Is it possible that Richard Peto and I are really the same person or, at least, indistinguishable? I think that the social and economic circumstances that shape people’s lives shape their health. Richard thinks it is smoking and medical care. I think that the social disruption and disempowerment that characterised the Soviet Union and its breakup led to disastrous levels of health. He thinks it’s alcohol. I think he is a great scientist with a passion to improve the public health. And he? He thinks I am worth educating where I have it wrong, and I have my own passion for improving public health. When the opportunity arises he comes to my lectures, and rarely fails to engage with me. I have never had a conversation with him, or heard him lecture, without learning something and/or being provoked, stimulated and challenged. We both stick close to the evidence but when it comes to how we see the world, we are clearly distinguishable.
At least that’s what I thought. I was checking in for a flight from Bergen in Norway, returning to the UK, when there was Richard Peto right behind me, checking in for the same flight. Probability of that? Out of the blue? Obviously 100% because it happened. But it tickled my fancy that even though Bergen has four million passengers a year, it must be a tad unlikely that Richard Peto and I, without prior planning, or being in Bergen for the same reason, should turn up for the very same flight. We had met in Poznan in Poland but then there was a good reason: we were invited to the same EC meeting. But Bergen?
I had my boarding pass on my smart phone. Richard had a paper pass. As we were going through security, the official called us back: “you have the same seat number”, she said.
“It’s OK”, said I, “we’re friends, we can share a seat.” Richard seemed doubtful as to at least some parts of that proposition. The official then looked at my electronic boarding pass and Richard’s paper one and she said:
“not only do you have the same seat you have the same name, Michael Marmot”.
It was then that I got the giggles. In some countries I probably would have been arrested for giggling going through security. Not Norway. The very idea that people could not distinguish Richard and me, the one from the other, was such a hoot. Not a view shared by colleagues in public health, I think. I was still chuckling when Richard returned with a “Peto” boarding pass for the seat next to mine. Were the gods of probability having fun with us? Same small Norwegian city, same day, same flight, same boarding pass, and now seats next to each other? What did the BA computer know about the identities of Richard and me that had hitherto escaped us?
On the flight, Richard and I pored over data and arguments about public health. At the end of a couple of hours of this, I commented: Richard, we are in some danger of having a meeting of the minds.
- That universal health coverage is far too limited to be the one health goal in the sustainable development goals that will replace the MDGs post-2015
- That a health goal should consider health, not just health care. I, of course, would want it to have an equity dimension. Not a priority for Richard.
- That alcohol played a major role in fluctuations in mortality among younger men in Russia, ages 15-55 – less so at older ages. The question of why young men should be killing themselves with drink – the causes of the causes – remains highly relevant. Would it explain the widening social gap in life expectancy?
- The decline in smoking related deaths in Britain is truly impressive. But so, too, is the remarkable decline in deaths not related to smoking. We differed as to where to look for explanations. Typically, I wanted to look upstream, he further downstream.
- That people die of absolute risk not relative risk. Absolute risk is more important for public health decisions.
We also traded accounts of what we had been reading. Richard had been much moved by Vassily Grossman’s heart breaking memoir of retaining his faith despite imprisonment in the former Soviet Union. As my wife read it last summer, and was similarly moved, I got daily bulletins. I am reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, his autobiographical memoir of growing up in the rich cultural and intellectual environment of Vienna in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then his dislocation and exile. The book was completed just before his suicide in Brazil in 1942.
Thanks to Richard, I now have a photo on my iPad from the Hubble telescope of what galaxies looked like in the early universe soon after the big bang, 13.8 billion years ago, showing remarkable similarities to computer simulations of these same galaxies. I hadn’t known I needed that but it was an unexpected treat.
Back in London, I explained to a younger colleague that I had intended to read his paper on the ‘plane, but told him of my discussions with Richard as alibi. My colleague’s comment: how wonderful that two people of integrity with respect for the evidence and each other should spend hours discussing the implications for public health. Good point.