A crash course in skeptical activism

Simon Perry, convenor of Leicester Skeptics, gave his talk at Westminster Skeptics on 12/7/10.

After a rousing introduction from another super Simon, Mr Singh, we were given a run-through of the results of Mr Perry’s desire to complain about things that deserve to be complained about; amongst them, the great Quacklash – read more about it over at Zeno’s Blog!

Skeptical Activism & The Quacklash


I’m more of a troublemaker than an authority.

Lots of us see things that we find objectionable and annoying. However, especially if we’re English, actually bothering to do something about it is quite rare. The world would much likely be a better place if more people took a bit of time to point out when something is amiss, so I respect Simon’s efforts – even if he mainly does it for fun!

I’ll recount:

1) the story of the Quacklash

2) Simon’s tips on complaining to the ASA and a few ‘case studies’

3) post-talk questions and comments.

The BCA (British Chiropractic Association) claim that spinal manipulation was used in China and Greece from as early as 2700-1500BC, but if you ask a historian; this predates writings by about 1000 years. So they’re off to a good start.

The BCA sued Simon Singh for libel; you can become familiar with the story via most skeptical blogs (including this one!). Since he couldn’t help Simon out directly, Mr Perry decided to look at the BCA’s members – all making the same kind of spurious claims.

Simon wrote a program to search the BCA member database using (but checked their claims by hand!) for practitioners’ claims and addresses of local Trading Standards Offices.

Mail-merge was well-utilised and letters posted; with 3 letters per ‘quack’ for good measure.

Similar was done for the GCC (General Chiropractic Council) – Zeno got out 524 complaints!


245 websites are now down. Some websites are still making claims but far fewer than before.

Editor’s comment on Ernst’s examination of the ‘evidence’

The GCC was reported to the ASA ; it has protected people (chiros) it should be regulating. Practitioners had to pay £1000/year to the GCC to be members; but if you’re being investigated you didn’t have to pay! The resulting investigations would have cost the GCC £600,000 so… they changed that rule.

The ‘evidence’ for chiropractic was released and debunked almost instantly by the blogosphere, many science blogs and indeed Prof. Edzard Ernst (left).

A review of the ‘evidence’ presented led to the judgement that the BCA was

not dishonest, just incompetent

The GCC admitted that there is no evidence for the existence or, therefore, pathological effect of subluxations; the fundamental principle of chiropractic. For more, see Zeno’s Obituary and Skeptic Barista.


A choice exerpt from Skeptic Barista’s post being:

“..the treatment of non-musculoskeletal conditions has yet to be properly explored in terms of efficacy and safety, and in terms of what both the patient and the clinician believe to be the purpose of the osteopathic intervention.”

Another admission that there is insufficient evidence, more worrying is the fact that its ‘safety‘ has not been properly explored!  



Use the ASA – they only work with leaflets and promotions though.

Going to Trading Standards won’t work the first time; multiple complaints from different people along with follow-up are required. One letter with hundreds or even thousands of signatures is useless; it’s still just one letter. But if many people have been ripped off/conned, they’ll listen.

Use the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) to access documents you’re entitled to see.

Use regulatory bodies; if they should be discredited, it’s more like tackling the root of the problem.

And finally, he really encourages people to go for it! Which is nice, when there’s been a lot of ‘blogging is pointless’ sentiment around lately (as there always has been, I think).

Sorry; seemed like an obvious one to me

If enough people do then it starts coming up in Google results and can overthrow the misinformation.

So, on to some examples.

I’ll give you something to complain about

First we see this leaflet as an example of something worth of complaining to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) about. Typical use of ‘quantum’ and other lay-baffling terms to sell rubbish to gullible/desperate people.

Some of the text, (?) where I can’t quite read it properly myself:

NES is a revolutionary approach to health. The culmination of 25 years of work into how physics explains biology – through the mapping of the quantum [?]dynamics body-field. Developed by Henry Massey(?) and Peter Fraser(?), the NES-Professional system integrates research from the fields of physics quantum biology, mathematics and Western and Chinese medicine. The results are the first accurate map of the human body-field, which acts as the master control system for the physics body like software on a computer and the development of a clinical system for restoring optimum health.

All Certified NES Practitioners are highly trained and are able to give screening results immediately which provide the basis for precise treatment recommendations via the NES infoceuticals.

Multi-Energetics has devised a unique method of imprinting a base of organic colloidal minerals with information representing different aspects of the optimal human body-field. When you take an infoceutical as drops in water, the OED(?) information acts as a magnetic signpost to the subatomic particles in your body-field, aligning these particles helps to restore optimal health.

The NES software is able to “read” your body-field and compare it to the optimum human body-field, which is encoded in the software. The NES infoceuticals then prepare information (or software) to restore your body’s proper functioning.

Hopefully, you think similarly to Simon:

How do you narrow down on one sentence in SO much bullshit?

Note that these little bottles of ‘infoceuticals’ (water) cost £12, the scan £60 – and it’s not just customers being ripped off. The ‘practitioners’ pay £5,000 for the software!

Sadly, while the company is still up and running, following ASA adjudication they are not making claims in advertising anymore.

On a more serious note, he points out that first generation Hindu immigrants are often fooled by such schemes – for example, in Leicester flyers were distributed by one Pandit Harinath Mukya saying that “people are conspiring against you” and have spent a certain amount of money doing so – now you should give him a load of money to find out who they are and what they’re doing.

Simon and friends had fun trying to get a photo of the guy as he was very secretive (but they did succeed!).

Trading Standards haven’t done anything so far; they need to receive several complaints, preferably from different people.

Sorry, I’m allergic to BS

Allergy tests crop up everywhere nowadays. Partly as a by-product of the kind of hysteria I was talking about in my previous post, people are obsessed with what they may or may not be allergic to. Life-threatening allergies seem to be more common (though whether they actually are, I don’t know) and people are being conned into spending lots of money on finding out what they should be avoiding eating/touching/seeing day-to-day.

Vega testing‘ is one such con, bringing in our favourite alt med, homeopathy. It is supposed to detect allergic reactions by passing a bit of electricity through glass-encased homeopathic ‘substances’ while you hold onto a probe. The current can’t actually pass through the non-existent substance anyway, seeing as glass is not well-known as an electrical conductor. D’oh.

Trading Standards didn’t do anything until 5 people were ripped off and went to the Small Claims Court separately, resulting in letters with cheques; the company claimed they weren’t using Vega machines (despite the advertising descriptions matching perfectly and people in consultations repeatedly using the term) and Trading Standards shut them down eventually!

400 (or 300??) items ‘tested from a piece of your hair’

Similarly, Chinese Medicine Shops are quite common. This one (right) was charging £35 for an allergy test, the specifics of which they couldn’t even agree on in their advertising!

Simon and a friend went in for the same tests; the results didn’t correlate with their actual allergies at all and they got two different sets of results… despite his friend taking in a sample of Simon’s hair!!

The shop owners actually defended themselves in the court (with a lot of spelling mistakes) but gave up to the tune of £95 cheques in the end. However, they are still running tests and Trading Standards hasn’t made a move in one year.

Another jewel in the crown of money-making cons is applied kinesiology; Simon described his experience of visiting a practitioner, in which they basically made things up about his ‘balance of good and bad bacteria’ based on how many times they pushed his arm down a bit (and his apparent resistance to that) when he was holding bottles of stuff.

Simon also said a few words on local psychics:



Have things ever not gone so well?

Yes! Lots of these tests are still operating. But it’s still worth doing; you learn to be more effective. Alan [Zeno] goes into depth and makes their life hell forever!!

We need another legal campaign! There’s a mess; for example Trading Standards and the MHRA [‘homeopathic’ neuropeptide for MS; do read this, it’s shocking] – can we sort out responsibility? – David Colquhoun

Yes, it needs to be done; Trading Standards don’t really know what their job is.

Are skeptics trying to have it both ways? [By going to legal regulators, whilst complaining about litigous indiduals/corporations etc.] – Jack of Kent

A line is crossed when dishonest claims are made in order to sell a product. When [perceived] Authority in a subject is used to make a profit.

The UK has fairly well-functioning authorities compared to, for example, South Africa. How do we go about these kinds of activities elsewhere? Do you have any recommendations?

No… If there are no regulatory bodies, blog? But this has a limited audience. Try to educate locals, hold protests, use the press.

Which is preferable? More stringent regulation or power to the people?

Why is enforcing honesty in business against ‘power to the people’? I have issues with other regulation but not honest claims; if anything well-informed people have more power [with which I wholeheartedly agree, by the way!].

Is part of the problem with alternative medicine that if fosters bad feeling towards ‘scary science’?

Yes, certainly in some cases. The Mail etc. undermine science and spread the naturalistic fallacy [‘natural’ == good].

Can skeptics come across as intellectually elitist and should campaigns be more focussed; demonstrating why you choose these things? If there’s a different in the scale and/or seriousness of the problem, should we present reasons?

[See next post for a thorough examination of this question!]

Have you experienced bullying?

Yes! I love hate-mail. The decisions are down to the regulators in the end.

Are there absolute right/wrong issues?

Should we avoid things because it could be seen as elitist?


Are we dissipating our energy by being unfocussed?

Yes. The Quacklash focussed on something and was effective and 10:23 was genius!

Is the danger in putting emphasis more on easily-deconstructed things, rather than things of great danger to public health?

We can use certain serious cases to demonstrate points. Pick the lower fruit first [to address JoK’s Why not Big Pharma?]. Also these ‘little’ things can actually be a lot more focussed and serious under the surface.

Do you despair at made-up claims that are ‘scientific’ and marketing picking up on this?

It’s not that harmful with a disclaimer. It’s a bit stupid and contributes to scientific illiteracy.

Is there a danger of racism/cultural stereotyping [re: the Hindu community]?

I don’t see a problem, but regarding anecdotes on superstition in first generation immigrants, it’s racist to not attack claims because someone is of a particular ethnicity or religion.

Don’t you think cosmetics industries etc. contribute to fatalities and illness due to stereotypes that shouldn’t exist? [Re: an earlier point that adverts for make-up etc. aren’t significantly damaging]

I’ve never personally seen the influence, are these not different from medical claims?

The ASA issued guidelines regarding survey size and conclusions etc. – originating with “8/10 Cats” … Statistics can be correct but still misleading. – Zeno

Is there any benefit to taking out fliers when people get free publicity from newspaper reviews?

The ASA deals with advertising, yes, and also press releases? [I don’t know if we got a definite conclusion on this]

Closing Comments

My only prior experience was complaining about sausages.

– Simon P.

Complain to the ASA if the advertiser says <this> and you don’t think they can provide the evidence. Use a bit of common sense, intelligence and skepticism! They are causing people to part with their hard-earned cash.

– Zeno

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