O.Q. – Original Quacksters*

I think its time for Andrew Brown to move on from The Guardian to a publisher like Elsevier where his regular opinion column can be given a more appropriate title. Something along the lines of ‘The Journal of Not Even Wrong’ would do very nicely, if only because the “Journal of Are You Fucking Kidding‘ is already taken (and used to great skeptical effect).

Brown’s latest venture in the realms of not even wrong takes in the news that the Advertising Standards Authority has taken a Bath-based Evangelical Christian group, ‘Healing on the Streets’, to task for making some very dodgy claims about the healing abilities of their invisible friend…

Anglican Mainstream is a thoroughly mean-spirited grouping that deserves this humiliation. But that doesn’t mean that Christianity has no real and mean-spirited enemies in Britain today. Sometimes the paranoid really are being persecuted – but in ways which have nothing to do with gay sex.

For example, the Advertising Standards Authority has just censured a small Evangelical Christian group in Bath for claiming that God can heal any sickness and they would be happy to pray for this outcome. Obviously the claim about God is unprovable. But should people not be allowed make it at all?

The answer is surely that this depends on the context and the profit to be made. There are some pentecostal preachers whose shows and claims are obviously dishonest, and the give-away newspapers in London are full of fraudulent ads from “healers” who claim to work magic on behalf of their clients. At the far end of the business there are some truly evil things happening, especially where a belief in “child witches” is involved.

But there’s no evidence that I have seen to suggest the Bath group are anything like that. They don’t ask for money and they made no claims to supplant traditional medicine. Their volunteers were instructed to give a letter to prayer recipients telling them to keep taking medication, and to keep following doctors’ advice. They may be wrong about prayer, but they are doing no harm. That is a point of vital importance, because the quacks who do harm are those who discourage conventional treatment.

So it is absurd of the ASA to blame the Bath group for “encouraging false hope”, as if this were not what all advertisements do, especially when they are in the placebo business.

Its worthing pointing, at this juncture, that the group that found itself on the wrong end of an ASA adjudication weren’t just indudlging in a bit of generic theological hand-waving. They were actually making a number of very specific health claims for the power of ‘goddidit’, as the ASA adjudication notes:

The ASA acknowledged that HOTS sought to promote their faith and the hope for physical healing by God through the claims in their ads. However, we were concerned that the prominent references in ad (b) to healing and the statement “You have nothing to lose, except your sickness” in combination with the references to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought such as arthritis, asthma, MS, addictions, depression and paralysis, could give consumers the expectation that, by receiving prayer from HOTS volunteers, they would be healed of the conditions listed or other sicknesses from which they suffered. We also considered that the testimonials in ad (a) could also give consumers that expectation, and furthermore, noted that a video on the website also made claims that HOTS volunteers had successfully prayed for healing for people with cancer, fibromyalgia, back pain, kidney pain, hip pain, cataracts, arthritis and paralysis. We noted the testimonials on the website and in the video but considered that testimonials were insufficient as evidence for claims of healing. We therefore concluded the ads were misleading.

What, no amputees…?

In any case, that’s where HOTS crossed the line. They made claims relating to specific and, in many cases, serious medical conditions for which they could provide no concrete evidence of efficacy of prior success and for that reason found themselves in much the same boat as homeopaths, acupuncturists, chiropracters, ‘new age’ energy and spiritual healers and a multitude of other quacks.

Now, whatever you might think of some of the conditions listed above, some of which are arguable amenable to the use of placebos as a mild palliative , the Cancer Act 1939 does make it unlawful for anyone to advertise any product or service that purposrts to able t0 cure, heal or treat cancer ouside of technical publications aimed at doctors, nurses and pharmacists, and as this leaflet didn’t appear in The Lancet and the Act makes no provision for any religious exemptions to its provisions the phrase ‘not got a leg to stand on’ seems to be both pleasingly ironic and entirly apt.

Against this, Brown’s suggestion that context matters in the sense that making unsupportable and unevidenced medical claims is only a bad thing when its done by people who ask for money up front and/or actively discourage people from seeing a real doctor seems akin to suggesting that Jessie J wouldn’t sound anything like as shit if she were busking in your back garden rather than charging people £50 a throw to have ‘It’s not about the money’ sung at them.

Mind you, Brown’s not alone in failing to cotton on to the real issues here as the group has put out its own statement in response to the ASA’s adjudication…

We are disappointed with the ASA’s decision, and will appeal against it because it seems very odd to us that the ASA wants to prevent us from stating on our website the basic Christian belief that God can heal illness.

The ASA has even demanded that we sign a document agreeing not to say this, which is unacceptable to us – as it no doubt would be for anyone ordered not to make certain statements about their conventional religious or philosophical beliefs.

All over the world as part of their normal Christian life, Christians believe in, pray for and experience God’s healing; our ministry, in common with many churches, has been active in praying for God‘s healing (of Christians and non Christians) for many years.

Over that time the response to what we do has been overwhelmingly positive, and we find it difficult to understand the ASA’s attempt to restrict communication about this. Our website simply states our beliefs and describes some of our experiences.

We tried to reach a compromise, recognising some of the ASA’s concerns, but there are certain things that we cannot agree to – including a ban on expressing our beliefs.

Except that this isn’t what the ASA has actually said.

The group is still free to express a general belief in the presumed healing abilities of their invisible friend. What they cannot do is make specific claims in relation to illnesses and conditions for which they cannot provide supporting evidence of efficacy, and testimonials and anecdotes just won’t do. In that their position is no different to anyone else making health-related claims on the basis of personal beliefs which are not supported by evidence nor even, in this case, by scripture, unless I missed the bit in the bible where Jesus healed someone with fibromyalgia.

Maybe they’d have more luck with the ASA if they stuck to making about leprosy, although I doubt it very much and, in case, I’m not sure there’s much call for leprosy treatments in Bath these days.

To pile cliché onto cliché, the group continues by falling back on the paranoia du jour…

It appears that the complaint to the ASA was made by a group generally opposed to Christianity, and it seems strange to us that on the basis of a purely ideological objection to what we say on our website, the ASA has decided it is appropriate to insist that we cannot talk about a common and widely held belief that is an important aspect of conventional Christian faith.

Only for them to have to backpedal somewhat when their assumptions turned out to be wide of the mark.

Amendment Feb 2nd – However the compliant had been made anonymously and it has since come to light that it was made by a individual and not a group.

Who knows whether the individual who made this complaint is generally opposed to Christianity or not?

What we can be sure of is that, whoever they are, they’re opposed to people making health cliams that they can’t back with evidence, which os what this actually about.

Regardless of how sincere these people might be in their beliefs, the absolute most they can claim is that if you- or they – pray to their god then you might get lucky. Some people do and their condition may improve spontaneously and seemingly without any clear cause, assuming that they don’t just have a self-limiting condition in the first place. Its not unknown for some cancers to go into spontaeous remission/regression although for most cancers this is thought to be a relatively rare occurance with the best, but still highly disputable, estimates indicating that this may happen in around 1 case in every 100,000 – unless we’re dealing with breast cancer where one 2008 study found that 22% of small tumors went into spontaneous regression.

Of course, other people get lucky while they’re praying to other gods or even by doing nothing of the sort, and that’s really the point.

The ASA’s regulations don’t allow anyone to make seemingly factual claims about any kind of product or service on the basis of belief alone regardless of whether your selling cat food or promoting miracle cures. If you want to claim that 8 out of 10 cats prefer your brand of cat food over that of any of your competitots then you have to be able supply the kitties to prove it and show that you didn’t rig the test by covering your competitors’ products with sump oil before offering it to your feline test subjects. And if you want to claim that your god has been fixing up people with multiple sclerosis then you need to provide the evidence which shows that your god actually did the work and that its not just a matter of dumb luck.

The entire argument here, for which Brown has fallen hook, line and sinker – as usual – amounts to nothing more than special pleading. Because this group sticks a bit of ‘goddidit’ on the end of their claims they believe that they should not be held to same rules as the quacks who believe, just as firmly in many cases, that they can pull of the same tricks with magic water and sugar pills or by sticking needles into non-existent energy meridians.

Relgion has been in business of peddling miracle cures to the vulnerable and gullible for a long time, a lot longer than most of the quack modalties that are currently marketed under the banner of complementary, alternative and/or integrative medicines. One could argue, in fact, that religion invented the miracle cure industry and it has certainly profitted massively over the centuries, both financially and in terms of obtaining power and influence by pitching its marks the idea that god not only looks after the entire universe but he’s also happy run a few errands from time to time just so long as you choose to play by their rules – and, of course, so long as your keep filling the collecting plates.

Religion is, in its many and varied forms, the original quack modality.

Bearing that in mind, one has to wonder how, and by what criteria, Brown manages to conclude that the Bath group are harmless while, at the same time, deriding some pentecostal preachers for being ‘obviously dishonest’. Is it all just a matter of the money and how forthright some preachers are in their appeals for hard cash, in which case one has to wonder quite how he views the industries that operate around pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes or the touring relics of St Therese of Lisieux? Is harm nothing more than a function of the degree of vulgarity with which different churches, and preachers, go about sticking their hands into the pockets of their congregations, a sign that some preachers are less sincere in their beliefs than others?

Is that what he means that answer ‘depends on context and the profits to be made’?

That people should be free to make misleading and unevidenced health claims just so long as they don’t operate under a fixed schedule of fees and charges, and never mind that many of the most successful confidence tricks work on the basis that they rook people into handing over their money voluntarily withou the con-artist ever once having to make a specific request for cash.

That’s not right, it’s not even wrong.

*Title with profound apologies to Ice-T.