A new ethics of bullshit

June 23rd, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, homeopathy, nutritionists | 18 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday June 23, 2007
The Guardian

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.

Dr Ben Goldacre with Professor John Smith, real-life internationally-renowned forensic science and catching murderers expert (true) 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 bad.science@guardian.co.uk.


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18 Responses

  1. SciencePunk said,

    June 23, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    interesting idea… I’ve been getting increasingly militant against the “it’s only a bit of fun” brigade recently, but perhaps I’m on the wrong path. I just can’t help but think that homeopathy is the thin end of the wedge, so to speak. And in fact, where do you draw the line? It’s not just a case of medical harm – it’s a financial one. Is it right that a poor mother should be able to buy expensive but useless remedies for her baby, labouring under the belief that it will do some vague good?
    My head is all full of questions.

  2. Tontine said,

    June 23, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Context is all?

    When I’m at my yoga class I’m perfectly happy to be told about chakras and internal snakes and flames producing and eating waste (I paraphrase a little there…).

    I allow for the fact that yoga has been around a while, and builds on ideas that have more in common with the four humours than modern exercise physiology.

    However, my core muscle stability is much better now after two years of yoga than it was before, and I suffer much less back pain as a result. I also feel that the meditation part of the sessions is probably good for me too, though in a less specific way.

    On the other hand, if I were to visit my doctor and she talked about a need to rebalance my chakras to treat my (hypothetical) chalmyda infection I’d be very unhappy about it indeed; in that context, give me the clinically tested drugs! Big ones! Now!

  3. ayupmeduck said,

    June 23, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Have spent many an happy hour in Green Fields. It’s the power of the Ley Lines that does it for me. Or maybe it’s those HT power lines hang low directly above the kids camping field. You should try standing below them when the site is pulling full power, they literally make your skin tingle. I any case, I couldn’t make it this year – getting some irrational pleasure watching my son in the football final. It’s good to hear it’s a mud-bath on my year off, that means that theres statistically a much higher chance of it being sunny for me next year.

    There seems to be a world of difference between the esoteric fun of the Green Fields and exploitive lies that come from Holford, et al. I can’t imagine sitting wasted, as the sun comes up and discussing the spiritual energy of Avalon with Gillian McKeith (Jeez, what a horrid thought).

  4. zooloo said,

    June 23, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    “I suppose the thing is that this stuff in one form or another is here to stay”

    I find that attitude repulsive.

    Edmund Burke – All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.

  5. germslayer said,

    June 23, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    How did you get tickets! Tell me!!! arghhhh!

  6. sven said,

    June 24, 2007 at 9:14 am

    Can an electrosensitive personn attend a rock music festival? All those electric guitars and sound equipment…

  7. woodchopper said,

    June 24, 2007 at 9:56 am

    I have some sympathy for th idea. Everyone needs a hobby, and if people’s idea of entertainment is to indulge in woo then thats their choice.

    However, the problem is if people are offering medical treatment and you want it to be beased on informed consent. To do that the ‘woodoctor’ will have to tell the patient that there isn’t any sound evidence for the treatment. The upside is that he can tell the patient that there are no side effects, becasuse the treatment has no physical effect on the human body.

    But would any woodoctor be willing to do that? I think that that level of honesty would cause a lot of them to be put out of business.

    The same goes for psychics etc. If they had to tell people that numerous studies had shown that they had no ability to contact the dead, would anyone visit them?

  8. stever said,

    June 24, 2007 at 11:26 am

    just pragmatic zooloo.

  9. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 24, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    “A new ethics of bullshit” — a headline that one could only come up with, surely, while sitting in a soggy field surrounded by floating turds.


    … no I don’t mean the woos, but still…

  10. BSM said,

    June 24, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    When I qualified (as a vet) I was reminded that sometimes you need to bullshit the clients in order to retain their confidence, but what you must never do is bullshit yourself.

    The problem wth most woos is that they bullshit themselves to the severe detriment of the public understanding of science and the health of their patients/victims.

  11. Dubby said,

    June 24, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    I can’t believe that Aupmeduck (sorry I can’t be bothered to check the spelling! Anyway he sounds Yorkshire so I don’t know why a good Lancashire boy should read him anyway!)hasn’t deliberately messed up his stats.

    Weather, the river card, the roulette wheel have one thing in common.

    They don’t have a memory!!

    (No real offence intended.)


  12. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 25, 2007 at 12:36 am

    Drugs? At Glastonbury?

  13. Dr* T said,

    June 25, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    Just back from Glast. Mud bath. But was still fantastic.

    No doubt Ben was in some posh corporate suite somewhere…..

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 25, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    i’m totally touched that anyone should think i was in any posh bit of glasto, i was camped in the green fields with my mates like i have been every year for at least the past 15. in some respects i first started writing the column because of getting into arguments with hippies up trees at newbury bypass protest etc, and every now and then i’d think: hey, i wonder, if i ever meet someone who actually knows about transport policy and the arms trade, whether it might turn out that i’m as ignorant about those things as my mates are about CAM. luckily it turned out i was right about everything. phew.

  15. roymondo said,

    June 26, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    Ben, why don’t you get yourself booked to speak in the Green Field next year? So long as you didn’t clash with Chas ‘n’ Dave you’d probably have quite a large attendance.

  16. b33k34 said,

    June 29, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I’m still feeling really rough after Glasto. I definitely blame the electrosensitivity.

    I really like Yoga and did 3 hours over the weekend in the Green Fields. I basically look at it as cheap physiotherapy that you actually spend an hour doing rather than lying that you have done – most of the postures are very similar to those that physios give you. The spiritual/meditation element doesn’t do much for me but it’s actually really nice lying quietly focusing on thinking about nothing for 10 minutes.

    On the VIP area Charlie Brooker’s piece in the Grauniad was interesting – he reckoned the only advantage was that it gave you a shortcut between the two main stages. Given that the stages are low down, on the flat, and the area in front of both was under about 4″ of mud slurry I can’t imagine it was one of the better places to be camped.

  17. Barnacle Bill said,

    July 6, 2007 at 7:38 am

    Mmm, perhaps you should also have a go at the religious brigade and the ethics of using intercessionary prayer for healing. One quack is as good as another, and I make no distinctions.

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