Evidence emerged this week that alternative medicine practitioners in England are feeling considerable pain caused by the ongoing work of skeptical activists. A new web site called “ASA Sucks” has surfaced, which claims to be a campaign against “self appointed vigilantes” who “attack complementary medicine”. On Twitter a corresponding account named @Against_The_ASA began debating various UK skeptics on the topic on Wednesday.
This anger has its origins in a skeptic project that is one year old this week: Nightingale Collaboration. It was first announced by Simon Singh at JREF’s TAM London event last year. Its purpose is to encourage skeptics to file complaints to the various UK regulatory agencies about claims or behavior of alternative medicine purveyors. UK skeptics are fortunate that they have a number of such official channels including ASA, the Office of Fair Trading and others.
Nightingale follows on the excellent work done by Alan Henness and Simon Perry filing hundreds of complaints against chiropractors during Singh’s protracted legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association. The Collaboration is an effort to formalize this effort and was officially announced last October, with Henness and Maria MacLachlan leading the project. Simon Singh provided some of the seed funding.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is just one of the agencies that Nightingale recommends to skeptics. It is not a government agency, but rather an independent body set up by the UK advertising industry in the 1960s to ensure that advertising is as “legal, decent, honest and truthful” as possible. Despite not being a government agency, it does have various means at its disposal to deal with offenders, including sanctions. On March 1, 2011 ASA extended its remit to include online commercial messages (i.e. websites). This made its complaint process considerably more attractive to skeptics, since many alternative medicine proponents do not engage in traditional advertising, but nearly all of them have a web site of some kind. The unsupportable claims on those websites were suddenly “fair game” for ASA complaints, and the Nightingale crew sprang into action.
To further expedite the process of filing complaints, Simon Perry built a piece of custom software called Fishbarrel (as in “shooting fish in a barrel”). It plugs into Google’s Chrome web browser and partially automates the process of locating & documenting the non-scientific claims being made on a website being viewed. It also helps format your complaint so that it will have a high probability of being accepted. This is a fantastic example of skeptics using computer tools to advance our work in ways never before thought possible.
This effort has been an outstanding success. According to statistics that ASA (coincidentally) released on Monday, they’ve received over 5,500 complaints about websites since the March change in remit. That number represents 30% of all the complaints they received in that period. There’s no way to know how many of those were due to Nightingale, but ASA did report that the “most complained-about sector is complementary and alternative health.” According to Perry, Fishbarrel has processed over 1,000 complaint submissions since its release (though not all of those were directed to ASA).
All of this is why promoters of complementary and alternative medicine in the UK are very angry at the ASA and the Nightingale skeptics. These complaints cause ASA to examine the factual basis of claims, and in some cases order the website owner to amend or withdraw the content. For example, this adjudication against a hair analysis website issued on Wednesday found that claims were being made that had no scientific basis and which encouraged patients to avoid seeking medical help. There are many similar rulings that have resulted. You can see a continuously updated feed of them on Nightingale Collaboration’s Twitter feed.
In a pattern we’ve seen before, the complaint site does not stick to factual debate, but delves deep into logical fallacies, conspiracy theory thinking and other canards. It makes rude comments about Simon Singh and others, but somehow manages to miss the fact (clearly published on the Nightingale website) that the group is actually run by Henness and MacLachlan.
Meanwhile the complaint site itself was registered anonymously Monday through a U.S. company and is hosted on servers in Malaysia. None of the text on the site is signed, there’s no indication of who is behind this effort. Whoever is behind it is not only angry, but anxious to not be publicly known. (Compare this with the skeptics, who are very open about what they are doing, and even have posted a code of conduct).
It’s about time that promoters of alternative medicine are forced to provide some evidence to back up their claims. The fact that they are so angrily reacting can be seen as evidence that the skeptical activism of Nightingale Collaboration is having the desired effect. Congratulations to Simon Singh, Alan Henness, Maria MacLachlan, Simon Perry and the many other volunteers for their great work so far. Keep it up!
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media. He is the creator of the website What's the Harm and also blogs at Skeptical Software Tools. He researched the information in JREF's Today in Skeptic History iPhone app and has given presentations at TAM 6, 7 and 9. You can follow him on Twitter here.