Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Friday, 22 April 2011

FishBarrel - simple Google Chrome app to help automate quackery complaints

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This morning I used @Simon_Perry's excellent FishBarrel tool to put in complaints about two ear candle treatments on sale in Blackheath. I also used it last night to put in a complaint about a homeopathy website but the ASA is already working on guidance for homeopaths (a 'profession' famous for making some ridiculous and dangerous claims) I probably won't complain about too many more of these sites for the time being.

Ear candling rarely causes problems but on occasion it can drip hot wax into your eardrum which can cause (usually temporary) damage and discomfort. I'm not too bothered about people wasting their money on rubbish or even injuring themselves in the process but what I do find annoying is the health claims accompanying this product.

Ear candles (used in 'thermo-auricular therapy') do not create a suction vacuum and therefore cannot suck out toxins, literally or figuratively. They don't do anything to lymphatic drainage either and the wax that appears inside the candle after the treatment is chemically identical to candle wax, not ear wax. By all means sell this nonsense - people have a right to stick burning candles into their ear whether I like it or not, but please don't imply that it is safe or has any health benefits at all.

With any complaint made to the Advertising Standards Authority (don't forget they're doing websites now, which they weren't previously) or Trading Standards / Consumer Direct there are some constants (your name and address) and some variables (the address of the website and the claims made). FishBarrel lets you store your constants, housed in a Google Chrome app that sits by your bookmarks bar, and with a couple of clicks you can activate the app to start capturing the variables. As you select misleading claims FishBarrel will store copies of these and the website from which they came, and will also let you take a screenshot of the area of the website on which the claims are made.

Once you've selected all the claims you want to complain about you can review the complaint and make some amendments (eg give some background about the claim made and why you're complaining about it), then you can choose where it goes - ASA or TS/CD. At this point the programme does a rather nifty thing and autocompletes the complaint form for you. I've only used it for the ASA one which has four sub-pages (you fill in first section, press next and so on) and it's nice to find all the text pre-installed. You get an opportunity to go through each section and make further amendments.

Then press 'submit' and hopefully chip away gradually at the amount of misleading claims on websites.

You might well say "oh really, what's the point - as soon as you get one claim removed another one will crop up" and I'd agree there's an element of truth to that. The world will always have homeopaths and sellers of ear candles among other crap. If sellers remove misleading claims that's a win (whether or not it was because they thought it was a good idea by themselves or because the ASA asked them to).

Where I think complaining about quackery 'adds value' is that there will be an adjudication on the ASA's website, if your complaint is upheld. These don't always show up on Google searches - even to find them on the ASA's site isn't straightforward as a site-search won't find them, you have to go into the Adjudications section and search within that. Each new adjudication is a piece of news that someone might blog about. This increases its reach across Google and other search engines and makes it marginally more likely that someone searching for information on a questionable treatment will come across one or more pieces of information that are critical of it. Well, maybe a bit.

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Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).