Interview: Andrew Potter and The Authenticity Hoax

My pal Andrew Potter is a public affairs columnist with Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s premier newsweekly) and a features editor with Canadian Business magazine. He also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

Andrew’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is excellent. I interviewed Andrew recently, about the implications the issues discussed in his book have for a range of topics in Business Ethics.

Chris MacDonald: Your new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is about the way our pursuit of authenticity is in many ways the pursuit of a mirage, and you argue that the pursuit of it is ultimately not just futile, but destructive. You say that one element of that — or is it a result? — is a lack of faith in the market. Presumably that plays out, in part, in a perception that business quite generally is unethical, on some level. Is that one of the deleterious effects of the pursuit of authenticity?

Andrew Potter: According to the theory I offer in the book, the quest for the authentic is largely a reaction to four aspects of the modern world: secularism, liberalism, technology, and the market economy. And I think you’re right, that hostility towards the market is probably the most significant of these. Why is that? That’s a whole other book! Though I think something like the following is at work:

First, markets are inherently alienating, to the extent to which they replace more gregarious and social forms of interaction and mutual benefit (e.g. sharing or gift economies, barter, and so on) with a very impersonal form of exchange. The second point is that the market economy is profit driven. This bothers people for a number of reasons, the most salient of which is that it seems to place greed at the forefront of human relations. Additionally, the quest for “profit” is seen as fundamentally amoral, which is why — as you point out — the mere fact of running a business or working in the private sector is considered unethical. Finally, you can add all the concerns about sustainability and the environment that the market is believed to exacerbate.

The upshot is that we have a deep cultural aversion to buying things on the open market. We think we live in a consumer society, but we don’t. We live in an anti-consumer society, which is why we feel the need to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter. That, I think, is why so much authenticity-seeking takes the form of green- or socially conscious consumerism.

CM: Claims to authenticity are a standard marketing gimmick at this point. In The Authenticity Hoax, you argue that authenticity isn’t the same as truth. Authenticity has more to do with being true to some essence, some deeper self. It strikes me that that makes for some very slippery advertising, including lots of claims that can’t be backed up, but can’t be disproven either. Is authenticity the ultimate marketing gimmick that way?

AP: Absolutely. What advertising and politics have in common is that they are both “bullshit” in the philosophical sense of term (made popular by Harry Frankfurt). What characterizes bullshit is that it isn’t “false”, it is that it isn’t even in the truth-telling game. That is why I think Stephen Colbert was dead on when he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to political discourse — he essentially means that it is bullshit.

What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.

And that fits in well with advertising, since advertising is all about telling a story. Everyone knows that most advertising is bullshit — for example, that drinking Gatorade won’t make you play like Jordan, or that buying a fancy car won’t make you suddenly appealing to hot women. But what a good brand does is deliver a consistent set of values, a promise or story of some sort, which fits with the idealized narrative of our lives, the story that seems true to us. That is why branding is the quintessential art form in the age of authenticity. Bullshit in, authenticity out!

CM: There’s an irony, of course, in the fact that so many companies are making claims to authenticity in their advertising and PR, since for most people the very term “PR” implies a kind of spin that is the exact opposite of authenticity. But that apparent irony echoes a theme from your previous book, The Rebel Sell (a.k.a. Nation of Rebels), doesn’t it? In that book, you (and co-author Joe Heath) argued that all supposedly counter-cultural movements and themes — things like skateboarding, hip-hop, environmentalism, and now add authenticity — are bound to be co-opted by marketers as soon as those ideas have gathered enough cultural salience. Is that part of what dooms the individual consumer’s pursuit of authenticity?

AP: Yes, that’s exactly right. Chapter four of my book (“Conspicuous Authenticity”) is a deliberate attempt to push the argument from the Rebel Sell ahead a bit, to treat “authenticity” as the successor value (and status good) to “cool”.

We have to be a bit careful though about using the term “co-optation”, because it isn’t clear who is co-opting whom. Both cool-hunting and authenticity-seeking are driven not by marketers but by consumer demand, in particular by the desire for status or distinction. And in both cases, the very act of marketing something as “cool” or as “authentic” undermines its credibility. Authenticity is like charisma — if you have to say you have it, you don’t.

That doesn’t mean marketers can’t exploit the public’s desire for the authentic, but it does mean they have to be careful about the pitch they employ; it can’t be too self-conscious. We all know that “authentic Chinese food” just means chicken balls and chow mein, which is why I actually think that things that are explicitly marketed as “authentic” are mostly harmless. It’s when you when you come across words like “sustainable”, or “organic,” or “local” or “artisanal”, you know you’re in the realm of the truly status-conscious authentic.

CM: I’ve got a special interest in ‘greenwashing.’ It occurs to me now that accusations of greenwashing have something to do with authenticity. When a company engages in greenwashing, they’re typically not lying — they’re not claiming to have done something they haven’t done. They’re telling the truth about something ‘green’ they’ve done, but they’re using that truth to hide some larger truth about dismal environmental performance. When companies greenwash, they’re using the truth to cover up their authentic selves, if you will. Do you think the public is particularly disposed to punish what we might think of as ‘crimes against authenticity?’

AP: I’m not sure. It is certainly true that in extreme cases of corporate bad faith the public reacts badly. The case of BP is a good example; as many people have pointed out, its “Beyond Petroleum” mantra is a very tarnished brand right now, and it is doubtful they’ll be able to renew its polish.

But at the same time, I don’t see any great evidence that the public as a whole is disposed to punish companies for greenwashing. Actually, I think the exact opposite is the case: I think the public is very much disposed towards buying into the weakest of greenwash campaigns. The reason, I think, goes back to the point I made earlier about most of us being fairly ashamed of living in a consumer society. Yet at the same time we like buying stuff, especially stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves and morally virtuous. Even the most half-witted greenwashing campaign is often enough for consumers to give themselves “permission” to buy something they really want.

CM: Let’s talk about a couple of product categories for which claims to authenticity are frequently made.

First, food. You argue that much of the current fascination with organic food, locally-grown food, etc., is best understood as the result of status-seeking. So the idea is basically that food elites start out looking down on everyone who doesn’t eat organic. But then as soon as organic becomes relatively wide-spread, suddenly eating organic doesn’t make you special, and so the food elite has to switch to eating local, or eating raw, or whatever else to separate themselves from the masses. And I find that analysis pretty compelling, myself. But a lot of devotees of organic and local foods are going to reject that analysis, and object that they, at least, are eating organic or local or whatever for the right reasons, not for the kind of status-seeking reasons you suggest. And surely some of them are sincere and are introspecting accurately. Does your analysis allow for that possibility?

AP: Sure. The key point is that these aren’t exclusive motivations. In fact, they can often work in lockstep: You feel virtuous eating organic, but you also want to feel more virtuous than your neighbour (moral one-upmanship is still one-upmanship, after all). And so you try to out-do her by switching to a local diet. And when she matches you and goes local too, you ratchet up the stakes by moving more of your consumption to artisanal goods (e.g. small-batch olive oil, handmade axes, self-butchered swine, and so-on).

And this would be a good thing if there were any evidence that these moves actually had the social and environmental benefits that their proponents claim for them. But unfortunately, the evidence is – at best – mixed; the more likely truth is that the one-upmanship angle has completely crowded out the moral calculations.

The more general point is that we need to stop assuming that something that gives us pleasure, or feeds our spiritual needs, will also be morally praiseworthy and environmentally beneficial. That assumption is one of the most tenacious aspects of the authenticity hoax, and it is one that we have no reason to make. There are good and bad practices at the local level, and artisanal consumption has its costs and benefits. Same thing for conventional food production — there are good things and bad things about it. It would be nice if the categories of good versus bad mapped cleanly on to the categories of local versus industrial, but they simply don’t. The belief that they do is nothing more than wishful thinking.

CM: What about alternative therapies? Much of the draw of those products — and at least some of their marketing — seems to revolve around authenticity. People who are attracted to alternative products seem to want to reject modern medicine, which they find alienating, in favour of what they perceive as something more authentic. Now most critics of alternative therapies such as homeopathy primarily object that there just isn’t good evidence that those therapies actually work. But your own analysis provides a further kind of criticism, rooted in the way that those who seek ‘authenticity’ via alternative medicine are engaged in what is more generally an unhealthy rejection of modernity. Is that right?

AP: There is a lot to dislike about modernity, and my argument is not that we should just suck it all up and live with it. My point is rather that modernity is about tradeoffs, and that we need to accept that for the most part, the tradeoffs have been worth making. Yes, some things of value have been lost, but on the whole I think it’s been worth it.

But if there is one part of the pre-modern world that is well lost, it’s the absence of evidence-based medicine. Yet for some bizarre reason, the longer we live and the healthier we get, the more people become convinced that we are poisoning ourselves, and that modern medicine is not the solution to our woes, but part of the cause.

The turn away from the benefits of modern medicine is one of the most disturbing and pernicious aspects of the authenticity hoax. My book has been interpreted by many as an attack on “the left”, but it perplexes me that things like naturopathy, anti-vaccination campaigns, and belief in the health benefits of raw milk are considered “left wing” or “progressive” ideals. As far as I’m concerned, this is part of a highly reactionary political agenda that rejects many of the most unimpeachable benefits of the modern world. We know that naturopathy and homeopathy is a fraud; we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and that public vaccination is the one of the greatest public health initiatives ever; we know that pasteurization has saved countless lives over the years.

But for reasons I cannot fathom, these and many other related benefits are ignored or shunned in favour of an “authentic” lifestyle that is an absolute and utter hoax.

38 comments so far

  1. […] on July 21, 2010 by Chris MacDonald Over at my Business Ethics Blog, I’ve just posted an interview with Andrew Potter, about his new book, The Authenticity […]

    • Adi on

      hmmm, interesting statements,
      “We know that naturopathy and homeopathy is a fraud; we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and that public vaccination is the one of the greatest public health initiatives ever ”
      But can you back them up?
      Presenting something as an absolute truth without backing it up sounds to me more like an intention to inoculate your ideas to other people, rather then presenting the facts and letting the observer to decide.

      As well, this statement is very confusing for me:
      “Yet for some bizarre reason, the longer we live and the healthier we get, the more people become convinced that we are poisoning ourselves, and that modern medicine is not the solution to our woes, but part of the cause. ”

      The healthier we get? For real?
      Of course, a few hundred years ago a plague could have killed millions of people and now thanks to the modern system that is not the case anymore, but as you said, we traded some things for other things.
      My point here is that modern health care is good up to a point, but when pharmaceutics companies start to lead aggressive actions to get their pills sold, then you can see that affecting everyone.
      And by the way, being dependent on pills to live, for me it is just a slow death, a struggle to survive, no more joy, no more feeling alive, just an intense fight which has the outcome set, killing every inch of a human being as the days goes by.

      Is that what we trade off? An intense living for a long stressing, boring, slowly killing routine?
      So which is better? Being one year an eagle or a life time a crow? I’ll let you decide that :p

      Also i think that not the modern health care did the most part to help the people to live longer and better, as much as the conditions and the mentality of people changed.

      Though lately looks like most people are driven to the “vegetable” status, being told what to do and what to think, so in this manner i appreciate the critical thinking that you suggest, but please, stop imposing ideas as absolute truth. If you really want people to start to think for themselves, then just present the facts, then tell your opinions (and backup all your statements, so they can see the logic behind it), and let them decide what to believe or not.

      • Chris MacDonald on


        Andrew doesn’t need to provide footnotes for well-established truths. His claims would be supported by any qualified expert. Homeopathy is sold despite being implausible and unsupported by evidence. Vaccines have saved millions of lives. And yes, we are (generally) getting healthier. Life-span is increasing and age-adjusted cancer rates are falling. Ask any public health expert.


      • Kelly on

        I second Chris’ comment and I will add this:

        This isn’t an either/or scenario. We don’t have to accept a corporation pushing ineffective or dangerous drugs to accept overall, we’re doing exceptionally well as a healthy society thanks to modern science (and those same pharmaceutical companies). A few hundred years ago plagues did kill off millions of people (not could have). We often died in agony from things like tooth decay (talk about ‘no more joy’ although I suspect that you would probably feel alive – you just would wish that you were dead).

        (By the way, adult discourse shouldn’t be accompanied the sticking out of one’s tongue unless accompanied by ‘nannananna-booboo’.)

      • Adi on

        As i stated before, the life span increased due the healthier conditions, clean water, a larger variety of food. As well the health improved due the above changes in people’s life.
        Now i have this crazy idea, what if the introduction of pharma drugs and vaccines wasn’t just a big hoax and was promoted as being the “well-established truth”? Remember that quote often attributed to Lenin saying: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth” ?
        Can you say what is really the truth if for decades was promoted the same idea?
        There were some voices which stated the opposite about the “benefits” of the vaccines and they were quickly shut off, discredited and called liars.
        I wonder why when someone gets out of the “well-established truths” is called insane, dangerous etc. Probably we forgot the “well-established truth” which the church defended so fiercely for hundred of years: that the Earth is plate and it is the center of the universe. And for that “truth” they killed, oh yea, they did that, because they were convinced about it … and why they were convinced about it? Because it was an “well-established truth” … and who established that? We don’t know, it is lost in the mist of the past.

        Probably, an interesting story to read and to reflect upon is this: Being a monkey – a sad reality, found on this blog:

        Thanks for your patience, i just want to make people reflect a little bit more on the ideas they are served.

      • Kelly on

        Sorry Adi – when challenging well-established truths, it is the challenger who has the burden of proof. You are the one who needs to provide proof that people are healthier only because of clean water and better food (I wouldn’t say that these don’t help, but these are only part of the picture).

        By equating scientific knowledge with the catholic church, you really are showing that you don’t have any real knowledge of either the scientific method or the medical issues involved. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn’t mean to suggest that scientists would kill for their beliefs (which by the way, will change if enough evidence is presented that is contrary).

        You are stating some things that some eerily familiar from another website I frequent. So I ask will ask you bluntly – what is your stance with regard to vaccines?

      • Adi on

        My stance in regards of vaccines is very simple: i would not take any vaccine. And by vaccine i refer to those made to prevent diseases, not to those administrated after a possible cause of infection, like anti rabies serum or anti venom serum.
        Where did i got this stance from?
        Quite simple, look at the latest “swine flu” disease which was so intensely broadcast all around the world until the vaccines were sold. How did they come up with vaccines so fast? How did they distributed them without proper testing? As far as i know, it takes some time for a vaccine to be tested. But hey, that’s just me, the non believer.
        As well, right before the swine flu, there was the bird flu, broadcast as well around the world.
        Now they are both forgotten, but someone did make good money out of them. So why should i trust a vaccine that is made only to bring profit?
        Should i believe that pharma corporation are so kind and wish our good health care over their profit?
        Am i that blind?

        As for beliefs, probably scientists would not kill, but once an idea is so deeply rooted in one’s mind, it will be defended all the way and any other evidence would be rejected. So in this matter, they are not so different from the catholic church. And let’s not forget who’s paying the scientists to make their researches.
        If you, Chris MacDonald, would own a big corporation and pay for scientific experiments, would you let the result of an experiment go public if that would threaten to shut down your business?
        I bet most company owners are very ethical and would rather go bankrupt and start from zero with the new discovery.
        As Schopenhauer said:
        “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

        Do tell me, why the petrol industry lasted for so long? Didn’t any one come with new alternatives for cars besides fuel? Why did they had to wait until the oil reserves were mostly depleted?
        Not to protect giant oil companies?
        Of course not, science was too inefficient back then. They could send a space ship to the moon, they settled satellites on the orbit, but they couldn’t create an electric car, nooo sir, waaaayy too low on tech to do such thing.
        So please, when i’m called stupid in my face by the government, why should i trust that they are there to do something good for me? Should i close my eyes and say everything is ok? Sorry, can’t do that. But faced with the option of choosing to complain like a victim and to actually do something good for me, i will always go for my best interests.

        History repeats, there were always the leaders class, the middle class and the slaves. Leaders always protected their interests, above the rest. There happened to be a few who tried to make it good for the rest, but they were exceptions, and after their death, all went back to the “normality”.
        If before people were made slaves without their consent, now they beg to be made slaves. And hell, banks did a very good job on that. They lured people to take credits to make “the life of their dreams” and then poor suckers waste their lives working to pay them back … that’s what i called a profitable business.
        Can’t say i blame the bankers; as long as the individual is stupid and ignorant enough to get himself into the vicious circle of problems, worries, credits and hard work, then that’s just his problem. Is part of a maturing process and i don’t feel any remorse for one who chose that.
        So, Chris, you have your reality, i have my reality, we created them, more or less conscious through the choices that we made, but non the less we made those choices.
        And it seems to me that whoever is prepared to start to think for themselves, sooner or later will be lead to that through the succession of events that occurs in their lives. Who is not, then i’m sorry for them, will learn it the hard way. In the end, it doesn’t even matter … or does it? 😀

      • Kelly on

        I am of the opinion that you have a very interesting way of viewing the world – with blinders over the parts you don’t like.

        Of course pharmaceutical companies need to make a profit. How is it that you think that new discoveries are made? If necessity is the mother of invention, profit is the father. And yes, these companies sometimes do things that are unethical. And we should slap them down for those instances. There is no doubt about that.

        If you understood infectious disease and vaccines, you would understand how these companies managed to get vaccines out as fast as they did, why it was important, and that it wasn’t fast enough. I personally know of someone who lost over half of her lung capacity permanently from H1N1 last year (prior to the vaccine being available). She was in a coma for two months. She is in her twenties. That vaccine might have saved her from getting the flu and pharmaceuticals helped save her life.

        I don’t think you understand my point about science being essentially different than religion.

        Science isn’t based on belief. It’s not faith.

        It is based on repeatable, peer reviewed, observations in controlled circumstances. It is difficult and disputed. Scientific knowledge is not opinion. This knowledge adjusts as new observations are made. And it doesn’t make scientists unethical. Some of them are (because they are people), but most are not.

        Faith denies evidence (real data not anecdotes)and it does so precisely so that belief, that faith can be unchanged. I humbly submit that that is where you are. You are taking only what you want to see (that the ‘pharma corporation’ is only motivated by profit) to justify not seeing the good that they do.

        By the way, Schopenhauer also felt that women were meant by nature to obey. I disagree with Schopenhauer on many points including the one that I’ve cited. But also, truth isn’t always ridiculed.

        One further question for you:
        What would it take to convince you of the safety of vaccines?

        (P.S. This is someone else other than Chris MacDonald posting. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. Although I am curious as to what he thinks about the points being made subsequent to his initial reply to you.)

      • Chris MacDonald on


        I really don’t want to get too far into this.
        I’ll just say that we don’t generally “create” reality. What’s that saying? “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” We create certain aspects of our world (e.g., we build our careers, families, institutions, etc.) But the sky is blue (not a social construction) and gravity makes things with mass move towards each other (regardless of point of view). A view of reality rooted in science (which is really just a particular implementation of what we philosophers would call “good epistemic standards”) is what makes skyscrapers and laptops and satellites possible. And the only “reality” in which vaccines (and antibiotics) haven’t saved millions lives is also a reality with unicorns.

        For a bit more, you might look at this older blog posting of mine: Should Consumers Trust Big Pharma?


      • Kelly on

        Excellent post about big pharma, Chris. I highly concur. I don’t trust any claim blindly but I do make sure that I’m not distrusting blindly as well.

      • Adi on

        @Kelly : is not that i have blinders over the parts i don’t like, is just that i focus on the things that i like to do, while being aware of the things i don’t like but not giving them attention.
        From your point of view, which is more profitable:
        seeing the garbage in the street and blaming those who thrown it, or focusing on the things you can do to get a clean street?
        There’s a difference between being ignorant and focusing on things you can actually do; if i left you with the impression that i put some horse blinds over my eyes, then it was about time to clear those impressions 😀
        Now, to answer your question about what would convince me about the safety of the vaccines … facts. That’s what i base my judgment on. Just as you say: faith is blind trust -> trusting in an inoculated belief that you don’t even bother to question anymore.
        So what it would take to change my point of view regarding the vaccines, would be statistics made on researches for longer periods (at least a few years), which will evidence the differences between people who didn’t get some vaccines and people who got those vaccines, in similar conditions of living. And if those statistics will show that the people who took that vaccines were more healthy than the others, then i would say: yes Kelly, you are right, vaccines save people life and prevent diseases, and i was completely wrong. I don’t mind changing the ideas that i have when i realize they are wrong. Can you provide me any links to a conducted scientific research about how vaccines influenced people life? Something statistically like: there was conducted an experiment on 100,000 subjects, from which half received a vaccine, and the other half didn’t. Then, for the most common diseases and the blood tests results, create an average with the percentages in both sides. That’s all i want, if you have something like this, then please provide.

        yes, agree with you, but when i said about creating the reality, i was talking about the things related to what the individual can do. He has the potential, whether he use that in his advantage or not; is all up to his choices.
        Is like owning a land and choosing what to do with it. Either he doesn’t use it, and thus he has no benefit from it, or he rents it, or he grows something on it, or he builds something on it and use that … there are countless choices to make, which will bring less or more profit.
        Sure, there are many things which we can’t control, but if we focus only on the things that we can control (rather than waste our energy on things that we can’t control), that will change our lives in a way that maybe we can’t even imagine right now.
        And btw, the sky isn’t actually blue, we just perceive it as being blue due to the molecules composing the earth atmosphere which filter the light. From other planets, the sky is perceived in different colors. On what do i base my affirmation for this? Facts, researches … pictures taken from a probe landed on Mars. Why do i trust that to be true? Maybe is just a fake picture … hmm, that could be, but why would anyone do that? What is their benefit? Not much to win from this, except a boost to their egos. How many different sources are confirming this? Just one … hmm, not that good.
        Oh wait, what were we talking about? Pharma? Then how we end up to the color of the sky?
        Ahh, got it, you like my ideas, that’s why you kept on replying 😀

        Yea, i would agree with both of you, Chris & Kelly, but damn, i just got struck by a short flash which demolished some other beliefs which i hold. In fact, i don’t know what to believe anymore. Both pro-system and anti-system stories represent just a preoccupation of the mind, something that gives a sense of identity … something like: i define myself by holding ideas against “that”.
        Hmmm, this is weird and yet, it opened a whole new horizon which i didn’t notice before.

      • Kelly on

        So much of what you say seems very prudent. Doctors are really just technicians (unless they also have a research position). They are applying that standard of care that is the best that we know at that particular moment. And they mostly keep up to date, so keep trying with the doctors as the science changes.

        As for the websites just talking about studies, that is what pubmed is for. You can look up those studies yourself. Also, most blog authors are happy to provide the actual study or at least a citation that you can read for yourself.

        The problem with “alternative” medicine is that it, by definition, has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. I wish you all the best Adi, could I just suggest one more piece of literature? Pick up Trick or Treatment by Prof. Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh. Prof Ernst was a professor in alternative medicine. He gives a pretty even handed view of this stuff.

        Lastly (and I do mean that because I don’t think I’ll be able to comment much for awhile), I still can’t be sure that you understand the scientific method (because you talk about when something works for you, you aren’t hallucinating). Actually, it is very easy to fool oneself (I know I’ve done it). I just attempted to write a synopsis of how and why that is and failed miserably. Keep reading the sites I’ve suggested, please. They really do have a remarkable way of explaining concepts that may help you in your search for truth.

    • Kelly on

      Work is intervening from giving you a more thoughtful reply. I apologize.

      So my time warp doesn’t derail this discussion fully, please do some research on your own (I’ll suggest some sites later). Let me just say that I think there is no reason why vaccines shouldn’t make people better off in the long term since it prevents illness and, for instance in the case of flu, seems to ward off pneumonia and heart attack in the elderly.
      Here are a few sites I recommend:
      (look at the studies yourself!)
      Science Based Medicine
      (hear what scientists have to say about studies, both good and bad, and other topics of interest)
      She Thought
      (critical thinking from a (generally) female perspective)

      Sorry I can’t do this for you right now, but maybe this is better anyways. You seem to like to find out things for yourself (I think this is a better way to think too).

      • Adi on

        thanks Kelly,
        i’ll continue to do that, think for myself 😉
        Read some from the links you provided, pretty interesting, but still they don’t fully provide the hard evidence. Statements like : “we conducted researches that didn’t show any evidence between a vaccine and an illness” are just as good as a story from Dracula magazine (a newspaper with fantastic stories … which are almost believable 😀 )
        Oh, btw, i didn’t tell you why i`m reluctant toward public health care.
        I used to have an chronic illness which several doctors i consulted said: i’ll have it for the rest of my life. As well, most of the info i found on the net stated the same thing.
        I followed the standard treatment for that illness for about 3 years, but it constantly backfired, even more powerful. The last time i went to see my doctor, she prescribed me some drugs which were doing more harm than good (they had about 20 contra-indications which … even in my case when i could do almost anything to get better … still made me think twice). And trust me, she was very well intentioned, she wanted to see me getting better, i have no doubt about that. But unfortunately the modern medicine just didn’t hold the cure for my illness. Then i realized that doctors just learn things that others before them researched and then apply what they learned, but they don’t enlarge their horizons and seek new ways for treatment. Most of them just apply the standard procedures they know, if it does work, all good, if not … then it means the patient didn’t respond to the treatment.
        Right now i congrat myself for not taking those prescribed drugs and for choosing alternative ways to get healed.
        Of course, in searching for alternatives, i realized that there are as well other companies who promote pills with natural ingredients, but they are after the profit as well, asking for huge amounts of money for some pills which production was probably 50 times less the price. I know that there are lots of hoaxes regarding “wonder natural pills” which “makes miracles” and treat the most 999 common illnesses (like the detergents which cleans the most 99 common spots :p).
        But when i experience that something doesn’t work and something else works, i can’t say that i hallucinate and that only the science is to be trusted.
        I recognize very well all the benefits and drawbacks of the modern medicine and of the alternative medicines, and thus i can say that wisdom is not in combating one and supporting the other, but rather in combining and getting the most out of them.

      • Adi on

        mmmhmmm, just as i was saying. Never trust politics, big corps and any world organization.
        Just read some facts about aspartame …

        and the conclusion … when politics involves, then you can expect anything. So … who is to be trusted? Super markets products approved by FDA which also approved aspartame or natural products (if they still are natural after air / earth / water poisoning) ?
        I surely don’t want some holes in my brain :p

  2. southwerk on

    I appreciate your support of critical thinking as opposed to fashion. I teach my students that actual thinking tends to put someone out of the natural divisions of politics, society and philosophy into a wilderness where reality predominates but there are few other practitioners.

    James Pilant

  3. southwerk on

    If your friend would like to send me a copy, I would love to review and talk about it on the blog. jp

  4. […] MacDonald is cruising into philosophical territory with an interview with Andrew Potter about his new book, The Authenticity Hoax. The book’s thesis is that authenticity, the […]

  5. Adam on

    I have to disagree with your stance on alternative therapies, specifically the theory that people choose naturopathy and homeopathy because they are somehow more authentic than traditional care.

    In fact, many people try these alternatives when they have been misdiagnosed, mislead, under-treated or made to feel un-fixable by doctors in the healthcare system. People lose their faith in their doctors and go and try something else.

    They go back again and again for alternative care when and if they see results. If they don’t see them, they stop going. Sure, for some, desperation is their only motivator, but for others alternative care is in fact what works.

    They are not “keeping up with the Joneses” and tearing up their health cards in a grand show of solidarity with other “anti-medites,” they are shunning a system that isn’t working for them at this particular time for their particular problem.

  6. Chris MacDonald on


    Your analysis & mine are compatible. You’re surely correct that at least some people — maybe even many — turn to alternative therapy out of dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine. But much of the pro-alternative literature & online discussions is absolutely rife with please for “real” or “natural” or “authentic” healthcare.

    So, a given individual might be frustrated by mainstream medicine — and hence look for something more “holistic” and “authentic.” Others may never have had a serious medical problem at all, and are simply attracted to the idea of “holistic, authentic” healing. Tragic, either way, because they’re typically turning from something that works sometimes-well and sometimes-poorly to something that almost never works at all.


  7. Kelly on

    Adam, I somewhat disagree. Although it is possibly true that some people turn to so-called-alternative-medicine because of misdiagnosis, attention seeking, and misplaced hope, there are plenty who, among other things, have been turned on to it by the belief that “natural” (whatever that means) is better. I think, as well, that you may be taking what AP statements as if he is being absolute, which by the tone of the rest of the interview, you can see is not the case.
    (You know what they call alternative medicine that works? Medicine. ~Tim Minchin)

  8. Duff on

    Conscious and ethical consumerism is almost certainly in part motivated by status-seeking, and this is an important component left out of nearly all discussions of buying organic/local/artisan, etc. In fact, only rarely are ethical arguments made at all for such things. Eating organic is usually emphasized as being better for health, rarely as better for ecosystems. As the cynical book The 48 Laws of Power puts it, “When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude.”

    On the other hand, pointing out such inconsistencies in consumer behavior can also be read as motivated in part by status-seeking behavior. Us cultural critics and philosophers (me very much included) find social status in intelligent and thoughtful and often aggressive criticism of “they” who are less intelligent, thoughtful, and ethically-minded. As with conscious and ethical consumerism, there is a mix of motives, from wanting to rid the discussion of delusion and hypocrisy, to wanting a book deal and a niche in society (the social role of contrarian goes back as long as recorded history).

    As for authenticity being a hoax, the dialogue is important but always seems to lack a discussion of whether the “Real” exists and if so, what the nature of “The Real” is. The critique is that marketing messages and other signs and signifiers are just narratives, constructed fabrications. But postmodern understanding of the self and culture and even science (see the major works of the Philosophy of Science) admit that the self is a narrative (see narrative self theories), that culture is a collective hallucination, and that science itself, that bedrock of objectivity, has more than a few fundamental problems with its claims to Absolute Truth (problem of induction, observer affects observed, various theories of relativity, etc.). For instance the blase claim that homeopathy doesn’t work lacks reference to the fact that most medicines also don’t work most of the time, and many don’t work better than “placebo”–whatever that is. Psychiatry is largely a hoax too, as is most of allopathic medicine, when you start examining the details closely.

    I’d like to see this discussion and critique of authenticity in culture go a whole lot farther. That said, I think books (and interviews) like this are a good start.

  9. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    But do note that any attempt to heap mainstream & alternative medicine under the same heading bumps pretty quickly into the fact that antibiotics have saved millions of lives, and homeopathy has saved none. Not all allopathic medicine works, but in general it’s far from a hoax.


  10. […] with the author of the “The Authenticity Hoax.” Since then the posting has had some comments (skip past mine) and they have been interesting. Chris get pretty tough there in that last one. So, […]

  11. Duff on

    As far as allopathic medicine being a hoax, I was exaggerating a bit and you caught me on that. My point was that similarly calling authenticity a hoax is exaggerating, and related to medicine, most times antibiotics are prescribed nowadays, they are prescribed for viral infections as in a flu, making this once-life-saving medicine a pure placebo.

  12. Chris MacDonald on


    Sorry, but “pure placebo” is not just an exaggeration, but a dangerous one.

    It’s true that antibiotics are over-prescribed, and sometimes prescribed for things for which they are not indicated (e.g., viral infections). But when used properly, antibiotics save lives.


  13. Duff on

    Certainly antibiotics save lives when used properly–there is no argument there. But why do doctors routinely prescribe antibiotics for things that can’t be helped by taking antibiotics? Antibiotics have the side-effect of killing off beneficial bacteria in the gut, an effect not communicated to the millions of patients who take antibiotics for a seasonal flu (antibiotics being totally useless in this context, since flu is caused by a virus). While few doctors recognize this (but when pushed will agree), your average naturopath immediately understands the risks of taking antibiotics needlessly.

    On the other hand, since homeopathic remedies have no effect whatsoever, they at least won’t kill off helpful bacteria, and may induce the placebo effect. In most clinical trials, patients who take a placebo sugar pill get better more than patients who take nothing, even though they aren’t taking “real” medicine (ah–has authenticity crept into this discussion as well?).

    While we should absolutely not delude ourselves into thinking there are any active ingredients whatsoever in homeopathic remedies, nor that the idea of water retaining some signature is a valid scientific explanation, we should also not discount the efficacy of ritual on healing.

    Meanwhile, overuse of antibiotics (due to the human psychological need to do SOMETHING when one is ill) is helping to create antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria we thought we overcame. Personally I think doctors should know when to prescribe placebos and to do so rationally.

  14. Kelly on

    I think that the term “placebo” is not quite understood. Taking a sugar doesn’t induce the placebo effect. When it is said that something works no better than placebo it means that taking a sugar pill works about the same as nothing at all. So you could say, not doing anything induces the placebo effect.

    Science may have problems, Duff, but there is still nothing better that humans have come up with to try to tease out truth within the physical world. (One could paraphrase Winston Churchill here.)

    The problem with so-called-alternative medicine is that the belief in this magic can keep people away from real help when they need it (and I mean Real in exactly that sense).

    Duff, I’m sympathetic to the idea of letting one’s own body heal itself as best it can – so I understand where you have come from. But now I’m going to be slightly inflammatory – I think that this discussion was interesting for you until it touched upon your sacred cow.

  15. Duff on

    Science may have problems, Duff, but there is still nothing better that humans have come up with to try to tease out truth within the physical world.

    No disagreement here, Kelly. And yes, placebo is not well understood—in fact I’m not sure that what placebo means is “better than nothing”. Placebo may mean “unknown factors” or “psychological factors.” This is all a bit off-topic though so I will leave the discussion as is for now.

  16. Lorraine Whellams on

    As with the Rebel Sell, Potter’s work is always thought provoking. I think I will buy it!

  17. Malorie on

    I read The Rebel Sell for my Alternative Media class back in university and recently finished The Authenticity Hoax. Andrew sent me this link so that I could better understand the point of his book and it has helped a lot. I agree with ‘Duff’, I’d like to see more discussion in regards to Andrew’s alternative to the search for the authentic as well as more discussion around the pros and cons of leading an eco-friendly lifestyle.

  18. Tom Herrnstein on

    I found the discussion on medicine interesting, but I found myself wondering about what Andrew means by the word “authentic” and how this affects his argument that our desire for authenticity is often not praiseworthy. Andrew defines authenticity this way:
    What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.
    This seems to me to be an understanding of authentic that is missing the aspect of whether what I do is praiseworthy or blameworthy. Isn’t that an essential ingredient? What I mean is, by grasping for the authentic don’t we concurrently desire to embrace the good and avoid the bad? According the Andrew, no: authenticity is different from praiseworthiness and this divide is precisely the problem:
    The more general point is that we need to stop assuming that something that gives us pleasure, or feeds our spiritual needs, will also be morally praiseworthy and environmentally beneficial. That assumption is one of the most tenacious aspects of the authenticity hoax, and it is one that we have no reason to make.
    Maybe Andrew is right that authenticity and praiseworthiness are distinct things. The claim here is that when seeking the authentic people make the distinction (perhaps not consciously) that authenticity leading to self-fulfillment and praiseworthiness are unconnected. This would explain a lot of what seems to be destructive, irrational, and overly-selfish behavior in the name of self-fulfillment.
    Maybe I’m naive, but I think that people mostly see their authentic action as including being praiseworthy. We recognize that others are villains (and can be authentic in their villainy!) but when it comes to us, we are the good guys. So searching for the authentic (that special feeling/connection) is not the problem, being confused by what is praiseworthy or actually beneficial is the problem. Playing amateur psychologist, getting that feeling of authenticity could be the result of thinking that you’ve zeroed in on something difficult (i.e., mostly missed by others) that is especially good . Anyway, thanks for the ideas.

  19. southwerk on

    Have you considered attacking the Church of Scientology? This post of yours is the gift that just keeps on giving. It’s print version of the human wave attacks in the movie, “Zulu.” jp

  20. […] It’s a great question. Anecdotes like the ones Meehan recounts make it even more tempting to see high-end foodie-ism as having more to do with status-seeking than it has to do with actually believing in a particular set of values. (For more on that line of thinking, see my interview with Andrew Potter, the author of The Authenticity Hoax, here: Interview: Andrew Potter and The Authenticity Hoax) […]

  21. […] “paying for status”. That’s roughly the line that Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax, takes: buying organic (etc. etc.) is, at least for many people, essentially a form of […]

  22. […] Thanks to Andrew Potter for pointing me to the study discussed here. Share […]

  23. […] namely that the holier-than-though aspect is yet another instance of the basic human drive toward status-seeking. In other words, part of the way one person makes herself feel special, feel superior, both in her […]

  24. […] also this Authenticity Hoax Interview, which includes a critique of the craze for all things artisanal, as well as Culinary Modernism: A […]

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