Sales-fest or science?

Like many biologists and medical professionals, I’m disturbed by the plainly wrong and misleading nature of anti-vaccine and natural remedy claims I’ve seen.

An advertised “Natural Health Expo” to be held this weekend in New Zealand has caused me to revisit how an earlier blog article on Crank “scientific” conferences suggested one simple test for credibility of scientific claims at these events.

Via Orac’s blog Respectful Insolence in his post “It’s baaaacck” I was alerted to the article Crank “scientific” conferences: A parody of science-based medicine that can deceive even reputable scientists and institutions by David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog.

David Gorski points a new trend to organisations that promote anti-vaccine or natural health remedy views and treatments: giving their conferences the veneer of scientific conferences, when they are anything but.

The conference David Gorski refers to is hosted by a group claiming to represent autism support. As David Gorski’s blog article shows, most biologists and medics will easily “spot the sham” in the “treatments” on offer and in the claims previously made by the more suspect speakers at this event. Biologists have background knowledge to draw on that makes this fairly straight-forward.

Many, if not most, parents with a “disabled” child won’t have as much background knowledge to draw on. (I write disabled in inverted double commas as I dislike the term.) It would be harder for them to be objective, too, having an emotional attachment to the issue. Both will make it harder to recognise suspect claims, especially when they are dressed up in the language of science.

One of my concerns is how the general public can “spot the sham”, as it were, without having expert knowledge of the science (or lack of it). Reading David’s article, it occurred to me that a simple rule-of-thumb that might help parents know when to be alert to a possible sham might be useful: if any speaker is also selling the product they are talking about, be very wary. If most of the speakers in a conference are selling the products that they talk about, be very wary of the whole conference.

I know this seems incredibly obvious reading it here, but it’s easy to forget when you’re in front of credible-sounding sales people.

In scientific conferences the scientists speaking are not selling products to consumers, they are arguing the case for their research findings before other scientists. The conference attendees are critics, not prospective clients. What scientific speakers are trying to earn is the judgement (and criticism) of their peers, not sales. And, well, maybe a job! Or new collaborators or students. But they’re not selling products.

Parents should ask themselves who the conference is targeting. If it’s targeting consumers, not other researchers (or “researchers” for those that don’t deserve the term), it’s not a scientific conference. If it’s aimed at selling products, treat it as—at best—a business expo or a sales-fest, or, at worst, a complete sham. And like always with sales people, don’t buy it then and there, especially if someone’s health or large amounts of money are involved. Walk away, think twice, think three times.

Of course, this advice isn’t enough on it’s own to avoid sham health remedies, but it’s a good start to be skeptical of the sales person.

As a quick self-test, have a quick look at this “Natural Health Expo“, to be held this weekend in New Zealand.

How many people do you count selling what they promote? How does that suggest you should treat the expo?

Or what about their speakers? Who is their target audience: possible clients or peer critics? Are they selling the things they speak about?

Let’s be fair, at one level—with some exceptions—there isn’t as much pretense of presenting things as science that are not in this conference compared to the autism conference mentioned earlier. It’s much more obviously a sales fest. But that’s the point. It’s a sales-fest, a marketing melange, not a source of sound independent advice.

As for explaining the unjustified claims made… there are simply too many! Some are truly scary, and, time-permitting, I’ll dedicate a following post to suggesting a couple of general thoughts and guidelines for visitors.

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