An ethicist skilled in the magical arts of deception

December 8, 2006

'Medical ethics can be quite dry, so any way of making it more interesting helps. But I don't thrust magic on people. I ask for their consent to be deceived. When I first started I didn't like lying to people and I felt quite guilty about that. But it's quite healthy and a part of a magician's job'

When is it acceptable to deceive people?

This is a question that ethics lecturer Daniel Sokol addresses in his forthcoming book, which is based on a PhD in which he asked doctors and patients whether they should always tell the truth.

He outlines a scenario. Imagine you are a doctor. You are testing a father and a daughter to see if they are a match for a kidney donation. They are, but the tests also reveal that the man in urgent need of a new kidney is not the girl's biological father. Would you tell them?

"(The issue of paternity) wasn't what the test was for, but it's important for her to make an informed decision (about donating her kidney). Is not telling them deception?" asks the 28-year-old Keele University lecturer.

Two thirds said doctors shouldn't always tell the truth because it's not always relevant.

As befits an ethics expert, Dr Sokol has a trustworthy manner, but it belies his prowess in manipulation, illusion and deception. His academic life runs in parallel with a long-standing career as a magician. The two interests often intertwine.

"Say I'm giving a talk on deception, I'll say that most people think of deception as lying, but there are lots of different ways to deceive people and I show them a magic trick.

"Medical ethics can be quite dry, so any way of making it more interesting helps. But I don't thrust magic on people. I ask for their consent to be deceived. When I first started, I didn't like lying to people and I felt quite guilty about that. But it's quite healthy and a part of a magician's job."

Dr Sokol became interested in magic at the age of 11, when his father, a lawyer, had a client who was a close-up magician. "(My father) took the case in return for his teaching me and my three brothers magic for a week," he explains.

The first formal test of Dr Sokol's abilities was an attempt to crack the audience at an old people's home in 2003. "It was probably the hardest audience I've ever had. Very hard to please. If you get any kind of reaction, it's good; survive that and you can survive anywhere."

He went on to spend every Friday night in a bar entertaining people with his magic skills while he pursued his postgraduate degree at Imperial College London. "It's such a nice contrast to academe. It gives you a sense of perspective. It's been really useful for me."

He loves the amazement that magic creates, and he tries to inject that into everything he does. "You create something really special from that sense of wonder. People are amazed and that's as important as a research paper in The Lancet."

The idea that the deception inherent in magic contradicts his role as a medical ethicist does not trouble Dr Sokol. "For me, the worst crime is a boring research paper. There's a formula to getting a paper published, but it makes it dry and formulaic. One of many concerns when creating academic articles is to make the issue come alive."

And it is this passion for enlivening scientific issues that he tries to extend to the public. "I've been called a media whore, but it's very important (to publicise your work). I think it's an academic duty to pass on knowledge."

Dr Sokol's mantra - "out of the hushed halls of academe" - comes from Ian Kennedy, a philosopher of law and medical ethics. "That's what I'm trying to do," he says. "I try to avoid subjects that are removed from reality and pick things that are interesting and exciting so that others will find them interesting. I like to grapple with issues that are relevant. With academic medical ethicists, the risk is that they discuss issues in a vacuum removed from clinical practice.

"I care very much if people are interested in my work because that's part of my plan to take the hush out of academic work," Dr Sokol says.

Aside from his media crusade, he is creating a course for masters students on applied clinical ethics for practising clinicians that will start in February. The aim is to give clinicians the analytical tools to handle ethics issues that arise in their work.

"I spent three weeks in North America in 2005 as an intern in clinical ethics. There, people are employed by hospitals so that doctors can seek their help with ethical dilemmas. We should have this here. Why should there be fewer ethical problems here than in America?"

His grand ambition is to create an equivalent post in the UK. "I love the mix of philosophy and the concrete practical dimension. It would be my ideal job."

Details: www.imperial.ac.uk/cpd/ace

I graduated from

St Edmund Hall, Oxford University

My first job was

legal translator for the Sokol Law Offices, France

My main challenge is

to set up the new post of clinical ethicist in UK hospitals

what I hate most

is narrow-mindedness and its dangerous consequences

In ten years I

will be bald, overweight, but hopefully working as a clinical ethicist in London

My favourite joke is

to pretend I'm someone else when phoning close friends and family. Despite having taken an undergraduate module in phonetics, l seldom succeed, alas.

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