This article was written by Bryan Hubbard, whose style is similar to that of Lynne McTaggart but more outraged and even more credulous of the claims of woo-merchants, as you will see.
I s water good for us? Is there a link between food and cancer? Most of us would say so, but the UK’s arbiter on legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising doesn’t agree.
Actually we have no idea if they would agree, because these are not the claims that are being adjudicated. Hubbard falls for exactly the same fallacy that gets the charlatans into hot water: water is good for you, therefore any health claim you make about water is justified.
That may be true in the woo community, but it’s not true in the real world. And thereby hangs the tale.
For years, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been making strange decisions about advertisements from the world of alternative medicine, but it’s intensified over the past few years since it also started policing websites.
These are only “strange” if you uncritically accept the claims of charlatans, hucksters, quacks, cranks and crooks.
Which, of course, WDDTY does.
But now alternative practitioners, who have been barred from making self-evident claims about their work on their websites, have created their own ASA, which they believe can fairly and competently evaluate statements on the effectiveness of therapies and products.
They have not set up “their own ASA”. They may have set up their own advertising copy advice team, but this was probably a very bad idea, for reasons that will become obvious shortly.
Despite its name, the ASA is not a government body and it has no legal powers. It is a limited company created by the advertising industry as a self-regulator to ward off a move by the government of the time to set up an independent regulatory body. It’s also funded by the major advertisers, including companies from the food, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries.
The ASA is a voluntary regulator funded by a levy on advertising. The levy is 0.1% on the cost of paid advertising space and 0.2% on some direct mail, this is not the same thing as being “funded by the major advertisers”, it is much more like being funded by the publications that take in advertising revenue. The ASA’s funding will be identical whether a page in the Daily Telegraph is bought by Esso, Pfizer or Holland & Barrett. It is an arms-length arrangement and it very obviously does not stop the ASA challenging marketing claims made by the industries that advertise.
The ASA exists because the advertising industry persuaded the government of the day that voluntary self-regulation would be effective, and it will continue to be voluntary only so long as that continues to be the case.
There is an official government page on advertising and the law. Note that the Quackvertising Standards Association is not mentioned there, but the ASA is. Note the bit where it says “If an advert breaks the rules, it may be withdrawn. If the product doesn’t match the description or the advert breaks the law, you could be prosecuted.”
There is no exception listed for quacks who prefer to have their claims heard by True Believers.
This is an area of consumer protection. There are laws in place, most notably the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. That is why, in addition to its powers to remove bulk email discounts and place paid search engine adverts, the ASA has the ability to refer recalcitrant advertisers to the Office of Fair Trading and/or Trading Standards.
However, through its policy-setting sister company CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice), the ASA sets the bar high-and, arguably, impossibly high-for proof and evidence of any claims made by manufacturers and practitioners, even admitting that it often doesn’t have the appropriate experts to assess claims.Not surprisingly, it has never found in favour of any alternative treatment or practitioner website or advertisement.
This, too, is wrong on many levels. The CAP has Industry Panels and (for broadcast) a Consumer Panel. It issues guidance. It draws on expert opinion, as do the ASA.
The requirement for proof is only “impossibly high” if you accept that advertisers should be able to make claims that are not supported by good evidence. Obviously if you are a homeopath or reiki master, the requirement to substantiate any claims to treat or cure disease by reference to robust randomised clinical trials on human subjects is likely to seem impossibly high. This is not the ASA’s problem, it is an indicator that your business model is fraudulent. People selling Ponzi schemes have the same problem.
A search of the adjudications database for the 12 months commencing 4 December 2013 shows 48 Upheld or Partly Upheld out of a total of 56 adjudications under section 12 of the CAP code 2012, dealing with medical claims, and a further 142 informally resolved cases. That’s roughly three-quarters of complaints that are resolved by the advertiser simply withdrawing the advert, and of the remainder, 86% are upheld. It’s high, but it’s not 100%. And some of the adjudications are against Big Pharma.
So the idea that the ASA exists to suppress “alternative” claims and support industry, is simply false. The problem is simply that the alternative industry is in denial: a treatment is only alternative if it either hasn’t been proven to work, or has been proven not to work.
Frightened by the ruling-and having wrongly assumed that the ASA is a government agency with legal powers most practitioners reluctantly removed any health claims from their websites or advertisements, so leaving their potential clients completely in the dark.
I see what you did there. No, removing unsubstantiated claims does not leave potential clients in the dark, it leaves potential victims in the light. The ASA has no vested interest in either the drugs industry or the alternative medicine industry. It uses exactly the same standard of evidence for both. The problem is not with the ASA, it’s with the fact that quacks, crooks, charlatans and cranks believe their claims to be valid even if they are not supported by robust evidence, usually because they do not understand the concept of evidence itself.
As to why advertisers removed the claims, you might want to talk to the General Chiropractic Council. The British Chiropractic Association also says its members should adhere to the CAP code. So does the Complementary Medical Association.
So, just as it is misleading to imply that the ASA always rule against claims by alternative practitioners, or that they are funded by orthodox medicine, it is equally misleading to imply that alternative therapists cannot abide by the CAP or that there is any problem with trying to do so.
Any that don’t comply appear on the ASA’s ‘noncompliant advertisers’ page on its website.
We like this page. See for yourself who gets listed. You have to publish bollocks, repeatedly, for a long time.
It acts retrospectively and only when it has received a complaint. When the ASA was given its new duties to police the web, Simon Singh, who runs the pharmaceutical-funded ‘charity’ Sense About Science, provided seed capital for a new pressure group, the Nightingale Collaboration, with the sole aim to complain about websites and advertisements from alternative practitioners.
The logical fallacy here is poisoning the wellW.
It doesn’t matter how often you claim that Sense About Science is “pharmaceutical funded”, it remains false. There’s no need to put scare quotes round the word charity, either – this isn’t H:MC21 or the Homeopathy Action Trust, both of whose primary goal appears to be promoting the business interests of the trustees and/or officer, Sense About Science is a genuine charity committed to a tangible public good. It has a close relationship with the Royal Society and there are several Fellows on the board and advisory council.
Yes, Simon did seed-fund Nightingale. The sum was quite small, I understand, and not at all secret. As with all skeptical activism, the Nightingale folks are generally out-of-pocket as a result of what they do, because unlike the quacks, crooks, charlatans and cranks promoted by WDDTY (and indeed many of the contributors), they are not selling a product.
It even created software which it called ‘Shooting Fish in a Barrel’ -that enables its tens of followers to automatically register a complaint about any alternative health website to the ASA.
That’s a lot of Wrong in a short sentence. FishBarrel (not “shooting fish in a barrel”) was written by Simon Perry, and it seems to pre-date Nightingale – Simon did this as a personal thing, not as convenor of Leicester Skeptics in the Pub and certainly not for the Nightingale Collaboration.
It is good, though. Install it from the Chrome store.
Our own magazine was one of the first to be caught in Nightingale’s crosshairs, with around 27 advertisements in one
issue alone reported to the ASA, apparently something of a record.
Yes. You must be very proud of your role as possibly the second most prolific source of misleading health information in print, after the Daily Mail.
But after enduring two years of relentless censorship, alternative practitioners have decided to create their own ASA, one that does have the expertise to evaluate health claims fairly.
That word censorship. You keep using it, but I don’t think it means what you think it means.
For example: removing challenges to misleading information from your Facebook wall, is censorship. Preventing people from making unsubstantiated commercial claims is not. That is, and always has been, a perfectly legitimate act to protect consumers.
It’s been created by one of the regulators of alternative practitioners, The General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies (GRCCT), which launched
its advertising certification service last autumn. Its panel of experts from across a wide spectrum of alternative health disciplines has already approved its first websites.
And who better to guard the hen-coop than the Independent Association of Foxes. They will of course set up a Chinese wall so that the foxes who decide whether a particular fox should be allowed into the coop will not be the same foxes who actually enter the coop, though all will partake of the chickens.
The crowning irony here is that WDDTY accuse the ASA of being conflicted because their funding` comes, at arm’s length, from everybody who advertises, but the new body they so credulously promote is actually run by people who have a vested interest in the claims being made!
Such approval comes with a professional guarantee, which includes an uncapped provision for expert witnesses and support in the event of any legal challenge to website claims.
This is where your cunning plan starts to unravel. Homeopathy Plus!W called two expert witnesses in court, but virtually all of the testimony was ruled inadmissible because the fact of an “expert” believing something does not, in law, make that thing so. More on this in a moment.
The GRCCT service is proactive and provides a ‘seal of approval’, which guarantees that claims are legal and not in
breach of any consumer and trading laws. The approval process involves experts from the legal, regulatory, academic and professional sectors, and costs start from £55 (see www.grcct.org for more information).
The GRCCT service – which I guess we should call the Quackvertising Standards Agency or QSA for short – cannot do this. It cannot guarantee that a claim is legal and not in breach of the law, it can only advise that in its opinion the claim is legal. Only the Courts can rule on what actually is legal.
In fact GRCCT’s claims are more modest, but still ultimately delusional. It is certainly a good idea for quackery trade bodies to give advertising copy advice tot heir members, but if they do this on any basis other than the CAP they are likely to come unstuck. Here’s why:
Homeopathy Plus!W is an Australian outfit run by Fran Sheffield. HP and Sheffield were prosecuted for making false claims about homeopathic pertussis “vaccine”. They fielded as an expert one Isaac Golden, but his testimony was almost all rejected under the rules of evidence because he failed to prove the objective basis on which his beliefs were founded. This follows a legal precedent with parallels that would also rule in the UK (unsurprising: we share Common Law foundations).
An expert may state his belief that X causes Y, but it is not admissible as evidence unless he can provide independent objective evidence that X causes Y. The detail is discussed here and the full text of the judgment is here.
33 At its heart, the difficulty with Dr Golden’s report was that it cast no light upon the reasoning by which the opinions given were reached. Crucially, just as the figure reached in Dasreef as to the likely level of exposure to dust lacked reasons by which the connection between the specialised knowledge and the evidence was demonstrated, equally no such connection between the evidence as to the alleged efficacy of homeoprophylaxis in the prevention of whooping-cough (or other diseases) and the application of specialised knowledge was identified by Dr Golden’s report. As such, the evidence fell well short of meeting the requirements of s 79 of the Evidence Act. In those circumstances, I had no discretion. The passages in question were not admissible.
M’learned friends never use one word where ten will do, and the precedent is incredibly difficult for the layman to read, but as far as we in the reality-based community can tell the precedent, Dasreef, shows that even if you are an expert in something (in that case the witness’ estimate as to the volume of respirable silica dust to which the plaintiff was exposed over time in the course of his employment lacked reasons, in HCCC v. Homeopathy Plus the issue was that Golden failed to demonstrate any credible scientific evidence that his beliefs were correct.
In other words, courts do not subscribe to the fallacy of appeal to authorityW. The purpose of an authority in law is to act as a shortcut to previous considerations of similar issues.
Here are some examples of ASA adjudications against alternative medicine:
Those “self-evident” claims in full:
- Claim: Breast thermography can detect cancer more reliably than mammography. Fact: Mammography is at least four times more reliable and thermography is too inaccurate to be useful as a primary screening tool.
- Claim: Homeopathy has a divine right of existence on the NHS, the House of Lords argued for its expansion. Fact: There never was a guarantee, the House of Lords said no such thing, and the House of Commons said the exact opposite.
- Claim: ASA suppressed claims that water is good for you. Fact: The claims were specific, fell within the scope of EC Regulation 1924/2006 on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods (a statutory regulation ), were not approved claims, and so were illegal regardless of what the ASA said. Quinton Water were lucky not to be prosecuted.
- Claim: The ASA suppressed a best-selling author of diet books just because her views are alternative. Fact: Zoe Harcombe promoted the claim that the “calorie theory” of weight is completely wrong. This is a commercial claim made by somebody who claims to be an obesity researcher but has no relevant degrees and only one peer-reviewed publication in PubMed. A few cherry-picked studies of tangential relevance do not undermine a robust scientific consensus. Willfully rejecting the medical consensus and promoting quixotic diets with extravagant claims is not a self-evidently valid thing to do.
- Claim: The ASA refused to allow the claim that cancer may be related to diet. Fact: The claim was actually that every time you eat meat, you are putting cancer on your fork and into your body. Not only is this not “self-evident”, it’s not rational either.
- Claim: A bitter 10-month dispute over an advert by a charity supporting homeopathy. Fact: H:MC21 is a propaganda outfit designed to further the beliefs and thus commercial interests of homeopaths. It ran an advert with the usual mix of fallacy and ad hominem, stalled, refused to accept the adjudication, appealed, and then complained that it had taken a long time. Most of the claims made in the advert are simply false. None of it is “self-evident”.
- Claim: ASA grudgingly accepted that medicine is the third leading cause of death but reprimanded WDDTY for undermining the doctor patient relationship. Fact: Medicine is not even in the top ten causes of death, and if anything is self-evident, it’s that WDDTY deliberately sets out to undermine the doctor-patient relationship, with the evident intention of replacing it with a patient-quack relationship.
These were presumably their bestimonials – the most slam-dunk cases of the ASA willfully suppressing self-evident claims by alternative practitioners. We’ve tracked down most of the cases, referenced the claims, and left you with the facts.