At the Wellcome Collection

Why is the Wellcome Collection presenting exhibits with uncritical pseudoscientific claims?

The Wellcome Collection is the free museum and library operated by the Wellcome Trust, a hugely important medical and scientific research funder and one of the wealthiest charitable foundations in the world. The mission of the Wellcome Collection “is to be a place that challenges the ways people think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art”, according a document produced for its 10th anniversary. The Wellcome Collection is a great example of innovative science and medical education for both the general public and specialised researchers, which is why it is so disappointing that a current exhibit uncritically presents pseudoscientific bullshit about cancer treatments.

The Wellcome Collection’s temporary exhibit Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery is open until 26 January 2020. Much of the exhibit is photography, writing and scrapbooks produced by Jo Spence, most it covering the period from 1982 – when she was diagnosed with breast cancer – until her death in 1992. The photography itself is interesting, although given the contemporary ubiquity of the cancer memoir has little of the shock value the exhibition supposes it would have had decades previously. The problem is that alongside her photographs are a mixture of personal testimony and pseudoscientific claims that are given undeserved legitimacy because of the building they are displayed in. She cites Hans Ruesch, a race car driver and animals rights activist with no medical or scientific training as a scientific authority that 85% of cancer is caused by unhealthy western lifestyles; her writing and photography promotes naturopathic cancer treatments, vegan diets, lots of citrus fruit and other pseudoscientific ideas as valid alternatives to the chemotherapy, surgery and radiation on offer in the cancer ward. A press clipping on the arrest of an NHS cancer doctor is presented as an attack on patient freedom, while the article itself reveals he was arrested because he recommended pseudoscientific treatments and his patients kept dying far more quickly than expected. The views of Hardin B. Jones – whose research into cancer survival rates would have been decades out of date even when Jo Spence was first diagnosed as detailed in this Snopes article – are presented as fact, with plenty of references to his Berkeley professorship and his “25 years of research”. Hardin B. Jones is cited on a number of conspiracy theory blogs, and the Wellcome Trust has engaged in the same basic sin as those blogs in not indicating his data is from the 1920s and 1930s, in the relative infancy of our understanding of cancer.

While the exhibition hints at the understandable reasons why Jo Spence and many other people with cancer pursue treatments that will not work – the suffering caused by many (real) cancer treatments and the dismissive, inhumane way that many doctors treat patients – the claims that pseudoscientific treatment will help are presented entirely without criticism or rebuttal. While such bullshit may be mostly harmless in a typical art gallery, the Wellcome Collection is not a typical art gallery; it is also a place of medical and scientific education. Not all claims about cancer have equal validity, and it is incredibly disappointing that the Wellcome Collection has chosen to give so much space and encouragement to the idea that the best way to treat cancer is a vegan diet, yoga and hydrotherapy. To uncritically present research on cancer surival rates with data close to a century old, without any indication of the rapid advancements in cancer treatments even within this century, is simply embarrassing. If this is direction the Wellcome Collection is going to continue in, I look forward to an uncritical presentation of the work of Andrew Wakefield at the Wellcome Collection some time in 2021.

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