CAM News Spin Fail of the Month Award – August 2012: The Alliance for Natural Health

If there is one thing I like more than finding a mental CAM article, its finding spin. Or perhaps more accurately finding examples of spin so poor that the only rational response is simply to point, and laugh loudly whilst waving the facts at it. I am going to select a turd from the cat litter of CAM news each month based on its wrongness, its omission of facts, or just its balls out cheek in asserting something which is demonstrably wrong. Without further ado here is the very first winner, a minnow but a consistent performer…..

The winner for August is the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) for their article “Should advertising watchdogs get involved in scientific discussion?” published on the 22nd August. Before I give marks for technical ability and artistic merit, a full background on the issues can be found over at Stuff and Nonsense and within the ASA Adjudication itself.

So why does the spin in this article appeal? Well its naive, contradictory, paranoid and conflates the ASA adjudicting on the truthfullness of specific advertising claims with attempting to stifle scientific debate. It also has a whine about evidence and authority. In short, its a doozie.

Where to start?

“It’s important to realise that Babyjabs is by no means an ‘antivaccination’ site – it’s a vaccination clinic that offers vaccines that may not be easily available elsewhere.”

I’m not totally sure why this is so important. I guess we are just supposed to take the view that the ASA are chasing a doctor who has dared to step slightly outside the mainstream. Or something. I don’t know. To support this the ANH put forward a totally unsupported assertion of an altruistic aim to Babyjabs activities (the ANH just know ok, live with it)

“Its MMR page is attempting to offer impartial educational information without directly selling anything, and only falls under the ASA’s advertising remit because Babyjabs offers a commercial service.”

Now even a generous person reading a statement on the Babyjabs site like this

“We do not offer the MMR vaccine at BabyJabs We are concerned that the safety of the vaccine has not been adequately demonstrated, and believe that the single vaccines are suitable alternatives that are equally – possibly more – effective and are probably safer.”

with a link to a pricelist for the ‘safer’ alternative would conclude this it is in fact advertising and they do in fact directly sell. The information pushes the case for the product they are selling over an alternative, its akin to Apple having an article on how rubbishs PCs are on their website. It’s impartiality is open to question. I wonder what advice the Alliance for Natural Health offer about making difficult choices on their own MMR Campaign page:

“How do you decide when you don’t know who to trust? You do your own research and make up your own mind. You know that when people or websites are selling something they may not be offering completely unbiased information — and that goes for governments and companies as well as individuals of course.”

So taking an unrelated example: you shouldn’t neccesarily trust the advice to use single jabs in preference to MMR from the website of a limited company, say called Babyjabs Ltd, whose only shareholder is someone called Dr Richard Halvorsen who sells what he considers a ‘safer alternative’ to MMR. I am now 100% clear on that point, but less clear about why the ANH’s findit so difficult to either identify, or acknowledge a huge conflict of interest.

Putting these issues aside, the ANH say

“What really concerns us about this case is that the ASA has unilaterally handed itself the authority to police an important scientific debate,”

Back in reality, even a cursory review of the ASA Adjudication shows that they challenged Babyjabs on three very specific advertising claims and simply requested the evidence which support these claims. These claims were

“…Most experts now agree that the large rise [in autism] has been caused partly by increased diagnosis, but also by a real increase in the number of children with autism”…[…]…the [MMR] vaccine could be causing autism in up to 10% of autistic children in the UK – between 300 and 400 children a year”…[…]…The vaccine strain measles virus has been found in the guts – and brains – of some autistic children; this supports many parents’ belief that the MMR vaccine has caused autism in their children.”

Regardless, lets get back in character – who do the ASA think they are?! What do the ANH think people under the ASA’s jackboot should do?

“…with absolutely no basis in law or evidence of any relevant scientific competence…[…]…with no legal ability to levy fines or prosecute anyone…”

…so they could ignore them?…

“..If you are targeted by the ASA because of your website, don’t panic! There are ways to promote yourself that won’t draw their fire…”

…ahh! circumnavigate around them, I like it…wait, I thought they had no powers?…

“…If you’re a natural health practitioner or product manufacturer in the UK, get informed about how the CAP Code and other relevant legislation affects what you can say about yourself and your products…”

…erm, don’t the ASA adjudicate against the CAP Codes? This is like getting advice from Gollum. Are you all still following this?  Raise your hand if you are lost. Don’t feel embarassed.

This ludicrous moan about the ASA however, is the money shot which secured the award for the ANH

“Its ruling merely provides opposing evidence to that provided by Babyjabs, while pointing repeatedly to “general medical opinion” to further justify its decision. The latter is deliciously ironic, since any natural healthcare advocate who referred to the favourable opinion of a respected body, such as the World Health Organization, would be quickly accused of an ‘appeal to authority’ by anti-natural skeptics.”

Yep, its the old my evidence vs your evidence argument and the implied demand that different views should have equal weight, even when one is the concensus evidence based view held by the Department for Health, the World Health Organisation and the other viewpoint is based it seems entirely on the word of an individual ‘authority’. Did I mention that some of the evidence put forward to the ASA to support Babyjabs website claims was from Dr Richard Halvorsen’s own book?

Delicious irony is in fact arguing others are reliant on a fallacious appeal to authority without knowing that’s exactly what you are doing yourself. For this reason and many others I congratulate the ANH for winning The Exit Door’s first CAM News Spin Fail of the Month Award. The prize is a Bic ‘for her’ Pen in electric pink, and Assange’s Legal Bill (postage not included on the pen).

If you see a CAM News Spin Fail you think should be featured next month please let me know on Twitter: @Slipp_Digby, or email it to me.

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4 thoughts on “CAM News Spin Fail of the Month Award – August 2012: The Alliance for Natural Health

  1. Um…no.

    You’ve accused the ANH of thinking Babyjabs is some kind of altruistic organisation, yet they quite clearly state it’s a commercial enterprise. You overlook the fact that Babyjabs provided evidence to back up what it said, but that the ASA didn’t like it and chucked it out, for what look to me like spurious reasons – the adjudication doesn’t give any cast-iron reason for it, anyway. Not only have you missed the point about ‘appeal to authority’ by a country mile, you’ve made another ‘appeal to authority’ in the process. Not that I care, mind you, but the ‘skeptic’ police won’t like it.

    As for the wider issue – assuming that you reply to me, we’re having a debate. An exchange of views based on opposing evidence and differing interpretations of that evidence. All very improving, the stuff civilisation is made of etc. Imagine now that someone in a suit comes along, brandishes a list of ‘regulations’ and says that one of us can’t say something because those very clever people over there don’t agree. Hopefully, we wouldn’t stand for it, and at the very least we’d be annoyed and worried about our loss of freedom of speech.

    That’s exactly what the ASA is doing. It’s making it more difficult for you, me and the British public to hear different opinions on what is still an important debate, because the science is not settled. (Science is never settled, but that’s another discussion). All based on, in this case, a single complaint from your mate at Stuff and Nonsense – a single ‘skeptic’ out of a country of 60 million people. Are you happy with that?

  2. @Barney,

    Firstly, the above article doesn’t accuse the ANH of “thinking Babyjabs is some kind of altruistic organisation”. That would seem to be a misreading on your part.

    Secondly, the ASA adjudication states quite clearly that the website is misleading because it gives the impression that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. It futher states that, although the evidence provided by the advertisers suggested that there was an increased prevalence in children with autism, the advertiser did not provide them with evidence that any increase is in any way related to the MMR vaccine.

    How is this ‘spurious’?

    Thirdly, you evidently share the ANH’s misunderstanding of the ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy. It is only fallacious when the authority in question is irrelevant, i.e. when it is not an expert in the subject matter and/or there is no consensus among experts on the question under scrutiny. The WHO is, in this case, a relevant authority and there is also consensus amongst experts that MMR doesn’t cause autism.

    Finally, the ASA is not brandishing regulations at people having a free exchange of ideas – don’t be silly. The CAPs exist to prevent advertisers from misleading consumers. Advertisers can say pretty much what they like as long as long it’s the truth and they have the evidence to back it up. Halverson doesn’t have the evidence to back up his claim and that’s why the complaint was upheld.

  3. @Barney

    Limited companies generally promote their own services and interests and don’t do things like provide impartial information for free. The point I have made is that the ANH suggestion that Babyjabs are a source of ‘impartial educational information’ on MMR and are ‘not selling anything directly’ suggests an altruistic aim to their operations which is demonstrably and obviously wrong.

    The ASA rejected the evidence presented by Babyjabs because it didn’t rigorously support the three very specific claims that they were making. I would hope that you would agree that issues like whether autism is genuinely rising and if this is actually linked to the MMR vaccine demand a high quality of supporting evidence. Something Babyjabs simply didn’t present.

    What I find hilarious about the ANH is that they clearly don’t understand the difference between a valid appeal to a genuine authority which represents the consensus of expert opinion, and a fallacious one. The Dr cannot be considered an authority as he is not as they term him a ‘vaccine researcher’ (he’s written a book), disagrees with the consensus of other experts and there is a (not unreasonable) suspicion of bias, due to his finanical conflict of interest.

    You’ll have to forgive me for not addressing your comments about free speech fully, because it’s a strawman argument. It should be obvious that the ASA’s remit is limited to advertising and outside this people are free to say whatever they wish. I would however say that the activities of Babyjabs – books and MMR scare stories, and charging for alternative single jabs – do little to contribute to any ‘debate’ or provide any meaningful evidence to reach any different conclusion.

    I fail to see how the number of complaints is relevant to determining whether an advert is misleading or not. The ASA act in this manner regardless of the nature of the complaint. Are you suggesting that the ASA should only act when a majority think something is misleading?

    My ‘mate’ as you put it, is simply someone who writes a blog I happen to read because it contains arguments I find much more convincing and rational than either Babyjabs, or the ANH.

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