If I told you that you could get rich selling your shit, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Faeces is ugly, it smells, and obviously nobody would want to buy it. There might be exceptions to the rule: for example, if you are a famous movie actor, there might be a legion of fans lining up to buy anything that has touched your body, from a used handkerchief to your excrement. For the rest of us mere mortals, doing something similar seems impossible.
But buying human waste is exactly what I convinced people to do, a number of years ago.
In December 2009, my friend Mariano Collantes and I started a joke that ended with literally thousands of people wanting to buy our shit. It all started when a group of friends and I created a website aimed at popularising science. Among the many sections that we had, there was a forum where we could share opinions, doubts and experiences with other students. One day, an anonymous person left an article on the forum asking for more information about a novel therapy called medical biomagnetism, which supposedly could cure cancer and AIDS using magnetic fields. At that time I was studying biology at University of Valencia and I knew that what biomagnetism was promising was false. But it does not end there.
When we explained that medical biomagnetism was all a lie, a new user entered to the forum and began to defend biomagnetism. The newcomer accompanied his entire argument with many links to web pages of dubious origin. When we tried to verify the information, we realised that all of it was false. At this point, I got really quite pissed off: I’d seen plenty of scams and misleading claims sold to ill people, taking their money in exchange for their health, and in many cases their lives. So, in a moment of outrage, I posted a somewhat eschatological comparison on the forum: I said that promising to cure AIDS with magnets was as stupid as bottling human shit and selling it as a miracle cure. That was the end of that conversation.
Some days later, my friend Mariano confessed to me that he thought that it was very funny to compare biomagnetism with selling bottled shit. In fact, he came up with a very clever idea, why not use exactly that idea as the basis of a parody of alternative medicine? Mariano wanted us to invent an alternative therapy that would give supposedly scientific arguments to justify the idea that our shit could cure diseases. You might wonder why spend so much time on such a stupid idea – well, we were in our twenties, with a lot of free time and a strange sense of humor.
We created a website where we claimed that shit could cure diseases. But, importantly, it wasn’t just any old shit that would work: only our shit would do the trick! We called this novel therapy ‘phecomagnetism’. We tried to give some not-so-subtle clues that our therapy was bogus. For example, we claimed that two doctors, ‘Hugh Nielsen’ and ‘Leslie Laurie’, had discovered that shit mixed with magnets, diluted homeopathically, was miraculous. But ‘Hugh Nielsen’ and ‘Leslie Laurie’ were actually the rearranged names of two of the most famous doctors on television: Doctor Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, and Doctor Rumack from the Airplane!, played by Leslie Nielsen. In some of the photos, Leslie Laurie was white, while in other photos, he was black. Also, the photos advertising the products did not correspond to what was described: for example, there was an apple cream instead of our powerful phecomagnetic cream.
It was all a joke, but many people took it seriously. We started to hear from a large number of people, who wrote to us asking us, please, to send them our shit. They wanted cures for every disease you can think of. And that’s when we realised that it doesn’t really matter how silly you think a supposed ‘cure’ is, when people are ill they become desperate, and they can believe anything.
But what do you do when desperate people want to buy your shit? We wrote to them, explaining that it was just a joke. But then another type of person began to write to us: many alternative therapists wanted to ask us if they could sell our shit in their stores! This, we thought, presented us with a good opportunity to do an interesting experiment. How far could we go with our obvious lie? Could we get to present our shit therapy at conferences? And in magazines? Could we even reach the parliament of our country?
We began to write to magazines that specialised in alternative therapies, who completely accepted our story and even began to write about our novel therapy. Before long, they began to ask us for collaborations: for example, a famous former presidential science adviser in Mexico asked ‘Hugh Nielsen’ to write a preface his next book of therapies. They even started talking about our therapy in prestigious forums that promoted alternative therapies. Finally, Mariano Collantes and I got to participate in the largest national fair for the promotion of alternative therapies in Spain, the Esoteric and Alternative Fair of Atocha.
For years we moved in alternative medicine circles with our fake therapy. We even attended, as equals, meetings with prominent promoters of alternative therapies. We wrote to the Spanish government and to the health commission, and a political representative of a Spanish party told us that she thought phecomagnetism should be included in the Spanish Health Public Service.
Eventually, we explained our joke to the world and published the entire story in a book, El arte de vender mierda (Editorial Laetoli, 2014). After the revelation, we appeared on many Spanish television programs.
What we learned from our story is that anyone can come up with a fake therapy. In fact, new false therapies appear every year, and nobody does anything to stop it. We also learned that many of these therapies are already in our institutions, including homeopathy, acupuncture and reiki.
So, when someone tells you that if a therapy exists and people buy it means it must work, you can always remind them of the time in Spain that two bored young guys managed to make thousands of people, including politicians, believe that their shit could cure diseases.