Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

You’ll no doubt be aware that the travel bubble with Australia was announced last week, and from next week people travelling between the two countries will have the benefit of not having to go into a quarantine facility for two weeks before being allowed to wander free in New Zealand. 

This has affected me personally. My wife is currently in Australia visiting family and was due to return next weekend to then enter MIQ. Fortunately she’s been able to change her flights to return a day later when the bubble opens instead. Reflecting on her time in Australia she reports that there’s an app that Australians can use to track their movements (similar to our COVID tracer) but it’s not widely used nor are businesses commonly displaying the codes to scan. We can only hope that the travel bubble works out and that we’re not plunged back into isolation again by less-than-strict policies on the other side of the Tasman. 

The pandemic rages on throughout the rest of the world, and while vaccine rollouts are helping, we’re collectively not out of the woods yet, and less privileged countries are having an even harder time of it.

With those cheery thoughts out of the way, I wish you a great week!
Craig Shearer

Disinformation's Dirty dozen

Research by the American Center for Countering Digital Hate has revealed that almost two-thirds of all misinformation about vaccines being spread on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter arose from just twelve individuals and their associated organisations. And on Facebook they account for 73% of all anti-vax content.

The report makes excellent (and scary/frustrating) reading, particularly the appendices which profile each of the twelve “sources”.

I guess it makes sense that sources are concentrated. People espousing anti-vax views are likely not coming to these conclusions independently, but instead parroting information they’ve consumed elsewhere.

The report calls for social media companies to do more to shut down these sources. Of course, there are then claims of breach of free speech rights (particularly in the US). 

It is frustrating that such misinformation is allowed to proliferate freely. But social media companies are driven by their profit motive. Allowing inflammatory misinformation to spread drives revenue to an extent. Ultimately the only solution is for people to be more skeptical of claims that diverge from science. That requires good education systems, and perhaps specialist skills in spotting false claims. As we all know, those sorts of skills are difficult to acquire as they tend to work against our human biases, and quite often take many years of careful honing.

Dahlias for Diabetes?

One of our contacts noticed an item on TVNZ news on the 7th March detailing a product being developed by the University of Otago for prevention treatment of type 2 Diabetes. A complaint was made to TVNZ but they have not upheld the complaint.

The item makes interesting viewing from a skeptical angle. It seems that a researcher - Associate Professor Dr. Alex Tups - has discovered a potential use of compounds found in Dahlia flowers to lower blood glucose levels. 

The item reported that a clinical trial tested the safety of the drug and that researchers are now looking for volunteers to take part in a clinical trial to determine dosage levels.

I would expect that there would have been a clinical trial which actually tested the efficacy of the treatment in humans. Previous reporting on the subject has discussed trials into the effect of the drug on blood glucose levels in mice. 

The item reported on a collaboration with Aroma NZ, a company that specialises in processing natural ingredients from New Zealand into nutritional supplements for use around the world. From their website they list a bunch of products that they process including Green-lipped Mussels, Oyster Powder, Collagen Powder, Abalone Powder and Fish Cartilage Powder. 

There’s little doubt that compounds found in the wild have effects when consumed - this is the origin of the pharmaceutical industry. Considering the list of products above there are some red flags raised there. Those products seem to fall into the category of supplements that are used by the “worried well” or those with “symptoms of advancing age” to self-medicate. Many of these products have been promoted by popular publications in response to flawed studies showing some potentially amazing efficacy.

It is interesting to read what Aroma NZ is claiming about the efficacy of their products. I followed one of the links about their Green Lipped Mussel products to their News and Resources page. This shows a study from the University of Queensland on just 23 patients showing self-reported reduction of pain. Now I’m no expert in clinical studies but even I can tell that this wasn’t a particularly well-designed study that would convince me of efficacy. Yet, the website trumpets:

“In a recent landmark clinical trial by the University of Queensland, arthritic pain was reduced by 59% for people taking Aroma’s GlycOmega-PLUS™. This was a huge result and endorsement for this product.”

It appears that their modus operandi is to promote a product then find confirming studies after the fact to boost their confidence they’re selling something that actually works.

It worries me that the University of Otago seems to be looking to commercialise a discovery before the product has been well studied and has had its efficacy proven (at least that's not been reported) - seemingly putting the cart before the horse, and it should especially worry skeptics that there seems to be a low bar for commercialisation of products that appear to have some compound that might have therapeutic effects. And why go the "natural product" route when, if the compound is earth-shatteringly effective, might it not be better to turn it into a traditional pharmaceutical?

Worryingly the item also features Alex Tups claiming that the root cause of Type-2 Diabetes is brain inflammation. We’ve referred this claim to one of our expert medics who made the following comments:

“Had a look at the clip and certainly there is no evidence that I am aware of that diabetes is a result of brain inflammation - it is generally accepted as autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells (type 1) for reasons unknown or unknown causes of insulin resistance (type 2). There is no rationale for the use of dahlia flowers presented to the listener so it not possible to comment on the science of this claim. I cannot see a link to the A.Prof you appended who seems a credible researcher. 

I agree this is a crap report which raises expectations without any apparent evidence although I assume there must be some logic somewhere. This type of reporting needs to be science based with credible logic (imho) before putting it out to the public which only serves to confuse them.”

Finally, promoting products that include active ingredients found in the wild is particularly dangerous when it allows people to self-medicate. There is potential for dangerous drug interactions that can occur when doctors prescribe medications to patients, being unaware of the “natural” products they’re also consuming. 

I’m aware that I write this from the relative privilege of middle age where few (though not none!) of the effects of aging are making themselves apparent. I’m aware of the powerful psychological drawcard that these alternative medicines and supplements can have on people trying to find relief for what ails them, particularly if the mainstream medical treatments are perceived to be lacking.

Scientology follow-up

Last week Mark wrote an interesting item in the newsletter around Scientologists using deceptive means to lure people in to their “courses”. We got some feedback from a reader in the US - we love getting feedback! - so I thought I’d share it. Ray from Philadelphia writes:

I live in Philadelphia. Many years ago in the early 1980's, I was on a business trip to Boston. In the evening I had little to do and while wandering about the city I went by an old church that had a small sign outside advertising a personal  communications course the next two nights for the sum of $25. I had never heard of Scientology before that time, so why not attend? It was something constructive to do. 

So, the next evening I was there, paid the $25, and gave my name and address. Then it started. I am not sure exactly what "it" was. There was a very short introduction by a young "minister" after which people were instructed to face each other in pairs and stare into eyes and not to squirm.   That went on for a while and then the small group in attendance was introduced to the E-meter. And that was about it. The e-meter revealed that I had personality problems. It was a crazy one hour adventure.

I did not go back for night 2.

Not long thereafter, perhaps a week, I began getting mail at home discussing my course attendance, my personality disorder, and how I might correct it. There was a mountain of propaganda pushing very expensive courses and books, tapes, etc. And the mail kept coming for the next 20 years. Finally I wrote to them requesting removal from the list. That worked mainly, but I still get occasional propaganda mail.   

Scientology is as tenacious as it is crazy. 

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