Tag Archives: ethics



So I’ve only managed to see my SceptiKids twice this term. Sports days, exams, lunchtime meetings and the Queen’s birthday have made things a little tricky. Fortunately though we were able to meet and discuss a very special topic, one dear to most sceptic’s hearts.


In a discussion that made me feel very old, it turned out that most teenagers have no idea who Uri Gellar is. For those of us over the age of 18 we know him as the mentalist who decided to tell the world that his powers were genuine. A large sum of money later and he’s one of the most famous people in the world. Nowadays though his name has taken a bit of a back seat.  Fortunately for us the magicians most known by high schoolers are people like Derren Brown and Penn & Teller. This is a good thing.

Fortunately I’d done some homework on Mr. Gellar and was able to talk to the kids a little about him. Despite him being unknown to them they were still able to understand the ethical problems involved when a magician tells people their powers are real.

We see countless examples every day of how easy people are to fool. I wouldn’t see so many psychic readers on my way to school if they weren’t. It’s pure exploitation and anybody who knowingly deceives people in this way is guilty of it. Not just magicians but peddlers of alternatives to medicines, tarot readers, mediums and more. Sure some of these people genuinely believe in their abilities but their are plenty who don’t.

As Tim Minchin put it in his AMAZING spoken word piece, Storm:

Reading Auras is like reading minds
Or star-signs or tea-leaves or meridian lines
These people aren’t plying a skill,
They are either lying or mentally ill.

What’s great is that so many teenagers can see this. It may not be something that think about a lot but as soon as you ask them “Is it ok for a magician to make people think their powers are real?” you can be guaranteed of getting a great conversation out of them.



Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society

Placebos and ethics

Would you give a placebo to somebody who has a minor headache? A stomach infection? Been hit by a bus?

How would you feel if you discovered your doctor had given you fake medicine?

We discussed these questions today, in our first session for two weeks and last session for three. With public holidays, school holidays and camps we haven’t been able to meet as often as we’d like but the kids made a good show by turning up today.

Last week we chatted about placebos. What they are, how they work and what can they do. During the discussion I asked the question “is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients” and was suddenly assailed by hands in the air and comments being called out. Not wanting to skim over the issue I took a few comments and told them that we’d spend an entire session discussion next time.

We had a quick recap to refresh students of the nature of placebos and got a few questions out of the way. Placebos can be sugar pills, but aren’t vitamin tablets sort of placebos too? Yes actually, a type known as an ‘impure placebo’. Still containing an active substance, but one that isn’t really going to do anything.

We talked about endorphins and how their production can aid the body with pain relief. If smiling can produce them then surely a placebo can too. This takes the placebo effect out the purely psychological realm and implies a physiological response. Doesn’t this mean that placebos can actually change things in the body?

(Clearly, I am not a doctor. If any medical-type people notice that I’ve made a mistake, please pull me up on it.)

I asked them how they’d feel if they discovered that a doctor had given them a placebo. The response was varied.

“I’d be angry at first, but I think I’d get over it if it had actually worked.”

“I’d only be angry if it didn’t work at all.”

“I wouldn’t trust that doctor and would stop seeing them”

Most of them didn’t seem too bothered about the idea. Ultimately, they seemed to feel that as long as it worked it was ok to do.

A few other comments came up about this. One girl suggested that it would be ethical if it was for treating a minor problem, but only if it was a minor problem. She didn’t like the idea of  a pure placebo being given to somebody who needed real medicine. Another student felt that it was probably ok if it was a last resort. If the doctor that there was legitimately nothing else that could be done then a placebo would be fine just to make the patient feel hopeful. Some other students disagreed though and thought that false hope was worse than no hope at all because it prevents people from truly dealing with their illness.

One of my regulars girls thought that it would be fine to give to kids or hypochondriacs, just to shut them up for a while. I couldn’t really disagree with this.

We only had minutes to go before the bell rang so I asked them what they thought would happen if the public found out that doctors all over the country were using placebos. Most of the responses involved rioting, revolution and mass litigation but a calmer student prevailed and suggested that perhaps people would stop going to doctors altogether and instead get absorbed into the world of CAM.

A horrible thought, but fortunately the bell rang before they time to see my tears.


Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society