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ASA Adjudicate on Flyer Complaint

In December 2010, a friend received a flyer through their door from a local church (which I covered previously). It told my friend that the truth could set them free, and gave examples of people being “healed” of severe food allergy, autism, death, “broken heart” and broken vertebra by prayer and baptism. I complained about it to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on three grounds:

  • First, I felt that the claims of miraculous healing were unlikely, and that the advertiser would not be able to substantiate the claims if asked.
  • Second, the advertisement was irresponsible because it might result in people not seeking medical care.
  • Third, it was promoting the idea that attendance at a meeting of the church would result in people being cured of medical conditions.

The ASA (somewhat predictably) declined jurisdiction with regards claims of miracles. This is slightly frustrating from my point of view because they’re making a claim which is easily demonstrated. Either the person had a condition, had the faith intervention and no medical intervention and then didn’t have the condition – in which case a miracle occurred – or one of the criteria is not met and a miracle did not occur.

However, the ASA did consider and adjudicate on the other two issues, and I am pleased to report they found against the advertiser on both counts, and the advertisement is not allowed to appear again.

As a society, we believe it is unacceptable to abuse people emotionally, physically, sexually or by neglect, but it is also wrong to exploit people’s spiritual beliefs. If we do not want to see people being exploited, challenging adverts like this one helps make such behaviour less socially acceptable, and helps to protect the most vulnerable.

This is a step in the right direction: whilst we still cannot apparently challenge falsehoods, we can ensure that religious groups cannot encourage people to act in a way which will have no demonstrable health benefits.


Goldman Conjecture: How do I know who to believe?

I heard Massimo Pigliucci on For Good Reason nearly a year ago (episode 1 and episode 2) talking about his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk.

I’ve just finished reading the book (well, technically, listening to it in my car), and it’s a reasonable, Skeptical discussion of philosophy of science and epistemology. Massimo Pigliucci has three doctorates (genetics, botany and philosophy of science), and writes clearly about the issues, ranging from the demarcation problem (what is science and what isn’t?) to how science works.

However, it was his penultimate chapter on expertise which promoted me to write this post. In it, he advocates five principles which are adapted from Alvin Goldman’s Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?. Here they are (paraphrased):

  1. What is quality of the arguments presented by the experts (eg. are they citing evidence or using fallacious arguments)?
  2. Do the arguments agree with the arguments and evidence presented by other experts in the field (eg. do they agree with the consensus)?
  3. What recognition of expertise does the person have (eg. do they have a relevant academic qualification or other recognition)?
  4. What are the biases affecting of the experts, and how do they related to the positions they are espousing (eg. if they’re researching drugs, are they funded by pharmaceutic companies)?
  5. What is the experts success rate like (eg. do they have regular/recent/relevant peer-reviewed research published)?

In the book, Pigliucci compares an advocate of creationism with an advocate of evolution, and unsurprisingly his conclusion is that the evolutionist is more worthy of trust than the creationist. He also uses the criteria against a single person – Deepak Chopra – and concludes that he falls at the first hurdle: his arguments aren’t really arguments at all.

My problem with the first this is the context in which such assessment is supposed to occur. Outside of a few professionals, who is expert on assessing and weighing evidence? The fact is that most debates in the public sphere are decided on the basis more of effective rhetoric than expert application and assessment of inductive and deductive logical patterns.

The second assumes that people have access to the information necessary to assess the quality of the evidence, and assumes that it is necessarily possible to identify consensus. To Pigliucci’s credit, he does point out that consensus can be wrong, but I’d question whether developing – or even developed – science is quite so amenable to objective analysis, not least because information may be hidden behind paywalls, technical language or mere obscurity. It also assumes a desire to check this information.

[edit: added this paragraph at 2115] It also occurs to me that this requires you to know who is an expert in order to be able to identify who is an expect. Seem like this could result in a recursive loop in which every expert can only be an expert when the comparator expert has also assessed!

The third assumes that most people know what is, or is not, relevant to the issues at hand. For example, which type of biologist should I ask about evolution? Why is a biologist not the right person to talk about abiogenesis?

The fourth, it seems to me, can be problematic on both sides of the equation and requires a subjective decision as to which biases should be included and which should not (for example, is a persons religious affiliation relevant to a discussion on the development of life?).

Finally, the fifth has the same weaknesses as the second, and in addition assumes that people have the ability to assess the relative success of different papers and publications in the knowledge ecosystem.

Although Pigliucci’s writing is a good introduction to epistemology and sciphi, it very much preaches to the choir. His clear disdain of post-modern thinking is amusing (but doesn’t seem to have evolved much since Sokal), but I would hope – as Pigliucci himself encourages – that readers treat his conclusions with some, dare I say it, skepticism. After all, the people who most need to think critically are the people least likely to read it…

Complaint about Revival Fellowship Medway to Advertising Standards Authority

A friend of mine recently received the following through their door:

Front of a postcard advertising Revival Fellowship Medway

Front of a postcard advertising Revival Fellowship Medway

Rear of postcard advertising Revival Fellowship Medway

Rear of postcard advertising Revival Fellowship Medway

A simple view of the advert raises a number of questions for me. For example, how come we haven’t heard about these miraculous healings?

A severe food allergy can be a disabling condition because of the impact on lifestyle and nutrition. If he’s healed, shouldn’t we be putting prayer therapy on the NHS?

Austism (quite why it’s capitalised in the postcard is beyond me), or autistic spectrum disorders, are a complex collection of psychological and psychical symptoms which results in a range of functional states from fully functional to needing constant supportive care. To date, nobody has been cured of autism, and yet Russell was!

Granville died. Not once but THREE times! Yes, Granville died three times – which is two times more than Jesus! After prayer, he came alive. Now, did prayer have anything to do with the first two resurrections, or just the third? Are we really talking about death, or did he just go into cardiac arrest? If he “just” went into cardiac arrest, is it likely that the chest compressions, defibrillation and ALS drugs had more to do with the survival than the prayer? We should be told! Will the prayer work the fourth time around?

I’m not sure how a person can be incompatible with life (they can certainly have conditions incompatible with life, but the person cannot themselves so be), and I’m assuming that Trevor and Leila’s daughter survived (which is fantastic news). However, doctors work on the basis of typical outcomes – given the conditions which the child had, they probably advised the parents that her chances of survival were slim. This is normal practice – and yet some of the children survive, and some don’t survive as long as expected. The claim that this was impossible, and that god made it impossible, reduces medicine to simple binary decision making, when in reality it’s more about identify the shades of grey.

I have yet to see ‘broken heart’ on the ICD, but when it is, I’ll consider it relevant to healing.

Dan was healed of a broken vertebrae. Now, ignoring the fact that vertebra is the singular, I’m impressed and would like to see the evidence – perhaps before and after x-rays. Is this too much to ask?

I don’t believe any of these claims are as stated. That’s not to say that I don’t think that people believe the claims, but that they are nonetheless misleading. At the very least, Russell’s healing would be the subject of intense investigation by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, Granville’s resurrection would have been reported in the BMJ and Dan’s miraculous vertebral reconstruction of interest to neurologists, pain specialists and orthopods.

My issue here isn’t the religious connotations – people are free to believe whatever they like. My concern is that this is being asserted as truth in an advert for a church (which presumably follow the ten commandments, including that one about bearing false witness?), without any supporting evidence.

Such assertions will appeal to the chronically sick and injured, and may result in them getting involved in the church looking to be healed. However, often when people get involved in these groups and don’t get healed, the blame is laid at the door of the sick person. They’re told they don’t have enough faith or they don’t contribute enough money to the church or they’re making it up or that God doesn’t want them to be healed – it’s part of his plan for them. Now, I’m not saying that this church will do any of those things, but that without evidence it’s just drawing people with the promise of false hope.

In short, the church is making promises of healing on which it cannot deliver, and that’s unethical.

I have, as a result, sent the following to the ASA:

On the rear of the postcard, the church claims:
1) to have healed severe food allergy through prayer
2) to have healed autism through prayer
3) to have brought a man back to life (three times!) through prayer
4) to have healed “a broken vertebrae” [sic] through baptism

The complaint is that there is no substantiation of these claims, and that to date no claim of miraculous healing has been substantiated when examined by independent scientific or medical experts.

It’s possible that the assertion is intended to be that the person was healed after prayer as a result of receiving regular medical therapies. If this is the case it is not made clear.

Further, it is highly irresponsible to claim that some of these conditions can be healed; severe food allergy is a life threatening condition, as are fractured vertebrae. There have been a number of cases in the past where people have relied on prayer or faith healing instead of taking a sick or injured person to see a qualified medical professional. Claims of this type should come with the ethical caution for people in need of care to seek the advice of qualified medical professionals.

Finally, it seems to me that this is preying on vulnerable people in society. People with chronic or complex condition are often willing to try anything to be relieved of pain or disability, and this advert suggests that they too can be healed; this may well draw them into a complex religious organisation with all that entails. However, drawing people in with unsubstantiated promises of healing is an unethical way to engage people into a belief system.

In my opinion, the claims are misleading, unsubstantiated and seek to exploit vulnerable people.