An alliance of playground bullies

Oh, good grief! I’ve just read the Alliance for Natural Health’s report on a meeting convened last week by David Tredinnick MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Group for Integrated HealthcareMiles Lockwood of the Advertising Standards Authority was the invited speaker. The exact purpose of the meeting is left to our imagination and I imagine Miles Lockwood used it to put people straight on a few things. The purpose of the ANH report was evidently to try to make it look as if the ANH are doing something useful in the battle for the rights of promoters of mostly useless ‘therapies’ to mislead the public.

I’ve mentioned the ANH before on this blog after seeing Director Rob Verkerk’s performance at the amusingly mistitled Scientific Research in Homeopathy last year, where he spent a large part of his slot slagging off Ernst, Goldacre, et.

He is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Natural Health — whatever that is — and, like many of the presentations at this ‘Scientific Research in Homeopathy’ conference, his had nothing much to do with scientific research but focussed much more on dissing the methodology employed by scientific researchers because it doesn’t suit quack remedies.

The tired old special pleading that the scientific method isn’t suitable for faith-based therapies is one of the ANH’s favourite fallacies, the other one being the soporifically familiar ploy beloved of those with a vested interest in such therapies, which is to cast aspersions and accuse anyone they perceive as threatening their livelihoods as being on Big Pharma’s payroll.

The attack on Professor Williamson

A recent example is the unbelievably nasty and spineless attack launched by the ANH against Professor Elizabeth Williamson, a pharmacist at Reading University. Williamson has written books about herbal medicines, a fact which, at first glance, might seem to make her someone the ANH would want to be nice to. Goodness knows they spend enough time brown-nosing homeopaths and suchlike. But Williamson apparently believes that herbal medicines should be properly regulated in the interests of public protection — a position which, for the bullies of the ANH, makes her fair game.

In a recent newsletter, the ANH accuse the Professor of purposefully misrepresenting the European Union’s Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive in an attempt to “deliberately mislead the Minister of Health”. The article also hints darkly at a connection to “large phytopharmaceutical companies”.

We urge all our followers to share this story far and wide!

Followers? Do the ANH see themselves as cult leaders or something? I invite readers to read the last comment below the article in question for an example of the kind of followers they attract.

A few days after this attack on her character and integrity, we learn without surprise from a different site that Williamson is more than a little upset about it. Who could blame her?

The ANH response?

We are sorry that Prof Williamson has chosen to take this personally, but she hasn’t been attacked!

It seems that, in the minds of the ANH gang, publicly accusing someone of lying and implying they are corrupt, isn’t attacking them. Are these people for real?

Censoring the truth about supplements

As they have no conscience about suggesting other people are Big Pharma puppets and using this as a means of diverting attention away from the important issues of public health and safety, it came as no surprise to learn from a generally reliable source that,

The ANH is an industry lobby group who work mainly for food supplement companies and spend much of their time lobbying the EU and governments to give such retailers an easy legislative life. They do this, of course, under the banner of ‘health freedom’ and people’s choice to ‘alleviate suffering’ through ‘natural health choices’.

This would explain a spectacularly dishonest review by the ANH of an episode of Channel 4’s Food Hospital programme, which included an item on food supplements. In the second episode of this new series, we heard nutritional physician, Dr Alan Stewart, who has worked as a consultant for “numerous food supplement manufacturers” himself, proclaim:

There is some evidence that vitamin C, high dose, short term, may be of benefit because it may have anti viral properties and give your immune system a boost. We have to differentiate between that and long term regular use of high dosage vitamin C. There is now some evidence that women who were taking high doses of vitamin C — about a gram or more — had a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, so we can’t assume that vitamins are harmless.

A lot of people aren’t eating that well and they’d be better off to not waste money on supplements but to eat a healthier diet…There’s a real mismatch between who buys supplements and who needs them. The people with the worst diets are not the people taking supplements; it’s actually the people with the best diets who are taking supplements. So the use of supplements currently in the UK only lowers the risk of deficiency by about 1 per cent according to national diet and nutritition survey data.

If the ANH are indeed the paid mouthpieces of the food supplement industry, then it isn’t surprising that, in the ANH website’s review of the episode, neither Dr Stewart nor the points he makes are mentioned at all. Instead, it wrongly attributes to the programme’s reporter, Dr Pixie McKenna, a conclusion she did not reach.

The ANH review has Dr McKenna concluding that “people were better off not wasting their money on supplements and should buy more fruit and vegetables instead” and suggests this is, “a little misplaced, to say the least, in light of what was happening in the four cases aired in the same episode”.

This is a blatant misrepresentation of Dr McKenna’s position. In fact, having specifically pointed out that some people, e.g. pregnant women, people who drink and smoke a lot and those who can’t absorb enough vitamins through illness, may benefit from supplements, what Dr McKenna actually said was,

If we’re eating a healthy diet, taking supplements isn’t going to make us extra healthy.

In case anyone skimmed through the quote from Dr Alan Stewart above, I’ll summarise his main point in one sentence:

Most of the food supplement industry’s customers don’t need the supplements they are buying because they are already eating healthy, balanced diets.

Just to reinforce the point, I see that the The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics has updated its review on appropriate use of vitamin supplements. [Who should take vitamin supplements? Medical Letter 53:101—103, 2011] The article concludes:

In healthy people living in developed countries and eating a normal diet, the benefit of taking vitamin supplements is well established only to ensure an adequate intake of folic acid in young women and of vitamins D and B12 in the elderly.

  • There is no good reason to take vitamins A, C, or E routinely.
  • No one should take high-dose beta-carotene supplements.
  • Long-term consumption of any biologically active substance should not be assumed to be free from risk.

(Thanks to the Consumer Health Digest for the information.)

After Dr Stewart’s interview, Dr McKenna did NOT say that people, instead of taking supplements, “should buy more fruit and vegetables”. She simply rephrased Dr Stewart’s point that if you are healthy and eating a good diet, supplements will not add extra benefit, which is the exact opposite of what the food industry — and, apparently, the ANH — want you to believe.

So Dr McKenzie’s comments were not “misplaced…in light of what was happening in the four cases aired in the same episode”. The two cases — the reviewer later revises it down to the two cases in which supplements were actually used — weren’t the typical food supplement customers to whom Dr McKenna’s comments were addressed; they were people with very distressing conditions. If you click here and scroll down, you’ll be able to read their individual stories. Contrary to what the ANH review states, at no point did Dr McKenna suggest cases like these should not take supplements.

The ANH could have used direct quotes from the programme and fairly represented what was shown but they didn’t; instead, while rhapsodising about the programme as “breaking new ground with food as medicine concept”, they censored the excellent advice that most of us don’t need supplements, while misrepresenting Dr McKenna’s view and dismissing her as having a “deeply ingrained distaste of supplements”.

With reassuring predictability, the ANH review of the programme rounds off with this typical bit of ancient quack wisdom:

It’s worth pondering that most of the negative studies associated with use of vitamin and mineral supplements have been undertaken directly or indirectly by Big Pharma.

Just about everything I’ve read from the ANH makes ‘observations’ of this kind. The idea that Big Pharma is threatened by faith-based therapies and food supplements is, of course, one that is very dear to the hearts of those whose personal investment in such therapies has affected their critical thinking skills. This would explain why Verkerk’s gang play on it so much.

A hissy-fit and more censorship

Indeed, I see that the ANH Executive Co-ordinator, Meleni Aldridge, has been “a practitioner of alternative and complementary medicine for 23 years” and has all these letters after her name: BSc Nut Med Cert LTFHE mBANT. She might even be responsible for the Food Hospital review. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that either these “qualifications” or that dishonest review — if she did indeed write it — are in any way indicative of a lack of integrity on Meleni’s part. But there is a little matter of another misleading review that appeared on the ANH website and this one was under Meleni’s name. It was a review of the play, Alternative, that I blogged about in the summer. Meleni didn’t like the play and I don’t blame her. Who would enjoy sitting through a play that pokes merciless fun at what you stand for? (The play used a homeopath but anyone who promotes pre-science cult therapies would have fitted the bill.) She wrote:

Alternative is, in fact, a collaboration between the husband-and-wife Burton team and the ‘skeptics united’ of the charmless Nightingale Collaboration. This new venture appears to herald a change of tack for them — not content with ruining the lives of natural healthcare practitioners by acting like the most tedious of playground bullies, they are now contaminating the Arts with their particular brand of biased and reductionist thinking.

A response from the Nightingale Collaboration attempting to correct any impression Meleni might have inadvertently given that the NC had contributed either financially or creatively to the production, was never published. This may be an indication that Meleni isn’t as good at taking it as she is at dishing it out. We shall see. Anyway, here is the unpublished comment:

 The Nightingale Collaboration’s support for this production is limited to helping to publicise it, in exchange for publicity for our organisation, in its programme and website. We didn’t help to finance it, if that’s what you are insinuating.

I note with interest your suggestions that preventing those who make money out of alternative therapies from making false claims about them is “ruining their lives” and that we are “playground bullies” for demanding they be held to the same standard of honesty in their marketing as every other advertiser. Indeed, given the high-profile cases of people’s whose lives have been ruined by believing the false claims of alternative practitioners, I’m surprised you don’t share our worthy goal.

Each to their own, as they say. Same goes for the play.

The Alliance for Natural Health people are very well placed to get across the importance of being able to make an informed choice about healthcare and the responsibility of advertisers to be truthful. Claiming that homeopathy, cranial sacral therapyreflexology, or whatever, can treat long lists of serious conditions is not truthful. I have already given a few examples of lives ruined because people believed in the false claims made by homeopaths. For easy reference, here they are again:

Cameron AyresGloria ThomasJaneza PodgorsekPenelope Dingle. And here’s a reminder of the Australian documentary about Penelope Dingle, in which we hear from her sister that, as Penelope lay dying slowly in agony from cancer, she wouldn’t take any painkillers “in case they interfered with the homeopathy”. Strewth!

The ANH apparently supports the right of so-called healthcare practitioners to say pretty much what they like in their advertising and, without a trace of irony, slags off as “bullies” those who are trying to get false claims removed. Do they care at all that people have died horrible deaths thanks to the faith-based therapies they are championing? Evidently not as much as they care about lining their pockets. 🙁


So how does the Verkerk gang approach the matter that there is a regulatory body that is “independent of both the Government and the advertising industry and…recognised by the Government, the courts and other regulators such as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Ofcom as the body to deal with complaints about advertising”?

Why, by diverting attention away from the lack of truth and decency in so much quack advertising and questioning ASA staff’s competence, of course.

Dr Verkerk drilled the six ASA representatives over their respective backgrounds and skillsets. Despite somewhat defensive and indirect responses from the ASA, it seemed that none of the relevant staff possessed scientific qualification.

Phooey! It wouldn’t matter a jot to Verkerk if the relevant ASA staff were the most qualified scientists in the world. Let’s remind ourselves of what he has written about Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRCP, FRCPEd,

Scientists like Prof Ernst have become so introspective over their worship of their reductionist methods…

And of Ben Goldacre, who devotes a large part of his life to exposing bad science, he snivelled:

I don’t think he’s a very good doctor or scientist.

The song and dance Verkerk makes over qualifications is a smokescreen. In fairness, I can’t recall seeing on the ANH website a single positive reference to the scientific method as understood by reputable scientists. The ANH doesn’t appear to share the contradictory position taken by so many practitioners, which is to quote any scientific paper they think supports their position while simultaneously arguing that the scientific method is not suitable for CAM. No, the ANH position seems to be pretty consistent and it is that any science that doesn’t give the results they want is ‘reductionist’ and any scientist who uses the scientific method is a bad scientist. If the ASA staff were scientists, I don’t doubt for a moment that they’d still be insulted by Verkerk, but instead of bemoaning their lack of qualification he’d be slagging them off as bad scientists who worship the reductionist method or some such crap.

The fact of the matter is that the relevant ASA staff only need to be experts in the Codes of Advertising Practice, which are underpinned by consumer protection legislation and reflect UK and EU law. Every other industry strives to abide by the regulations, apparently without having the pomposity to question the competence of experienced, professional staff. These include industries which, unlike most quack therapies, do actually have something to do with science. Only quack practitioners and their allies demand special treatment and only particularly dim-witted quacks and their apologists will be impressed by the ANH’s suggestion that agreement to participate in last week’s meeting at the House of Commons was “a slick PR stunt on the part of the ASA”.

Cripes, they really know how to win friends and influence people who matter, don’t they?

From the rest of the ANH report of the meeting, we learn nothing surprising:

The CAM community don’t regard the dissemination of information that relates to their practice as ‘marketing’ in the way interpreted by the ASA.

Oh. So on Planet ‘Natural Health’, printing a pile of leaflets advertising yourself as a homeopath and claiming that homeopathy can treat heart disease and cancer isn’t ‘marketing’, apparently.

And, of course, putting a list of serious conditions on your website and claiming that the therapy that you are selling can help them, is just the ‘dissemination of information’.

The CAM community could never have known in 2008 that the ASA’s remit would be extending in 2011 to all online/digital media… or that they would clamp down using the bully tactics that they have employed in 2011.

Yes, as the CAM community aren’t the brightest sparks at the best of times, I can just about believe it would never occur to them to find out about such tiresome things as the Codes of Advertising Practice, which promotional materials like the leaflet above — found in the waiting area of my local optician — have always been subject to, or that the ASA’s remit would one day be extended to include websites.

But what are these “bully tactics” of which they speak? Coming from a group that urges its followers to help publicise the vicious character assassination of some hapless academic, the ASA must have behaved pretty badly, right? Did they write to them all threatening prosecution or something?

Far from it. Back in March, after being flooded with complaints about homeopathy websites, the ASA wrote a polite and informative letter to the site owners, giving them a generous three months to accomplish what they could have managed in three weeks if they took the requirement to be legal, decent, honest and truthful seriously — or if the ASA had really decided to bully them. A hat tip to those practitioners who had the integrity and common sense to just get on with it and amend or remove their websites; they make the rest look like snivelling infants. “Bully tactics”, my arse.

A large number of homeopathy complaints were, of course, orchestrated by the Nightingale Collaboration (or “the increasingly fascist Nightingale Collaboration” as the ANH would have it). Since then, the NC seems to be getting the credit for just about every complaint made against any website making questionable claims about any dodgy-sounding ‘therapy’.

In fact, the groundswell of opposition to the promotion of quack therapies in recent years is such that the ASA would have got plenty of complaints within the same time frame, with or without the NC. It’s just that, thanks to the NC, they got a lot more than anticipated, to the point where they announced publicly,”

It’s important to note that sending us additional complaints on the same topic is most unlikely to alert us to new issues and it can have the unintended consequence of slowing down our work.

The message from the ASA seems clear enough to anyone with all the parts of their brain working as a team. They take breaches of the CAPs seriously and try to work with advertisers to get them to comply but this can take time. Swamping them with complaints doesn’t make things happen any quicker — a point the NC took on board and, as a result, started doing things differently.

In a nutshell:

  1. Thanks to the NC, lots of people made very similar complaints to the ASA;
  2. The ASA explained that many complaints on the same issue were unnecessary and can slow them down.
  3. The NC co-operated and began submitting fewer complaints.

And I’ll wager this is pretty much what Miles Lockwood told his audience at the meeting.

As the  followers of the ANH probably don’t have all the parts of their brains working as a team, the ANH can get away with giving them this message:

In summary, the main positive coming out of the meeting — clearly intended to ensure a favourable hearing given the audience of a significant number of homeopaths — was that the ASA has apparently severed its connection with the Nightingale Collaboration.

This is hogwash, of course. The ASA hasn’t severed any connection with the Nightingale Collaboration because, outside of the fevered imagination of idiots like the ANH and their followers, there was no connection to sever.

This was the only ‘positive’ the ANH mention in their report of the meeting and, as it is nothing more than empty ANH spin, I am reassured that there were no positives at all from their perspective.

The unpalatable truth for them is that, as long as there are misleading claims being made on websites, complaints about them will be submitted — hopefully in a proportion that the ASA can manage efficiently — and the ASA will do whatever it deems necessary to hold the advertisers of alternative therapies to the same standards as other advertisers.

In the meantime, the ANH will no doubt continue to behave like the schoolyard bullies they are.

12 thoughts on “An alliance of playground bullies”

  1. “We are sorry that Prof Williamson has chosen to take this personally, but she hasn’t been attacked!”

    How do these guys live with themselves?

    Of course it was no more of an attack on the Prof than your article was an attack on Verkerk, Aldridge and the rest of them. Let’s hope they’re grown up enough not to take it personally. 😉

  2. Barbara wrote:

    >Of course it was no more of an attack on the Prof than your article was an attack on Verkerk, Aldridge and the rest of them.<

    A lot less of an attack because sceptikat has *demonstrated* that the ANH are fibbers and bullies.

  3. I posted a link to Zeno’s blog on the Swiss homeopathy report on the ANH website here:

    They posted a long and irrelevant response. I in turn responded with answers a few days ago but for some reason they haven’t seen fit to publish my response. I’m posting it here in case they never do.

    “Thank you for your response. I’ll take your questions one by one.

    1. “Why are you so convinced that the article you link to is “truthful”?”

    Well, I know it’s truthful because I checked out the all-important details and they turned out to be true.

    To be specific, Zeno’s article points out that as a result of the final report, the Swiss Government decided NOT to allow statutory reimbursement for homeopathy (and other alternative therapies) after June 2005 but that, because a public referendum endorsed the use of CAM, the Swiss Government has given it a temporary reprieve, giving the various therapies until 2015 to come up with evidence of efficacy and cost effectiveness. I find it strange, you don’t mention any of this in your news story.

    2. “Aren’t we simply witnessing how the same data can receive widely differing interpretations, depending on who’s doing the interpreting?”

    Indeed we are! The relevant data in this instance is that the Swiss Government has given homeopathy until 2015 to prove it works and is cost effective. Apologists for CAM will no doubt agree with your interpretation of this as the “Swiss Government finds homeopathy effective and cost efficient”. The rest of us will interpret it as meaning homeopathy has three years to prove itself.

    I sense we have differing interpretations of the word ‘truthfulness’, as well.

    By the way, as a courtesy to your readers, you might learn to embed links properly.”

  4. @Jem

    You’re not suggesting the Alliance of Natural Health have censored a comment that has exposed them as idiots and liars, are you? Why ever would they want to do that?

  5. I have only recently become aware of this argument, and I think hyper-rationalists and their targets alike would do well to keep it logical and refrain from name calling. The pattern so far is no more dignified than current blogs and counter blogs on the issue of deaths while in contact with the police. Thinkers should be able to do better.

    After years of studying bullies, I know something about this unpleasant dark corner of human nature. One of their characteristics is holding others to standards they disdain themselves. Please, all look in the mirror, now.

    Any kind of remedy or treatement offered to sufferers should clearly only be validated by its own methodology – so certain treatments CANNOT be called “scientific”. On the other hand, who will state, for the record, that medicine always was, is, and always will be, a branch of science, proceeding on the strict rules of experimentation that prevail in, say, physics?

    Calling homeopathists “witches” is no better than showing Galileo the instruments of torture, or attacking abstract artists’ canvasses.

    To all sides: if your case is so powerful as to justify gagging the opposition, show me this overwhelming truth – or grow up and accept that Democracy allows various points of view.

  6. I forgot to add that we all hope to love in a democracy. I know I do as I enjoy thinking for myself without experts in my face all the time – or perhaps you don’t.

  7. A rational response would be to rebut, if not refute, what I said. Satire could be an arty alternative, I suppose.

    Best of luck with hearing what you want to hear. I had hoped for something more constructive.


  8. No, a rational response is to dismiss silliness for what it is and not to waste any time on it. If you want to be constructive, try making a coherent argument.

  9. I cannot make a peer reviewable argument for respecting different views, and for tolerating each other’s comments. There is no “Science” in tolerating even what we find annoying, so I guess for you tolerance doesn’t exist.

    Once the state (or anyone else with clout – like sreligious or cientific advisers) gets the power to close down something it doesn’t approve of, anyone can be next. I don’t want that in my country. That’s the point you regard as “silly”.

    If the whole alternative medicine crowd are such a bunch of wasters in your view, just call them that, and then look for some work.

    I think you would be much happier in a less sentimental country. Unfortunately, the DDR is closed to business.

  10. For me tolerance doesn’t exist? I tolerate your silly comments, don’t I?

    I asked for a coherent argument, not a ‘peer reviewable’ one.

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