
“It’s easy to accept evidence when it supports your ideological view of how a service should be provided, but we see this government ignoring the evidence time and time again when it suits them, be it on the NHS, our school system or leaving the single market.”
Social media users, including many doctors and scientists, mocked Hunt for taking on the “world’s most famous scientist”.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, responded directly to Hunt, citing studies and articles that contradicted his argument.
McKee, who said he has been writing on the subject of hospital mortality for 22 years, added: “I’d appeal to those commenting not to personalise this with attacks on Hunt – let’s stick to evidence – it’s strong enough on its own.”
Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at Oxford University, said: “Awake to tweet from Jeremy Hunt telling Stephen Hawking he doesn’t know how to interpret evidence. Replies are good.”
In his speech, Hawking will single out Hunt, who claimed that 11,000 patients a year died because of understaffing of hospitals at weekends. He will say that four of the eight studies cited by the health secretary were not peer-reviewed and that he ignored 13 papers that contradicted his statements.
“Speaking as a scientist, cherrypicking evidence is unacceptable. When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others, to justify policies that they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture,” Hawking will say.
Dr Lauren Gavaghan, a consultant psychiatrist whose speech about the junior doctors dispute on James O’Brien’s LBC radio show last year went viral, told the Guardian that Hunt “purposefully misinterpreted statistics from a faulty paper around NHS weekend deaths, when the authors explicitly said that to use the figures would be ‘rash and misleading’. As a consequence of this, sick people did not seek medical help at weekends.
“Subsequent research has shown his ‘analysis’ to be wrong, yet the harm has unfortunately already been done. For Jeremy Hunt to now have the audacity to dispute Professor Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s most brilliant mind and a man who has dedicated his life to the complex analysis of data, on the interpretation of these academic papers is quite simply laughable.”
Gavaghan called for Hunt to debate with Hawking on live television. “Given also that Jeremy Hunt enjoys presenting himself as a patient advocate, it would seem that he has an opportunity at humility here, to perhaps learn something from an experienced patient – for Professor Hawking has of course himself been a lifelong patient of the NHS.
“He has much to say about the rapid privatisation of the NHS that is taking place currently, and fears this will lead to an unequal, unfair two-tier health service. I wonder if Jeremy Hunt might take up my offer,” she said.
This article was written by Nicola Slawson, for theguardian.com on Saturday 19th August 2017 12.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010