“Crikey” was all I could think. Well actually, what I was thinking was considerably ruder than that, but I don’t want my saltier vocabulary to offend. So we’ll stick with “Crikey”.

“Barack Obama is trying to strangle Stephen Hawking!”

Well, that is what I thought at first, then the rational side of my brain took over and figured it out. Why would Obama have it in for Hawking, a hero to millions for his extraordinary achievements in cosmology, against a background of paralyzing neurological disease? And Obama is a pretty smart guy himself by all accounts, so it seems unlikely he would choose to whack the scientist with cameras present.

In fact, Obama was bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Hawking. The latter was clearly chuffed. And how could he not be? It is the highest civilian award in the US. And Hawking himself isn’t even a US citizen.

Which was why I surprised to hear of the right wing Investors Business Daily, in which an editorial on July 31st stated that

“People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.”

Gosh. I always though Hawking was English. Maybe I should ask to see his birth certificate?

OK, I know I am way behind on this story, which most people reading this surely know about already. The roots lie in the fact that the new US administration is trying to reform the US healthcare system. If you want to get the rest of the political gist, check out blogs like this one from the Washington Post. But the upshot is that the original editorial was false. It is not certain whether the people writing it were culpably stupid (that’s an artificial voice dumbass!) or culpably dishonest. But something untrue got out into the blogosphere and picked up by organizations and publications which really should know better (like Human Events). Hilariously, when the editorial was ‘corrected’, it was only to state that the original editorial … implied that physicist Stephen Hawking, a professor at the University of Cambridge, did not live in the UK.”

Not that he would be dead if he lived in the UK. See the difference?

Now, the last thing I want to do is weigh into this debate. Especially because I think that it plays directly into the hands of the people posting this and other nonsense. I suspect that the strategy is to somehow cast anything other than the present system as ‘unamerican’, and I don’t think I will help by arguing against it. Especially seeing as I live in North London, have the whole of The Wire on DVD, and shop at Whole Foods. Well, I shop there when I am passing. Most of the time the sainsburys across the road does fine. But I am clearly part of a liberal elite. A liberal, sneering foreign elite.

But I don’t feel smug about my non-americanness. Not at all. Because I live in the UK, which has things like this Daily Mail headline.

‘Tamiflu turned my children into hallucinating, sobbing wrecks’

Note the inverted commas, which is UK press code for “anything between these may well be bollocks and not legally actionable”.

It’s an article by a journalist whose kids, by the sound of it, had a rotten bout with swine flu. But he is blaming the Tamiflu they took rather than the virus. The possibility that some, or indeed all of the problems he describes could be due to the infection is dismissed as follows.

“The effects of swine flu? Not a bit of it. My wife and I are utterly convinced that all these symptoms were, quite simply, the vicious side effects of Tamiflu”

There is some growing concern about precisely how useful Tamiflu is, and how many rare side effects there might be for a drug which has, of necessity, not been in widespread use before now. But as anybody who has done epidemiology or statistics will know, to study this takes much more than a single sample from one concerned parent who happens to have as a mouthpiece the single loudest and most moronic fountainhead of antirationalist nonsense afflicting British society. From the article it is not even clear at which point in the course of infection Tamiflu was administered. Apparently the children were vomiting (yes, another symptom of swine flu) and it is quite possible that the tamiflu was vomited up without being absorbed at all.

I’m not trying to claim Tamiflu is beyond reproach, just that we need a sample size larger than offered by this journalist (among others) before making claims like this. In the absence of such evidence, the content of the article is quite as misleading as the Investors’ Business Daily editorial. The consequences of people failing to take up Tamiflu as a result of the article are hard to predict: if the pandemic remains mild, then they will be comparatively limited. If it turns severe, which is not impossible, then people choosing to abstain from the drug could have dreadful, lethal consequences.

Of course, if this happens, then the Daily Mail article will have been forgotten. Scientists have to stand by and justify what they have said in a way journalists do not. And it is especially sickening to read this given that, were Tamiflu being rationed (and some people think the current policy is mistaken), the Daily Mail would surely be in the front line demanding to know why.

But perhaps the most important thing we need is a way to talk to parents like those journalists, and all the thousands of others who are scared about what is best for their children, without bullying or patronizing them. It’s the old thing about how to communicate uncertainty. There are two such uncertainties here – how dangerous is Swine Flu? And how dangerous is Tamiflu? If untreated swine flu infection is more dangerous than a course of tamiflu, then the drug is wholly justified. We really need to start to think about communicating this before a vaccine becomes available. Because we know how the British press loves a nice vaccine scare.