Sales-fest or science?

By Grant Jacobs 14/10/2009

Like many biologists and medical professionals, I’m disturbed by the plainly wrong and misleading nature of anti-vaccine and natural remedy claims I’ve seen.

An advertised “Natural Health Expo” to be held this weekend in New Zealand has caused me to revisit how an earlier blog article on Crank ’scientific’ conferences suggested one simple test for credibility of scientific claims at these events.

Via Orac’s blog Respectful Insolence in his post “It’s baaaacck” I was alerted to the article Crank ’scientific’ conferences: A parody of science-based medicine that can deceive even reputable scientists and institutions by David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog.

David Gorski points a new trend to organisations that promote anti-vaccine or natural health remedy views and treatments: giving their conferences the veneer of scientific conferences, when they are anything but.

The conference David Gorski refers to is hosted by a group claiming to represent autism support. As David Gorski’s blog article shows, most biologists and medics will easily “spot the sham” in the “treatments” on offer and in the claims previously made by the more suspect speakers at this event. Biologists have background knowledge to draw on that makes this fairly straight-forward.

Many, if not most, parents with a “disabled” child won’t have as much background knowledge to draw on. (I write disabled in inverted double commas as I dislike the term.) It would be harder for them to be objective, too, having an emotional attachment to the issue. Both will make it harder to recognise suspect claims, especially when they are dressed up in the language of science.

One of my concerns is how the general public can “spot the sham”, as it were, without having expert knowledge of the science (or lack of it). Reading David’s article, it occurred to me that a simple rule-of-thumb that might help parents know when to be alert to a possible sham might be useful: if any speaker is also selling the product they are talking about, be very wary. If most of the speakers in a conference are selling the products that they talk about, be very wary of the whole conference.

I know this seems incredibly obvious reading it here, but it’s easy to forget when you’re in front of credible-sounding sales people.

In scientific conferences the scientists speaking are not selling products to consumers, they are arguing the case for their research findings before other scientists. The conference attendees are critics, not prospective clients. What scientific speakers are trying to earn is the judgement (and criticism) of their peers, not sales. And, well, maybe a job! Or new collaborators or students. But they’re not selling products.

Parents should ask themselves who the conference is targeting. If it’s targeting consumers, not other researchers (or “researchers” for those that don’t deserve the term), it’s not a scientific conference. If it’s aimed at selling products, treat it as–at best–a business expo or a sales-fest, or, at worst, a complete sham. And like always with sales people, don’t buy it then and there, especially if someone’s health or large amounts of money are involved. Walk away, think twice, think three times.

Of course, this advice isn’t enough on it’s own to avoid sham health remedies, but it’s a good start to be skeptical of the sales person.

As a quick self-test, have a quick look at this “Natural Health Expo“, to be held this weekend in New Zealand.

How many people do you count selling what they promote? How does that suggest you should treat the expo?

Or what about their speakers? Who is their target audience: possible clients or peer critics? Are they selling the things they speak about?

Let’s be fair, at one level–with some exceptions–there isn’t as much pretense of presenting things as science that are not in this conference compared to the autism conference mentioned earlier. It’s much more obviously a sales fest. But that’s the point. It’s a sales-fest, a marketing melange, not a source of sound independent advice.

As for explaining the unjustified claims made… there are simply too many! Some are truly scary, and, time-permitting, I’ll dedicate a following post to suggesting a couple of general thoughts and guidelines for visitors.

0 Responses to “Sales-fest or science?”

  • IN a previous job, I worked for a company which specialized in assaying natural based products (so called nutricuetuicals) on a contract RnD basis. We had alot of great products come through our doors which were very effective in a range of diseases from arthritis to cancer to diabetes. Unfortunatly we had alot of duds come through the same doors, often things that were already being marketed, usually by large, well known companies. In one particular instance we had one large NZ company threaten to take us to court, for as far as they were concerned they had contracted us to provide a positive claim for their product, not to assay it in the most clinically relavent assays available. Needless to say I do not trust their products any more, even though they make some tasty teas. In my years there I came to know alot about natural medicines and the buisness around them. There are several key points I took away. There are a number of good, effective nuticeutical medicines out there, but you have to find a good brand that standardises their prepartions with respect to the most active compounds. On this note, I am in favour of better labelling on these products and stricter rules around what claims they can make. Also, like pharmaceuticals, not everything works for everyone and it maybe a case of finding the right medicine for you. Myself, I grow and prepare several things that I have found work for me,but in saying that I have no hesitaion in going off to the Dr or pharmacy if I need to. Lastly, I would just like to say that too often all natural products are lumped in with, in particular, homeopathy (which I dont think works) and other, more fringe treatments. Please, dont dismiss all alternatives because of the plethora of ineffective puesdo-science based treatments or over zealous (and in my opinion slightly evil) money makers exploiting sick and poorly informed people.

  • The key word here is ‘evidence’, something I intend to write about later.

    I dislike the use of labels such as ‘alternative’ or ‘natural’ as to me they miss the point and seem to be usually emotive marketing tools rather than as meaningful terms.

    Many, if not most, evidence-based remedies are found in natural sources but they are usually manufactured rather than extracted for a range of reasons including purity, standardizing the dose, cost-effectiveness, to provide appropriate “delivery” of the active ingredient(s) to your body and so on.

    Whether a product is manufactured or “natural” or “alternative” isn’t really of the essence. Whether they have been demonstrated to work as claimed (and to what extent) matters, as does assurance of the consistency of the product (standards for manufacturing, etc.) and how they are administered (qualifications and regulations). The system for medical treatment isn’t there to beat down on “alternatives”, it’s there to ensure what is done is meaningful.

    I agree with your comment about about claims and labeling. I have been hoping to write about that, too, but I have a day job…!

    When you wrote “In one particular instance we had one large NZ company threaten to take us to court, for as far as they were concerned they had contracted us to provide a positive claim for their product, not to assay it in the most clinically relavent assays available.” I was reminded me of a phrase that has been echoing around those writing about the Simon Singh case (or words to the effect of what these people are writing): “evidence, not lawyers, please”.