Pseudoscience’s petty petition

Avaaz (according to its own website) is:

‘… a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.’

It does, by and large, apparently conduct itself reasonably, raising awareness of and providing a campaigning vehicle for important humanitarian issues. I have myself signed and drawn attention to a number of its petitions. However, there is indication that Avaaz’s sympathies may, on occasion, be mis-directed: a new campaign is entreating support to counter what it purports to perceive as:

‘ASA bias against and censorship of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)’

This paranoid petition was created by one Jessica Braid (‘formerly M. United Kingdom’; I’ve no idea if this refers to a previous winner of a national beauty pageant), with intended delivery to the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health – which is the concerning bit, when qualified with the information that Hunt has previously endorsed* NHS support for alternative medicine, and reportedly lends his ear to Proper Prince Charlie on such matters.

This move smacks of reaction (in part) to the sterling work of The Nightingale Collaboration, which has been successfully coordinating complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, concerning the misleading claims of homeopaths and suppliers of homeopathic products, and the multifarious nonsense irresponsibly sanctioned by QuackRag What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Such advertising is quite rightly targeted because it contravenes the guidance on the marketing of health-related products and services, as stipulated by the Codes of the Committee of Advertising Practice.

The petitioner whines:

‘The ASA is stopping complimentary [sic] therapists from advertising. They have censored us from even mentioning any medical condition on our websites and will not acknowledge benefit for more than a handful of conditions ignoring NHS, NICE and World Health Organisation Evidence. They have also ‘banned’ patient testimonials. This is unacceptable censorship and a serious threat to natural medicine which has helped millions worldwide.’

In keeping with claims and pronouncements generally made by CAM-ites, virtually every statement in that paragraph is inaccurate. The ASA is not stopping anyone from advertising; what it does is work to ensure that advertising is not misleading – a remit which, in March 2011, was extended to include marketing communications on all UK websites. It does not ‘censor’ mention of medical conditions; rather, in likely accordance with Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) stipulation (on, for example, homeopathic products), it does not permit ‘indications’ – ie the description of disease/conditions – when there is insufficient evidence of medical/therapeutic effectiveness thereon. The appeal to NHS, NICE and WHO evidence is misleadingly imprecise: there are many CAM ‘therapies’/products; specifically which are relevant here (and why are examples not provided)? And genuine patient testimonials are not ‘banned’; rather, because implying efficacy of unproven treatments is potentially misleading, they are restricted to ‘… general references to an improved sense of wellbeing.’ (And here the ASA, in my opinion, does not go far enough.)

There is a further explanatory paragraph, headed: ‘Why this is important’, which drips CAM-ite propaganda:

‘The Advertising Standards Authority has since March 2011 been using complaints from a small number of anti-CAM lobbyists to heavily restrict information on the websites of complementary and alternative medical therapists. The ASA guidelines for therapists amount to censorship as they do not accept divided medical evidence or the 2000 year historical use of therapies such as acupuncture. The ASA insist on placebo controlled RCTs published in peer reviewed journals and no split in medical opinion. This leads to extreme bias against CAM which does not have the resources and due to its holistic approach, placebo controlled trials e.g. for acupuncture may not be suitable. The ASA subjectively assess evidence, present a limited view of submitted evidence to the council, and ignore WHO and NICE guidelines. This is a huge threat to patient choice and the freedom of information available on the internet.’

A ‘small number’ of complainants? Is this to do with the fact that ASA only requires one complaint in order to instigate an investigation, such that it requested abeyance of the numerous complaints about numerous websites? The use of ‘lobbyists’ here (overlooking the lobbying of government ministers by CAM-friendly royalty) is particularly sneaky: it suggests a paranoid swipe at the ‘Big Pharma shill’, invoked by the CAM-ite to attack the character and motives of those who merely seek to ensure that people are not exposed to misleading information on important public health matters. The next sentence is a desperate foot self-shooter: ‘divided medical evidence’; the appeal to ’2000 year historical use’; ‘acupuncture’ (ah, an example, at last: is this the most relevant upon which to draw?). And then the rest of the paragraph tailspins into characteristic double-standards: the inapplicability of the Randomised Controlled Trial to CAM, where subjectivity holds sway, whilst lambasting the ASA for its subjectivity in insisting upon RCT evidence to substantiate claims; the suggestion that (resource-less) CAM should be exempt from the rigour necessary for proper testing. And finally, what is this over-resort to that politician PR buzz phrase, ‘patient choice’? Offering a patient the ‘choice’ between an evidence-based treatment and an evidentially-deficient alternative is not a choice – it is misinformation.

No, no, no. This will not do. I was driven to complain to Avaaz for hosting a petition for what, in effect, constitutes misleading promotion of CAM:

‘Dear Sir/Madam,

This petition leads me to ask whether Avaaz properly considers the campaigns it promotes.

The ASA is an impartial body, which is not biased against, nor actively censoring, Complementary and Alternative Medicine websites. Such websites frequently make false claims for CAM treatments/remedies, with link to specific medical conditions, in contravention of the guidance on the marketing of health-related products and services, as stipulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice. (And, with respect to cancer, in contravention of the Cancer Act, 1939). Moreover, such sites frequently resort to the use of patient testimonials as ‘evidence’, giving a misleading impression that efficacy is proven, when in fact there is little, if any, clinical/scientific evidence that they are effective.

This is not censorship by the ASA – it is the policing of advertising standards and the protection of consumers.

I would urge you to reconsider this petition.

Yours etc,’

Not only are these CAM people confused and/or confusing on science, but they are also confused and/or confusing on censorship. Licence to misinform and mislead is an affront to free expression, because it permits propaganda and quackery. It is at best irresponsible; at worst, downright dangerous. In other words, unethical. In my opinion, this petition apparently compromises Avaaz’s Commitment to Accuracy, contrary, one would think, to its ethos.




* Update (25/9/13): I’ve just caught up with information that the Health Secretary has recently renounced homeopathy… although the details of his meeting with Prince Charles remain private.


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