The New Age of Unreason

EDITOR'S BLOG: From quack medicine to fake news, people will believe anything if they really want to.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2017

Sometimes one wonders why Galileo, Newton and Darwin bothered. All those years of persuading people to turn their backs on superstition and falsehood and embrace reason and science. All that risk of being shunned by your peers or banged up by the Inquisition/established church for suggesting the world may not be flat. All those years of questioning whether burning witches or barbershop bleeding of sufferers of divers agues was such a great idea.

We are now willfully turning our back on the Age of Reason. And here we are in 2017 under non-stop bombardment from the latest hocus-pocus and voodoo. It’s everywhere from Trump propagating the ‘vaccines cause autism’ myth to Gwyneth Paltrow off in her la la land of vaginal steaming advocacy. From coffee enemas through Creationism and climate change denial to the war on gluten. Unless you are a certified coeliac what has gluten done to deserve such opprobrium?

The whole ‘wellness’ market is filled with dubious product. (Funny isn’t it that those who feel they need to seek out ‘wellness’ are, more often than not, those who least need to.) Take the detox game, now a quackery business worth hundreds of millions.

‘Let’s be clear,' says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, interviewed by The Guardian ‘there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t.’ The respectable one, he says, is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. ‘The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.’ Your body is perfectly capable of fulfilling this role itself.

But the problem goes far further than detoxes, most of which one would hope are merely a harmless waste of money - seaweed extract into the sewer. Truth and facts have become relative. Our trust levels in doctors and the pharma industry have plummeted. As a result a double-blind tested and peer reviewed piece of scientific evidence has an equivalence with some empty-headed sleb or social influencer posting on Instagram. Somehow just because someone believes something it must be allowed to be true, whatever evidence there may be to the contrary. Indeed, it’s oppressive not to let folk believe what they want to. Everyone has a right to be ignorant.

Liars like Donald Trump and the Russian state love this. Both are hosepipes of untruth. The former just says the first convenient thing that comes into his head that fits his huckster sales pitch of the moment. The latter has a massive misinformation machine to protect and further the cause of the Motherland i.e Putin and his kleptocrats. Social media plays an important part in propagating and fertilising this system. Although some half-hearted noises have been made about Fake News it is probably now uncontrollable as this alarming piece of research suggests

Where does business fit into all this? By keeping its head down, for the most part. If one accepts that these days credibility is proportional to your following and that what matters is not what you say but how many people listen to it, then business isn’t performing well. Gwynnie has 3.4 million followers on Instagram. But look how few business leaders have any following on social media. The head of the CBI Carolyn Fairburn has fewer Twitter followers than I do. When he became CEO of Tesco Philip Clarke was laughed off the medium in weeks. When we looked at CEOs on social media the outlook wasn’t good.

It’s not exaggerating to suggest that the success of Corbyn’s Labour at the election shows that free markets and capitalism are being rejected by the young in favour of some sort of sweets-for-all Venezuelan nirvana. The number of individuals I previously thought sane and reasonable who grunted in approval of Corbyn’s suggestion to requisition private property in Kensington and Chelsea following the Grenfell fire defied belief.

But the current mood is irrational, angry and hungry for scapegoats. Corbyn, by the way, voted in support of homeopathy being provided by the NHS. If he ever becomes prime minister that’ll give him and Charles the Third something to chat about.


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