The Guild of the Gullible?

I think that this may be a story of despair. It may be a story about the mountain that has to be climbed if we are to live a society where quacks find it hard to profit from their lies, misinformation and delusions. At present it is a story about how newspapers contribute significantly and fundamentally to the environment in which people are swindled out of their money by quacks and how illness and suffering may be prolonged by irrational thinking. The story is not over yet, but let me tell the first part.

The story starts with my newspaper quack story alert engine that I have been working on recently. It is beginning to settle down now, and has spotted some interesting departures from reality in our esteemed organs. One of the first stories to emerge from the scans appeared in the Sunday Mail You supplement (where else?) and scored a maximum 10 Canards. The article was entitled Good Vibrations and was a completely typical, uncritical and bonkers, piece of quack reporting on some outlandindish pseudoscientific ideas, where someone was hoping to make money out of the credulous by selling some worthless piece of Christmas cracker trash for lots of money. Blatant quack advertorial. Nothing really unusual; we’ve seen this sort of thing recently in the Daily Junk Mail with that sorry story about the migraine zapper.

I thought it would a shame for the first 10 Canard story to go uninvestigated by the little black duck, so off I went…

The article was as mad as a box of frogs. Completely hatstand. And well deserved of its 10 Canards. The article is full of the usual rubbish about bodies having energy fields and how illness is caused by imbalances in our ‘biofield’. Furthermore, the nonsense continues with how electrical items can disturb our – damn, I’m tired of writing this rubbish, let me quote…

Holistic physician Dr Mark Atkinson explains: ‘the body’s electro-magnetic field provides a template for the physical body; any imbalance in this field gets reflected by the body as a disturbance in cell structure and function, which is the precursor state to illness.’

Yep, it starts off with that giveaway word ‘holistic’ and then gets worse. As an aside, let’s just run Dr Mark Atkinson through the Quackometer. – Ahh, 7 Canards. Thought as much.

Moving on. The article then goes on to do two things. First, it gives an endorsement for Dr Atkinson’s Bi-Aura nonsense philosophy. Bi Aura appears to be similar to that fount of sanity, Reiki, but

Bi-Aura therapy uses both cosmic and earth energy to energise and balance the body.

I see. The addition of cosmic energy, over and above mundane earth energy, is bound to make Bi-Aura the energy healing methodology of choice for the more discerning individual.

Secondly, the article goes on to give another glowing testimonial for a cheap piece of tat called a QLink pendant. This trinket was introduced to the author by Dr Wendy Denning (2 Canards) and Professor Kim Jobst (7 Canards) as employing “Sympathetic Resonance Technology which, the makers claim, ‘repairs and tunes your biofield’ so it functions optimally”. Marvelous. You can buy one for £70.

The QLink has cropped up on a number of quack busting sites. I won’t bother to go into details here – I have more interesting things to say. If you wondering, why not try the excellent Skepticality podcast that covers this subject. There is loads more on the web. James Randi has also offered anyone (not just the makers) $1,000,000 if they show that the QLink works as claimed. Ought to be easy – spend about $100, make a million. No one has even tried yet.

But I can’t help it a little more digging. Let’s look at the end of the article in a bit more detail…

Dr Atkinson says: ‘it made a lot of difference to me when I was working hard at the computer, in terms of sustained energy and clarity of thinking.’

Are you sure about that Dr Atkinson? Clarity of thinking?

As with pharmaceutical drugs, there may be a placebo effect although Professor Jobst points out that the ‘remarkable’ effects seen in race horses and other animals sporting a Qlink mean there is something more, which merits serious research. One thing I know: neither technology carries a risk of side effects.

The Prof Jobst obviously deserves some more attention – but not now.

Let’s just say for now that the idea that electrical ‘smog’ from appliances in our home can somehow disrupt ‘energy fields’ in our bodies is speculative at best. Also, that a small pendant could be ‘treated’ with the latest ‘quantum mechanic’ technology to remove this danger has absolutely no basis in theory or experimental validity. It’s utter bunkum and it is hard to believe that the makers believe this themselves. I could say more about this – but others have done a fine job.

The thing that spurred me into writing this blog was when I had a look into the background of the author of this piece. The writer is a Sarah Stacey (2 Canards). Googling reveals that Sarah has written a number of health and beauty books, won some awards for health writing and “was elected the first Honorary Chair of the Guild of Health Writers”. Now that caught my attention.

Why should that be? Well, Guilds are an ancient tradition where people with similar business interests and skills can get together, organise themselves, uphold morals, standards and conduct within the trade, and generally make sure the cheats, charlatans and the incompetent do not tar the good names of the profession. Surely, a Guild of Health Writers should be very concerned if people are writing utter nonsense under their banner? Surely a Guild would wish to ensure that high standards are upheld and that health writers do not become simple conduits of quackery? Maybe we have found allies in the quest to get good health advice to people?

Who are the Guild of Health Writers? Their web page describes them as

a group of journalists dedicated to providing accurate, broad-based information about health and related subjects to the public.

That’s fantastic. Do they know that one of their members is uncritically promoting quackery to their readership? Do they realise that it is none other than their first ‘Honorary Chair’? Surely, they must be concerned that their principles are not being upheld? Do they have a complaints procedure? Do they take sanctions against their members who abuse the trust the public put in them to be be accurate? Their web site is not clear on these matters. Obviously, an email was in order.

Now, I would not have written this until I got a reply back. But it has been a little while now without even an acknowledgement. I also, have found out that Sarah Stacey has been the Vice President of the Guild. If true, then I fear a rather depressing outcome. Looking into the Guild a bit reveals founding members with interests in ‘integrative medicine’, that favourite word combination of Prince Charles, which is just another way of saying that quackery is being slipped in the back door of real medicine.

So, I would like to open this up and ask some more general questions. I fully understand that the Guild wishes to be ‘broad-based’ and this may well include writing about non-conventional medical approaches, which I have no quarrels with (as long as any claims made are properly caveated). However, what I would really like to know is answers to the following questions:

  • Does the Guild take a stance on whether its members only write things that are properly backed up by sound evidence and if not, make it very clear that what they are writing about is controversial, speculative and unproven?
  • Does the Guild care if its members are just simple advertising conduits for those wishing to defraud the public, and if a member acts as such, what sanctions they would take?
  • How does the Guild help its members find out if medical claims can be properly backed up, such as the skill of reading a scientific paper or doing publication searches?
  • Do the Guild encourage its members to seek out broad training in health and science matters, such as how trials are conducted, the nature of evidence and statistics etc?

These things are important. The public get huge amounts of health information from the press. People do tend to think that reporters would not publish something if it was completely groundless. A political story that had no basis in truth would be rightly hammered and could even result in legal action. Why not health matters? I worry that so many of these journalists have English Literature degrees. Not in itself a bad thing, but we would not expect an economics journalist not to have a good foundational understanding of economics. We would not expect a political writer to have no appreciation of our constitution and political systems. Why should we not expect our health writers to be equally well informed?

The current president of the Guild is Simon Crompton. His web site is very informative, he looks like a very decent chap, has written on lots of interesting things, and does not appear to be obsessed with the darker medicinal arts. I will forward my email onto him to see if he has a view on these things.

I hope the responses to my enquiries are encouraging. As I have said, such a Guild could play a great role in keeping the health fraud industry out of the papers. I worry that, like the medieval Guilds, their original laudable aims have become corrupted, and that the Guild of Health Writers has become nothing more than a Guild of the Gullible.

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