Consumer wins Bent Spoon again

Vicki Hyde announces the Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards for 2012.

CONSUMER magazine has won its second Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for continuing to promote homeopathic products as a viable alternative to evidence-based medical treatments.

In its September 11 2011 review of anti-snoring products, Consumer consulted a medical herbalist who was quoted as saying that “all homeopathic remedies may work wonders for one person and do nothing for another” and that “homeopathy is best prescribed on an individual basis, after extensive consultation”.

Homeopathy is known to exploit the well-recognised placebo effect where the body heals itself in many cases. Any “wonders” worked can be attributed to that effect, as homeopathic solutions are made up solely of water – a fact not known by 94 percent of New Zealanders purchasing such products.

Yet again Consumer has failed to point out that there are no active ingredients in a standard homeopathic product. Surely this should raise consumer protection alarm bells, akin to someone buying a microwave and receiving a cardboard box which they’re told will heat food via the cosmic power of the universe if you think hard enough…

Consumer did note that another expert had pointed out that “the efficacy of homeopathic remedies had not been demonstrated convincingly in evidence-based medicine.” This caveat was not adequate as far as the NZ Skeptics were concerned, particularly as the homeopathic products had a prominent place at the head of the list.

We’ve seen the homeopathic industry use selective quotes as part of their marketing and advertising strategy to get unwitting customers to pay $10 for a teaspoon of water. No doubt Consumer’s inclusion of homeopathic products will be used to boost business, despite the admission by the NZ Homeopathic Council that homeopathic products have no active ingredients. Disturbingly, Consumer‘s expert doesn’t seem to be aware of this admission, stating that ‘extra’ active ingredients could help.

A number of people had raised concerns about Consumer‘s willingness to feature such dubious products, with one nominator saying that the article had “destroyed Consumer NZ’s reputation as a organisation New Zealanders can trust”.

Consumer last won the Bent Spoon in 1992 for a similarly lacklustre examination of non-evidence-based health products. We’d hoped they’d learned something by now as our country’s main consumer advocate. What’s next – endorsing rubber bracelets as power-boosters for our athletes? Approving the sale of specially trapped sunlight in bottles to treat the blues? They should leave such shonky stuff to the tabloid press.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics’ Bravo Awards praise a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year. These included:

  • Margo White, for her health columns in the New Zealand Listener. It’s great to see informed writing on health issues, based on research and evidence, rather than the large amount of low-grade items we usually get, based on press releases and thinly disguised advertorial material. A number of White’s columns were nominated for a Bravo, such as the item ‘Lies, Lies and Eyes’ which reported research indicating there is no evidence for the claims by proponents of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to be able to tell if a person is lying or not simply by looking at the direction in which they glance.
  • Whanganui District Health Board member Clive Solomon, for supporting evidence-based medicine as the core focus for hospital care (see p3, this issue)
  • The awards were psychically conferred at the NZ Skeptics Conference in Dunedin.

Animal welfare issues whacked with Bent Spoon

Concerns over animal welfare issues on farms have seen Rural Women New Zealand and Fonterra rapped with the Bent Spoon, the annual recognition of gullibility and a lack of critical thinking awarded by the NZ Skeptics.

Rural Women New Zealand gave the Supreme prize in its Enterprising Rural Women Award to Homeopathic Farm Support, a company which follows the homeopathic practice of diluting substances until there is no active material left and then claiming that the water somehow “remembers” what was once in it. Homeopathic Farm Support provides a line of such products, claiming that homeopathy can be used to “prevent and treat symptoms of acute and chronic animal ailments” including mastitis, post-calving haemorrhage, pinkeye, scours, first aid and even emotional problems in livestock.

We had lots of members, including a number of vets, contact us very concerned that Rural Women New Zealand has applauded the use of magic water for treating serious cattle ailments, and that this potentially dangerous practice is apparently supported by a third of farmers supplying Fonterra. Rather than lauding the determination of the business owner to succeed in the face of little belief in alternative methods of healing, Rural Women New Zealand should be calling on their members to think long and hard about the welfare issues for their animals, and show that women can succeed in the hard graft of real farming. Fonterra should publicly distance itself from this or it will cop more criticism for tacitly supporting unacceptable New Zealand farm practices.

There have been many studies of homeopathy, but the only ones which show any convincing results are those produced by homeopathic businesses and other vested interests. This is akin to reading tobacco company journals which say that smoking is fine for your health. Studies that have been conducted by independent parties with proper controls and peer review, whether on animals or humans, have not found any benefit from homeopathic treatments. whatstheharm.net, a website tracking the physical and economic harm of a lack of critical thinking, has over 400 case studies of people who have died or been harmed by a belief in homeopathy.

We know that animals respond to human contact, and that this can certainly play a role in the stories of response to alternative treatments, in much the same way that people respond to such. But we can’t afford to let treatment of serious health issues reply on wishful thinking or the placebo effect. That’s clearly unethical.

A discussion paper on the ethics of homeopathics in veterinary use noted that “it would also seem clearly unethical to employ an unproven therapy such as homeopathy in cases where an acceptable and effective treatment already exists or where the patient is at risk for greater suffering if the unproven therapy fails.”

Others have raised the concern that the use of any substance, homeopathic or otherwise, without any actual data or evidence-based diagnostics, is a form of unapproved animal experimentation.

Fonterra has stated publicly that nearly 3000 of its 10,500 farmer shareholders are Homeopathic Farm Support customers, and Fonterra has worked with the company on organic programmes. Fonterra did not respond to repeated inquiries from the NZ Skeptics regarding their level of support for alternative treatments and the animal welfare issues that result.

Organic farmers don’ t have to buy into the wishful thinking of homeopathy in order to be successful. And if they want to build a serious export market, they can’t afford to ignore the welfare issues involved in treating suffering animals with nothing but water. Let’s hope that if there’s a foot-and-mouth outbreak we don’t have calls to treat it homeopathically – that could very well kill our country’s agricultural reputation for good.

A central principle of homeopathy is that every being is unique and the treatment must be tailored to the individual on all levels, physical, emotional and mental. The NZ Skeptics have previously called upon the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths to join them in criticising pharmacies for selling homeopathic products. NZHC did not respond to the request.

The Homeopathic Council should be concerned at products being flogged off over the counter with no questions asked other than ‘ do you want vitamins with that?’ We’ re appalled that you can sell water for $10 a teaspoon, and it’s distressing that this sort of exploitation is also being practised in our farming sector.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics have praise for a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year.

Lynley Boniface gains a Bravo Award for her Dominion Post column, “Why psychics should butt out of the Aisling Symes case”, castigating TVNZ for giving airtime to self-proclaimed psychic Deb Webber to promote her national tour and speculate on the then-unfolding tragedy of the missing Auckland toddler.

We see distraught families exploited regularly by the psychic industry. It just adds insult to injury to see such exploitainment supported by our state-funded television.

3 News reporter Jane Luscombe gets a Bravo for her informative look at the belief that amber teething necklaces leach a substance to help babies with pain and depression.

All too often we see television reporters take the easy option and swallow claims with nary a raised eyebrow. It was great to see a report where some research had been undertaken to show the claims were unfounded and a clear warning that the practice itself was a dangerous one.

Kate Newton of the Dominion Post also gained a Bravo for her item on Victoria University’s embarrassment over the homeopathy course it was offering in its distance education programme. The NZ Skeptics have been concerned at the increasing willingness of universities to provide facilities for the promotion of touring psychics, neurolinguistic programmers and other purveyors of dubious services.

Kate Newton also took the trouble to point out that homeopathic products are watered down to the point where no molecules of active ingredients remain. The homeopathic industry is very careful to downplay that aspect in their products and services, and it’s an important point to get across to the general public. Most homeopathic users think they are getting something in the expensive sugar pills and water drops they are buying, but they aren’t.

The awards were psychically conferred at this year’s conference dinner.

Scare Stories Endanger the Environment

Vicki Hyde hands out this year’s Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards

A documentary which highlights the “distress, cruelty, horror, ecocide, cover-ups and contamination” involved in 1080-based pest control has won the Bent Spoon from the NZ Skeptics for 2009.

Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand claims that 1080 kills large numbers of native birds, poisons soils, persists in water and interferes with human hormones. Hunters-cum-documentary makers Clyde and Steve Graf believe that 1080 has “stuffed the venison business”, and have been travelling the country showing their film since March.

The NZ Skeptics, along with other groups, are concerned that wide media coverage and nation-wide screenings of Poisoning Paradise will lead to a political push, rather than a scientifically based one, to drop 1080 as a form of pest control, with nothing effective to replace it. United Future leader Peter Dunne appeared in the film, and described 1080 as “an indiscriminate untargeted killer”.

Emotions run high in the debate, with one anti-1080 campaigner going so far as to hijack a helicopter at gunpoint and last month threatening to die on Mount Tongariro unless the documentary received prime-time billing.

Members of the NZ Skeptics are involved in various conservation efforts across the country. They have seen first-hand the effectiveness of 1080 drops and the brutal ineffectiveness of attempts to control pests by trapping and hunting, even in the smaller fenced arks, let alone in more rugged, isolated areas like Hawdon Valley or Kahurangi National Park.

People say that 1080 is cruel – so is a possum when it rips the heads off kokako chicks. Environmental issues aren´t simple; we are forever walking a difficult balancing act. At this stage, 1080 is the best option for helping our threatened species hang on or, even better, thrive. It would be devastating for our wildlife were we to abandon this.

I have a particular interest in this area, having served for eight years on the Possum Biocontrol Bioethics Committee, alongside representatives from Forest & Bird, the SPCA and Ngai Tahu. Over the past 20 years I have seen 1080 use become more effective with the advent of better knowledge and application methods, though I acknowledge there is always room for improvement.

We would dearly love a quick, cheap, humane, highly targeted means of getting rid of possums and other pests but until that day comes, we cannot ignore the clear and present danger to our native wildlife. To do so would be environmentally irresponsible in the extreme. People should be cautious about taking documentaries at face value. A 2007 TV3 documentary, Let Us Spray, has just been cited as unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

We tend to assume that documentaries are balanced and tell us the whole story, but the increased use of advocacy journalism doesn´t mean this is always the case. After all, remember that psychic charades in programmes like Sensing Murder are marketed as reality programmes!

The NZ Skeptics also applaud the following, with Bravo Awards, for demonstrating critical thinking over the past year:

  • Rebecca Palmer, for her article The Devil’s in the Details (Dominion Post 15 June 2009) pointing out that the makutu case owed more to The Exorcist than to tikanga Maori. Exorcism rituals, regardless of where they come from, have been shown to harm people, psychologically and physically. There are over 1,000 cases of murder, death and injury recorded on the whatstheharm.net website as a result of exorcisms reported in the Western world over the past 15 years. There are thousands more, for the most part unregarded, in places like Africa, or Papua New Guinea. These are all needless victims, often injured by people who care for them and who tragically just didn´t stop to think about the nature of what they were doing.
  • Closeup for Hannah Ockelford´s piece Filtering the Truth (11 September 2009), regarding the dodgy sales tactics by an Australian organisation which claims that New Zealand’s tap water can cause strokes, heart attacks, cancer and miscarriages. Paul Henry described the Australian promoter as a shyster using scare tactics targeting vulnerable people.
  • Rob Harley and Anna McKessar for their documentary The Worst That Could Happen (Real Crime, TV1, 29 July 2009). They took a hard look at the increasing tendency for accusations of accessing computer porn to be made on unfounded grounds, and how it can have devastating consequences for people.
  • Colin Peacock and Jeremy Rose of Mediawatch on Radio New Zealand National. Every week Colin and Jeremy cast a critical eye on New Zealand media. That´s something we all should be doing in demanding that we get thoughtful, informed news and analysis from our media.