We’ve all seen and heard enough BS to last several lifetimes. If you can imagine our cultural landscape as a landscape, and BS as, well bullshit, you’ll quickly see that we tolerate an amazing amount of stink and crap. From political speeches, to advertisements, to stupid sayings on the internet about living our best lives, to Facebook garbage, to… you get the point.

We’ve also all been victims of bullshit. Not just big BS, like the downstream effects of political corruption and incompetence, but personal BS. Getting ripped off by a scam artist, overpaying an incompetent contractor, buying a lemon from a used car lot, getting talked into paying more than we should for something we didn’t want…

But, what exactly is bullshit?

Bullshit is one of those things that, like obscenity, can be hard to define but we know it when we see it. However, I think there is value is defining bullshit, and by extension, medical bullshit.

In the book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt distinguishes bullshit from lying through intent. With lying, one is purposefully fabricating something to cover up the truth; with bullshit, the intent is to promote an idea without any concern for truth. In this view, bullshit is a form of intellectual amorality. To a bullshit artist, the truth simply doesn’t matter.

The philosopher Steven Law, among others, critiques Frankfurt’s definition as too narrow. In Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole, he points out that much bullshit is put into the world by people who deeply believe in the truth of their ideas or product. The bullshit artist may fool themselves as well as others. To Law, the distinguishing feature of bullshit is not intent, nor even content, but “the manner in which its core beliefs are defended and promoted.” In this view, bullshit is a form of intellectual laziness. Bullshit arises from a failure to put one’s ideas to rigorous testing and to instead fall into one of the many appealing shortcuts to a feeling of truthiness. (By the way – Law’s discussion in this book of the eight common strategies that can lead one down an intellectual black hole is definitely worth a read.)

Building upon these ideas, I propose that bullshit may be best understood as a transgressive action, a form of violence in its broadest sense, of manipulating others for personal gain. When we apply this concept specifically to medical BS, we can see this aspect of violence even more clearly.

Medical bullshit happens when a person claiming to care about your health sells you a product or idea that helps their well-being without truly respecting your well-being. The most important word here is respect. An agent of BS can claim they really care about you; if they don’t also respect you as an intelligent and valuable being, they are deceiving you, and often deceiving themselves. This can be seen in the consequences of their actions. Notice the element of disrespect in these examples:

  • General Nutrition Center (GNC) selling you a weight loss supplement that contains none of the ingredients on the label
  • Your local news channel hypes a story that researchers have discovered a cure for Parkinson’s and neglect to mention that it was a single study in an animal model
  • A functional medicine doctor orders a large battery of tests on you from an unregulated lab and then prescribes unproven supplements based on the results

Sometimes the disrespect is intentional deception, sometimes it is a side effect of self-promotion, and sometimes it may be completely unintentional—the result of a failure to be thoughtful and rigorous when it comes to caring for others. 

With this definition in hand, we can now better detect and defend ourselves from the agents of medical BS while also working towards a cure.