In 2003, The Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams, struggling with liver cancer, wrote that she had finally figured out what bothered her so much about then-presidential candidate Howard Dean: His doctorly arrogance. "Where else but in medicine," she asked, "do you find men and women who never admit a mistake?"
Actually, this happens quite frequently in politics too. But point taken.
Henry Marsh is in the business of admitting his mistakes. It's right there in the title of his second memoir — "Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon" — and it was the central theme of his first, "Do No Harm," published in his native England to wide acclaim, in 2014, and then here a year later.
One of the reasons patients find condescension from doctors especially loathsome is that it diminishes them — if you're gravely ill, the last thing you need is further diminishment. But the desires of patients, Marsh notes, are often paradoxical. They also pine for supreme confidence in their physicians, surgeons especially, because they've left their futures — the very possibility of one at all, in some cases — in their doctors' custody. "So we quickly learn to deceive," Marsh writes, "to pretend to a greater level of competence and knowledge than we know to be the case, and try to shield our patients a little from the frightening reality they often face."