Canadian Blood Services Promotes Pseudoscience
Is this person donating blood or conducting a personality test? At Canadian Blood Services, the answer may not be all that clear.
Imagine visiting NASA’s website and finding a webpage devoted to astrology. I expect that critical viewers would find it surprising and disappointing. Happily, NASA is not likely to besmirch their own credibility in that way. Canadian Blood Services, on the other hand, does not seem to be afraid to discredit themselves. They are currently hosting a similar type of webpage called “What’s Your Type? Find out what your blood type says about you“, which promotes the superstition of blood-group personality typing.
The website material offered by Canadian Blood Services is based on the Japanese cultural belief system of ketsueki-gata, which claims that a person’s blood group determines or predicts their personality type. The similarities between astrology and ketsueki-gata are striking. Both populist belief systems act as social lubricants and as reassuring oracles for uncritical followers, and both systems are utterly void of credible scientific evidence or even scientific plausibility. So one wonders why Canadian Blood Services would sully their own credibility by flirting with pseudoscience.
Background on Blood-group Personality Typing
Discussion of ketsueki-gata pops up occasionally in the mainstream media as colourful sidebars about Japanese cultural oddities, such as the 2006 New York Times article “Blood, Sweat and Type O: Japan’s Weird Science” and the Associated Press article “In Japan, You Are What Your Blood Type Is” from earlier this year. The articles, as well as Wikipedia, highlight the belief’s pervasiveness in Japan and South Korea … and apparently at Canadian Blood Services’ headquarters. Believers use it for dating, companies use it for recruiting, sports teams use it for strategizing, and schools use it for grouping students. There is even a blood-group form of discrimination in Japan called bura-hara, which in English could be termed “bloodism”.
Ketsueki-gata arguably surpasses astrology in terms of ardent followers, at least in Japan, with millions of top selling books being sold on the subject and many Japanese celebrities and sports figures publicizing their blood type. The belief system lacks the historical provenance of astrology though, not that antiquity has any bearing on credibility. The ABO blood group system only dates from 1901, and the blood-group personality myth was imported to Japan from Germany only in 1916. Wikipedia reports that ketsueki-gata, based on unscientific studies by uncredentialled researchers, was used to promote scientific racism in Japan until the 1930s, when it seemed to die out. Then :
“It was revived in the 1970s with a book by Masahiko Nomi, a layer and broadcaster with no medical background. Nomi’s work was largely uncontrolled and anecdotal, and the methodology of his conclusions is unclear. Because of this he has been heavily assailed by the Japanese psychological community, although his books are phenomenally popular.”
So much for the wisdom of crowds.
It is easy to see how people can convince themselves of veracity for ketsueki-gata. The belief system’s characterization of group-based personality traits consists of lists of vague and ambiguous descriptors. As a result, any of the group descriptions can seem to apply to anyone, just like astrology. Such lists lend themselves to the Forer Effect, which is :
“the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people.”
This tendency, along with confirmation bias, subjective validation, post-hoc reasoning, selective thinking and special pleading, explains how ketsueki-gata, like astrology, inspires uncritical support. In addition, like astrology, there is neither scientific evidence nor ongoing research to support any of the belief system’s claims. A search of PubMed reveals no research on blood-group personality typing. As a stretch, there are a handful of research papers looking into a possible correlation between blood type and health outcomes for people with high-stress personalities, but that relationship is not along the same line as the personality claims being made.
Also, like astrology, there is no scientific plausibility to the claim. No one has yet offered a reasonable hypothesis for how the antigens on the surface of red blood cells can affect someone’s personality. Neither does the belief system account for the Rhesus positive and negative factors; nor does it take into account the 28 other blood group systems.
Canadian Blood Services’ Promotion of Pseudoscience
So why would Canadian Blood Services entangle itself in this pseudoscience? We sent an e-mail query to them, and it provoked the following responses. I have take the liberty of emphasizing some questionable phrasing in the responses.
From Susan Stephenson of Canadian Blood Services’ National Feedback Team [emphasis mine] :
“Thank you for your email regarding our What’s Your Type? (WYT?) program. WYT? is an educational tool designed to attract new donors, with a target group of 17 to 28 year olds, and explain about the importance of donating blood, while injecting an element of fun/humour by demonstrating how blood type can determine personality traits, professional aptitudes or eating habits.
The WYT? program allows Canadian Blood Services to reach into the communities where we collect blood. The non-clinic environment introduces the concept of blood donation to those who may have been reluctant to approach us in the past. Individuals are blood typed and receive information that serves to fulfill their curiosity and feed their social conscience. The personal experience offered by the WYT? event helps to transition the participant from awareness to the intention of donating by creating an opportunity to act. Unfortunately, it would seem that you only received the pamphlet which is only a small part of the entire experience.
You are correct that Canadian Blood Services is a health care organization based in medical science. It is for this reason that the “fun” facts about personality etc. are only part of the program with the main and over-riding message being about blood donation and its importance. We were very careful when wording our materials being sure to include that “many people believe…” which is entirely the case (in fact, much of the reference material was written by doctors). We also included information on what reference materials were used on the back o
We truly treasure every donor, whether recruited by the WYT? program or through any other method. Thank you again for taking the time to write to us and offering your feedback.”
And from Carol Mitchell, the Corporate Manager of Donor Services for Canadian Blood Services [emphasis mine] :
“I appreciate your feedback about the What’s Your Type? section of our web site. What’s Your Type? is a recruitment and recruiting program to draw non-donors to blood donation in a fun, educational and non-threatening way. The program is primarily focused on identifying a preliminary blood type (through a demonstration) and during that demonstration there is a focus on the significance of each blood type to meeting patient need.
Because we are speaking with non-donors we have found that building in some ‘fun’ theories around blood type helps to break the ice. To that end we excerpt theories around blood type in our materials including the Japanese theory of personality traits and blood type. All resources are referenced on the main WYT? page …
I am hopeful that you can appreciate that when you are speaking with hesitant non-donors it is helpful to make them comfortable as well as inform them about the ongoing need and the significance of ‘their type’ to helping patients.”
The common thread to the responses, that a recruiting campaign excuses the promotion of pseudoscience, is discouraging. It implies that the end justifies the means. It is as if the Public Health Agency of Canada hosted a website giving credence to vaccines causing autism in order to increase the visibility of the H1N1 inoculation program – fun facts about thimerosol, perhaps.
Canadian Blood Services rationalize their actions by stating that they have included a disclaimer on the webpage, which you’ll see if you look close enough and don’t blink :
“The What’s Your Type? program is a recruitment program with information provided for the participants’ enjoyment. You should seek medical supervision for all matters regarding your health.”
Sure, but this token statement really only puts them on par with the scientific credibility of the Psychic Friends’ Network.
Yet, one wonders if they do, in fact, repudiate the belief system. Note Susan Stephenson’s declaration that blood type “can determine personality traits, professional aptitudes or eating habits” and that such claims are “facts”. These are not quite the right words to use to refute a claim. Also, her reliance on the argument-from-authority logical fallacy that “the reference material was written by doctors” does not inspire confidence in Canadian Blood Services’ critical thinking skills. As skeptics well know, behind every inane pseudoscientific medical claim lurks a doctor or two. The whole of the scientific process lies between a doctor’s assertions and scientific consensus. As we have pointed out before, the fact that Dr. John Mack, tenured professor at Harvard Medical School, documented the claims of alien abductees does not mean that actual alien abduction cases are any more plausible.
If anything, the sources on the webpage make Canadian Blood Services’ recruiting program seem even more intellectually shallow. In addition to the personality typing claim, the books profess that you can optimize your diet, exercise, health, love and longetivity based on your blood type – all unsupported and implausible claims.
Perhaps, the party-game aspect of this belief system is not as pernicious as other pseudoscientific medical myths, like the claim that vaccines cause autism, but Canadian Blood Services seems to be in denial of the insidious effects of diminishing their organization’s scientific credibility, as they have done here by promoting superstition. A recruiting campaign like this may seem harmless, but then what happens if they get hit down the road with a malicious claim that attacks their bottom line. This happened to the Red Cross in the mid 1980s when there was a prevalent myth that people risked contracting AIDS by donating blood. Canadian Blood Services would need to muster all of its scientific credentials to refute that type of rumour. Skeptics know all too well that these types of myths do not go away easily. It would not be a time to be bothered saying, “We have been flaunting science in the past, but now we’re serious.”
Canadian Blood Services’ selective disregard for science standards also undermines us on the skeptic front. In our mission to expose pseudoscientific claims in the public domain, we rely in part on the resources and credibility of national health and science institutions to provide visibility and evidence for the science at the heart of these controversies, but in this ongoing effort to ensure public access to good science, Canadian Blood Services has opted to give aid and comfort to the other side. Skeptics cannot now forward people to their website as a trusted source.
It is a shame, but it is also unnecessary. Surely there must be enough valid “fun facts” about blood to engage the public creatively. Yet, even though it is preferable not to publicize pseudoscience, if Canadian Blood Services does feel the need to exploit this belief system as a hook, they could have also used it as an opportunity to debunk its underlying claims as junk science. As a start, they could have refrained from citing populist junk science books on their website. For an organization that supposedly relies on science to instill the public’s confidence in the integrity of Canada’s blood supply, this recruiting campaign is indeed a missed opportunity to educate the public on the science of the blood.