Yesterday, my new book arrived on my doorstep.
Its full title is CHARLES, THE ALTERNATIVE PRINCE. AN UNAUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY. I guess that it also clarifies its contents. In case you want to know more, here is the full list of topics:
Foreword by Nick Ross v
1. Why this Book? 1
2. Why this Author? 5
3. Words and Meanings 10
4. How Did It All Start? 13
5. Laurens van der Post 17
6. The British Medical Association 25
7. Talking Health 31
8. Osteopathy 37
9. Chiropractic 43
10. The Foundation of Integrated Health 50
11. Open Letter to The Times 56
12. The Model Hospital 62
13. Integrated Medicine 66
14. The Gerson Therapy 73
15. Herbal Medicine 77
16. The Smallwood Report 82
17. World Health Organisation 90
18. Traditional Chinese Medicine 96
19. The ‘GetWellUK’ Study 100
20. Bravewell 106
21. Duchy Originals Detox Tincture 110
22. Charles’ Letters to Health Politicians 115
23. The College of Medicine and Integrated Health 120
24. The Enemy of Enlightenment 126
25. Harmony 132
26. Antibiotic Overuse 142
27. Ayurvedic Medicine 147
28. Social Prescribing 154
29. Homeopathy 160
30. Final Thoughts 169
End Notes 187
In case you want to know more, here is chapter 1 of my book:
Over the past two decades, I have supported efforts to focus healthcare on the particular needs of the individual patient, employing the best and most appropriate forms of treatment from both orthodox and complementary medicine in a more integrated way.
The Prince of Wales 1997
This is a charmingly British understatement, indeed! Charles has been the most persistent champion of alternative medicine in the UK and perhaps even in the world. Since the early 1980s, he has done everything in his power
- to boost the image of alternative medicine,
- to improve the status of alternative practitioners,
- to make alternative therapies more available to the general public,
- to lobby that it should be paid for by the National Health Service (NHS),
- to ensure the press reported favourably about the subject,
- to influence politicians to provide more support for alternative medicine.
He has fought for these aims on a personal, emotional, political, and societal level. He has used his time, his intuition, his influence, and occasionally his money to achieve his goals. In 2010, he even wrote a book, ‘Harmony’, in which he explains his ideas in some detail (discussed in chapter 25, arguably the central chapter of this biography). Charles has thus become the undisputed champion of the realm of alternative medicine. For that he is admired by alternative practitioners across the globe.
Yet, his relentless efforts are not appreciated by everyone (another British understatement!). There are those who view his interventions as counter-productive distractions from the important and never-ending task to improve modern healthcare. There are those who warn that integrating treatments of dubious validity into our medical routine will render healthcare less efficient. There are those who claim that the Prince’s preoccupation with matters that he is not qualified to fully comprehend is a disservice to public health. And there are those who insist that the role of the heir to the throne does not include interfering with health politics.
- So, are Charles’ ideas new and exciting?
- Or are they obsolete and irrational?
- Has Charles become the saviour of UK healthcare?
- Or has he hindered progress?
- Is he a role model for medical innovators?
- Or the laughing stock of the experts?
- Is he a successful reformer of healthcare?
- Or are his concepts doomed to failure?
Charles appears to evade critical questions of this nature. Relying on his intuition, he unwaveringly pursues and promotes his personal beliefs, regardless of the evidence (Box 1). He believes strongly in his mission and is, as most observers agree, full of good intentions. If he even notices any criticism, it is merely to reaffirm his resolve and redouble his efforts. He is reported to work tirelessly, and one could easily get the impression that he is obsessed with his idea of integrating alternative medicine into conventional healthcare.
I have observed Charles’ efforts around alternative medicine for the last 30 years. Occasionally, I was involved in some of them. For 19 years, I have headed the world’s most productive team of researchers in alternative medicine. This background puts me in a unique position to write this account of Charles’ ‘love affair’ with alternative medicine. It is not just a simple outline of Charles’ views and actions but also a critical analysis of the evidence that does or does not support them. In writing it, I pursue several aims:
- I want to summarise this part of medical history, as it amounts to an important contribution to the recent development of alternative medicine in the UK and beyond.
- I hope to explain how Charles and other enthusiasts of alternative medicine think, what motivates them and what logic they follow.
- I will contrast Charles’ beliefs with the published evidence as it pertains to each of the alternative modalities (treatments and diagnostic methods) he supports.
- I want to stimulate my readers’ ability to think critically about health in general and alternative medicine in particular.
My book will thus provide an opportunity to weigh the arguments for and against alternative medicine. In that way, it might even provide Charles with a substitute for a discussion about his thoughts on alternative medicine which, during almost half a century, he so studiously managed to avoid.
In pursuing these aims there are also issues that I hope to avoid. From the start, I should declare an interest. Charles and I once shared a similar enthusiasm for alternative medicine. But, as new evidence emerged, I changed my mind and he did not. This led to much-publicised tensions and conflicts. Yet it would be too easy to dismiss this book as an act of vengeance. It isn’t. I have tried hard to be objective and dispassionate, setting out Charles’ claims as fairly as I can and comparing them with the most reliable evidence. As much as possible:
- I do not want my personal discords with Charles to get in the way of objectivity.
- I do not want to be unfairly dismissive of Charles and his ambitions.
- I do not want to be disrespectful about anyone’s deeply felt convictions.
- I do not aim to weaken the standing of our royal family.
My book follows Charles’ activities in roughly chronological order. Each time we encounter a new type of alternative medicine, I will try to contrast Charles’ perceptions with the scientific evidence that was available at the time. Most chapters of this book are thus divided into four parts
- A short introduction
- Charles’ views
- An outline of the evidence
- A comment about the consequences
While writing this book, one question occurred to me regularly: Why has nobody so far written a detailed history of Charles’s passion for alternative medicine? Surely, the account of Charles ‘love affair’ with alternative medicine is fascinating, diverse, revealing, and important!
I hope you agree.
The nature of evidence in medicine and science
- Evidence is the body of facts, often created through experiments under controlled conditions, that lead to a given conclusion.
- Evidence must be neutral and give equal weight to data that fail to conform to our expectations.
- Evidence is normally used towards rejecting or supporting a hypothesis.
- In alternative medicine, the most relevant hypotheses often relate to the efficacy of a therapy.
- Such hypotheses are best tested with controlled clinical trials where a group of patients is divided into two subgroups and only one is given the therapy to be tested; subsequently the results of both groups are compared.
- Experience does not amount to evidence and is a poor indicator of efficacy; it can be influenced by several phenomena, e.g. placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean.
- If the results of clinical studies are contradictory, the best available evidence is usually a systematic review of the totality of rigorous trials.
- Systematic reviews are methods to minimise random and selection biases. The most reliable systematic reviews are, according to a broad consensus, those from the Cochrane Collaboration.
In case you want to know even more – and I hope you do – please get yourself a copy.
On this blog and elsewhere, I have heard many strange arguments against COVID-19 vaccinations. I get the impression that most proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) hold or sympathize with such notions. Here is a list of those arguments that have come up most frequently together with my (very short) comments:
COVID is not dangerous
It’s just a flu and nothing to be really afraid of, they say. Therefore, no good reason exists for getting vaccinated. This, I think, is easily countered by pointing out that to date about 5.5 million people have died of COVID-19. In addition, I fear that the issues of ‘long-COVID’ is omitted in such discussions
It’s only the oldies who die
As an oldie myself, I find this argument quite distasteful. More importantly, it is simply not correct.
Vaccines don’t work
True they do not protect us 100% from the infection. But they very dramatically reduce the likelihood of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
Vaccines are unsafe
We have now administered almost 10 billion vaccinations worldwide. Thus we know a lot about the risks. In absolute terms, there is a vast amount of cases, and it would be very odd otherwise; just think of the rate of nocebo effects that must be expected. However, the risks are mostly minor, and serious ones are very rare. Some anti-vaxxers predicted that, by last September, the vaccinated population would be dead. This did not happen, did it? The fact is that the benefits of these vaccinations hugely outweigh the risks.
Vaccines are a vicious tracking system
Some claim that ‘they‘ use vaccines to be able to trace the vaccinated people. Who are ‘they‘, and why would anyone want to trace me when my credit card, mobile phone, etc. already could do that?
Vaccines are used for population control
‘They‘ want to reduce the world population through deadly vaccines to ~5 billion, some anti-vaxxers say. Again, who are ‘they‘ and would ‘they‘ want to do that? Presumably ‘they‘ need us to pay taxes and buy their goods and services.
There has not been enough research
If those who make this argument would bother to go on Medline and look for COVID-related research, they might see how ill-informed this argument is. Since 2021, more than 200 000 papers on the subject have emerged.
I trust my immune system
This is just daft. I am triple-vaccinated and also hope that I can trust my immune system – this is why I got vaccinated in the first place. Vaccinations rely on the immune system to work.
It’s all about making money
Yes, the pharma industry aims to make money; this is a sad reality. But does that really mean that their products are useless? I don’t see the logic here.
People should have the choice
I am all for it! But if someone’s poor choice endangers my life, I do object. For instance, I expect other people not to smoke in public places, stop at red traffic lights and drive on the correct side of the street.
Most COVID patients in hospitals have been vaccinated
If a large percentage of the population has been vaccinated and the vaccine conveys not 100% protection, it would be most surprising, if it were otherwise.
I have a friend who…
All sorts of anecdotes are in circulation. The thing to remember here is that the plural of anecdote is anecdotes and not evidence.
SCAM works just as well
Of course, that argument had to be expected from SCAM proponents. The best response here is this: SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE! In response SCAM fans have so far only been able to produce ‘studies’ that are unconvincing or outright laughable.
In conclusion, the arguments put forward by anti-vaxxers or vaccination-hesitant people are rubbish. It is time they inform themselves better and consider information that originates from outside their bubble. It is time they realize that their attitude is endangering others.
Astrology is nonsense!
Hold on, did we not recently discuss an RCT showing that being born under the sign of Pisces was associated with a decreased risk of death? Yes, indeed, we did!
And isn’t there a branch of homeopathy that heavily relies on astrology? Yes, indeed, astro-homeopathy does exist.
This suggests to me that a sizable proportion of my readers do believe in astrology. As I have made a New Year’s resolution to try to be nice and patient to even the weirdest of them, I herewith offer astrology fans an insight into what 2022 will bring. For that purpose, I have taken one key prediction for each star sign from a website fittingly entitled YEARLY HOROSCOPE:
- Aries will have big surprises from his life partner.
- Taurus: dept can increase by leaps and bounds.
- Gemini: expect big developments.
- Cancer: You will have a hard time keeping up with messages and appointments.
- Leo: your abilities will be appreciated.
- Virgo: you should seriously consider advancing your education.
- Libra: you’ll need to work closely with others.
- Scorpio: you, and everyone around you will focus on a variety of challenges.
- Sagittarius: you’ll refuel what might be called your inspiration tank.
- Capricorn: you may meet a fortunate contact.
- Aquarius: don’t burn any bridges that you don’t have.
Being an Aquarius myself, I am struck by the wisdom of not burning bridges that I don’t have. It is brilliant! And so fitting!!!
But then I look at the predictions for all the other signs, and I must say: they also apply to me. In fact, ALL of them apply to me, and not just me – they all apply to everyone.
Does that mean that astrology is nonsense after all?
Does that mean that my attempt to be nice to and patient with even the weirdest of the proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has already ended in defeat?
I hope not!
I came across this article via a German secondary report about it entitled “Scientists discover what else protects from severe symptoms” (Forscher finden heraus, was noch vor schweren Symptomen schützt). The article rightly stressed that vaccination is paramount and then explains that, once you have caught COVID, nutrition can prevent serious symptoms.
Even though I rarely discuss standard nutritional issues on my blog (nutrition belongs to mainstream not so-called alternative medicine [SCAM], in my view), this subject did attract my attention. Here are the essentials of the original scientific paper:
Australian scientists studied the association between habitual frequency of food intake of certain food groups during the COVID-19 pandemic and manifestations of COVID-19 symptoms in adult outpatients with suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection. They included 236 patients who attended an outpatient clinic for suspected COVID-19 evaluation. Severity of symptoms, habitual food intake frequency, demographics and Bristol chart scores were obtained before diagnostic confirmation with real-time reverse transcriptase PCR using nasopharyngeal swab.
The results of the COVID-19 diagnostic tests were positive for 103 patients (44%) and negative for 133 patients (56%). In the SARS-CoV-2-positive group, symptom severity scores had significant negative correlations with the habitual intake frequency of specific food groups. Multivariate binary logistic regression analysis adjusted for age, sex, and occupation confirmed that SARS-CoV-2-positive patients showed a significant negative association between having higher symptom severity and the habitual intake frequency of legumes and grains, bread, and cereals.
The authors concluded that an increase in habitual frequency of intake of ‘legumes’, and ‘grains, bread and cereals’ food groups decreased overall symptom severity in patients with COVID-19. This study provides a framework for designing a protective diet during the COVID-19 pandemic and also establishes a hypothesis of using a diet-based intervention in the management of SARS-CoV-2 infection, which may be explored in future studies.
So, the authors seem to think that they found a causal relationship: A CHANGE IN DIET DECREASES SYMPTOMS. In different sections of the article, they seem to confirm this notion, and they state that they tested the hypothesis of the effect of diet on SARS-CoV-2 infection symptom severity.
Yey, the investigation was merely a correlative study that cannot establish cause and effect. There are many other variables that might be linked to dietary habits which could be the true cause of the observed phenomenon (or contributors to it).
What’s the harm? If the article makes people adopt a healthier diet, all is pukka!
Perhaps, in this case, that might be true (even though one could argue that this paper might support anti-vax notions arguing that vaccination is not important if it is possible to prevent severe symptoms through dietary changes). But the confusion of correlation with causality is both frequent and potentially harmful. And it is unquestionably poor science!
I feel that we need to be concerned about the fact that even reputable journals let such things pass – not least because the above example shows what the popular press subsequently can make of such misleading messages.
The 13th European Congress for Integrative Medicine is about to take place online between 4 and 7 November 2021. It will host 125+ speakers presenting from around the world. The programme will cover the following topics.
- Anthroposophic Medicine
- Arts in Healthcare
- Antimicrobial Resistance
- Covid Research
- Integrative Oncology
- Lifestyle Medicine
- Medical Education
- Mental Health & Stress Management
- Mind and Body Connection
- Mistletoe Therapy
- Nutrition, Gut Health & Microbiome
- Pain Management
- Patient Activation & Self-Management
- Planetary & Environmental Health
- Research and Evaluation
- Social Prescribing
- Traditional Health
Even looking at the more detailed list of lectures, I did not find a single contribution on conventional medicine (“Integrative medicine combines conventional medicine with…” [see below]) or a lecture that is remotely critical of integrative medicine. The definition of INTEGRATED MEDICINE (IM) adopted here seems similar to the US definition we recently discussed. Here is the European definition:
Integrative medicine combines conventional medicine with evidence-informed complementary medicine and therapies to achieve the optimum health and wellbeing of the patient. Focusing on a holistic, patient-centred approach to healthcare, it takes into consideration the patient’s physical and psychological wellbeing and treats the whole person rather than just the disease.
Allow me to do a quick analysis of this definition by looking at its key elements:
- Evidence-informed: While proper medicine is BASED on evidence, IM is merely INFORMED by it. The difference is fundamental. It allows IM clinicians to use any un- or disproven so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) they can think of or invent. The evidence for homeopathy fails to show that it is effective? Never mind, IM does not need to be evidence-based, it is evidence-informed. IM physicians know homeopathy is a placebo therapy (if not they would be ill-informed which would make them unethical), but they nevertheless use homeopathy (try to find an IM clinic that does not offer homeopathy!), because IM is not EBM. IM is evidence-informed!
- Therapies that achieve optimum health and wellbeing. This is odd because the website also states that “therapies can include anything from acupuncture, yoga, massage, aromatherapy, herbal medicine, nutrition, exercise along with many more approaches, tailored to the needs of the individual” indicating that virtually anything can be included. Anyway, “optimum health and wellbeing” seems a strange and unachievable criterion. In fact, it is nothing but a ‘bait and switch‘ salesmen’s trick.
- Holistic: This is a little trick that IM proponents love. With it, they imply that normal medicine is not holistic. However, this implication is demonstrably wrong. Any good medicine is holistic, and if a sector of healthcare fails to account for the whole person, we need to reform it. (Here are the conclusions of an editorial I published in 2007 entitled ‘Holistic heath care?‘: good health care is likely to be holistic but holistic health care, as it is marketed at present, is not necessarily good. The term ‘holistic’ may even be a ‘red herring’ which misleads patients. What matters most is whether or not any given approach optimally benefits the patient. This goal is best achieved with effective and safe interventions administered humanely — regardless of what label we put on them.) Creating a branch of medicine that, like IM, pretends to have a monopoly on holism is grossly misleading and can only hinder this process.
- Patient-centred: This is the same mean little trick in a different guise. They imply that conventional medicine is not patient-centred. Yet, all good medicine is, of course, patient-centred. To imply otherwise is just daft.
- Consideration of the patient’s physical and psychological wellbeing and treating the whole person rather than just the disease: Same trick yet again! The implication is that physical and psychological wellbeing and the whole person are not all that relevant in conventional medicine where only disease labels are being treated.
Altogether, this definition of IM is unworthy of anyone with the slightest ability to think critically. I find it much worse than the latest US definition (which already is fairly awful). In fact, it turns out to be a poorly disguised bonanza of strawman fallacies combined with ‘bait and switch’ deception.
How can this be?
How can a professional organisation engage in such mean trickery?
Perhaps a look at the list of speakers will go some way towards answering the question. Have a good look, you might recognize many individuals as members of our ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME.
Registration costs £ 249 (standard rate)
Perhaps I should also mention at least 4 of the many commercial sponsors of the conference:
The British Royal Family have been proponents of homeopathy for generations. Homeopathy was originally introduced into the UK by Frederic Hervey Foster Quin who, as a young physician, had visited Hahnemann in Koethen, Germany. Quin was soon fully converted to homeopathy and returned to England. Being well-connected to the European aristocracy, he managed to attract many influential personalities to homeopathy. In 1844, he founded the British Homeopathic Society and, in 1850, he opened the predecessor of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital which is today called the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine.
Our Queen has many times been reported to swear by her homeopathic remedies. Some went as far as claiming her good health in old age must be due to her using homeopathy to keep well. Here is just one example from ‘THE OFFICIAL HOMEOPATHY RESOURCE’ of 2016:
On her 90th birthday, the London Weekly News reports that in spite of criticism the Queen has used homeopathy all her life and has remarkable good health. In fact, many generations of the Royal family have used homeopathy
For as The Queen marks her 90th birthday on April 21, that she has reached such an excellent age is largely due to her lifelong trust in homeopathy. Everywhere that Her Majesty goes she is accompanied by a small case of special cures and tinctures and, although doctors no not care to admit it, it is because of her herbal little helpers that she rarely gets a cold or any other sort of complaint.
Empiricists would argue that as both The Queen and the late Queen Mother have been avid fans of homeopathy and as The Queen Mum died at the age of 101, the glaring probability that it works seems to be rather evident.
Sadly, her good health cannot last forever, and we have all seen recent reports of her being unwell, spending one night in hospital, and announcing the cancellation of all her engagements during the next two weeks resting on doctors’ orders.
Peter Fisher was her homeopath, but he tragically died three years ago. Did the Queen appoint another homeopath to look after her? Did she go into the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine when she was ill? Was she reported to be taking homeopathic remedies during her recovery? The answer to all those questions seems to be NO.
What does that tell us?
I have often observed that our Royals use homeopathy while they are well and conventional medicine when they are ill. The Queen might have followed this strategy too. But not appointing a successor to Peter Fisher suggests something quite different. Does it indicate, I ask myself, that the Queen has recently had the occasion to look at the evidence and concluded – as most intelligent people did some time ago – that homeopathy does not work beyond placebo?
I certainly hope so, not least because refusing to rely on homeopathy would significantly increase her chances of remaining our Queen for some time to come.
Practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) regularly claim with great pride that they treat the ROOT CAUSES of disease. The claim has at least 4 effects:
- It distracts from the true causes of disease which are often multifactorial.
- It attracts customers to SCAM.
- It implies that conventional medicine is at best symptomatic and thus far inferior to SCAM.
- It encourages the patients of SCAM practitioners to turn their backs on mainstream healthcare.
The notion that SCAM practitioners treat the root causes is based on the practitioners’ understanding of etiology:
- If a traditional acupuncturist, for instance, becomes convinced that all disease is the expression of an imbalance of life-forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces thus restoring health, he must automatically assume that he is treating the root causes of any condition.
- If a chiropractor believes that all diseases are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it must seem logical to him that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever complaint his patient is suffering from.
- If a Bowen therapist is convinced that “the Bowen Technique aims to balance the whole person, not just the symptoms“, he is bound to be equally sure that the root cause of “practically any problem can potentially be addressed” by this intervention.
- If a homeopath is convinced that all illness stems from a weakness of the ‘vital force’ and that only homeopathic remedies can revitalize it, they are likely to believe that their remedies tackle the root cause of all diseases.
- Etc., etc.
So, are SCAM practitioners correct when they claim to treat the root causes of disease?
When a root cause has been eliminated, the disease has been eliminated by its root. Treating a root cause, therefore, means that the disease is permanently cured. The above question can therefore be re-phrased as follows:
Is there any SCAM that cures any disease permanently?
I think the answer is NO. (At least, I know none. I would, however, be most grateful if someone could name one together with the evidence)
Even demonstrably effective forms of SCAM are effective only in terms of alleviating the symptoms. The one with the best evidence is probably St John’s wort. It works fine for mild to moderate depression. Yet, it does not cure depression: if we discontinue the treatment, the depression is likely to return.
And what about conventional medicine? Does it offer any permanent cures?
I have been searching and have to admit that I cannot find many either. Here is my list so far of diseases that are potentially curable (meaning they are unlikely to come back once the treatment has stopped and excluding disease prevention) with conventional medicine – and again, I would be really grateful if readers could add to my preliminary list:
- Acute emergencies, like anaphylaxis, cardiac arrest, etc.
- Bacterial infections (well most of them)
- Cancer (some), like Hodgkin lymphoma
- Malnutrition like beriberi of iron-deficiency anemia
- Phobias (some)
- Fungal infections (some)
- Poisonings (some)
- Many surgical indications such as appendicitis, gall stones, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.
Not a long list, I admit (but better than nothing!) – so, please help me to prolong it by adding diseases that I did not mention.
I have repeatedly likened so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) to a cult – not a religious cult, of course, but to a ‘health cult’. A health cult is defined as a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator. So, are you a member of a health cult?
In case you are a proponent of SCAM, you might be in danger. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:
- Is your SCAM based on dogma, such as ‘LIKE CURES LIKE’ or ‘SUBLUXATIONS ARE THE CAUSE OF DISEASE?
- Does the cult demand you accept its dogma or doctrine as truth?
- Is it set forth by a single guru or promulgator?
- Is your SCAM supposed to cure all ills?
- Is belief used by proponents of your SCAM as a substitute for evidence?
- Does the SCAM determine your diet and/or lifestyle?
- Does the SCAM exploit you financially?
- Does your SCAM impose rigid rules and regulations?
- Does your SCAM practice deception?
- Does your SCAM have its own sources of information/propaganda?
- Does your SCAM cultivate its own lingo?
- Does your SCAM discourage or inhibit critical thinking?
- Are questions about the values of your SCAM discouraged or forbidden?
- Do the proponents of your SCAM reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words?
- Do they assume that health problems are the result of not adhering to the dogma?
- Does your SCAM instill fear into members who consider leaving?
- Do the proponents of your SCAM depict conventional medicine as ineffective or harmful?
- Are you asked to recruit new members to your SCAM?
Please try to answer these questions honestly and self-critically.
If more than a handful turn out to be positive, you have, in my view, a reason to be concerned. In this case, I would recommend you go to a library and start reading a few books that provide critical analyses of SCAM.
Harry G Frankfurt published his delightful booklet ‘ON BULLSHIT‘ in 2005 (in case you don’t know it, I highly recommend you read it). Since then, the term ‘bullshit’ has become accepted terminology even in polite discourse. But what exactly is bullshit? Frankfurt explains that is something between a lie and a bluff, perhaps more like the latter than the former.
Not least due to Frankfurt’s book, there is today plenty of research on the subject of bullshit. As much of it relates to so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), allow me to present here just 5 of the most recent papers on bullshit.
Navigating social systems efficiently is critical to our species. Humans appear endowed with a cognitive system that has formed to meet the unique challenges that emerge for highly social species. Bullshitting, communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth, is ubiquitous within human societies. Across two studies (N = 1,017), we assess participants’ ability to produce satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit as an honest signal of their intelligence. We find that bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent. We interpret these results as adding evidence for intelligence being geared towards the navigation of social systems. The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.
Research into both receptivity to falling for bullshit and the propensity to produce it have recently emerged as active, independent areas of inquiry into the spread of misleading information. However, it remains unclear whether those who frequently produce bullshit are inoculated from its influence. For example, both bullshit receptivity and bullshitting frequency are negatively related to cognitive ability and aspects of analytic thinking style, suggesting that those who frequently engage in bullshitting may be more likely to fall for bullshit. However, separate research suggests that individuals who frequently engage in deception are better at detecting it, thus leading to the possibility that frequent bullshitters may be less likely to fall for bullshit. Here, we present three studies (N = 826) attempting to distinguish between these competing hypotheses, finding that frequency of persuasive bullshitting (i.e., bullshitting intended to impress or persuade others) positively predicts susceptibility to various types of misleading information and that this association is robust to individual differences in cognitive ability and analytic cognitive style.
Recent psychological research has identified important individual differences associated with receptivity to bullshit, which has greatly enhanced our understanding of the processes behind susceptibility to pseudo-profound or otherwise misleading information. However, the bulk of this research attention has focused on cognitive and dispositional factors related to bullshit (the product), while largely overlooking the influences behind bullshitting (the act). Here, we present results from four studies focusing on the construction and validation of a new, reliable scale measuring the frequency with which individuals engage in two types of bullshitting (persuasive and evasive) in everyday situations. Overall, bullshitting frequency was negatively associated with sincerity, honesty, cognitive ability, open-minded cognition, and self-regard. Additionally, the Bullshitting Frequency Scale was found to reliably measure constructs that are (1) distinct from lying and (2) significantly related to performance on overclaiming and social decision tasks. These results represent an important step forward by demonstrating the utility of the Bullshitting Frequency Scale as well as highlighting certain individual differences that may play important roles in the extent to which individuals engage in everyday bullshitting.
Although generally viewed as a common and undesirable social behaviour, very little is known about the nature of bullshitting (i.e., communicating with little to no regard for evidence or truth; Raritan Q Rev 6, 1986, 81); its consequences; and its potential communicative utility. Specifically, it is hypothesized that bullshitting may be may be relatively influential under specified conditions. Experiment 1 participants were exposed to a traditional persuasion paradigm, receiving either strong or weak arguments in either an evidence-based or bullshit frame. Experiment 2 also incorporated a manipulation of a peripheral route cue (i.e., source attractiveness). Findings demonstrate that bullshitting can be an effective means of influence when arguments are weak, yet undermine persuasive attempts when arguments are strong. Results also suggest that bullshit frames may cue peripheral route processing of persuasive information relative to evidence-based frames that appear to cue central route processing. Results are discussed in light of social perception and attitude change.
Objective: Fake news represents a particularly egregious and direct avenue by which inaccurate beliefs have been propagated via social media. We investigate the psychological profile of individuals who fall prey to fake news.
Method: We recruited 1,606 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for three online surveys.
Results: The tendency to ascribe profundity to randomly generated sentences-pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity-correlates positively with perceptions of fake news accuracy, and negatively with the ability to differentiate between fake and real news (media truth discernment). Relatedly, individuals who overclaim their level of knowledge also judge fake news to be more accurate. We also extend previous research indicating that analytic thinking correlates negatively with perceived accuracy by showing that this relationship is not moderated by the presence/absence of the headline’s source (which has no effect on accuracy), or by familiarity with the headlines (which correlates positively with perceived accuracy of fake and real news).
Conclusion: Our results suggest that belief in fake news may be driven, to some extent, by a general tendency to be overly accepting of weak claims. This tendency, which we refer to as reflexive open-mindedness, may be partly responsible for the prevalence of epistemically suspect beliefs writ large.
Yes, bullshit seems to be an active area of research. And rightly so! There is so much of it about. Those who regularly read the comments sections of this blog will probably agree with some of the writing above. The statement that ‘bullshitting can be an effective means of influence when arguments are weak’ rang particularly true, I thought. ‘Communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth’ might perhaps also remind us of a few notorious commentators on this blog.
In any case, I am relieved to know that research into bullshit is buoyant – there clearly is a need to better understand the phenomenon. I for one intend to use this terminology more frequently in the future.
Ever wondered what homeopathy truly is?
Who better to ask than Boiron?
Homeopathy is a therapeutic method that uses natural substances to relieve symptoms. It derives from the Greek words homeo, meaning “similar,” and pathos, meaning “suffering” (such as the pathology of a disease). Homeopathy operates on a “like cures like” principle that has been used empirically for more than 200 years and continues to be confirmed in pharmacological research and clinical studies.
What this means is a person suffering from symptoms can be treated by microdoses of a substance capable of producing similar symptoms in a healthy person. It is said that homeopathic medicines stimulate the body’s physiological reactions that restore health. This is accomplished with a very low risk of side effects due to the use of microdoses.
Homeopathy in Action
An example of how homeopathic medicines work is the similarity of symptoms between allergies and chopping onions. When you cut into an onion, your eyes will water and your nose runs. If similar symptoms appear after contact with pollen or a pet, the homeopathic medicine most appropriate to treat these symptoms is made from a tiny amount of onion. Instead of masking symptoms, the medicine sends the body a signal to help it rebalance and heal.
The Benefits of Homeopathy and You
A natural choice. The active ingredients in homeopathic medicines are made from diluted extracts of plants, animals, minerals, or other raw substances found in nature.
For everyday use. Similar to other over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, homeopathic medicines can be used to relieve symptoms of a wide range of common health conditions such as allergies, coughs, colds, flu, stress, arthritis pain, muscle pain, and teething.
Safe and reliable. Homeopathy has been used for more than 200 years, building a remarkable safety record and generating a great body of knowledge. Homeopathic medicines do not mask symptoms, are not contraindicated with pre-existing conditions, and are not known to interact with other medications or supplements, making them one of the safest choices for self-treatment.
Rigorous standards. Homeopathic medicines are manufactured according to the highest standards, complying with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS).
More choices and preferences. Homeopathic medicines are available in a variety of dosage forms such as gels, ointments, creams, syrups, eye drops, tablets, and suppositories.
Are you pleased with this explanation?
One must not be too harsh with Boiron and forgive them their errors; a powerful conflict of interest might have clouded their views. Therefore, I shall now take the liberty to edit and update their text ever so slightly.
Homeopathy is an obsolete method that used all sorts of substances in the misguided hope to relieve symptoms. The word derives from the Greek words homeo, meaning “similar,” and pathos, meaning “suffering” (such as the pathology of a disease). Homeopathy was alleged to operate on a “like cures like” principle that had been used empirically for more than 200 years but was refuted by pharmacological research, clinical studies and more.
What it suggested was that a person suffering from symptoms might be treated by the absence of a substance capable of producing similar symptoms in a healthy person. It was said that homeopathic medicines stimulate the body’s physiological reactions that restore health. These assumptions proved to be erroneous.
Homeopathy in Action
An example of how homeopathic medicines were supposed to work is the similarity of symptoms between allergies and chopping onions. When you cut into an onion, your eyes will water and your nose runs. If similar symptoms appear after contact with pollen or a pet, the homeopathic medicine most appropriate to treat these symptoms was assumed to be made with the memory of an onion. These ideas were never proven and had no basis in science.
The Alleged Benefits of Homeopathy
A natural choice. The active ingredients in homeopathic medicines were often made from diluted extracts of plants, animals, minerals, or other raw substances found in nature. The appeal to nature is, however, misleading: firstly the typical remedy did not contain anything; secondly, some remedies were made from synthetic substances (e. g. Berlin wall) or no substances (e. g. X-ray).
For everyday use. Similar to other over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, homeopathic medicines were promoted to relieve symptoms of a wide range of common health conditions such as allergies, coughs, colds, flu, stress, arthritis pain, muscle pain, and teething. These claims could never be verified and are therefore bogus.
Safe and reliable. Homeopathy had been used for more than 200 years. During all these years, no reliable safety record or body of knowledge had been forthcoming. Homeopathic medicines do not mask symptoms, are not contraindicated with pre-existing conditions, and are not known to interact with other medications or supplements. In fact, they have no effects whatsoever beyond placebo.
Rigorous standards. Homeopathic medicines were said to be manufactured according to the highest standards, complying with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS). This guaranteed that they were devoid of any active ingredient and made them pure placebos.
More choices and preferences. Homeopathic medicines were available in a variety of dosage forms such as gels, ointments, creams, syrups, eye drops, tablets, and suppositories. This means they offered a range of placebos to chose from.
In case, Boiron feels like adopting my updated, evidence-based version of their text, I am sure we can come to an agreement based on an adequate fee.