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A Bad Day to Detox… and a Diversion to Mill

6 Jan, 09 | by Iain Brassington

Sense about Science are truly wonderful people, but, I fear, are engaged in a somewhat futile attempt to rid the world of gobbledygook.  Nevertheless, with Stakhanovite determination, they’re putting the boot into the detox industry.  Again.  On a similar theme, Ben Goldacre showed his mettle on Today and elsewhere.

I wish them luck, but I don’t think that that’ll make any difference in the long run.  Noone’s going to stop selling detox kits any time soon, because it’s very easy to sell them and thereby to make a great deal of money very easily.  Fair play: I wish I’d had the idea.

And why do people keep buying this stuff? 

Undoubtedly, part of the reason why what Goldacre calls “nutriwoo” wins out over the claims of proper science is that Gillian McKeith is a better communicator.  Real science is complicated to the uninitiated, and crushingly dull most of the time.  But I suspect that that’s not the whole deal.

Here’s my hunch: detoxing fits very easily with the mythology that there are good and bad foods.  (You can identify “bad cholesterol” easily – it’s the stuff wearing a top hat and cape and twiddling its moustache while chucking in a maniacal yet fatty way.)  Now, it might be necessary to simplify advice about diet and lifestyle to some degree – but the danger is that talking about good and bad and super foods distorts one important fact: that, with the possible exception of copper sulphate sandwiches, there is no such thing as bad food.  There is bad diet, and poor lifestyle.  (I heard someone on the radio a couple of weeks ago talking about an expedition to the pole.  She was thrilled about the fact that she had to put on weight over Christmas.)  The food is good or bad depended on why it’s needed.

Yet the “bad foods” myth is attractive.  It’s attractive to policymakers, whose job is partly to give advice to the many who simply don’t know where to start: if you want the public at large to eat more healthily, then you have to make it easier – and this means dumbing paring things right down.  As long as it makes a difference to the health of the population, that’s not a problem.

And it’s also attractive to the public, because they can blame their problems (and pin their hopes) on the food that they eat.  In other words, there’s an absolution of responsibility.  It’s not the consumer’s fault that he’s so fat that he has his own moon – it’s the fault of the bad food.  Pernicious cholesterol!  And, given the choice, who wouldn’t believe that?  And, given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer to believe that, by detoxing, they can shift all the badness and clear their poor benighted system for more lovely, lovely chips next week?

(I don’t want to sound all right-wing about responsibility here.  Often people simply don’t have the education or background attitudes to make more sensible choices, and that’s a social failure at root.)

But what has this to do with Mill?  Well, it illustrates one of the worries I have about Millian defences of intellectual freedom in On Liberty.  Remember that Mill wants to say that, in a marketplace of ideas, the true stuff will survive scrutiny and the false claims will be exposed as such and cast aside.  This is a lovely idea – but the detox stuff strikes me as being a threat to it.  For here’s a lovely example of the true accounts being available should people want to access them – that detox is a crock is hardly news – and the false accounts being debunked again and again, but surviving anyway.  What the Millian account doesn’t notice is that people don’t always want truth – they want reassurance.  Detox programmes provide that.

I’ll fully admit that this thesis is probably as full of holes as the Jarlsberg I’m currently purging through my system.  Comments would be welcome.  When it comes to McKeith, though, remember that she probably has feelings too.

And lawyers.

Mainly lawyers.

So save your bile – we can analyse it later and televise the results.

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