Rare victory for rational regulation

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) ruled against a Christian billboard today that insinuated that magic ‘blessed oils’ would cure your children where medicine failed. The ASA made their ruling in part because of the harm the advert could do, but also because the claims that were being made were not true. Unfortunately, this is a defence of truth that is too rare on the part of regulators. I’ve written more about this on Comment is Free today.

If someone told you that the way to cure your seriously ill child was not in fact medication and surgery but magic oil, you probably wouldn’t believe them. You would be right not to because they would either be lying, ignorant or deluded. Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint against Christian adverts which did urge people to put their trust in blessed oils being more efficacious than medicine. They upheld it on grounds – simply put – that the claims made in the advert were not true.

The untruth of something will seem to most of us a pretty good reason for preventing its presentation as truth – the public have a right to expect that at least one of the requirements of the regulators of our public life, like the ASA, will be that things that are false should not be passed off as true. Unfortunately, as two recent examples demonstrate, today’s judgment is actually a rather rare example of truth being valued in public regulation.

Noah’s Ark Zoo, near Bristol, houses an impressive variety of animals, well-cared for and presented; it takes in local school parties and does education work with local schools. So far, so good, but at the tapir enclosure the display tells you that tapirs are not related to other animals but are a separate “created” type. Stroll to the ferret enclosure and you will learn that meat eating animals kill their prey because man sinned against god. Venture over to see the monkeys and you can read the 30 reasons why apes are not related to men. There are many other pieces of information displayed that are not true. But according to the local zoo inspector, who last week rejected a complaint about this, it is fine for zoos to be licensed if they say such things – it’s not the truth of what they say about the animals that matters.

Earlier this year it was reported that the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (Naric) had ruled that the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) would be recognised at the same level as international O-levels and A-levels. The ICCE is based on the self-defined Christian “fundamentalist” Accelerated Christian Education  programme, which assumes that the Bible is the literal word of God and teaches untrue claims that advance creationism, such as the existence of the Loch Ness monster disproving evolution. Naric defended its actions by stating that the content of the qualifications it assesses is outside of its remit. It doesn’t matter if what the students are learning is not true – the qualification can still be recognised.

Too often truth is being sacrificed by public authorities in deference to religious claims which, whether through an overdeveloped sense of politeness, vestigial misguided deference or plain unreasoned relativism, are accorded far more respect by many of us than they merit. On a personal level (the polite acquiescence at parties, the amenable silence at the pub after work, when the conversation takes a godly turn) this may be correct and well mannered, but if it is a matter of public policy in a democratic society, it is dangerous. Respect for evidence, reason and the truth that results from these under-used faculties should be a vital ingredient of our common life, and our public regulators should have a role in maintaining these values.