Cautionary Tales – Catching a Killer Doctor

19th March, 2021

A doctor who killed hundreds of patients left us clues… but why couldn’t we see them?

Family doctor Harold Shipman got away with murdering his patients for decades. He was one of the most prolific serial killers in history – but his hundreds of crimes went largely unnoticed despite a vast paper trail of death certificates he himself signed.

Why do we sometimes fail to see awful things happening right under our noses? And how can the systems that maintain quality control in cookie factories be employed to prevent another doctor like Shipman killing with impunity?

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

David Spiegelhalter’s excellent book The Art of Statistics discusses the Shipman case and the statistics behind it. Apart from the details given to the Shipman Inquiry, the book Prescription for Murder by Brian Whittle and Jean Ritchie is authoritative. The trial is described by Richard Henriques in From Crime to Crime. For more on deaths of despair see Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1972). Subjective probability: A judgment of representativeness. Cognitive Psychology, 3, 430-454.

Wald, A. Sequential Tests of Statistical Hypotheses. Ann. Math. Statist. 16 (1945), no. 2, 117–186. doi:10.1214/aoms/1177731118

Barnard, G.A. (1946). “Sequential tests in industrial statistics”. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Supplement. 8: 1–26.

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