Tag Archives: Woo


Winston v: To give a forthright, well-informed and authoritative slapdown.

David Tredinnick was thoroughly Winstoned on Radio 4 this morning! What a lunatic.

Named after The Right Honourable Professor The Lord Winston FMedSci FRSA FRCP FRCOG FIBiol FREng(Hon) after he called David Tredinnick’s beliefs in astrology, homeopathy and assorted other woo “lunatic“.

Woo and orthogonality

phase diagram of woo
Complex numbers and understanding woo

I have an idea that complex numbers are a way of understanding woo. Every treatment has real (chemical and biological) and imaginary (placebo etc) effects; one source of conflict between the reality-based community lies in the fact that quacks look only at the magnitude of the effect vector, and ignore how much is real versus imaginary.

I think that the concept of two-dimensional representations might help to understand another problem.

For a typical treatment, the curve of published evidence tends to start with early, vivid findings and move through early trials to long-term meta analyses. In virtually every case, the effect size seems to decrease during this process.

TimeEffectThe magnitude of the decline changes of course, and in some cases the effect line actually crosses the axis. The use of HRT against heart disease is a good example; early studies suggested that HRT protected against heart disease, but an RCT showed that actually outcomes were worse and HRT was simply a marker for middle class – women who tended to have better nutrition and exercise patterns.

We know how quacks seize on early results. It’s the cardinal health reporting sin of the Daily Mail, it is the stock in trade of screaming headlines in WDDTY, and it is the catalyst that sent Ralph W. Moss down the rabbit hole as he decided that early results were right, the experiments that failed to replicate them were wrong, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s publications and subsequent studies showing laetrile does not cure cancer are a huge sinister conspiracy to suppress a “natural” cure for cancer.

I believe that this inability to properly accept later, disconfirming results is a symptom of the fundamental weakness of woomeisters: their system for judging correct from incorrect results.

Evidence v. ideology

In science, results are judged by the strength of the evidence. In woo, they are judged by ideological consonance.

Scientists will give little weight to early results from studies in a petri dish or test tube, and reserve their real excitement for the unambiguous results from clinical trials. Scientists are excited by solid fact, and the more solid the fact, the more exicited they are.

Woomeisters don’t actually care about solid fact, because, as I noted in the article on complex numbers, they don’t actually accept the fact that the real effect is more valid than the perceived effect. They think that perception is reality, even if, as with homeopathy, it’s based on a ridiculous idea and the effect is nonspecific and evaporates under critical analysis, i.e. it is entirely imaginary.

The thing is, the woomeisters very often sincerely believe they are being scientific, or at least methodologically rigorous. But the judgment of sources by ideological consonance means than not only is woo not self-correcting, as science is, but in fact it gets worse over time.

The example of laetrile

laetrile 1
Progress of evidence for laetrile

With laetrile, there were early results that showed promise. Some of this was supported by additional studies. Further studies proved inconclusive, with a mix of positive and negative results. Clinical trials found no effect and finally meta-analyses also found no effect.

Science views this through a filter of evidential robustness.

laetrile 2
Evidence weighted by methodological rigour

The more robust the evidence, the thicker the line. Science concludes that laetrile does not work. This is not considered controversial as there’s no good reason to suppose it would work. The claimed rationales (e.g. it is a “vitamin”, B17, without which the body is unable to suppress cancer) are, to put it charitably, speculative and apparently derived by proctomancy.

But the woomeister filters results by ideological consonance not by scientific robustness.

laetrile 4
Evidence weighted by ideological consonance

The woomeister discounts results that don’t support the belief. We tend to think of this as irrational, but it’s actually differently rational: the initial claims are based on anecdotes, and to the woomeister these are the most powerful form of testimony. Rather like a juror who is presented with three alibi witnesses who say the accused was somewhere else, might discount DNA evidence showing that the accused committed the crime, because DNA evidence can be wrong. In reality DNA evidence is far less often wrong than alibi witnesses, who may have a personal interest in a not guilty verdict, but the element of personal testimony is always compelling.

And it’s even more complicated because the flat line of inconclusive replication is made up of numerous individual results:

laetrile 3
Snapshot of a set of results that sum to inconclusive

Exactly the same applies here.

laetrile 5
Snapshot weighted by ideological consonance

So to the woomeister, this is not a flat line of unconfirming evidence, it’s a collection of a few confirming results and some that are wrong.

Laetrile devotees howl that science is ignoring or suppressing positive results, as seen in Eric Merola’s petition to MSKCC, but this is true only if you assume, as woomeisters do, that only the positive evidence is valid. In reality science weighs up positive and negative evidence and forms a judgment based on the combined weight of evidence.

What this means for self-correction

For thousands of years, humanity proceeded by halting steps, with folk ways given as much weight as anything else and the standard of truth being set by religious belief: if the priest said it was true, then it was true. Beginning in the 17th Century, methods were developed for systematically testing ideas with the aim of establishing objective truth independent of any interpretation of sources. Natural philosophers conducted experiments to verify whether they could replicate a result. Scientists conduct experiments to test the result – not just to see if they can replicate it, but also to see if there is a simpler explanation.

Science, in short, self-corrects, by design. Woo cannot self-correct because it is based on the religious model of judging truth. No religious model of judging truth can self-correct, because it is designed to confirm belief and to bend the interpretation of data to validate the .

The difference between the scientific way of judging fact and the way used by woomeisters is a relatively recent invention in human history. The woomeisters are actually following lines of thought that might have been considered perfectly valid as little as two centuries ago, a tiny fraction of the age of modern humanity. But the difference between the two ways of proceeding, is responsible, more than anything else, for the unprecedented pace of development of our undertstanding of the universe. The period from the invention of the Newcomen engine to its eventual phasing out is approximately equal to the interval between the development of the first programmable computers in the 1940s, and today. Or if you prefer, the period from Bolton and Watt’s patent to the invention of the first steam locomotives, is more than twice as long as the period between the invention of valve-based computers and the invention of massively parallel supercomputers.


Complex numbers as a way of understanding woo

Mathematicians and engineers are familiar with the concept of complex numbers. Electrical engineers, for example, use them to represent in-phase and out of phase loads.

phaseA complex number has a “real” component and an “imaginary” component. Actually both are equally real, but the imaginary component is represented as a factor of the square root of -1, which engineers call j and mathematicians call i. The square root of -1 does not exist, it is imaginary, but there’s a well understood mathematics of complex numbers that allows complex calculations to be performed, and the use of i (or j) prevents the components from getting mixed up. We always know which is which. In effect, it’s a shorthand for a two-dimensional vector calculus where the axes are at exactly 90°. A complex number can either be represented by its real and imaginary components (such as 3+5i) or by its magnitude (the length of the orange line) and phase angle (φ in the diagram).

It’s simple and it works for us.

For some things, you’re interested in the in-phase component. For some, the out of phase component. And for some, it’s the total magnitude that matters, the length of the orange arrow.

WTF has this to do with woo?

Consider chiropractic. It’s completely plausible that manipulation therapy would have a beneficial effect on musculoskeletal pain. It’s highly implausible that it would have a beneficial effect on infant colic or asthma, and there’s no evidence that the “chiropractic subluxation” exists at all.

Consider acupuncture. It’s plausible that inserting needles might trigger the release of endorphins. It’s entirely implausible that it might create health by balancing the flow of qi in the meridians, because those things don’t exist.

You might regard the valid, plausible elements as a real component, and the vitalistic nonsense as an imaginary component.

Imaginary is “real”, for some values of real

There is nothing wrong with things having a real and an imaginary component. All medicines do: the placebo effect is an imaginary component.

The problems come from the way you look at the result. Medicine, historically, has looked at the magnitude of the effect.  Evidence-based medicine tries to remove the imaginary component but is still measuring the magnitude of the total effect and trying to discount the imaginary component. Science-based medicine tries to look only at the real component.

Woomeisters do not accept that the real and imaginary components exist, they are stuck in the 19th Century view where only the magnitude matters. Where medicine has tried to discard invalid practices such as bloodletting and purging, and in doing so has begun to understand how invalid ideas persist and why it is important to tease out the real versus the imaginary, woo actively does not care. This is partly because most woomeisters are actually rather dim, and partly because deep down they know that any intrusion of proper scientific rigour  will always result in art least some of their beliefs being challenged and shown to be wrong.

Wrongness in science

It would be wrong to say a scientist does not care about being proved wrong. All humans do. But science proceeds by challenging and discarding incorrect ideas. Every scientist must accept, at a fundamental level, that progress is made partly by developing new knowledge and partly by discarding old ideas that are found to be wrong or incomplete.

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. – Carl Sagan

This is not so much of a problem these days, as truly revolutionary new ideas are pretty rare. I suggest you read up on the early history of atomic physics and quantum theory to see how stubbornly some scientists clung to wrong ideas. Einstein himself never really accepted quantum statistical mechanics: “My God does nto play dice with the universe” or words to that effect.

Wrongness in woo

While science seeks empirical fact and the scientific endeavour is founded on the belief that truth is absolute, woo, like religions, follows the idea that “Fact is merely what enough people believe, and truth lies only in how fervently they believe it” (as Pierce put it in Idiot America). Pierce quotes this gem which perfectly sums up this worldview:

It is so oftentimes in this worldthat it is not the philosophy that is at fault, but the facts. – Ignatius L. Donnelly

For a believer in homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic or whatever, if facts contradict the philosophy then the facts are wrong.

Yes, yes, but get to the bloody point!

Oh, sorry.

Well, skeptics get very frustrated with woomeisters because they obdurately refuse to see the errors in their position – and woomeisters get frustrated with skeptics for much the same reason. We have fundamentally different worldviews, and I suggest that the phasor diagram encapsulates the problem.

Lets list a few of the real and imaginary components of various things and I’ll show you what I mean:

Example Real component Imaginary component
Aspirin Suppression of production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes; COX-1 and COX-2 inhibition; uncouples oxidative phosphorylation in cartilaginous (and hepatic) mitochondria; induces the formation of NO-radicals; possible modulation of signaling through NF-κB. “Miracle drug” claims, placebo effects, expectation effects etc.
Acupuncture Possible release of endorphins, some evidence to suggest purinergic signalling. Qi, meridians, acupoints, placebo effects, expectation effects etc.
Chiropractic Plausible biomechanical effects. Innate; chiropractic subluxation; claims to cure organic disease; “safety” based on no data; maintenance adjustments; appeal to conspiracy; ; placebo effects, expectation effects etc.
Herbal medicine Known biological effects of biological compounds. Appeal to tradition, naturalistic fallacy, placebo effects, expectation effects etc.
Homeopathy tumbleweed “Like cures like”; effects on body’s vital energy; effects on immune system; “quantum”; appeal to conspiracy; placebo effects, expectation effects etc.
Orthomolecular medicine Known effects of vitamins; emerging evidence of widespread low-grade vitamin D deficiency in older Westerners. Appeals to authority (esp. Linus Pauling); cherry-picked data; early results asserted over later more equivocal ones; naturalistic fallacy; appeal to conspiracy; placebo effects, expectation effects etc.

phase diagram of wooI’ll represent that on a phasor diagram for you. Remember that nonspecific / placebo effects are strongest when the intervention is dramatic and theatrical and where the explanation is least mundane).

As far as the woomeister is concerned, this diagram is saying that there’s no big difference in effect between the various modes. But if you have pain, are you going to use aspirin or chew willow bark (the herbal medicine equivalent)?

As I see it, most people don’t have a lot of difficulty seeing the difference between aspirin and willow bark, but they find it much harder to spot that homeopathy is complete bollocks, because while the argument can be made between the real components of willow bark and aspirin (the latter being a purified form, with a predictable dose), there is no point of comparison between aspirin and homeopathy. Homeopathy is pure, unadulterated woo.

That’s why the general public find it hard to engage with the debate over homeopathy in particular. It’s hard to believe that it is legal to sell something that has literally no basis in reality.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with that thought: the real versus the imaginary component, as a way of thinking and talking about woo versus reality-based medicine.

SumafasoresWhy do electrical engineers use complex numbers?

You might have wondered why electrical engineers even need to know this: electricity is real, isn’t it?

Put briefly: your domestic electrical supply is not like a battery, it’s alternating voltage, not constant voltage (hence alternating current, ac). The voltage oscillates between +230 and -230V, and the oscillation is a sine wave.

A current flowing in a wire generates an electromagnetic field. In some devices the load’s own electromagnetic fields interact with the applied voltage, which has an effect on how and when the current flows. That means a load can have a slight out of phase component, which we represent as a phasor (set phasers to stun, Captain). Phase lag is reasonably easy to understand. Consider a motor or transformer. The current flows, but the device has a high magnetic coupling, the change in voltage  as the applied voltage alternates, itself generates a magnetic field which then tries to generate an opposing voltage – sometimes known as “back emf”, so the current lags the applied voltage.

Capacitors store electricity and try to drive current, so for capacitors the current leads the applied voltage (less intuitive, I grant). The diagram at right illustrates a phase-shifted load.

What this means is that for inductive and capacitive loads, the current can be more than you’d expect from the applied voltage and will flow at a different time. This is a big headache for power companies and they charge extra for the out of phase component.

Freedom4Health Newsletter

Courtesy of my Sinister Agents, I have received the latest Freedom4health newsletter. It is, predictably, batshit insane and loaded with fallacies, delusions and falsehoods.

It’s worth remembering that the Health Fooldom lobby is basically the astroturf marketing arm of Big Herba, an exercise in special pleading to give commercial advantages to those who know their claims and implications considerably exceed their evidence. This has, especially in the US, been remarkably successful and has made the Health Fooldom lobby a major player in the New Age of Endarkenment.

1. Can you treat or diagnose as a natural health practitioner?

This is also another myth that we want to expose. The ASA have for some time taken it upon themselves to tell natural health practitioners that they are not allowed to say they can treat or diagnose various diseases. They have a list of more than 200 conditions (many quite generalised and so these cover just about everything) which they say natural health practitioners cannot claim to treat.

This is misleading. ASA actually say you should not claim to diagnose or treat serious conditions which should be referred to a competent medical practitioner. The idea that quacks should not claim to diagnose or treat things outside of their competence is scarcely controversial, the problem is not that the ASA are oppressing them, but that the quacks do not recognise their own limitations.

The only people who should diagnose serious diseases, are registered medical practitioners. In what world is this even remotely controversial?

If you are a homeopath, naturopath, live blood analyst, reiki master or whatever, and if you have the faintest inkling of your limitations, then you would not dream of diagnosing any health condition at all, least of all a serious one that would attract the obviously unwelcome attention of the ASA and other members of the reality-based community. And frankly, if you do think you should be diagnosing health conditions then you should probably be in jail, not merely trivially inconvenienced in publishing your misleading advertisements. Quacks have no significant training in valid diagnostic techniques. The techniques they do use – iridology and applied kinesiology, for example – are entirely without merit.

Whilst the ASA present themselves as an authority, you should know that this list is not based on any law (there is one exception which is the 1939 Cancer Act).

Misleading. The ASA is the body charged with regulating advertising, and the quacks are pretty much the only people who have a problem with this.

In many cases practitioners have been diagnosing and treating for hundreds if not thousands of years and they have done so effectively.

Your logical fallacies are: appeal to tradition, begging the question. As Roger Fisken pithily put it, we don’t predict the outcome of battles by studying the entrails of chickens, or choose the best route for a new railway line by asking a witch doctor to go into a trance, so why should we behave this way when it comes to healthcare? Sure, people who cast the runes sincerely believe that they are tapping into some great mystical force, but we know they are deluded – and the same applies to the vast majority of quacks who believe they are “effectively” treating disease. It’s not a coincidence that medicine has changed out of all recognition in the last 100 years, during which time human life expectancy has roughly doubled but quacks have not changed their practices at all (other than to adopt new ways of excusing their failures). 

The scientific method, with its pitiless discarding of cherished beliefs that don’t hold up to scrutiny, is the great differentiator between quackery and medicine. It is the engine by which an imperfect enterprise, improves by self-examination. And it is wholly absent from the fields of quackery promoted by the Health Fooldom lobby.

Therefore the ASA’s attempts to shut down the natural health field are nothing more than discriminatory and are serving some other purpose than the well-being of the general population.

Your logical fallacies are: begging the question, appeal to conspiracy. There is no evidence at all that the ASA wants to “shut down the natural health field”, the ASA’s remit and their stated aim is simply to ensure that advertising is “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

Of course, if quacks are restricted to honest claims and prevented from making dishonest ones, this will affect their bottom line: the reason they are “alternative” is, per Minchin’s Law, that their treatments are either unproven or disproven, but this is not the ASA’s problem, it’s the quacks’ problem. Put simply, if your business cannot survive without making false claims, then your business model is at fault, not the advertising regulator.

We fully agree that advertising should be “legal, decent, honest and truthful” – the ASA’s byword – and we believe that practitioners must have adequate experience and be able to evidence any claims that they make. However, we do not consider that the arbitrary standards established by the ASA are in themselves “legal, decent, honest and truthful” and so they are effectively violating their own code. For more information on this please read our website.

Well, here we have a fundamental conflict between reality and what the quacks believe. There have been numerous analyses of the adequacy of quack training (some commentary here), the general result seems to be that the entire clinical exposure of an ND degree – one of the more time-consuming quack qualifications – is equivalent to no more than a few weeks of medical residency. It takes five years of hard study and years more of supervised practice to become a qualified doctor. Like it or not, quacks are playing doctor based on the flimsiest of education, much of which is in reality mere rote learning of utter nonsense.

The standard established by ASA is not “arbitrary”, other than that ASA seems happy to let quacks claim to treat minor ailments, when the evidence for this is no better than for serious ones. In other words, the only arbitrary standard is to let the quacks off the hook for the small stuff.

N.B. There is European legislation which is enforceable through UK law and which regulates medicines. Medicines have nothing to do with a practitioner’s diagnosis. Whilst we also consider that the way this legislation is written is in itself discriminatory, it does need to be taken into account if you are advertising medicines to treat a condition. But if you are not advertising medicines then this would not apply. Natural health practitioners employ a range of therapies and treatments to help an individual.

Oh please. What’s “discriminatory” about the legislation is that it does not include special pleading to allow quacks to sell rubbish with unsupportable medical indications. The playing field is completely level: you want to make a claim, you have to provide a certain class and quality of evidence, whoever you are.

2. Complaint with Ofcom against ASA

Freedom4Health has recently filed an opposition to ASA’s continued cooperation with Ofcom covering 9 different points all focused on grounds that amount to it being biased against promoting natural health solutions. Ofcom regulates the broadcasting media.

This should be fun to watch.  “Dear OfCOM: the heartless ASA won’t let us advertise quackery as if it’s legitimate, please let us have our own self-regulation that is situated within the bubble world of our delusional beliefs. Love, the quacks”. “Dear quacks, No. Yours sincerely, OfCOM”.

Ofcom transferred some of their responsibilities for the Television Advertising Standards Code to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), though Ofcom is still ultimately responsibility.

That agreement is currently under review.

Our concerns have been filed with Ofcom and cover points such as:

1. The ASA does not base its decisions on “the available scientific knowledge” and is adopting the radical view that only randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are ‘objective’ and have validity. This position is not only unscientific but is extremely hazardous to the health of patients. (There are many kinds of valid proof besides RCTs.)

This is the precise opposite of the truth. The entire problem for the quacks is that ASA do take into account the entirety of the scientific evidence, they do not simply accept the sciencey-looking bullshit fielded by true believers. Homeopathy is a perfect example. True believers think that based on counting the number of positive studies they should be allowed to make health claims. ASA look at that, and also factor in the absence of any plausibility, the findings of independent reviews and meta-analyses and other evidence, which underlies the scientific consensus view that homeopathy is bunk.

2. The ASA is refusing to permit publication of evidence of effectiveness in clinical practice.

No, they are preventing you form claiming that something works based on cherry-picked “evidence”. If you present a balanced picture, reflecting the scientific consensus view, they have no problem with it. Of course if you do that your business is toast. This isn’t ASA’s problem, it’s yours.

3. The ASA does not have the competence to assess evidence relating to holistic, natural or integrative medical practice.

That’s why they call in experts.

4. When the ASA does employ the services of ‘experts’, their qualifications are inadequate for a professional adjudication.

Absolutely untrue, and a gross calumny on the professionalism and qualifications of those involved. They certainly do have the qualifications to understand your claims – and that is exactly your problem. This complaint is functionally equivalent to the Catholic church complaining that a gynaecologist is not qualified to give evidence about the virgin birth, because the gynaecologist is not a Catholic and so does not believe in virgin birth.

Put simply, if your claims are only accepted by true believers, then they can be safely presumed to be false.

5. The ASA has redrafted arguments, ignored the evidence, or even redrafted the complaint in order to retain the same conclusion. One complaint was radically redrafted after seven months of correspondence, despite the fact that the ASA requires that “Complaints must be made within three months of the marketing communication’s appearance”.

False. They redraft complaints in order to match them to the CAP code headings, and show what is quoted and what is not. They also investigate the claims being made, and may expand or revise their complaint accordingly. Whay the quacks are arguing for here is the ability to magic the ASA away by redrafting the false claims they make in the middle of an investigation but without changing the underlying false message. ASA, unsurprisingly, does not think much of that idea.

6. The ASA makes claims without producing any evidence to support them, and then bases its conclusions on such unsupported claims.

O RLY? Colour me skeptical. The quacks’ judgment on what constitutes an “unsupported” claim is not something I’d care to trust.

7. The ASA uses slanted language.

Nope. They use objective language. Your problem is simply that they do not slant language as you’d like – so, for example, they don’t subscribe tot he fallacious notion that woo-meisters are “holistic” or that “natural” is a valid criterion for judging efficacy.

8. The ASA is judge, jury and executioner on any investigation with has complete control over the presentation of the ‘defence’ case. This is a fundamentally flawed approach to justice, especially in the context of the other issues outlined above.

It’s not a legal process, and the advertiser is given every opportunity to respond. The function of the ASA is analogous to that of the examining magistrate, a perfectly legitimate approach in cases where there is no civil or criminal liability at stake. Where criminal activity may be argued, ASA does not prosecute – the case is handed off to Trading Standards.

While this complaint is entirely without merit, it does reveal the root of the problem. Quacks view the ability to make their false claims as a fundamental legal right. ASA sees them as just another advertiser, one more sector which has a class of known false statements used in advertising, just like payday lenders or broadband suppliers.

It’s an inequality of motive. The ASA does not give a damn whether quacks can carry on business without making fraudulent claims, they only care that fraudulent claims are not made. To quacks, however, it is a matter of commercial life or death. They cannot do business without making fraudulent claims, so they regard any restriction on the ability to make fraudulent claims as a restraint of trade.

9. The ASA intimidates advertisers, who are mainly self-employed therapists, with language that makes the ASA sound like a government agency, when in fact they are a private limited company created by the advertising industry.

If the quacks are scared by ASA they should try not filling in their tax returns some time: they’d find out what a really scary letter looks like.

Freedom4Health is therefore concerned that the ASA be given an extended license to adjudicate and suggest that their procedures are thoroughly reviewed.

In other words, the quacks want a special set of rules that allows them, uniquely, to make fraudulent claims.

3. Exciting news on alternative to ASA

The General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies (GRCCT) is one of two regulatory bodies in the UK for natural health therapies. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is the other. Whilst CNHC has made adhering to ASA rulings a condition of membership, GRCCT has taken a completely different perspective and is now setting up a website validation service. This service will assess websites in line with what is legal and in accordance with established principles of evidence and efficacy for any particular natural health discipline. It will be adjudicated by lawyers and experts in the particular field that is being assessed.

This is more than a little disingenuous. The GRCCT (OfCrank? OfLoon? OfUberquack?) seems on the face of it to eb a body set up by the lunatic fringe of the quack world; numeorus Government websites and pages refer to CNHC (aka OfQuack), none refer to GRCCT. I cannot find any trace of any official recognition – it is basically a trade body for those who refuse to accept that ASA’s views on what is a supportable advertising claim.

It will therefore provide a “legal, decent, honest and truthful” assessment of any site. Costs will be minimal for members but more expensive for non-members.

In other words, quacks reviewing quack claims in a quack-friendly manner, as long as you join.

The service is going to become live within the next few weeks.

Live yes, significant? Valid? Not so much.

4. The Petition

Don’t forget to sign the petition to have the ASA debated in Parliament. This has been put together by a practitioner affected by ASA Ltd. See her story and sign the petition herehttp://asa-the-truth.org.uk/

Yes, do write to your MP to ask them to express support for the sterling work ASA does in protecting consumers form false and fraudulent advertisers.

We will be visiting a number of colleges around the UK to talk with practitioners and students about the ASA in the coming month. If you would like help in talking to your regulatory bodies or associations please let us know and we will contact them to discuss the progress we are making and issues that are currently topical for natural health practitioners in regards to the ASA.

Translation: we’ll be conducting a sales roadshow for our OfUberquack.

For further information please contact Angela or Martin at [email protected] or visit our website at www.freedom4health.com

Oh do, please, and tweet the responses, it should make great comedy!

How not to change Wikipedia

A group of loons promoting “energy psychology” (a form of woo roughly as intelligible as Time Cube and infinitely less entertaining) have started a petition to demand: Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia: Create and enforce new policies that allow for true scientific discourse about holistic approaches to healing.

There are one or two problems with this.

  1. Wikipedia already has such a policy. That is pretty much your problem: we define science as, you know, science, following the scientific method and all that, whereas you are unable to distinguish it from your pseudoscience.  We have been there before. More than once.
  2. Wikipedia policy is not set by Jimmy Wales, apart from the foundational priniciples.
  3. Even if it was, he probably wouldn’t support you,and drawing his attention to your desire to skew Wikipedia towards your bullshit ideas may not be the smartest thing to do.

I confidently expect the fact-blind loons to carry on regardless, and no doubt how “suppression” when Jimbo fails to accede to their ludicrous demand.

They should instead try emailing the Wikimedia Foundation. At least the email response team have a polite canned response telling them why they are wasting their time.

I’m indebted to Alan Henness (@Zeno001) for drawing this entertaining whacknuttery to my attention.


A repeatable factor in debates with advocates of quackery is the assertion that skeptics are “ill-informed”. Usually the stridency with which this is asserted rises the more obviously well-informed the skeptic is, especially in areas where the quacks know they are vulnerable.

A recent newsletter from the Australian Traditional Medicine Society is a good example:

ATMS’s response to the Friends of Science ill-informed comments in the article: “No rebates for unscientific blood tests?”

Prepared by Stephen Eddey on behalf of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society

Here’s the article about which they are complaining:  No rebates for unscientific blood tests?

“Such tests include live blood analysis, hair analysis for toxins (non-forensic), liver detoxification profiles, clot retraction tests, cancer tests not performed by NATA-approved laboratories, electrodermal screening devices and food allergy tests not performed by NATA-approved laboratories.”

Friends of Science in Medicine are arguing that “IRIDOLOGISTS, reflexologists, and other practitioners offering blood tests without scientific basis should be stripped of government and private insurance rebates, and their patients told they are not getting a legitimate health service.”

Once again, some ill-informed comments have been released by the Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM). The article titled, “No rebates for unscientific blood tests?” which appeared in the Medical Observer on 28 October is ill informed, and out of touch with what natural medicine practitioners actually do in their clinics.

Really? So iridologists don’t use the wholly bogus iridology then?

The problem here is a categorical fallacy. ATMS are trying to represent multiple forms of woo as valid, but in practice the SCAM industry is a loose agglomeration of disparate often mutually contradictory practices; a failure to properly represent this fact and to circle the wagons whenever any “alternative” practitioner is under attack from the reality-based community often leads to reflexive defence of the indefensible.

First of all, there are no Government rebates for blood tests unless they are performed by a medical practitioner. Most blood tests such as cholesterol and thyroid measurements are covered by Medicare. Natural medicine practitioners do not have the authority to order blood tests and have them covered by Medicare rebates. Some specialised blood tests ordered by a medical doctor are not covered by Medicare and must be paid for by the patient, such as the important Lipoprotein (a) test.

That’s not what FSM said. They called for all rebates, government and insurance, to be withdrawn from any practitioner who uses bogus diagnostics. Not just for the bogus diagnostics, which undoubtedly are not covered in most cases, but for their use in diagnosis. Any practitioner who relies on live blood analysis, reflexology, hair analysis, liver detox profiles and so on, is a quack. These tests have no diagnostic merit and are used to sell therapies for conditions that the tests cannot and do not establish.

The correct response to this is to join FSM in calling for all alternative practitioners to stop using bogus tests, and to discipline any members who continue to do so.

If a private health insurer provides rebates for certain blood tests or other natural medicine tests, that it is their prerogative to do so. Natural medicine practitioners use a range of tests to determine the health of their clients. Instead, natural health care professionals treat the whole person and as such, blood tests form only a small part of the picture of the patient’s health.

It is their prerogative, but FSM are entirely correct in calling for this prerogative not to be exercised in the case of tests with no provable diagnostic merit. After all, why would an insurer pay for a bogus test to diagnose a condition that may not exist in order for the practitioner to sell a treatment that may therefore be entirely unnecessary?

There is no remotely plausible reason for funding bogus diagnostic tests, and several excellent reasons for not just not funding them, but removing any practitioner who proposes them form your list of approved practitioners.

It’s called health fraud.

Secondly, FSM states that natural medicine practitioners shouldn’t be endorsed by the Royal College of Pathologists Australasia. Natural therapists have never been endorsed by the Royal College of Pathologists Australasia. This further displays ignorance and demonstrates why FSM shouldn’t comment on matters that they are not qualified to comment on.

That should be easy to check. http://www.safelabs.com.au/ is an NATA accredited lab offering hair mineral analysis, a bogus test for “toxins”. Sorry to single SAL out, they were just the first.

Even if they were completely wrong about that, they would still be amply qualified to comment on the status of bogus tests. In fact, they are much better qualified to comment on them than those who make money from them, or trade bodies representing such practitioners.

The article also states: “the distinction between tests that are suitable for medical purposes and those that are not should not be blurred”. We are unaware of any blood test performed by a laboratory that would not be medically relevant otherwise the pathology laboratory simply wouldn’t run the test in the first place. All blood tests and all results should be considered by an appropriate healthcare professional to determine the health of the patient.

Apart from live blood analysis you mean? or clot retraction tests? You know, the ones they mention?

ATMS agrees with Pathologist and University of Adelaide clinical professor Graeme Suthers’ statement when he said, “The most important thing we can do is provide people with information.” Natural medicine practitioners are highly qualified and highly trained healthcare professionals that provide expert advice to help people live a happy healthy life. Providing information to clients about their health is what we are all about and all information obtained by a natural medicine practitioner shouldn’t be vetted by an ill-informed group like FSM.

Yes, information. So why do ATMS consistently campaign against the provision of information by those whose ideological commitment is to empirical science, rather than the naturalistic fallacy?

Actually this is blatant special pleading. ATMS are saying “believe us, don’t believe those horrible scientists“.

The reason they say this is perfectly obvious, hopefully even to their prospective customers.

Burzynski: Tijuana beckons

Recent developments in Texas offer an intriguing test case for commentators on woo.

Six months ago a series of three documents were obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act which even seasoned Burzynski-watchers could scarcely believe.

The first of these has already been released some time  ago; this was the report on the Institutional Review Board, the third consecutive adverse report, with issues identical to the previous two – conflicts of interest, excessive use of too-rapid approvals and so on.

The other two, inspection reports on the Burzynski clinic and Burzynski himself, have now been published on the FDA website:

These reports are incredible damning. Apart from failure to obtain legally mandated informed consent, failing to inform patients of likely additional costs, large numbers of overdoses and serious adverse incidents, inability to properly account for the amount of drugs, and failure to report adverse events for up to seven years, it turns out that the baseline records for every patient, including MRI scans, have been destroyed.

Read more at What “What Doctors Don’t Tell You” Don’t Tell You, The Other Burzynski patient Group and JREF.

All those trials for which people have paid tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, are worthless. They cannot be published.

This is not just an epic fraud, it’s also a gross violation of the Declaration of Helsinki on human trials.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but what is clear is that people who have been doing Burzynski’s PR for him – including Mercola, CANCERactive, WDDTY and others, now have an opportunity to show that they are not, in fact, credulous propagandists for woo.

These violations are self-evidently unacceptable. Even if you believe in Burzynski’s antineoplastons, routine overdosing, large scale adverse reactions not reported, shredding the records that would be the necessary foundation of any proof of efficacy, these things are unambiguously bad.

Burzynski will never respond to a skeptic who asks him why he did these things. His historical supporters have an opportunity to ask searching questions which are as relevant to their audience as they are to skeptics.

Why did you destroy the data? How can you now provide the evidence that’s necessary to get approval of the drugs? Why did you not report the adverse events?

My suspicion is that they will not ask these questions, because their approach to woo is typically entirely uncritical (unlike their approach to anything with a solid body of evidence, which was hilariously satirised by John Finnemore in episode 3 of his Souvenir Programme a few weeks back).

But the ball is in their court. They could, right now, show themselves to have at least some honour towards their audience. What’s the betting they go down the conspiracy theory route instead?