Confronting Junk Science: Keep Calm And Carry On

Various skeptic blogs, particularly those in the United Kingdom, are aflame over a magazine called "What Doctors Don't Tell You," which appears to be an uninhibited woo-fest of conspiratorial-minded pseudo-medical junk science. What's notable about the magazine is not that it exists — there's a zine for every viewpoint, even in the age of the blog. No, what concerns the skeptics is that the magazine is being carried by mainstream stores like WHSmith and Sainsbury. It's like walking into Starbucks and seeing that their newspaper rack has pamphlets about the moon landing being faked.

Some skeptics have begun to write to the corporations stocking the magazine urging them not to, which has led to accusations of censorship. I think those criticisms are off-based, but I have a few respectful words of advice to the skeptics as a free speech advocate.

First: please be aware of the opponents you face, and the rhetorical and legal arena in which you fight. In the junk scientists — let's call them "advocates of non-traditional medicine" for the sake of this point — you are dealing with a community increasingly characterized by an appetite for aggressive censorship. In the United Kingdom, you have an arena with a level of protection for free speech that — and I say this out of love, with a debt of gratitude for my common law heritage and the language I love — sucks donkey balls. It sucks so badly that we've had to pass laws specifically providing that your ludicrous defamation judgments usually aren't enforceable here. My point is this: to the extent you employ censorious measures, you can expect them to be turned against you later by your foes, with the cooperation of your largely censorship-indifferent government. Do not take up any weapon you don't want used against you.

Second: mind the rhetoric, please. Freedom of expression is threatened not only by specifically censorious methods, but by flexible and insipid memes and mottoes. When I see Keir Liddle employing the "fire in a crowded theater" image — the unprincipled nature and repulsive origins of which I discussed recently — I roll my eyes. Andy Lewis' headline "This is not an Issue of Free Speech, but of Responsible Speech" is a cringe-inducing appeal to the categorical dodge. I guarantee you that Mr. Lewis will see some future attack against his writing spun as "this isn't an issue of free speech, but of harassment/bullying/defamation/abuse." Ladies and gentlemen, using sloppy rhetoric in discussions of freedom of expression hands weapons to censors. Broader censorship will not ultimately benefit skeptics.

Third: notwithstanding the above, boycotts and complaints are an acceptable more-speech remedy, whatever the junk scientists might complain. These stores are private actors; informing them of the nature of a magazine they stock, advocating that they make a different private decision, or even threatening to boycott is part of the marketplace of ideas. Of course, if woo merchants organize some boycott that the skeptics don't like, and the skeptics argue that it is censorious, they should be called out for hypocrisy.

Fourth, I urge extreme caution in involving the government and quasi-government entities. Some skeptics advocate reporting the magazine to the government, or to non-governmental self-regulatory advertising bodies. Such reports may be based on genuinely misleading advertisements — the magazine sounds chock-full of advertisements that sound like the pseudo-medical version of x-ray specs in the back of comic books. But European advertisement regulation is already shot through with meddling silliness and the United Kingdom — and again, I say this with love — already has grave nanny-state issues. I admire the skeptical movement to the extent it pursues the goals of truth, open inquiry, and human dignity and autonomy. Ask yourselves — do governmental and quasi-governmental entities advance those goals? Does involving them in a dispute advance those goals?

Ultimately the marketplace of ideas is the best place to rebut what this magazine is peddling. I look forward to reading more critiques of the magazine and its contents in that marketplace.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Since you're a lawyer, and I'm not, I am curious as to how you divide "stupid ideas which nonetheless can be freely expressed" from "commercial fraud", which I think even the most strident of free speech activists does not consider to be protected speech. There's a difference, I think, and I welcome correction and chastisement, between "The germ theory of disease is just a theory; disease is actually caused by evil spirits!" (I consider this protected speech) and "Here's a mystic amulet that will ward off the evil spirits, give me 20 bucks." (I do not consider this protected speech; it's basic fraud, selling an object that does not perform as it is claimed to.) I support the right of nutters to promote their nuttery, even for money — If I advertise a book as promoting a ridiculous idea, and you buy it, and the book does, indeed, promote that ridiculous idea, there's no fraud. Ditto a magazine devoted to ridiculous ideas. However, the advertising of cures, treatments, and so on that simply do not work, even with microprinted caveats reading "Oh, we don't actually promise this will do anything at all", seems much more suspect from a legal perspective and doesn't intrude on free speech at all — only in the delusions of the censorious do advocates of free speech say that false advertising is a form of protected speech.

    So how do we draw the line, in American law, at least? Is there a clear test between "I believe that evil spirits, not germs, cause disease", "I believe that amulets made of lead from the bullet that killed an outlaw will ward off the disease spirits", and "Here's one such amulet, it will protect you from disease."? Is the line the difference between "Here's the amulet, I do not make claims for the amulet *in the ad*, but if you read my article, you'll know what I claim the amulet does" and "The advertisement makes the claim itself"?

  2. says

    Lizard: indeed there is a distinction. The exact contours would require a very long post. Note that I advocated caution; I did not say that regulation of advertising is always or inherently censorious.

  3. Dave says

    Considering that mainstream stores already sold tabloids and homeopathic suger pills, why would anyone be shocked by sale of a homeopathic tabloid?

  4. says

    I'm not sure your portrayal of UK (and by extension, European) advertising law as a symptom of an unwelcome Nanny State.

    The UK's advertising regulators – like many others around the world – are non-statutory bodies whose adjudications are not enforceable in the courts.

    When we submit a complaint about some quack or other, we're actually doing them a favour – saving them from ruinous lawyer's fees and a possible criminal conviction that would be the inevitable result, were they to be prosecuted under consumer protection laws. (Naturally, the sceptics never receive any thanks for this free service we collectively offer.)

  5. says

    Lizard – There are a few instances where a false statement of fact and nothing more can get you prosecuted. For example, perjury, false statements during a government investigation and falsely claiming to have military decorations (this last up to a few months ago) can get you prosecuted even if there is no evidence you made the false statement to obtain some sort of benefit.

    More generally, if you make the false statement of fact to obtain money or property from someone, the government can toss you in the tank.

  6. says

    What happened to just not buying the magazines you don't want? I'm sure after a period of zero (or less than acceptable non-zero sales) sales the merchants would dump the magazines that weren't "paying their rent" on the shelves and put something else there.

  7. En Passant says

    Dave wrote Oct 2, 2012 @8:45 am:

    … why would anyone be shocked by sale of a homeopathic tabloid?

    I've been selling homeopathic tabloids for years. The paper and ink is so thin that you can't even see it. The news and stories just migrate into readers minds through penumbras and emanations.

    The only problem has been that subscribers have paid with homeopathic money.

  8. Curtis says

    Fake medicine is totally different from other fake sciences and fake history. If I do not believe Obama was born in the US, I am idiot and will vote poorly. If I do not believe in evolution, it will not change my life significantly. If I fail to vaccinate my child, he may get sick and die. Sometime soon, there will be a major epidemic of a preventable disease (measles, pertussis, etc) and hundreds of children will die.

    Fake medicine is a health issue not an ignorance issue. I agree that the books stores have the right to sell the magazines but, if they do, they share the responsibility for every preventable death.

  9. says

    One may laugh about germ theory, but I just read a post on FB claiming, in apparent seriousness, that germ theory is a hoax perpetrated by Louis Pasteur. I commented that Edward Jenner must have been in on it, too.

    In fact, they're the same person: a time-traveling shapeshifter from the universe of Walternate and Fauxlivia, in the pay of:

    Big Dairy
    Big Pharma
    The Trilaterals
    The Quadrilaterals (33% more evil than the Trilaterals)
    The Club of Nome (AK)
    The Bilderbergers
    The Burgerbuilders…

    …and, worst of all…

    The Telephone Company. (Hat tip: The President's Analyst.)

  10. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I think the appropriate line to take is to ask the stores in question if they really want to attract the kind of customers who read such swill. As – for example – one might ask them if they really wanted to spill sugar behind every bookshelf.

  11. Andy says

    Ken, can I just say thank you for pointing out to me one more reason that I should despair that I live in the UK. I feel Dean Acheson's quote becoming more and more acute each day, not only have we lost an empire and not yet found a role, we seem to be slowly losing our minds as well.

    Whilst I do have issues with the American model, I do believe that our libel, and other speech related, laws do need a bit of a tune-up. Any chance you and Marc can put together a quick brief to send to our idiot-in-chief?:)

  12. says

    @Roscoe: Is "I believe disease is caused by evil spirits" a false statement of fact, if I do, indeed, believe it? (Or, at least, you can't prove I don't…)

    I'm not asking to split hairs pointlessly; I am genuinely interested in how important phrasing is. (Likewise, "It's been reported by the Institute For Clinical Health Studies that 95% of cancers are caused by negative orgone radiation" might be true, in that the Institute has reported this; it may also be true that the "Institute" consists solely of one person, who happens to be the same person writing the article, but it's all properly incorporated and registered.)

    I assume tricks like that are how most of these people stay out of court, in any event. That, or their victims refuse to sue because they keep on believing. Probably, both.

  13. James Pollock says

    I don't know about other states, but Oregon has a few more cases where a false statement can get you fined and/or jailed. One place is in the voter's pamphlet published by the state and distributed to all voters. A false statement in that publication is a crime (though, of course, it is interpreted narrowly… a little bit of falsity (falseness?) won't do it, you have to be caught in a pants-on-fire situation (such as claiming to have served in the special forces in Korea, when, in fact, you never left the country).
    Another one is even MORE far-reaching… the state keeps a list of "approved" higher education institutions. Claiming a degree from a non-approved school for purposes of obtaining a job or promotion is punishable, even if accurate. ("But… I *DO* have a Master's from dear old DiplomaMill U.!" won't cut it.)

  14. Malc says

    One point that I do think shifts the case _a little_ is that (both in the US and the UK) the government has a real (and financial) interest in both the general provision of healthcare (and sometimes the specific provision, too, such as to the elderly and young and poor) and in the health of the community. On that (narrow) basis, I would see an argument for regulating health claims that cannot be substantiated.\

    Still, one could observe that the US Supreme Court decision Gonzales v. Raich has a (limited) bearing on this: in that, the Commerce Clause is deemed to trump the (10th Amendment) right of a state to liberalize drug laws on the grounds that the federal drug legislation (the FDA, etc) is a clear exercise of the Commerce Clause. Using that thinking, a state surely could regulate pseudo-medical speech because the regulation of medicine is a permitted role for government and therefore may be used to trump the 1st Amendment!

    Of course, you may think that Raich was primarily derived from the byproduct of a horse eating, and I may agree with you, but since we live in a world where the 4th Amendment is observed primarily in the rear-view mirror, it's not hard to envision the 1st Amendment being treated to the same sort of "narrow exception" 'logic' ]

  15. Beth says


    Not a complete answer, but relevent to your question: The makers of Airborne at one point touted a "clinical study" by GNG Pharmaceutical Services that showed Airborne treated colds. It turned out GNG was created solely for this study. It had no clinic and involved no doctors. It was started by two men, one of whom almost had a degree.

    That didn't stop the FTC from pointing out that there was no "competent and reliable" scientific evidence supporting Airborne's claims. Airborne paid the FTC $30 million and no longer makes such claims.

  16. Beth says


    The federal government has, in fact, tried to "trump the First Amendment." In Washington Legal Foundation v. Friedman, the FDA tried to argue that because it had power to regulate the pharmaceutical industry, limitations on drug promotional material were "incidental encroachments upon speech and entirely compatible with the First Amendment." It claimed it was regulating conduct, not speech. Then it claimed even if it was speech, it was okay, because the FDA's power to regulate drugs didn't disappear just because speech was involved.

    The court didn't buy it.

    That didn't mean the drug companies got a free pass. It meant their material was commercial speech, still subject to limited regulation.

  17. AlphaCentauri says

    Lots of news vendors used to carry the Weekly World News (for an idea of what it used to print, check the hits at"weekly+world+news"&"weekly+world+news" ), and they still carry lots of other tabloids that make up their "news stories" from whole cloth.

    I have never considered selling a newspaper or magazine to be an endorsement of its content. If I did, I would never trust my local grocer to have enough sense to handle food safely.

    I do expect advertisers to use more judgment about where they run their stories, however. Not sure why I do. I'll have to think about it.

  18. AlphaCentauri says

    That link won't be clickable it turns out. Copy and paste the whole thing with all the search terms.

  19. Mercury says

    I think you're overlooking the bigger picture here.

    There is a robust market for "alternative" medicine in the UK because real medicine is rationed for most people. The government is the last interested party who would want to discourage this kind of thing since it takes at least some burden off of their strained national healthcare system. While you're waiting five years for that hip replacement you can read "What Doctors Won't Tell You" (that you'll really have to wait seven!).

    After a decade of Obamacare when the miracle of "free" healthcare and digitized medical records starts translating into: "I'm sorry but it says here that you've already been treated for that and at at your age we can't approve XYZ unless you are a 54G" the government will be more than happy to help "expand access" to herbal therapy and crystal healing boutiques.

  20. says

    There is a price to pay for free speech…tolerating junk. I'm not an attorney, but I believe there is a vast distinction between writing junk science and regulation against false advertising.

  21. Peter B says

    OK, here's an observation: WDDTY accurately summarized one 5 year prospective placebo controlled trial from a good journal, showing benefit (halving of cardiac mortality and better cardiac function on ultrasound) from combined selenium and CoQ10 supplemention BUT in reporting apparent benefit (also for cardiac mortality) of using rice bran oil and sesame oil failed (unlike the HuffPo) to note that it was a preliminary finding that had been presented at a conference but not published in a peer-reviewed journal, and (also unlike the HuffPo) failed to note that a proprietary form of the oils had been used in the study, which cautioned that just buying the oils and trying to reverse engineer the blend might not yield the same results.

  22. Bren says

    As an advertising professional (don't shoot me!) I have a take on this that hasn't been in previous comments, I think. Junk Science is more prominent than it would be if regular treatments we not heavily regulated.

    Advertising for mainstream medical treatments is heavily regulated, even in the USA. This regulation reduces response as an advertiser can't usually sell the treatment outright, but has to get a doctor to prescribe it. This is a big disadvantage in the literal marketplace of advertising, if not the metaphorical marketplace of ideas.

    Junk Science treatments usually can sell their stuff outright, no prescription, no holds barred. That means that they occasionally outcompete real treatments in the advertising market.

    I'm not whining about the FDA, they have good reason to regulate medical claims, just pointing out a perverse effect of the current rules.

  23. Jeremy says

    The rise of junk science advocacy is in direct response to government officials promoting controversial science. If you want to get rid of junk science, separate science from politics as best you can.

    Politicians are liars. They *HAVE* to be liars, it is in the nature of the business. Most humans don't want to be regarded as an untrustworthy a$$h0l3. So you can get a high percentage of politicians that rather than recognizing themselves as disingenuous hacks instead fancy themselves as informed and correct even when they are absolutely wrong.

    When the voters demand specific scientific stances from politicians, it's just as dangerous as demanding stances on matters of faith from politicians. While it's true that science and religion are different entities with different goals (lets be honest), they both lend themselves to granting the incompetent the chance wield the flag of unverifiable authority. The more you demand that a politicians take a stance on a matter undergoing scientific investigation, the more you entirely disrupt that investigative process with political bias. It has happened before, there's lots of precedent. The worst example of this is Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union where (quite literally) millions of people starved because politics injected itself into scientific investigation.

    The reaction to this is junk science advocacy. Not all humans are highly intelligent; capable of picking apart every lie they are told. But *they are* perceptive enough to know when they're being scammed. When politicians take stances on science, it simply encourages the general population to start distrusting science. And why shouldn't they? Again, politicians are LIARS. Science is supposed to be our best procedure for arriving at the TRUTH. It's simply not going to sit well with the general public to see human's greatest endeavor to understand the universe reduced to talking points from both sides of the mouth of people who want to rule them.

    Even worse, these days you have things that are truly junk science being funded by the government itself. The public is right to reject these stances. When you see groups formed to blast the government for its position in these areas, it can only encourage all the others with crazy ideas to do the same.

    If you want to stop junk science advocacy, you first have to extract it from politics. This is no easy task.

  24. Al says

    @ Andy 'Tune up' is an understatement – they need to be towed out into the mid-Atlantic abyssal and sunk. That I could end up being harassed in court because of a conlcusion my research leads me to (or because of anything I say, ever), no matter what country I conduct it in, is daunting to say the least.

    I am no longer certain I wish to work in the country that raised me, and am looking to go abroad, yet one of the (many) facets of the British state I am trying to be free of might just follow me wherever I go…

  25. Random Encounter says

    @Mercury: Obamacare isn't providing "free healthcare", it's making *everyone* carry insurance while making the insurance companies cover everyone.

    It's most simply trying to regulate away the adverse selection that has been occurring on both sides that has been one of the main drivers in healthcare cost increases in the US.

    It's also known as Romneycare in MA, just so you know the outcome of the presidential election in the US won't have a tangible effect on it (Romney has stepped back from his opposition to it recently, since the inconsistency was apparently causing him trouble in some conservative quarters).

  26. Nicholas Weaver says

    Also, Mercury: The British National Health service is so well regarded in Britain that they actually featured it as one of the UK's greatest achievements, taking up a good 1/4 of the Olympic opening ceremony's opening act. You think they would do that here?

    Oh, and remember. There is a name for "alternative" medicine that actually works. Its called "medicine".

  27. Corporal Lint says

    Also, Mercury: The British National Health service is so well regarded in Britain that they actually featured it as one of the UK's greatest achievements, taking up a good 1/4 of the Olympic opening ceremony's opening act. You think they would do that here?

    I am generally a big supporter of socialized medicine and so it pains me to have to say this, but: the contents of the opening ceremony reflected the narrative that (noted lefty) Danny Boyle wanted to present, nothing more and nothing less. The NHS is generally liked (with many caveats), but the presentation of it in the opening ceremonies was the left/Labor narrative of British history.

    That said, the growth in crazy therapies in the UK has been matched by a similar growth in the US, so it's hard to pin it on the NHS. Anyone who thinks that medical craziness is a product of regulation needs to look into 19th century US medicine, which featured minimal regulation and maximal nuttiness.

  28. En Passant says

    Corporal Lint wrote Oct 3, 2012 @10:02 am:

    Anyone who thinks that medical craziness is a product of regulation needs to look into 19th century US medicine, which featured minimal regulation and maximal nuttiness.

    I had no idea that Samuel Hahnemann was American.

  29. Pierce Nichols says

    Hahnemann was an 18th century nut, not a 19th century one. Besides, the world of American 19th century snake oil contained things that make homeopathy look like the soul of sanity. Among other things, some quacks recommended taking enough metallic mercury to induce symptoms of prompt toxicity as a treatment for syphilis.

  30. corporal lint says

    Besides, the world of American 19th century snake oil contained things that make homeopathy look like the soul of sanity.

    The funny thing is that in the 19th century homeopathy was often the best available treatment, as the treatment was ultimately on bed rest and plenty of fluids. That was far better than a lot of the other things that you could have done to you.

  31. Rich Rostrom says

    I remember your very fine post on the origin of "'Fire!' in a crowded theater", and the genuinely disgraceful position of Justice Holmes.

    However, ISTM that there is a category of speech which is genuinely dangerous – sometimes seriously so – which may have to be constrained.

    That category is false speech which creates a public danger. "'Fire!' in a crowded theater" is the canonical example, but there are others – some of less imminent quality.

    For instance, advocacy of "junk" medical science can kill people who are persuaded. The junk science campaign against childhood vaccination has already killed some children.

    Or false reports of misconduct by American soldiers, with the deliberate intent of inciting hostility to them.

    Or false reports of police misconduct or crimes by members of some ethnic or religious group. If no specific names are mentioned, no action for libel or slander is possible. In these last cases, it could be impossible to prove a connection between any particular speech and subsequent acts of violence or other crime, even if the aggregate connection is clear.

    Absolute tolerance of such speech could be very costly. But how to prevent or punish it without infringing liberty?

  32. Beth says

    Rich: Who decides whether the science is junk? Who decides whether the reports are false?

    How often would police misconduct be reported if a response of "no we didn't" were enough to criminalize the complaint?

    Letting the government restrict speech which, in its view, "creates a public danger" is handing the government a tool to suppress dissent.

    That's why, in the case of hostility, actions are criminalized, not the words that supposedly led to those actions.

    In the case of junk science, "real" science does not suppress opposing ideas; it rebuts them. To do otherwise would chill innovation. Science would stagnate.

  33. AlphaCentauri says

    There's plenty of support for junk science on both sides of the Atlantic. People who complain bitterly about a $5 copay for an antibiotic that will promptly cure a life threatening infection will spend hundreds of dollars on an ongoing basis for herbal products without understanding how they work or having any basis to judge whether they are effective.

    Based on the people from UK and Canada whom I've spoken to about national health plans, they criticize their own countries' plans the way the criticize their own children but expect to hear praise for them from outsiders. They're generally horrified by the thought of changing to a US-type system health.

  34. Mercury says

    The bottom line is a healthcare system run by the federal government will result in government rationing just like it has in the UK. You'll also notice that you rarely hear about people flying to the UK to receive difficult, life-saving treatments and operations as has been common for decades in the US.

    When insurance companies have to cover regular birth control for perfectly well off law school students it is simply no longer insurance. When a state imposes a crappy law it is different kettle of fish from when the feds impose a crappy law. In the former instance Rhode Island can learn from Romneycare's mistakes and do something different. But you're stuck with federal programs forever.

    If you were enthralled by the Olympics opening ceremonies nothing I can write will be more damning.

  35. says

    @Dwight Brown, I don't even like to mention those guys out loud.

    It's kind of like typing Candle Jack, and you know what happens when you do th

  36. Malc says

    @Mercury, please try to get a clue: healthcare in the UK is no more rationed that it is in the US. Period. Continued repeating false gibberish in support of a partisan position just demonstrates ignorance.

    [ I suspect you don't know that the US government is already the largest provider of health coverage in the USA, by far, when Medicare, Medicaid, the Indian Health Service, the VA and active service branches, etc.

    It is _obvious_ that you don't know that any and all Brits can "go private" and obtain all the healthcare they care to pay for. Plus that private healthcare is substantially cheaper than the equivalent would be because critical, catastrophic and emergency care is covered by the NHS.

    Oh, and "death panels" are a total fabrication of Palin's deceit: you do know your insurance carrier is, and always has been able to decline to approve treatment? No? Ah. ]

  37. Mercury says

    Obama last night at the debate:

    "It — when Governor Romney talks about this board, for example, unelected board that we've created, what this is, is a group of health care experts, doctors, et cetera, to figure out, how can we reduce the cost of care in the system overall?…So at Cleveland Clinic, one of the best health care systems in the world…they say, if a patient's coming in, let's get all the doctors together at once, do one test instead of having the patient run around with 10 tests."

    Sold to you.

  38. Chris says

    A large bookstore chain and one grocery store carry the very questionable magazine "Autism Trust" (Andrew Wakefield is a consulting editor). That is all well and good, and not much I can do about it. They also carry sMothering and other less than accurate magazines (like ones on Horoscopes).

    Early this year my 23 year old son ended up in the hospital for a couple of days. When I was at the gift shop getting copy I noticed that they were also selling Autism Trust. Since it promotes actions that are against the hospital's policy (like not vaccinating, which puts their cancer and organ transplant patients at risk), I thought it crossed the line.

    So I complained. I mentioned it to the woman who called to ask about my son's care, and wrote a letter of complaint, reminding them that before my son was discharged he was offered a flu vaccine (which he had already had). They wrote back and said they removed the remaining copies. They also were told by the distributor the magazines were accidentally included in the order and that would not happen again.

    And, of course, for my son's subsequent heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic, they really wanted to make sure his vaccine status was up to date.

    I believe that it would be valid to complain if WDDTY was sold at an NHS hospital gift shop.