The Advertising Standards Authority is coming down hard on quack remedies and modalities and it’s about time too.
And CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) practitoners are scrambling. Unregulated, “alternative”, unscientific medical interventions are squarely in the crosshairs of the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Purveyors of dubious remedies and magical “cures” are now being taken to task for claims on their websites.
The immediate reaction of the CAM practitioners is of course predictable: “They’re limiting health freedom”, “the medical establishment are greedy”, “but the ASA are supposed protect the public”.
Which leads me to some specific reactions from an NLP trainer, practitioner and therapist Nick Kemp. Uneasy with the implications of the newfound teeth of the ASA, Nick wrote a blog post outlining what he sees as an organised attack on alternative health modalities.
The NLP (Neurolinguistic programming) community is unregulated externally and has a number of features of a pseudoscience. Nick is all to aware of this, pointing out that many NLP individuals and institutions write cheques they can’t cash in terms of claims.
Mentalists and skeptics Derren Brown and Banachek point out that there is some good stuff in NLP, but as a field unhinged from the need to prove its claims NLP amasses a fair degree of quack alternative ideas also.
People who make claims that are supported by evidence have nothing to be afraid of.
However, CAM modalities are alternative because they do not pass scientific muster. If a modality works it becomes accepted as medicine and does not remain “alternative”.
There is no ‘alternative versus conventional medicine’ dichotomy. The CAM industry has created this “us versus the elite establishment” semantic distinction, but it doesn’t represent the reality that there is either science-based medicine or unscientific belief-based medicine. The only real question that needs asking is “Is there objective evidence that it works?”
Avoiding the real question (does it work?)
So most of the complaints by CAM practitioners are elaborate red herrings and non sequiturs designed to evade the question “does it work?” Not just anecdotally, but is there science showing it works?
Nick Kemp’s main beef is that the ASA is being far too strict and doesn’t understand NLP or alternative therapies. Essentially, practitioners of all stripes, homoeopaths, naturopaths, chiropractors, NLP practitioners… Are crying foul and pulling the martyr card.
The need for public watchdogs
Mr Kemp also conveys some disdain for the Nightingale Collaboration – a campaign that challenges questionable claims made by healthcare practitioners in order to hold them accountable.
“Groups like The Nightingale Collaboration actively encourage “skeptics” to make complaints about websites to support their own agenda.”
He is dismayed by the fact the Nightingale Collaboration has previously attacked chiropractors, homoeopathy and cranial sacral therapy.
I pointed out to Mr Kemp that there is good reason why these health modalities deserve criticism – they don’t work! In the case of chiropractors, the essence of chiropractic (still claimed by many chiropractors) is sympathetic magic. When this was pointed out by journalist Simon Singh The British Chiropractic Association responded by suing him. This kicking of the hornets’ nest is why skeptics and other concerned citizens upped the anti in opposing false and potentially harmful medical claims.
Aside from a handful of good journalists like Singh and Ben Goldacre, the media has proven itself incapable of properly informing the public about the reality of CAM quackery.
The public needs groups like the Nightingale Collaboration to publically hold purveyors of quackery accountable for the very real danger they pose in promoting belief-based medicine over solid science.
(See this Guardian article for some background information on the Nightingale Collaboration and why Simon Singh and others formed the organisation).
“Leave your logic and science at the door thanks”
When I put forth the true state of the evidence for homeopathy (it doesn’t work beyond placebo) this is the response Mr Kemp gave:
“As someone who has used homeopathy for 30 years I have enough evidence that it’s not placebo.
“As for the ASA vetting, well they are check ad copy and have no therapeutic insights. I could write a lengthy post about the absurdity of many ASA deductions, but don’t really have time at present!”
It is a shame Mr Kemp doesn’t have more time because I would really like to know how the ASA is making absurd deductions AND I would like to know what he uses homoeopathy for.
The deductions the ASA make are simple – if there is objective evidence something works and you are a properly qualified practitioner then great. If the objective evidence is not in or worse if it repeatedly shows the treatment is hooey, then you can’t make claims to effectiveness.
Mr Kemp’s statement about absurd deductions is rather ironic. Any way you look at homoeopathy, the deduction that it works beyond placebo is absurd.
Homoeopathy is absurd because:
- Double blind placebo controlled trials repeatedly show homoeopathy does not work.
- The proposed mechanism for homoeopathy violates the laws of physics, therefore proponents have a huge burden of proof on their hands that they cannot meet.
Unfortunately, Nick Kemp displays the precise thinking the ASA is meant to safeguard the public against.
Firstly, his appeal to 30 years of personal experience of homoeopathy typifies the kind of anecdotes that the CAM industry relies on as the definitive evidence. As clinical data is unfavourable to their cause they have to use anecdotes. They either don’t like science or believe anecdotal reports trump science. This is the very problem the ASA must throw cold water on.
Testimonials are great marketing devices (people love stories) but testimonials are poor evidence of clinical effectiveness. The reliance on testimonials is a huge red flag when flicking through practitioner websites.
Regulators like the ASA (UK) and FDA (US) have become increasingly sensitive to the word “cure” due to the large number of unsubstantiated claims to cures for all kinds of ailments, especially those relating to cancers.
Most of the claims with “cure” in them come from scientifically discredited modalities. The public absolutely needs to be on guard from these kinds of extravagant (read: absurd) claims by internet charlatans.
There are countless stories about people abandoning their cancer treatment, medical treatment and prescribed medicine on the advice of a quack practitioner. Until now, purveyors of cancer cures have been largely unaccountable for the claims on their websites.
Unregulated, unscientific modalities and practices need to be brought to the surface so that the public can make informed choices based on the best evidence available. This protects the public from being misled, ripped off and prevents the promotion of harmful (untrue) medical advice.
For too long claimants have not been required to meet reasonable standards of objective evidence. Often claims are reduced to what people want to hear, what people want to believe rather than what is responsible and effective. It is misleading and dangerous to make false claims and then hide behind “well, I am giving people the freedom to decide what’s best for them”.
If CAM practitioners really do subscribe to the dictum “first do know harm” why are they so unwilling to submit their work to the evidence?