Long-time readers of Liberty Unyielding remember when Howard Portnoy brought us the story of Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Harvard-trained physician whom Obama nominated to be his surgeon general in 2014.
Dr. Murthy had a lengthy and impressive resume. But no part of it was as distinctive and controversial as his posture that “gun control” is a public health issue, and is “part of medicine.” Since Murthy’s nomination erupted at a time when Americans were first learning that the Obamacare legislation was intended to have their doctors grill them on whether they had guns at home, the whole thing seemed like a bad idea gone worse. (The following year, some of the public schools got into the act, like this one in Texas which asked students in a questionnaire about what guns were in their homes.)
Murthy didn’t necessarily bolster the, shall we say, gravitas of his cause by disclosing in 1994 that his philosophy about guns and medicine was developed from watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child.
But he was eventually confirmed by the Senate in December 2014, after a tough fight put up by the NRA.
Now he’s out. The New York Times reports that he was fired:
Alleigh Marré, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an emailed statement on Friday that he was asked to step down “after assisting in a smooth transition into the new Trump administration.” Ms. Marré said Dr. Murthy would continue to serve as a member of the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service.
But Dr. Murthy’s wife, Alice Chen, said on Saturday that her husband had refused to resign and was fired.
No reason for his departure has been given. Certainly, Murthy hasn’t mellowed on his view of “gun control as part of medicine.” He confirmed that in a November 2016 interview:
“What I’ve said before is what I believe now — which is gun violence is a public health issue,” Murthy told POLITICO’s “Pulse Check” podcast. “I won’t shy away from saying that. It makes some people nervous when I say that. Frankly, I don’t care because the truth is the truth.”
Murthy’s version of the truth is consistently…interesting. At the end of November 2016, he participated in a forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School, at which he had this to say:
In response to a question about gun control and gun safety, Murthy replied that gun violence is a public health issue. “That’s not controversial,” he said. “We need sensible gun laws in this country, and we need to invest in mental health.” Gun safety is also critical, he said, particularly for parents of young children who are also gun owners. More broadly, though, Murthy highlighted the need to address “the root cause of violence,” which he called “an expression of pain.”
“Many people assume that emotional well-being is something that happens to you,” Murthy said, “rather than something you can proactively cultivate.” He told the story of a California middle school that implemented a meditation program for students and teachers. The program had a transformative effect on the school, dramatically reducing suspensions, teacher absenteeism and other problems, which in turn helped raise students’ grades, test scores and sense of safety. “If we want to reduce violence, we should be having these conversations about emotional well-being,” Murthy said.
I would definitely want to verify exactly what happened at that school, before walking with Murthy any further down such a path. But even without specific verification, I think we can say that this is an impressionistic — perhaps even a lyrical — but not an empirical passage.
Later in the evening, Murthy seemed to endorse creeping impressionism in the work of public health policy:
Asked about his time as an undergraduate at Harvard College, Murthy admitted, “I wish I’d taken more arts and humanities courses. Science doesn’t explain everything!” He added, “Storytelling is at the heart of medicine in a lot of ways.”
It’s quite true that science doesn’t explain everything. Science does seem to be a better basis for medicine and public health policy than deeply-held, logic-resistant beliefs about “gun control.”
Murthy also spoke in November of the opioid crisis and “widespread social isolation” being public health issues. Which is interesting; but in light of his selective dismissal of “science,” rather unnerving.
Given his penchant for jumping back and forth between science and imaginative belief, it’s probably better, henceforward, to not have Dr. Murthy watching over our social connectedness — or gun rights — as a “public health issue.” Enough of the U.S. government is already engaged in activities of that kind. We don’t need a surgeon general who has forgotten the most famous maxim of his profession: “First, do no harm.”