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Port: Acting against Rep. Rick Becker's medical license would be a mistake

If you want advice about COVID-19 and the vaccines, make an appointment with your primary care physician who will examine you and your medical history, and then dispense advice to you privately in a way that's not calculated to titillate an audience. But as for Becker and the question of medical ethics before us? We ought to tread carefully.

Rick Becker
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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MINOT, N.D. — Rep. Rick Becker, who works as a government-subsidized plastic surgeon as his day job , is a sterling example of a grandstanding politician.

He'll pander to any sort of twaddle he feels will appeal to his political base, truth be damned.

In modern politics, the grandstanders usually go on to political punditry, where they can trade in the currency of Facebook likes and followers. This seems to be a trajectory Becker is following as the prospects of his political career fade , what with the endless flogging of his obscure television show which, on the rare occasion anyone is watching, comes off as a sort of angry, politically themed "Wayne's World."

Except Wayne and Garth were talented and entertaining.

But what of the day job? There is evidence that his political shenanigans may be hurting his business as a plastic surgeon. Recently columnist Jim Shaw, quoting three prominent physicians, called for disciplinary action against Becker's medical license .

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“Dr. Becker needs to be reprimanded by the Board for his continued spreading of misinformation,” Dr. Grant Syverson of Fargo told Shaw. “If he doesn’t stop it, then he should lose his license.”

“There should be disciplinary action against Dr. Becker,” argued Dr. Kathy Anderson of Bismarck, president of the North Dakota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Most of what he is saying is nonsense.”

“It is not OK for a physician to provide false information about COVID-19,” says Dr. Joan Connell of Bismarck, the state’s former field medical officer. “It’s a violation of the state boards. His comments should be investigated.”

Becker, for his part, fired back with a letter to the editor defending his comments about the COVID-19 pandemic. He argues that the doctors are just making an emotional plea because they, uh, can't handle his truthiness or something.

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This leaves us with the question: What should be done about a politician who is using his medical license to back up statements about the COVID-19 pandemic that are widely condemned as kookery in the medical community?

Are we sure anything should be done at all?

Let me preface this by saying that you should not be getting medical advice about respiratory disease from a plastic surgeon. What's next? A visit to a podiatrist to see about getting a new eye prescription?

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You especially shouldn't get medical advice by way of the punditry of a meme-spouting politician. Even one with a medical degree. Do I need to remind you that politicians, with their words and actions, typically serve perverse incentives that have more to do with self-aggrandizement and career advancement than your well-being?

If you want advice about COVID-19 and the vaccines, make an appointment with your primary care physician who will examine you and your medical history, and then dispense advice privately in a way that's not calculated to titillate an audience.

But as for Becker and the question of medical ethics before us?

We ought to tread carefully.

As a practical matter of regulating the public statements of medical professionals, we should err on the side of freedom to speak. I realize that's a tough pill to swallow when it comes to someone as egregious as Becker, given his motivations, but believe it or not popular consensus can be wrong.

Photo: Rick Becker table stunt
State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, set up a table and asked citizens to challenge his argument against North Dakota mask mandate.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service, via Twitter

Not so long ago there was a consensus about the theories that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in China. This consensus held that those theories are nuts, at best, and downright bigotry at worse. This consensus was so confident in this conclusion that social media giants such as Facebook took to censoring discussions mentioning them .

That consensus was wrong. We still have no conclusive evidence showing where COVID-19 originated, but it's now widely accepted that a lab leak in China is a very real possibility .

Discerning the merely controversial or provocative from actionable quackery and fraud is no easy task, and as much as possible I think we have to leave those questions up to individuals to decide for themselves.

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I realize this is not a satisfying answer for those who are aghast at the irresponsible antics of people like Becker (a group that includes this humble columnist) but what's the alternative?

Disciplining Becker in some way through regulatory channels?

That will only make the man a martyr. He'll use it as evidence that every conspiracy theory he's ever hatched about the "establishment" in the political and medical worlds was right.

If you want to understand how the complaint process for a physician in North Dakota works, here's the straight dope from the North Dakota Board of Medicine. If you'd like to file a complaint about Becker's COVID-19 conspiracy-mongering, you can use this online form .

But I would urge you not to pursue that remedy.

It may seem quaint in this time when it feels like the crazies and the nihilists are winning simply because they're louder than everyone else, but I think we need to keep in mind the wisdom of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis : "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

The best way to deal with someone like Becker is to scrutinize the things they're saying and doing and to offer rebuttals.

The worst way is to try and silence them.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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