If the pharmacists are to be believed, we’re all sick

Is pseudo-science to blame for the discovery of an unending array of diseases labelled as syndromes? Iain Murray believes dysfunction is all in the mind

On this all the textbooks agree: the very antithesis of marketing is to create a product and then persuade people to buy it. It should happen the other way around: first you find out what the customer wants then you set about meeting that demand.

In practice, of course, it doesn’t always work like that, especially if you are pottering about in a laboratory, mixing stuff together, and suddenly, in a flash of smoke, out pops miracle Buck-U-Uppo, or something similar. You can’t let it go to waste, so the process known as production-led marketing is set in train, to the purse-lipped disdain of the purists. Or, in the case that I am about to relate, to the stern disapproval of the medical profession.

The latest edition of the British Medical Journal accuses drug companies of inventing a disease to sell their latest products. The malaise is called “female sexual dysfunction” and, according to the author, Ray Moynihan, it doesn’t exist. What the companies have done, he says, is to create a single disease out of a range of symptoms such as loss of libido and painful sex. The manufacture of diseases, he adds, is “turning complaints of the healthy into the conditions of the sick”.

Quite right, too. Marketing has been inventing conditions for years. Remember “night starvation”? Or the curious ailment known as “one degree under”? They had a kind of innocence, however, because, unlike the modern fictions, they didn’t come wrapped in pseudo-science. Two words in particular are unfailing signs of modern quackery: the first is “syndrome”, the second “dysfunction”.

Syndrome is a wondrous tag. Attach it to almost any words and you have a disease. Night starvation syndrome is far more impressive, and therefore potentially life-threatening, than the unadorned original. Go down with it and there’s a good chance you might be able to sue.

“Dysfunction” is downright fraudulent. It borrows the prefix “dys” from the medical lexicon, as used in, say, dyspepsia, and applies it to the all-purpose word “function”, at once creating a sociological concept and work for a host of supernumeraries such as psychiatrists and outreach workers. Journalists love jargon words, so we constantly read in the tabloids, written in the main by misfits, that the royal family is “dysfunctional”.

Dysfunction is all-embracing. Once you have grasped its essential protean quality you can find uses for it everywhere. Offices, for example, are hotbeds of dysfunction. According to a survey (a pervasive form of dysfunction in itself) popular office activities include drinking alcohol, making a pass at colleagues, and looking at pornographic websites. Many employees also fantasise about killing their boss.

Philip Hodson, a psychotherapist and therefore a beneficiary of the invention of dysfunction, says many workers’ actions stemmed from resentment towards those in power. I’m no expert in these matters, but I would agree that, on the face of it, to dream of killing one’s boss does imply a measure of resentment.

The church is not immune from dysfunction, either. In the sleepy hollow of Horley, Surrey, the rector of St Bartholomew’s was forced to resign after a rebellious congregation objected to his high-handed attempts to impose a “happy clappy” form of worship. His pursuit of happiness included suspending choristers, demoting the organist and trying to fire the captain of bell-ringers. His reforms, he said, were the will of God. This raises the theological question of whether happy-clappiness is a dysfunctional state of mind or a condition ordained by the Almighty.

No use seeking an answer from Rev Harry Brown, formerly priest in charge at St Thomas’s Church, Crosscake in Cumbria. He has other things on his mind, having been accused of twice trying to French-kiss Chris Collier, 51, the chief executive of Cumbria Tourist Board. “If that was a French kiss,” she said afterwards, “I’m surprised it has the popular appeal it has.” Which raises the question of whether French kissing is itself dysfunctional (being French in origin there is a strong prima facie case to be made) or whether the Rev Harry is simply not much good at it. There is a third, remote possibility, and that is that the chief executive of Cumbria’s tourist board is a poor judge.

More questions are raised by the preliminary advice offered to those embarking on the revolutionary GI diet. “Measure your natural waistline, usually just above the navel…” What do they mean “usually”? Are there people whose waistlines are below their navels? If so, is it the waistline or the navel that is in the wrong place? Put another way, which is dysfunctional, the waist or the navel? Being physical in nature, this has the making of a medical condition. Low Navel Syndrome, perhaps.

One man’s function is another man’s dysfunction. Claude Vorilhon, a former motor racing journalist, who changed his name to Rael after meeting six “voluptuous and bewitching” female robots in 1973 and claims to be cloning humans hand over fist, plans to donate his body to the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens to be plastinated and exhibited. “Once you are cloned,” he explained, “you can visit your body in a museum and live on in another body.” What could be more functional than that?


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