Abdel Baset al-Megrahi

The recent appearance of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi at a pro-Gadaffi rally in Libya has reinvigorated the debate about whether or not he should have been released from Jail on compassionate grounds. Firstly I should state that the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland was a truly atrocious act. All 259 people on the flight died as did 11 residents of Lockerbie.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was convicted of the bombing and sentenced to life in prisonment. He was, however, released in August 2009 on compassionate grounds as he was suffering from terminal cancer and was given only 3 months to live. This was a highly controversial decision and was widely criticised. That Abdel Baset el-Megrahi is still alive (in 2011) has also cause some (including William Hague, the Foreign Secretary) to claim that the medical evidence was flawed (in fact William Hague apparently suggested it was worthless).

I have no knowledge of whether or not the medical evidence was flawed, but this does remind me of a fantastic book by Stephen Jay Gould, called Full House, in which he discusses his own cancer diagnoses and how doctors misinterpreted the statistical data. I read the book a long time ago, so don’t remember it exactly, but my memory is as follows. Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with cancer and the medical staff seemed very reluctant to discuss his prognosis. He discovered that the cancer was very aggressive and that often patients would die within 8 months. However, he discovered that this was actually the median lifetime and that the distribution was very skewed. Half of patients diagnosed would die within 8 months but the other half had a reasonable chance of living for many years.

Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed in 1992 and died in 2002, so in fact lived for 20 years after being diagnosed despite the median lifetime being 8 months. I don’t know if this is relevant to the al-Megrahi case, but it does suggest that him still being alive does not necessarily mean that the medical diagnosis was flawed. It could well be that he has an aggressive cancer and that typically patients would die within a few months. If a few months is the median lifetime, then him still being alive after 2 years may not be that unlikely. Although the diagnosis my be correct, it could well be that the prognosis was flawed. If the medical evidence had suggested that he had a reasonable chance of living for a number of years, the decision as to whether or not to release him may have been different. I should add that I don’t really have a view as to whether or not he should have been released. I’m simply suggesting that him still being alive does not mean that there was anything wrong with the medical diagnosis.


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