Saturday June 23, 2007
I’m dispatching this column to you from the frontline of the healing fields at Glastonbury festival, where I can cheerfully offer aura reading, structural integrative massage, soul therapy in the pyramid healing space, happy footbaths, crystal magick, positive thinking yoga and angel therapy. In an angelically charged dome.
There are no scientific claims, it’s all very cheery, and I honestly don’t have a problem with a single thing here. The homeopaths are offering ineffective pills for self-limiting conditions, instead of pharmaceutical drugs that would only be for moderate discomfort, and which might have side-effects: so fine.
Now I wouldn’t want you to think that I’ve gone soft in the head, or that I’ve been packed into a wicker man by a slowly advancing circle of angry hippies.
Beyond the fence this week two doctors in the Netherlands were struck off the medical register over the death from cancer of a famous actress called Sylvia Millecam, who preferred alternative therapies over conventional treatment. People in South Africa are being told that vegetables and vitamin pills are a better treatment for HIV than antiretroviral medication. At least one healer in the UK has been accused of having sex with vulnerable women who came to him for help with their problems (I double dare you to mention names in a case like that from a field without access to lawyers or press cuttings).
And forgive me if I’m getting too geeky in the mud here, but there is a real issue that quacks undermine the public understanding of science when they promote their trade with dodgy research claims, or distortions of the very nature of evidence.
So bullshit is risky, but these problems could be addressed. I’m surrounded by fair trade ethical footwear, and I can’t help thinking that if complementary and alternative medicine practitioners insist on their right to use bullshit, then maybe they have a responsibility to recognise the risks of bullshit, and to manage these risks, ethically and considerately, like any other byproduct of any other industry. I am calling, in effect, for a new ethics of bullshit.
Quite aside from the issues that need to be addressed, this would also be a stimulating new project for philosophers. Much of modern medical ethics hangs on patient autonomy and informed consent, and both of those get very complicated when you start bullshitting your patient.
Questioning your own ideas is not a new phenomenon. The British Medical Journal recently published a list of the top three most highly accessed and referenced studies from the past year, and they were on the risks of Vioxx, the risks of SSRI antidepressants, and the risks of the antidepressant drug paroxetine. This is as it should be, although alt med journals rarely publish even negative results (and seriously, it’s not as if it all performs way better than placebo).
But Glastonbury is not a thoughtless event. I’ll be coming back to this green field later on to hear Tony Benn, Mark Thomas, and Caroline Lucas from the Green party. I’m only sorry that nobody here will be covering key ethical issues close to home, like the massive rise of western-style nutritionist quackery for Aids in South Africa, where 800,000 people die of the disease every year.
Until someone does, at least these are the genuine good spirits, which the multinational vitamin pill corporations and TV quacks hide behind. Okay, maybe I feel a bit iffy about premium rate chatline millionaire astrologist Jonathan Cainer who’s speaking later on, but right now I am sat outside the Gong Bath tent: “the most powerful form of holistic resonance known to man”.
You lie on a bench – blindfolded – while a man walks around you ceremonially playing two gongs, really quite loudly. I have absolutely no doubt that this is a very weird and interesting experience – if it wasn’t booked out I’d have had it already – and I would happily stitch my ethical bullshit kitemark onto his yurt in a trice.
Please send your bad science to email@example.com.