Peter Bowditch's Web Site

Advertising policy

Quackery Down Under

The Amazing Meeting

The Skeptic

This is the text of a presentation I gave on January 16, 2004,to James Randi's Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. It was also published in the March 2004 edition of the Skeptic, the journal of Australian Skeptics.

It will be Australia's birthday the day after I get back home next week. January 26 marks the 216th anniversary of European settlement of the continent. There were several significant events of a scientific nature which contributed to Arthur Phillip raising the flag in Sydney Cove on that day in 1788, and I want to talk about three of them today. I have to admit a degree of personal disappointment that I couldn't include Nathaniel Bowditch's recalculation of navigation tables as one of the scientific advances, but he didn't publish his work until after 1800 and I don't think this is the forum to promote the idea that James Cook and Arthur Phillip were psychic.

James CookScience was the reason that James Cook was in my part of the world in 1770. The purpose of his trip was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769. To conform with the long tradition of hardship suffered by astronomers, Cook and his crew were required to hang around Tahiti for three months in order to make a six hour observation.

Two great traditions of our society were incidental results of Cook's Tahiti trip. The first was that the crew became so bored with having nothing to do except spend time with dusky south seas maidens that they invented the tradition of sailors getting tattoos. The second was the invention of the good-news-bad-news joke. In this case the good news was that the weather on June 3, 1769 was absolutely perfect for watching planetary transits. The bad news was when Cook opened his sealed orders and instead of reading "Good work, lads. Put down those maidens and come home" he saw instructions to spend the next two years looking for the great southern land. After mapping New Zealand and most of the east coast of Australia, Cook sailed to Batavia (which is now Jakarta), where a third of the people on board the Endeavour promptly died of malaria.

K1 – copy of Harrison's fourth chronometerThe second scientific advance that contributed to European settlement of Australia was the invention by John Harrison of the chronometer. This particular object here was the one carried by Cook on his second and third voyages. He didn't have it on his first voyage because there was a fight going on between Harrison and the Admiralty over payment. This meant that the accuracy of his location was not as good as it might have been and he could have been up to about 40 miles out in calculating longitude, which is still pretty good. The chronometer in the picture is in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and was made by Larcum Kendall as a copy of Harrison's fourth version.

Where the chronometer had its influence was that it allowed the first settlers to sail to Botany Bay and know exactly where they were going and how to get there. Arthur Phillip and his eleven ships and 1490 people did not follow or backtrack along Cook's route. They went to Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Botany Bay. Six babies were born on the way, and four survived. About 40 of the original group which set out from Portsmouth died during the eight-month trip.

LemonsThe third scientific advance is the most important of all. It was what made it possible for Cook to sail for months in unknown parts of the world, and which allowed a trip of eight months with such a low death toll. (And eight months can be a very long time. I have been told that it took about that long to make the Grand Canyon.) The significant event happened in 1747, and it was the invention of the clinical trial by James Lind who used it to conclusively prove the efficacy of citrus juice in the prevention and treatment of scurvy.

Matthew FlindersBefore I finish the history lesson, I would like to mention Matthew Flinders. He was the person who gave the name Australia to the island and he and his companion George Bass were the first people to circumnavigate the continent, proving that it is an island. Among the collection of Flinders memorabilia in the New South Wales State Library is a letter from Flinders' wife giving him permission to remarry if she died. The reason that she was worried about dying was that she was pregnant.

You might wonder what all this history has to do with the state of quackery in Australia today.

One third of the children born on the First Fleet died, and Ann Flinders saw childbirth as a real death threat, but we have active movements in Australia opposing hospital births and even an organisation devoted to stopping Caesarean deliveries. Cook lost 30 out of 90 people to the pestilential disease malaria in 1770 and the smallpox carried by the first settlers devastated the Aboriginal population, but we have an active and virulent anti-vaccination movement who want to take us back to the time before protection against disease was possible. More than 250 years after Lind tested fruit juice, spokespeople for alternative medicine have said that it will bankrupt the industry if they have to test their products or show that they work. The industry claims to be self-regulating, but their idea of regulation is to have no regulation at all. There is an industry body, the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia (CHCA), which is supposed to be part of the regulatory apparatus, but a few examples of its work will reveal the true situation.

A ragThis magazine is put out by Australia's leading anti-vaccination liar group (yes, there is more than one). As well as the anti-vaccination rubbish it contains advertisements and editorial promoting various forms of quackery. It carries an advertisement for another magazine (Living NOW) with the same sort of rubbish inside. An even more worrying example is Sydney's Child. It is a serious and useful magazine directed at parents of young children, but the ads for professional services at the back include homeopaths and chiropractors offering cures for autism, asthma, bed wetting and any number of other things. If you wonder how self-regulation is working, the Executive Officer of the CHCA told a public meeting last year that she was unaware that such magazines and advertisements existed. Somehow, I found it hard to believe her.

In a brochure titled "Advertising Complementary Healthcare Products" issued by the CHCA, it states that "by law, all advertisements for therapeutic goods and CHPs (complementary healthcare products) appearing in specified media (newspapers, magazines, cinemas and outdoor) or broadcast media (television and radio) must be approved prior to publication or broadcast. Advertisements in newspapers & magazines must display an approval number as part of the advertisement". These approvals are granted by the CHCA itself. In the three magazines mentioned above, only one advertisement carried an approval number. This was an advertisement for capsules which each contained a "billion live friendly bacteria" and which were supposed to be given to infants. Perhaps it is true that the CHCA is unaware of these magazines but whether this is true or not does not detract from the fact that self-regulation is a farce.

ZappersThese are some of the zappers and magic devices in my collection. These things are supposed to be able to cure all sorts of ailments like cancer, AIDS, MS and diabetes and are advertised in alternative medicine magazines, but the CHCA says that it is not in the least bit interested in these devices. (I only brought a photograph of these things with me instead of the real objects. I thought I could reasonably accurately predict the reaction of customs officials when confronted with a manic ratbag carrying black boxes with switches, red lights, wires and timer displays. Then they would ask me what these things did, and I would truthfully answer "Nothing". Guantanamo Bay!)

The government suggested that it was deceptive to include the words "drug free" on the label of potions with pharmacological effects, and the reaction of the industry was:

Passage of TGR Amendment No.401 through the Senate would be a denial of our democratic right for responsible and commonsense information on complementary medicines.

You will notice that this was reported on the web site of the International Advocates for Health Freedom. You might like to see what the head of that body, John Hammell, had to say about people like me. Apparently we

"are in constant communication with the FDA, and the FDA's international counterparts which are all networked via the UN's International Council on Drug Regulating Authorities- which is run directly by the Council- the Illuminati- the small group who seek total control of our lives and who are pushing very hard now to impose a dictatorial world government on us via the UN, whose chief is Satan, the father of lies- who is making a major bid right now to control all of our souls as he seeks to force us into a microchipped, psychocivilized society under mind control"

I find that quite encouraging.

When changes to advertising rules were suggested, this was going to cause much distress.

The advertising review has removed a lot of previously prohibited claims and introduced a system which allows a wider range of claims so long as they are balanced, truthful and not misleading. However, many claims that have been accepted for ten or more years are no longer acceptable and there is a real danger that many multi-component products will be lost as industry has 4 years to comply with the new requirements.

So here you see the industry admitting that for at least ten years its members have been making claims that are unbalanced, untruthful and misleading and instead of promising to clean up the act they want more than four more years to stop lying.

And the last policy statement from the Complementary Healthcare Council:

The main objective of the CHCA position is to get out of the pharmaceutical paradigm that is crippling the industry and denying consumers' access to products that are freely available in other comparable countries.

There are two possible interpretations of the expression "pharmaceutical paradigm". One is that it is the paradigm which says that products should be thoroughly tested and be shown to work before they are sold to the public. The other is that science should be relevant to research and the pursuit of knowledge. It says much that following these principles might result in "crippling the industry".

Henbane – click for larger viewWhen Pan Pharmaceuticals was closed down early last year because of bad manufacturing practices, the response of the industry was not to support action to ensure that only quality products were delivered to the public but to lie about the products that Pan made and to lie about what had been recalled. One classic lie was that the product which triggered the action by the Therapeutic Goods Administration was a prescription drug which had nothing to do with natural or alternative medicines. One professional naturopath announced that hyoscine hydrobromide, the active ingredient, was obviously a chemical and appeared nowhere in her professional naturopathy books. It fell to me, a mere quackbuster, to tell her to look under "henbane". That's the factory in the picture, from a 1930 book called "A Modern Herbal" by Mrs M Grieve.

When my state government set up a committee last year to investigate the more egregious forms of quackery, the industry response was not to welcome a rooting out of the crooks but to launch immediate ad hominem attacks on anyone who could be identified as having anything to do with the committee. I well remember a post to a Usenet newsgroup with the title "The EVIL workings of Peter B.??". The response united the anti-medicine crowd, with the anti-vaccination liars issuing press releases on behalf of the cancer quacks and live blood analysts and vice versa. I even got mentioned in Parliament!

So, what is the current state of quackery?

Everything went quiet for a while last year, but that did not mean that the good guys could become complacent. When the government announced a tightening of the rules, the lies and distortions started up again, with ridiculous claims that any testing of claims or proving of efficacy would bankrupt the alternative medicine industry. Put another way, they say they will go broke if they have to do what James Lind did in 1747. The latest salvo coincidentally appeared just after I announced the formation of the Australian Council Against Health Fraud, and took the form of yet another round of attacks on people involved with the government's anti-quackery committee.

To finish up, I will quote what a press release by a supposedly competent journalist said about a mailing list I set up at Yahoo! as a joke. The release was a wide-ranging attack on anyone and everyone in the country who dared to criticise quackery, but the following fragment caught my eye. It will give you an idea of the research capabilities of the alternative medicine world, their abilities to detect irony, and the sort of nonsense they will only too easily believe.

Bowditch also has a link to a restricted access discussion group that is only open to "approved" members. The discussion group, QuackbustersOfTheIlluminati, states its purpose as being: "This is a meeting place for the anti-alternative-medicine committee of the Illuminati, where we can meet and consider our attack on health freedom within the broader agenda of world domination." It is not known what relationship Bowditch has with this group, why it is secretive or why it was formed.

DistressI invited the journalist to join the secret society, but she has not accepted the invitation.

So, in summary, I can say that the state of quackery in Australia is far worse than it should be. That doesn't mean that things are hopeless. There are people and organisations working to bring sense to the situation. Resistance is not futile, and while the flag might be upside-down, it isn't white.

You can listen to the talk using the little slider below.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

Logos and trademarks belong to whoever owns them