The harm of quackery

| Jacques Rousseau
Extraction of the Stone of Madness is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch completed between 1475 and 1480. It symbolises quackery. Image from Wikipedia (public domain).

There are at least three clear ways in which pseudoscience or bad science can harm consumers.

The first, and most troubling, is that you might come to harm through consuming something that causes effects other than those promised or expected.

This harm can be direct, as when herbal preparations result in allergic reactions (for example tea tree oil), or with unexpected drug interactions.

Or, the harm can be indirect, as is the case with vaccine denialism, which not only exposes the denialist to avoidable risks of serious disease, but also impacts on “herd immunity”, thus threatening his or her entire community. Another form of indirect harm results from not seeking effective treatment, thanks to the false belief that you’ve already found a treatment. Penelope Dingle died of a potentially treatable cancer, after years of “treatment” by a homeopath allowed the cancer to spread beyond real medical science’s capacity to treat it.

The second way in which consumers can be harmed is for many of us fairly trivial, and amounts to our simply wasting money on products that can’t deliver on their promises. This is of course not trivial for the poor, or for people who spend significant amounts of money they can’t afford on quackery – but if you like to pop an occasional homeopathic sleeping aid, it’s not going to cost you much.

The third kind of harm is a broad category and includes harm to public understanding of the scientific method, where claims need to be held accountable to evidence, and violations of the trust consumers place in manufacturers that the claims made about their products are accurate.

It is because of the risk of these and other kinds of harm that the Medicines Control Council has introduced a requirement that complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) need to carry a label stating that the product has not been evaluated by the Council, and that it is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. The CAM industry has been slow to respond – understandably so, because who would want their product to carry a label telling you it’s a mere placebo?

Another sort of reaction to this risk, and one we as consumers should be grateful for, comes from the large community of scientific sceptics all over the world who take the time to document pseudoscientific or misleading claims, and then follow up with complaints to advertising regulators and other bodies when they encounter such claims. In South Africa, one such individual is Dr Harris Steinman, a medical doctor who runs the website CamCheck, devoted to exposing misleading and unverifiable claims made on behalf of CAMs.

Manufacturers or promoters of CAM – and, as we shall see, nutritional supplements also – don’t appreciate being criticised for selling something on the basis of unverifiable (or, verifiably false) claims. There are numerous examples of bullying via lawsuit, or threats of lawsuit, both locally and internationally in cases of this nature. To return to the Dingle example mentioned above, bloggers who exposed the homeopath were served with legal letters. Locally, Kevin Charleston was sued for R 350,000 by Solal Technologies, which sells and promotes “untested remedies for a range of serious illnesses”.

More recently, Dr Steinman and CamCheck were the subject of a takedown notice from Ultimate Sports Nutrition and its founder Albe Geldenhuys, who alleged that “unlawful comments were posted” and that defamatory “remarks and/or comments” had been made by Dr Steinman. CamCheck was subsequently moved offshore.

The claims made in the takedown notice are weakly supported or completely unsupported. In South African law, claims of defamation fail (or, should fail) if the purportedly defamatory comments are true, and in the public interest. CamCheck’s claims are certainly in the public interest, as I outline above with reference to the different sorts of harm that can result from pseudoscience or bad science.

Furthermore, as Dr Steinman exhaustively documents in response to the takedown notice, USN has a track record of adverse findings at Advertising Standards Authority hearings (locally, as well as in the UK) related to making unsubstantiated claims about its products, and to changing the names of products which have been the subject of such hearings and then re-introducing them to the market.

If you do a Google search for “usn rapid fat loss” – as a consumer of its products might plausibly do – the third link (for me, but it will be a prominent link for anyone) leads you to its “12 Week Rapid Fat Loss Plan”, which promotes “Carb Block”, a product the ASA ruled against in 2014. If you sell a product which doesn’t do what it says, are you a “scam artist”, as Steinman alleges? On balance of probabilities, it certainly seems a defensible claim, at the very least, and a claim that Steinman could reasonably believe to be true.

USN doesn’t want its customers to know when products are untested, or contain ingredients that aren’t capable of doing what USN claims they do. As unfortunate as that might be, the takedown notice was only the start of its efforts to make sure customers don’t get to hear these things.

USN and Geldenhuys have now launched a defamation suit against Dr Steinman, claiming R1 million in damages for Geldenhuys and for USN itself.

As with the extended, but ultimately futile, attempts by the British Chiropractic Association to silence Dr Simon Singh’s criticisms, this is little more than an attempt at legal bullying – especially in the light of the ludicrous amount of damages sought.

Some readers might be familiar with the “Streisand Effect”, after Barbra Streisand’s 2003 efforts to suppress photographs of her Malibu home simply drew more attention to those photographs, thanks to internet sharing. USN wants to keep fair criticism underground, but thanks to this lawsuit, perhaps that criticism will end up more Streisand than silent.

Rousseau teaches at the University of Cape Town. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

See also: USN sues consumer activist.

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