Aug 25 2011

What’s Your Blood Type?

The Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has started a new campaign – What’s Your Type. It looks like a cute campaign to promote blood donation. Unfortunately, CBS has chosen to promote various pseudosciences in the process. You can click a button to “know your type” and will be given what is essentially an astrological reading based upon blood type instead of star sign. In addition there is information about how to eat right for your blood type.

Blood type astrology is common in Japan and other Asian countries, more common, in fact, than astrology is in the west. Blood type is often disclosed in personal ads, on Facebook profiles, in Celebrity gossip columns, and fictional characters are often given a blood type. This even enters into politics – as politicians are often pressured to disclose their blood type.

It all seems silly – the superstitions of other cultures typically do (although to some they may also sound exotic and therefore alluring). Blood type astrology, however, is no more silly than the many superstitious beliefs that are common in the US or elsewhere.

For background, by “blood type” we mean the ABO blood type. These refer to antigens (proteins that react with the immune system) that exist on blood cells. There are type A and type B antigens, with O being the absence of both. People also have antibodies against the type they do not possess – so someone with type A blood has antibodies to the B antigen. There is also the Rh (or rhesus) factor, which is either positive or negative.

These are not the only blood group antigens, however. There are actually 30 blood groups and 600 potential blood group antigens. This is why when giving a blood transfusion you cannot simply match ABO blood type, you additionally have to actually mix donor and recipient blood together to see that they are compatible (called “cross matching”).

In addition, organ donors and recipients need to be matched for as many blood group antigens as possible. A 100% match is statistically unlikely, except from an identical twin. But the closer the match the better.

None of these antigens has any effect, however, on the development or functioning of the brain – no effect on personality. There is no plausibility to this belief, and neither is there any direct evidence of a link between ABO blood type and personality.

The Canadian site also presents information about how to eat right for your blood type. This is just as much pseudoscience as personality by blood type. The basic claim is that your biochemistry is linked to your blood type, and requires a different diet for optimal “balance.” This is pure nonsense, also lacking in any empirical support.

So why is an official Canadian website promoting rank pseudoscience? That’s a good question. They try to cover themselves with the typical disclaimer – this information is meant for your amusement only, check with your doctor, etc.

Sorry – this doesn’t cover it. Any recognized authority – a university, government organization, etc. that presents nonsense to the public will be looked upon as endorsing that nonsense. There is no way to hide or distance the institution from this reality. It is delusional to think otherwise – usually a delusion on the part of a marketing person.

PZ Myers recently gave us another example of this same phenomenon – The Community College of Rhode Island teaching a course on crystal healing from a Reiki master. When someone complained, a marketing person answered with “well, that’s what our student want, and we are not necessarily endorsing…” This is willful ignorance – of course you are endorsing the material you teach in a course. It has your implicit seal of approval. But apparently the marketing department of the college convinced the academic department that this would not reflect poorly on the reputation of the college. Wrong!

I do note that the CBS has now changed their What’s Your Type page to remove the pseudoscience. It seems the blogging backlash (before this post, as I am a bit late to this story) had a pretty immediately effect. That’s a good thing. The blogosphere has become a useful tool for embarrassing organizations into doing the right thing, at least occasionally.

We’ll see if the Community College of Rhode Island gets a clue, or if they are content to become an example of idiocy within science blogs.

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