Not surprisingly, the awarding of the Bent Spoon to Consumer magazine saw a vigorous defence mounted by the Consumers’ Institute.
David Russell, chief executive of the institute, has said on a number of occasions that he considered that the institute had been “publically defamed” by the Skeptics, and that comments concerning the article were “extreme and defamatory.”
In the early days following the announcement, Mr Russell debated the issue with Dr Gordon Hewitt on Morning Report. He laughed off Kim Hill’s question of suing NZCSICOP over the alleged defamation.
The impression gained from Mr Russell during the debate was that the magazine had deliberately taken a soft line on alternative therapies because many people believed in them. Dr Hewitt picked up this point and challenged it by asking if Consumers’ Institute would then ignore taking action against a dangerous toaster merely because a lot of people used it.
The analogy was rejected, not answered. Mr Russell continued with this line elsewhere, stating that “given the strong public interest in [natural therapies] and surveys which indicate a large degree of satisfaction with natural therapies, we cannot see anything wrong with explaining to our members what is involved in a few of the more commonly-used therapies.”
One could argue that people were strongly interested in some of the various pyramid schemes that have appeared on the New Zealand scene, and that many were very supportive of them. This does not mean that they should be left uncriticised. In addition, NZCSICOP would have welcomed a real explanation of just what is involved in the therapies Consumer covered, but this was not done, as an examination of the article’s text clearly shows.
An astounding statement was made by David Hindley, research writer for the chief executive, in response to a letter of complaint made independently of the Skeptics. In it, Mr Hindley said:
If you are aware of recent research which conflicts with our findings, we would be very grateful if you could pass on details to us.
This suggests that Consumer‘s in-house research team came up with no such material, a suggestion which has extremely disturbing implications for the thoroughness of research and preparation put into the magazine’s material.
One point mentioned in the radio interview which, unfortunately, was not taken up was the suggestion Mr Russell made that alternative therapies can’t do anyone any harm, implying that one need not be concerned about them. There’s a dead baby in Wellington to disprove that. The unmonitored nature of alternative therapies and therapists means that there is very little hard data on the harm being done. Cases which end up in Coroner’s Court, however, cannot and should not be ignored.
The idea that “it’s all harmless anyway” had been repeated in other areas where Mr Russell has said that “our research into natural therapies indicates that, so long as the practitioner has the best training available, potential side effects are limited.” It would be startling to find direct side effects from water solutions and sugar tablets, foot massage or sniffing essential oils.
Mr Russell is apparently unaware that the vast majority of alternative therapists in New Zealand have very little in the way of actual medical training, and citing examples of such training from Britain or Europe is hardly applicable.
One could also question whethre there is any benefit in training in health-related practices which have no substantive evidence to support them. No matter how much time one spends training as a homeopath, this has no effect whatsoever on the fact that the materials used are dilute water and the methodology used medieval.
Nevertheless, Mr Russell states that he has “no qualms” about stating that there are “good” and “bad” homeopaths based on the level of training required in Europe.
A typical response has been to attack conventional medicine as not being adequate in some areas, in the apparent belief that adopting untested, unproven, undemonstrated therapies is somehow an answer to perceived inadequacies in orthodox medicine.
The language became stronger following the NZCSICOP conference, when renewed media interest was shown in the Bent Spoon Award. The Dominion reported Mr Russell as calling Skeptics “narrow-minded bigots.” [No we’re not suing for defamation either.] The report went on to quote him as saying:
In the 19th century, they would have been dismissing the discovery of penicillin because they did not have the evidence to prove it.
We can certainly agree with Mr Russell on this point, given that penicillin wasn’t discovered in the 19th century — it was first found in 1929 and not isolated until 1940…
However, questions of historical accuracy aside, the discovery and development of penicillin provides a perfect example of the sort of practice which Skeptics worldwide applaud. It produced miraculous cures but, unlike those of a more questionable nature, it did so under tested, controlled conditions time and time again. Within a few years of its mass production, penicillin had demonstratably saved thousands of lives, and it continues to do so.
The significance of penicillin was recognised in double-quick time, with the scientists involved awarded Nobel Prizes within four years of the substance’s purification. We would be interested to hear of Nobel Prizes, or any other recognised scientific awards, made for the “discoveries” of alternative therapists.
What is more, the incredible benefits of penicillin led to the search for, and discover of, other antibiotics which have also made obvious and effective contributions towards the good health and longer lives of a large proportion of this planet’s population.
What homeopathic remedy has had similar success? Consumer said that these remedies stimulate the body to heal illnesses, but there has been no clear evidence of this in the 200 years since their invention.
Mr Russell used the same analogy in the most recent issue of Consumer (September 1992), correcting his dating lapse. In this editorial, the Skeptics were accused of having a “surprisingly poor understanding…of how scientific knowledge is developed, and an even poorer ability to read properly.”
We feel that, on the contrary, Consumer and, by association, Consumers’ Institute have displayed an ignorance of basic scientific principles and scientific history, an unjustifiable defensiveness which has made them unwilling to admit any form of deficiency, and a degree of credulity unacceptable in a consumers’ protection organisation.
The editorial said that Consumers’ Institute is sending a magnifying glass to NZCSICOP to redress our reading problems — let’s hope that in the future their errors are so subtle we need the magnifying glass!