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 scientific society talks in London blog post

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Alternative medicine conferences and events - a guide for hotels and conference centres

tl;dr is it a good idea to produce a checklist for hotel event bookers so that they can avoid hosting out and out quackery? What would go in the checklist?


Edit 30 Jan 2018
I could have saved myself writing the post below if I'd remembered these :) Here are two clear guides on things to think about, and things to watch out for, when considering the suitability of a topic or speaker for an event.
A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science (3 October 2013)
10 Questions To Distinguish Real From Fake Science (8 November 2012)




Occasionally skeptically-minded people* will learn that a hotel's conference rooms are to be used for a health-related event on a topic that is quackery and which has the potential to be harmful and costly to customers ('patients'). Occasionally such talks take place at universities or on hospital trust grounds too.

Universities and hospitals generally don't want to be associated with quackery, particularly dangerous stuff, and tend to be pretty amenable to cancelling the event or having it moved off-site. That's not always the case with hotels. Many of us would prefer that these events were cancelled completely but as long as the event is legal then there's not much we can do.

Cancer-related alternative health events, however, may be in danger of breaching the Cancer Act 1939 and it may be more appropriate to cancel them. Of course it's entirely possible that someone wants to talk about complementary support for people with cancer with no problematic mentions of stopping their treatment and no advice given about undertaking unevidenced treatments - despite the treatment being quackery it's probably fairly hairmless and I suspect we don't really have much of a valid objection.

This example below though - where a speaker encouraged audience members who had cancer to give up their medication (or avoid taking it in the first place) - that took place at a hotel in Liverpool would seem to be one of the ones that should not have gone ahead. The report, from Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society, is a startling read: Cancer ‘Cure’ is Quackers Skeptical Magazine, November 2017, by Michael Marshall

Hotel event bookers might not know that a health-related talk (perhaps badged as a 'wellness' event) is unevidenced quackery or how to tell it apart fom something useful that everyone should know about - and that's where the skeptical-minded community might be able to help.

I wondered if we skeptics might put together a short checklist to help people appraise whether events are likely to cause problems. Does this idea have 'legs' as they say?
Edit 10 January 2018 - one of the topics I wasn't envisaging a university having many problems with, in terms of finding they've unwittingly said yes to room bookings, is conferences by white supremacists on eugenics with a side order of anti-Semitism. Today UCL found itself in this unfortunate position after a story uncovered that such a conference has been hosted at their site for the last four years. UCL has acted quickly to distance themselves from it, suspend future bookings from the staff member involved and are seeking an explanation from them.

For example I might include things like
  • if it mentions cancer at all ask them to assure you (the hotel booker) how they will ensure that the content of the presentation and any responses to questions don't breach the Cancer Act 1939 (Trading Standards can veto these events, or bring criminal proceedings against the speaker - I've never heard of venues being prosecuted though, anyone know?)
  • if it talks about curing or treating (or 'helping with') any health condition beware - this may fall within misleading advertising (overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority in general, anything relating to the use of medicines would fall under the MHRA [Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Authority]
  • also be wary of any "that doctors don't want you to know about" hyperbole
  • be aware that skeptically-minded people often attend these events for monitoring purposes, and general interest (there is always new quackery to discover)
  • the possibility of the whole social media backlash thing, though I think hotels can probably weather that!
  • the very real possibility of doing harm to members of the public either by them paying out money for a duff event, or a duff treatment (or them failing to follow better treatment advice) - this is not a good look.
  • a list of 'treatment modalities' known to be unevidenced twaddle (eg homeopathy, MMS aka Master Mineral Solution or Miracle Mineral Solution, it goes by other names too)
  • a list of treatments for which the evidence is not very good
  • how the skeptic-minded community can help beforehand 
  • (afterwards is probably a bit late!)
  • links to other 'how to spot quackery' checklists including these red flags, or this rough guide to spotting bad science
*healthcare professionals, scientists, skeptical activists, concerned members of the public etc
    Skepticism-based clearing houses
    Any of these organisations would possibly be able to field, or forward on, enquiries from hotels or other event-conference-centres about potentially problematic health events.
    Obviously if your organisation is listed above and you're thinking "hang on, we don't really have the capacity for that!" I can remove you (or amend the listing to clarify the way you might like to be involved, if at all).
    • Are there any good skeptic-monitored hashtags? (Beyond #homeopathy and #Burzynski?).
    • Do we have examples of successes (from our point of view) where an event has been cancelled or moved?

    Example of events not yet cancelled or moved





    Examples of events being cancelled or moved
    Manchester United cancel David Icke show at Old Trafford after backlash (17 November 2017)  The Guardian - the cancellation possibly more to do with alleged antisemitic remarks than quackery per se but an interesting example of social media backlash causing a venue to investigate further.

    Homeopathic College Pays Heavy Price for Helping to Screen VAXXED (17 February 2017) Quackometer blog - in this case the screening of the film 'Vaxxed' was not able to be prevented and it was shown at the Centre for Homeopathic Education within Regent's University in London. When it transpired that the university had not been properly informed of the film's contents they cancelled the contract with the Centre (in reality I think they'd hired a few rooms) rendering them homeless. The film was moved from the Curzon Soho screening after it had been cancelled.

    A Cinema In London Has Pulled A Documentary By A Disgraced Anti-Vaccine Activist (January 2017) Buzzfeed - Vaxxed, an anti-vaccination film directed by Andrew Wakefield, was to be screened at Curzon Soho but an outcry from scientists and the public stopped that. The film had previously been removed from the Tribeca Film Festival.

    UCL cancels homeopathy event by Indian docs after complaints (2 February 2016) The Wire - see background to this story in Andy Lewis' blog Indian Homeopaths come to UK to Lecture on Treating Cancer (comment: “Event cancelled. Booking made by junior sec unaware of issues. Lessons learnt process set up. New instructions on booking in IoN now in place.”)

    Cancelled: Man who claims to have cured cancer will not be speaking in Ireland (16 June 2015) The Journal - one event was scheduled to take place at the Clayton Hotel in Galway but was moved to another hotel, which later cancelled once the organisers learned how controversial the speaker's views were, a second event in Dublin was also cancelled. More info at Cork Skeptics' page (they led the campaign).

    The fake cancer cure conference the 'healers' tried to keep secret (25 May 2015) - this event (the 'Spirit of Health Congress 2015') went ahead after having been moved twice. Delegates were told to attend a meeting point where they were given train tickets and further instructions, video footage (not shown in link) was obtained of the event.

    A cancer-related event, due to take place in June 2014 in Bristol attracted concern from Trading Standard and the organiser of the event first cancelled it then later moved it to Exeter (9 Mar 2014)
    [Event initially cancelled][Move to Exeter]

    Totnes cancer conference forced underground by Trading Standards (23 March 2012) Josephine Jones' blog - a cancer event was due to take place in Totnes at the Civic Centre. The local MP supported efforts to get the event moved off council property or ideally cancelled and Trading Standards intervened. The event was initially cancelled but later went ahead at a different venue.

    The supramolecular chemistry of the homeopathic remedy (1 October 2010) - amazingly this event was scheduled to take place at the University of Cambridge (!) but people managed to get it cancelled by mid-September.


    Other responses to quackery





    Sandra Hermann-Courtney's strange behaviour...
    The homeopathy enthusiast Sandra Hermann-Courtney (@BrownBagPantry and @OnFluff on Twitter) is not happy at all about my post above. She stole its entire content and republished it on her own blog, with no attribution. After I tried several attempts at getting her to add commentary ('fair use') or remove the post she finally took it down. Then she replaced it with her own post bleating about this one and complaining that I'd threatened her with a DMCA takedown notice. Mmm, not quite but you can enjoy seeing how duplicitious she's been here.

    She has form on using people's content without permission and also behaving abominably to someone who lost a child to sepsis (it started badly when she suggested they might have saved the child if they'd tried homeopathy, and somehow managed to get worse). This blog post above isn't 'against' homeopathy per se, it's against misleading promotions or wrong health advice. Non-misleading homeopaths etc are probably perfectly nice people, I've no argument with them :)






    No comments:

    Post a Comment

    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).