Opinion: 3 Liberal Criticisms of Stephen Tall’s defence of Tim Farron

Lib Dem Voice co-editor Stephen Tall has produced his 3 liberal reasons to stick up for Tim Farron. Now Stephen is a man I respect and who writes a lot of sense, but on this occasion I beg leave to disagree.

To that end I thought I’d give 3 liberal reasons to criticise Stephen Tall’s defence of our party president Tim Farron. We are of course talking about the storm Tim Farron created by co-signing a letter to the Advertising Standards Agency urging the ASA to overturn a ban on a Christian group claiming prayer could cure medical conditions.

(1) The letter undermines rational scepticism, by urging the ASA to take a bizarre departure from the scientific method and by attempting to shift the burden of proof onto the sceptic.

“Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible. On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?”

So Tim Farron and his co-signatories want us to shift the burden of proof from those making claims of medical efficaciousness and force sceptics to disprove them. This is very dangerous as it grants license to anyone making an unfalsifiable, metaphysical claim to peddle just about any bogus product they wish. 

(2) It is for those making assertions of medical efficaciousness to prove their claims. Proving or disproving faith doesn’t come into it. Could you imagine if we allowed pharmaceuticals to sell medications without first scientifically demonstrating they were effective? We’d have a flood of wonder cures on the market within days and it would fall to sceptics to disprove the claims before they could be removed from sale.

Why should religious groups get special treatment? If they want to enter the healthcare arena they should play by the same rules as the medical profession. That means proving their treatments work.

If we are to grant exceptions for religious groups, what’s to stop someone founding the Church of Glaxosmithkline? 

(3) Regulation Creep – Who is going to be misled by these claims?

Stephen’s last point, as he acknowledges, isn’t entirely his own. He quotes Stuart Wheatcroft who essentially asks ‘who’s going to be taken in by a claim that prayer can really heal?’

Well in response, I’m going to quote George Biggles Potter on the Alliance of Liberal Democrats Facebook Group who shared this story: Church HIV prayer cure claims causes three deaths.

Here’s someone else who was taken in by such a claim: Tim Farron. He would seem to believe these claims are real and that prayer can heal medical conditions, or else why would he have signed the letter claiming that many Christians “have seen and experienced healing in our own families and churches”?

If our own party president can be taken in by such a claim, I really don’t think we need to worry about regulation creep.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Parkes 28th Mar '12 - 4:36pm

    Oranjepan, Read the letter Tim co-signed and you’ll see it clearly asserts that prayer can heal, Gary Streeter MP claims that he himself was cured during a prayer session, that’s a medical claim if ever I heard one.

    As to the original advert, and whether a genuine medical claim was made or implied and as to the rights and wrongs of the ASA ruling, that’s for people to make their own minds up. It still does not excuse this letter and its central premise that the ASA should seek to reverse the burden of proof and go against the established scientific method when deciding whether a medical claim is allowed to be advertised.

    Tim and his co-signatories, could have made a point about religious plurality, but instead this letter demands the ASA go against the scientific method when analysing claims of medical effectiveness. This is dangerous and harmful.

  • with the author on this one – good article

  • David Parkes 28th Mar '12 - 4:52pm

    Thanks Bazzasc

  • David Evans 28th Mar '12 - 5:03pm

    Actually, as a Liberal I think regulation creep is just about the greatest risk of all to a liberal society. There will always be ever more bureaucrats out there trying to encourage us to let them do more and more to protect us from ourselves. Scary.

    As for the prayer can heal debate, the question is where does having a positive outlook on life (which research shows to be a good thing viz a viz recovery) end, and having a positive outlook due to Christian belief begin. It’s a bit tricky, that one.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Mar '12 - 5:13pm

    @ David Evans

    When I had an operation a couple of years ago, the surgeon suggested that my “positive attitude to life” may have been a factor in my speedy recovery following the surgery. No-one, however, seriously suggested that my “positive attitude” (whatever that is and wherever it came from – certainly not inspired by any religious faith) on its own would have been a substitute for the surgeon’s scientific knowledge and his skill.

  • David Parkes 28th Mar '12 - 5:17pm

    To be honest the whole regulation creep argument is a bit of a red herring and I should have made more of that in my piece, (deadlines!) Its important to remember, no-one is proposing any new rules or regulations concerning medical claims, the ASA used existing guidance and were not proposing further regulation.

    Furthermore, I think it would be dangerous to water-down the current regulations on healthcare advertising in the way Tim Farron and his co-signatories were calling for. Making exceptions of this nature for faith healing paves the way for all sorts of quackery and non-cures to be pushed on a public which has grown accustomed to being able to trust the claims made by advertisers on healthcare products.

  • No doubt someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the ASA’s pronouncements have the force of law. The system is one of self-regulation. If this group were to ignore the ruling, then there might be a prosecution and the question might be tested in the courts, but obviously that would be a different matter, and it’s not going to happen because they have complied with the ruling anyway.

    Perhaps as a legislator, Tim Farron should concentrate on deciding whether he thinks that statute law on this question is inappropriate. If it’s not, there’s not really a problem.

  • Simon McGrath

    Don’t you think that is a little bit over the top – do you really think that freedom to practice a religion is under threat in the UK? What is under threat is the deference automatically given to religion, especially in realtion to the law. I say that is good. I cannot think of an overtly religiously-controlled country that practices anything like what we could call ‘liberal values’.

    People should have the absolute freedom to practice their religion but to make claims în an advert that just having faith can heal is crossing the line of acceptability. Most people would ignore this but, as has been stated on the other threads, the people most likely to be influenced by this type of advertising are the ignorant or the irrational and they need some sort of protection.

    In the end we may not be able to protect them from the unscrupulous or misguided who claim these things but we should not be party to it either.

    It is not just religious organisations who are guilty of this either. The cosmetics industry and ‘quack’ medicine industry are also implicated.

  • David Parkes 28th Mar '12 - 5:30pm

    Simon McGrath, I’m at pains to point out that my article is essentially a criticism of Tim’s letter (framed by a response to Stephen Tall’s support for it). I’m not really making a comment on the rights and wrongs of the specifics of ASA ruling in this article so your comment is somewhat misplaced..

    However, I do think its important that people are not misled by medical claims, whether they are dressed in religious, new-age or pharmaceutical guises. It certainly isn’t OK to lie to people and say: “Prayer can heal” if it can’t. Just as its not OK for me to sell you a sugar pill as a cancer cure. Now people might not be charged for prayers in the same way I charge you £20 a pop for my ‘cancer cure’, but it gets bums on seats, brings people back to churches and sticks more money in the collection plate. In fact many of these evangelical churches expect a significant tithe and guilt-trip people by telling them their prayers cannot be answered if they don’t give accordingly.

    In fact the group that produced the advert in question are charging £400 to train people to go out onto the streets and start a healing ministry, http://healingonthestreets.com/how-to-get-involved-2/how-to-become-a-partner/

  • Simon McGrath, what a strange thing to say. The advertising restrictions are to ensure that businesses or other organisations do not mislead consumers – it’s a means of ensuring a certain degree of honesty that helps empower consumers as they will be correctly informed as to the benefits, or otherwise, of a product.

    It’s in a wholly different category to an individual’s right to freedom of expression.

    You seem to be calling for deliberate deception to be a legal when it comes to commerce. If this is so then I have some magic beans that you might be interested in buying…

  • Paul Pettinger 28th Mar '12 - 6:01pm

    Simon, what examples of claims that the ASA has prevented from being advertised can you point to that have lead to literature making these claims also from being banned?

  • I think Tim Farron should stay away from religion – one of the best pieces of advice Campbell gave Blair is ‘we don’t do God’ and now we can see why.

    I can’t see this help his standing in the party, especially as he considers himself to be on the left.

    Rational debate – which by and large we have here despite all the disagreements – is immediately out of the window

  • Where do we draw the line on bogus health claims?

    “Buy this product and you could be healed”?

    What if the Church of Scientology or some other body that often makes money from members says – without evidence – that membership can bring health benefits?

    Another problem with Tim’s letter was it’s suggestion that a small number of people getting better is a meaningful health claim, and indeed one to promote. Obviously the important question is whether it’s better than doing nothing, or than placebo, or real medicine. ‘Scientifically illiterate’?

  • David Parkes 28th Mar '12 - 10:08pm

    Thank you all for your comments, you may also like to know that Tim Farron has issued a response. In his reply he distances himself from the format of the letter and admits he shouldn’t have signed it in the way it was worded. For that I think he deserves some kudos, even if I don’t entirely agree with the rest of his response.

    Still its very reassuring to see we have a party that actually engages with its membership in such a pro-active way and that makes me very happy to be a liberal democrat.


  • Allan Heron 29th Mar '12 - 4:22pm

    Putting aside the detail of this issue, I do increasingly raise a weary eye at all the articles based on “a liberal response” to this, that or the next thing. Usually, there’s nothing wrong with any of the content (which is not to say that I am in agreement about the views put across) but you’ve got to come to a single conclusion on most issues.

    There are many ways to skin a cat, and in many debates you can argue a “liberal” perspective from different sides of the argument. But, at the end of the day you have to come to a conlusion. In policy terms, there may be many different views and perspective, but we ultimately have to settle on a single Liberal Democrat view.

    Less relevant with this issue as it’s just a question of whether you agree with Tim or not (and fair play to him for his clarification statement – it makes him look a bit foolish for not paying enough attention but his honesty is heartening) but I’m now waiting for the liberal response to the liberal response to the liberal response to the……………………

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