Sometimes at the weekend my wife and I will compare items of interest in the news; a battle of the headlines, if you will, to see whose news is most interesting. The unspoken aim of the game is to get the other person to engage with your chosen news item, thus abandoning their own.
“Did you know that 25% of adults only walk for an hour a week?” I said to my wife.
“Natalie won Masterchef then,” she murmured.
I ignore her. “Do you think that hour includes just being at home - going to the toilet, putting the rubbish out?” I ask.
“Natalie probably walks a lot in the kitchen. I think chefs walk quite fast? Can you think of a job where you have to walk faster than a chef?”
You see what she’s doing there? Trying to coax me away from the fundamental issue of regular exercise in order to construct some sort of job-walking graph. I’m having none of it.
“Forty-three per cent reported walking less than 2 hours a week.”
“I reckon I walk more than an hour doing all the cooking,” she said. And before I can think it’s out: “Doing all the cooking? I cook more than you.”
“Yeah, but you don’t cook as well. You ought to watch Masterchef.”
“I don’t want to watch Masterchef,” I say. “What sort of person watches people they don’t know cooking food they can’t taste for people they don’t like?”
“Normal people,” she said triumphantly.
I can’t help wondering about the relationship we, the public, have with health information. Some may embrace it as a helpful tip and decide to walk a bit more. Others may dismiss it as obvious or dull. Others still move to conspiracy theory, imagining the media is encouraging us to walk more because they want to save petrol and so, in an expression of personal freedom, they vow to drive to the kitchen in future. Nonsense of course, but the combination of deep suspicion about information provided by research (the MMR vaccine, for example) and the need to express personal freedom (MMR for example) appears to be a powerful health determinant.
In recent years, the MMR vaccine was a potent example of the uneasy relationship between clear information and the variable that is humanity. In recent weeks we are seeing the consequences of that and it is striking - to those of us who campaigned for the vaccine at least - how quiet the shouty anti-immunisation people seem to be now. Shame does that, I suppose.
Personally I think it might be interesting to have a fuller debate about the ethics of health information, personal responsibility and health choices, but perhaps in these days, in this economy, and against the backdrop of political misanthropy that characterises this government, it doesn’t feel safe to try.
Let’s face it, if we ask difficult ethical questions about, say, children who are not immunised being excluded from school or excessive drinkers not having access to liver transplants, the discussion very quickly becomes about economics and affordability. Perhaps that’s because economics is a clearer measure of what is “right”. At heart money rules all curiosity; does that belittle us professionally?
It is interesting I think how discussion, development and even ethics has become dominated by economics. Wondering what is right or best lies a long way behind what something costs in our hierarchy of concern. It is a modern reality I suppose. Will it always be like that now?
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Gabriel’s Angel