Do The Ends Justify The Means?

Are skeptics out of touch? Have we lost focus on what truly matters? I ask these questions because my organization was accused of being callous and out of touch this past week. In order to find out why, and debate if the accusation has any merit, we need to rewind a bit.

In the past, we have had successes keeping public funds from being spent on pseudoscience. So when I was reading a blog post here a few weeks ago, written by Marion Kilgour, and discovered that Canadian Blood Services (CBS) was promoting ketsueki-gata (using awful stock photos), I immediately thought: “CBS is publicly funded, CBS is promoting ketueki-gata, ketsueki-gata is pseudoscience, we should stop CBS from doing that.” I mentioned this to another member of Ottawa Skeptics, Barry Green, hoping that he would investigate and write a scathing article. He did not disappoint. Last week Barry posted his article on our site explaining what ketsueki-gata is, why it’s BS, how CBS is using it, his email exchange with CBS, and his justification for why CBS should drop this campaign (the campaign is called “What’s Your Type”). With most of our articles, we’re lucky if a few hundred people over the next few weeks give it a view. But through an amazing stroke of luck, the article made it to the front page of one of the most popular geek news sites on the internet, slashdot. Slashdot supposedly has over 5 million visitors per month. The site is notorious for breaking websites it links to by sending waves of web traffic to the “lucky” web servers hosting the article of interest. Another feature the site is famous for is the dialogue that ensues in the comment section of the site. The site has its share of trolls, like any comment section does, but slashdot has a moderation system allowing worthy comments to be voted up, and therefore become more visible.

The comments on slashdot about Barry’s story were very interesting. Some even managed to stay on topic. The messages that remained on topic could be mainly split into two camps: agreeing with us that CBS should stop promoting ketsueki-gata, and those who were bewildered that we would dare try to take away a tool to recruit blood donations, therefore endanger lives. I at first took pause. Was our organization guilty of going too far? Skeptics are supposed to be making the world a better place by promoting science and critical thinking. Usually this takes the form of consumer protection, and it’s hard to argue that’s not a good thing. Our intent isn’t to enforce a set of ideas, no matter the cost. Did we F-up?

We did if the following criteria are true: The “What’s Your Type?” campaign is effective marketing, it’s more effective than more alternative marketing that wouldn’t involve pseudoscience, and the benefit of the donated blood outweighs the “harm” caused by promoting the pseudoscience.

All three criteria are difficult to answer. Marketing is often more an art than a science (despite the excellent work by skeptic Steve Cuno). It’s hard to tell if this campaign is effective. We don’t have access to the statistics telling us if there was an increase in donations due to the marketing. It’s debatable even if numbers can even reliably tell such a thing, unless the donations sky rocketed (which I highly doubt). It would also be hard to tell if it was the ketsueki-gata component that was effective, and not the scientifically valid component of the campaign (e.g. factoids about when blood types evolved). On my podcast (The Reality Check), we recommended that CBS should keep the scientifically valid info, add more to it, and drop the pseudo-scientific nonsense. We also got an email from someone that used to be a “typer”. She was paid by CBS to promote donations by going to schools and testing students’ blood types. She would then hand out material, including a brochure from the “What’s Your Type?” campaign. It’s just an anecdote but she noted that none of the students seemed at all interested in that hand-out. Maybe ketsueki-gata is only interesting to the Japanese for some reason.

But what is the “harm” from promoting seemingly innocuous pseudoscience? One possibility is that it goes towards undermining the scientific literacy of the public. Sure, having someone being misinformed about the nature of blood doesn’t seem like a big deal if there’s a car crash victim that needs some O type blood but there isn’t any available. On the other hand, scientific illiteracy can cost lives. Maybe ketsueki-gata won’t lead to someone choosing alternative medicine over chemotherapy to treat cancer, but the CBS website does link to naturopaths that have written on the topic of blood types and diet (also nonsense). And as we know, naturopaths may not be the most trustworthy when it comes to your health.

The most compelling reason for CBS to stop promoting pseudoscience that I’ve found deals with credibility. CBS is often involved in controversies of a somewhat scientific nature. How can the public trust that CBS is using proper science optimize the blood supply if they fall for, and promote, utter nonsense. Isn’t CBS supposed to be the Canadian authority on blood? Shouldn’t they be able to tell that ketsueki-gata is bunk? Of course they know. Well, at least the branch that employs the technicians and scientists there. What’s most likely is that the decision was just made by the marketing department, and they didn’t care to verify if the information is correct. They did carefully use weasel words like “experts say” and “for the participants’ enjoyment” to subtly show they don’t believe in it. Regardless if they believe it or not, it still undermines their credibility. The whole reason CBS was created was because their predecessor lost the trust of the public (tainted blood scandals in the 1980s). Credibility is important.

In conclusion, I stand by our criticism of CBS. I think that any loss of donations by removing references to nonsense like ketsueki-gata and “Eat Right For Your Type“, can be made up by promoting more cool science about blood. On top of that, it’s imperative that CBS works to make sure that they remain a credible organization. They’re role is too important to risk by having them fall into the easy trap of promoting nonsense. We expect better from them, and I’m not afraid to tell them that.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.