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Helmut R Wakeham
TV program "Death in the West"

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    And this is the second line

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Paracelsus' defence    

A debating tactic which is often been seized upon by those required to defend the indefensible. Paracelsus also believed in the power of gnomes, and in the alchemaic transmutability of base metals into gold.


    The Paracelsus' Defence is widely used in arguments about toxicology. Paracelsus (actual name Phillipus Arboeolus Theophratus Bombast von Hohenheim) was the famous Renaissance (1530) herbalist, pharmacist and mystic who made the point that all substances can be dangerous to your health if you absorb too much. ['too much', of course is a tautology]

    He also made the opposite point, even more controversial, that small doses of poison are good medicine ... which is the basis for homeopathy.

    The classic example of the Paracelsus' Defence is usually that of 'water' — where the corporate defenders of a toxic spill will imply that a little bit of (say) dioxin in your diet won't harm you — and that things you think of as safe, might also hurt you in large amounts. Life is always a risk, they say. Even organic vegetables have detectable amounts of natural pesticides.

    They point out that you can kill a person by giving them too much water thereby over-hydrating the blood. [This is commonly misunderstood by non-scientists, and quoted as "you can drown in water.] And, while this is true in some totally abstract way, it is completely untrue within the range of normal human experience. It is 'constuctive confusion' designed to mislead the general public.

    The use of the Paracelsus Defence by scientific lobbyists and disinformation specialists must be carefully considered if the fallacy is not to become obvious. The analagous example needs to be carefully chosen....


    In 1976, Philip Morris's Director of Research Helmut Wakeman was backed into a corner by a television interviewer who refused to accept that he had no scientific opinion as to the potential harm from cigarettes. He then used the Paracelsus Defence in a way that made him appear to treat the whole question as frivolous — and this destroyed his carefully-crafted image as an older, wiser, deeply-concerned, scientific expert.

    When questioned about the dangers of cigarettes Wakeham famously compared smoking to the dangers of an over-indulgence in apple sauce, Which opened him to a counter attack by the interviewer:

  Q. Very few doctors would say that people who eat apple sauce die because they eat apple sauce ... because they don't eat enough apple sauce...?
  A. Alright. They're entitled to their opinions...
    /Snip/ ..and now we discover there are all kinds of things that are unhealthy.
  Q. Of which cigarettes, they say, are one of them ?
  A. Yeah, cigarettes are one.
So what are we to do, stop living? The best way to avoid dying is not to be born you know. And if one avoided doing all the things which are alleged to be harmful to people these days we would vegetate in a mountain cave.


    The problem with the Paracelsus defense is that it is generally untrue within the normal range of human experience, and if this becomes obvious to the general public, then the ploy has failed. While we may never hear about anyone dying from too much water consumption, or from eating too much apple sauce, we constantly read about smokers dying of lung-cancer.