Belle Gibson and Caveat Emptor

Belle Gibson lying about surviving brain cancer to make a profit…shocking!
But that we bought into it…even worse!

For those of you who are unaware, Belle Gibson founded her global business, including a cookbook “The Whole Pantry” and an award-winning App on an inspirational but untrue backstory. She claimed to be a young mother battling brain cancer. Ms Gibson supposedly rejected chemotherapy and radiotherapy, pursuing and promoting a treatment plan of “clean eating”.

Ms Gibson’s deceit was only revealed after she failed to hand over donations to no less than five charities. But there were signs from the start. Neurosurgeon Professor Andrew Kaye stated the cancer was highly unlikely to spread in the manner Ms Gibson described, and even less likely she could survive it. So how was science – crying at the top of its lungs – muted by the lies of one woman? Why is it that anecdote trumps fact every time?

Any stranger could infer from one scroll of my Instagram news feed, featuring photos of cacao smoothies and Lululemon yoga wear that I’ve subscribed to the wellness trend. I’m not the only one. The Facebook page of Pete Evans, celebrity chef and figurehead of the Paleo Diet (as his cover photo and profile picture suggests) has over one million likes. Where social media is king, this passionate yet at times scientifically illiterate following feeds profit to wellness entrepreneurs acting deceitfully.

The real tragedy of the Belle Gibson debacle is not the awful deceit associated with her faked cancer, it is society’s (including my own) ignorance and gullibility to incorrect “science”. When lifestyle bloggers turn to social media to post a photograph of what appears healthy (cue leafy greens against a fresh white backdrop) we can be sucked into a health trend lacking credible scientific evidence. This gullibility is snapped up by amateur bloggers and global organisations such as Penguin Books, who, being keen to make a buck, published Belle Gibson’s cookbook without asking for evidence of her medical condition.

Is this ignorance necessarily our fault? It economics, we’d call this a case of asymmetric information. These wellness bloggers have information about our demand for their diet plans and recipe books that we don’t realise – we crave products validated by human “success stories” because it inspires us. These testimonials are not cross-examined in social media and the consumer only sees what the producer constructs. Yet, wherever scientific reasoning is inaccessible and expressed in a convoluted way, the consumer will always prefer a simple instagram image, even if it is shrouded in white lies.

However, ultimately the wise words of my Year 9 commerce teacher remain more applicable than ever: “Caveat Emptor”, meaning let the buyer beware and be informed (even if the Instagram photo is so tempting).