Dear Reader…

In which Wandering Teacake tries to explain what we’re not doing here

Dear Reader. Is it okay if I call you Reader? We’ve come a long way together, you and I, through the ups and down of the last ten or so posts on the subject of What Doctors Don’t Tell You, the magazine that calls itself a health journal, but whose content has led some of us to wonder whether it has all been an elaborate spoof. Actually, I’m hoping this page will be read by at least a few new readers, because I’m aiming it at people who don’t understand why campaigners are currently trying to persuade supermarkets and newsagents to stop stocking WDDTY, or who don’t agree with this campaign.

Michael Fitzpatrick wrote recently on Spiked that he felt the campaign against WDDTY was misdirected. He knew the magazine was “fundamentally silly” but the way to deal with it was with ridicule, not censorship. While the chief target of his article, Matthew Lam, has responded directly, I think the episode has illuminated once again that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what the campaign against WDDTY is trying to achieve, and for what reasons.

So here’s an attempt to explain our thinking. If you’re a regular reader, or currently campaigning against WDDTY, I’d be glad and grateful if you suggest, in discussion with readers and supporters of WDDTY, that they read this post, and add your own view in the comments. Put me right if you think I’m not representing the situation correctly.

If you’re new here, a supporter or reader of WDDTY, this is for you, and an explanation, as best I can, of what we’re doing, and why. There are other articles on this blog, and links to other blogs by more capable writers, but you’ve ended up here, so I’ll do my best. Let me know what you think, or where I’ve got it wrong, in the comments below.

These are some of the accusations that are being levelled at campaigners.

You’re trying to ban WDDTY/free speech

No, we are not. Loads of other people have answered this point, so I’m not going to waste too much time on it. We are asking stockists to consider whether the content in the magazine fits with their image and reputation. I’ve explained why here. WDDTY is no more banned now that Waitrose and Sainsbury don’t stock it than it was before. Personally, I wish WDDTY would change to become what it should be, and what it claims to be: a proper, evidence-based investigative magazine, which holds all healthcare providers accurately and truthfully to account. I wish that the publishers would research diligently and incisively. Wouldn’t that be great? I’d buy that magazine. But I recognise this Damascene conversion is never likely to happen, and so for me an acceptable alternative would be for WDDTY to return to the subscription model from whence it came. While it sits on shelves in places like Tesco and WH Smith it gains a mainstream reputation it does not deserve, which risks harming vulnerable people.

And it’s not a free speech issue either. The right to free speech does not mean you have the right to demand that retailers distribute your speech, and the fact is nobody is trying to ban this publication. Nobody is saying it can’t be sold.

You should establish a dialogue with the publishers, and work with them to correct errors

Tried that. Let’s see how it worked out, shall we?

WDDTY systematically vilify and delete anybody who disagrees with them on their Facebook pages, no matter how polite, no matter how carefully they try to discuss problems. And they never, ever correct their mistakes.

Here’s one really clear example. On WDDTY editor Lynne McTaggart’s own blog, she made the claim that the NHS drugs budget is £160 billion.

Doctors should be rewarded for adopting non-drug therapies, thus saving the nation at least one small part of the £160 billion spent every year on drugs by the NHS.

That’s an easy figure to check, and people did.

lmctblogpharmabudget01

lmctblogpharmabudget02

What we have here is Lynne McTaggart over-estimating the drugs budget by about a factor of ten, and people pointing this out. How did she respond?

lmctblogpharmabudget03

People respond to try to explain again.

lmctblogpharmabudget04

Lynne McTaggart has never replied, and the error still stands. This is an easy mistake to spot, easy to understand and easy to fix. The figure of £160 billion is used to justify calls for a fundamental change in the way the health service in the UK operates, yet it is massively over-inflated, and never corrected.

As an aside, how much can you trust the claims you can’t easily check, when simple, glaring errors such as this one don’t just go uncorrected, but the author continues to defend them when they are clearly wrong?

You’re telling us what to think

No, we’re really not. Look, if you know that WDDTY is complete nonsense, good for you. Not everybody shares your insight. This is clear from the comments on the WDDTY Facebook page, and the fact that it is claimed to sell 20,000-odd copies a month. Not every one of those readers can be buying it for a joke. Some of them believe what they read, when it is clearly and unequivocally wrong. The statement that there is information in WDDTY which is wrong is not a matter of opinion or “different truths”; it is a statement of fact.

Ask yourself the questions: do you know for a certainty that vitamin C does not cure AIDS? Do you know that homeopathy really does not “reverse cancer”?

If you think that vitamin C may have an effect on AIDS, and that WDDTY may actually have hit on some hidden knowledge, then I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say this, you are mistaken. A third of a million people have died as part of a desperately tragic experiment proving that vitamin C does not cure AIDS. If you accept the claims made about vitamin C are not true, are you sure it’s safe to falsely tell people they are true, when the people you’re telling may be desperate and vulnerable? This is what WDDTY is doing. Personally, I think it stinks, but what do you think? Do you think it’s fair to call us “puerile” for questioning these claims? Or is what we’re doing perhaps understandable?

WDDTY are just putting this information out there. They’re not giving advice or telling anybody to do anything

Good grief. Have you actually read this magazine? When they print an article that claims vitamin C cures AIDS, and polio, and measles, and within that article they include a box-out describing how much vitamin C to take, alongside ads for the product, what exactly is the inference you think you are supposed to draw? When they say that you might like to keep your children at home if you know vaccination campaigns are happening, what do you think WDDTY are doing? They are giving advice, however much they may coyly pretend that they are not.

If you’re one of the people who can see through the tissue of fabrications and misinterpretation to realise that what WDDTY is saying is wrong, why would you think it’s still okay to publish? Why would you not want the errors corrected? Do you believe that nobody could be fooled, so the whole thing can be treated as a joke or an irrelevance? I think the evidence demonstrates that assumption to be wrong, but if it is right, and nobody is being fooled, what is the point of WDDTY in the first place? Whether people are taken in by the rubbish in WDDTY or not, this magazine helps nobody.

You’re in the pay of big pharma

No. Just no. What is happening here is an example of individuals, end users of health care, some patients, taking a stand for themselves. The thing most proponents of alt-med seem to want, to have a say, to be active participants in their own health care, this is what is happening here. Individuals are saying on their own initiative that this magazine is wrong.

You’re ignoring the worse problems in conventional medicine

Ah, the “Oooh, look at that interesting thing over there!” gambit.

There are problems with conventional healthcare. Big problems. Many of the problems are inexcusable. None of them in any way have any bearing on the problems with alt-med. You can’t excuse bad behaviour by pointing at somebody else and saying “Well, they’re doing it too!” You’re not seven years old, and you have not just been caught pushing Amy Smith over in the playground. It is the same with alt-med providers: they don’t get a free pass just because somebody else is behaving badly. We can’t look at the problems with current prescription drugs, some of which have insufficient evidence of efficacy, and decide that the way to solve these problems is to allow anybody to sell you any old thing, without any evidence it does any good.

You’ll find most of the people criticising alt-med are also critical of the failings of conventional medicine. This is consistent; we want all providers of health care to have to meet the same standards of evidence, and those standards need to be higher than they are now. That is why I’ve signed up to the AllTrials campaign. Have you? If not, why not? Ask yourself: what is it you fear about greater transparency and accountability from the people that supply our medicines and treatments? Why should suppliers of alternative treatments not meet the same standards, even the insufficient standards of conventional treatments?

(Incidentally, it’s interesting to note what happened when Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Pharma, one of the founders of the AllTrials campaign, and an experienced writer on science and medical issues, offered to do a piece for WDDTY. They declined.)

You’re attacking patients

I’ve covered that here.

It’s better to ridicule than to censor

This is the take-away message from Michael Fitzpatrick’s article on Spiked.

Well, for starters there has actually been a fair amount of ridicule. Just look at WWDDTYDTY for a start. Secondly, what we’re asking for falls some way short of censorship, I would argue. We’re not trying to stop the editors of WDDTY publishing their magazine, as already stated.

But to address the meat of the argument, while ridicule is often a useful tool, it runs the risk of alienating the very people we’re trying to reach: the readers and followers of this publication. There continues to be the chancethat an attack on this magazine, or on alt-med peddlers in general, could be misconstrued as an attack on their clients/victims. Again, I’ve looked at this before, but it remains a risk, and it’s implicit in the “you’re trying to tell us what to think” argument and others discussed on this page.

Personally, I think ridicule has its place, but it can’t be the only possible approach. Sometimes direct campaigning, by reporting dodgy adverts to the ASA or Trading Standards, or contacting distributors and stockists and asking if they are aware what they are selling, is both more effective and less likely to look like the snide sniping that defenders of WDDTY already think is our stock-in-trade.

I’ll follow up with an article about health claims, but for now I think most of us, on both sides of this discussion, want much the same thing. I don’t believe many people want health providers to provide health care which doesn’t work. Most of us, I think, want there to be some way to ensure that the treatments we use are safe and effective. We merely differ on what constitutes good evidence that a treatment works, and how we should regulate against poor practice.

We could, as we’re all health care users, be working together on this…

Update 29/11/13: I have had it pointed out to me that “from whence” is not the correct usage for the phrase, and that the word “from” is redundant. The sentence in paragraph 6 should therefore read “But I recognise this Damascene conversion is never likely to happen, and so for me an acceptable alternative would be for WDDTY to return to the subscription model whence it came.” I am happy to issue this correction, and thank DeeTee and jaap for bringing it to my attention. See how it works, Lynne? This is what journalists and scientists do when an error is pointed out to them.

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One Response to “Dear Reader…”

  1. chapmancentral November 30, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

    Carl Sagan.

    I recently went through the WDDTY articles on HIV/AIDS: http://wwddtydty.com/2013/11/hiv-aids-bizarre-letter/

    What I found is that they don’t admit they are wrong. They either pretend they never said that in the first place or, more often, pretend they are right when they are not.

    In this, they follow the classic SCAM path. They seize a finding, they decide to believe it, and they view any scientific evidence that does not support their belief as evidence of science being threatened by it, conspiring to suppress it.

    That is how religions work too.

    The result is predictable. In 2013, large number of Americans still believe the Earth to be 6,000 years old and the species of earth to have been created separate and distinct. These errors cannot be corrected because to do so requires that you take the evidence at face value rather than weighing it against what you already believe.

    SCAM is a religious movement. That is why WDDTY makes obsessive use of the credentials of the people whose views it cherry-picks. SCAMmers don’t realise that in science, being eminent does not make you right. Especially when everyone else says you are wrong. The Nobel prizes of Pauling and Montagnier make no difference to the fact that their views on vitamin C and homeopathy are simply wrong. In science it should not matter who you are, only how good your science is. A decade ago, who you were was important even in science because it allowed you to publish even crazy stuff (ask Stanley Pons). Now, open access publishing means that you need only be right. Science has never been more iconoclastic.

    SCAMmers always present medicine as closed-minded and unwilling to consider alternatives. This is offensive nonsense. Marshall and Warren have talked eloquently about the battle to gain acceptance for the idea that ulcers are caused by bacteria; as they tell it, their problem was that their science was not strong enough in the early days. If you hypothesis acid-living bacteria, you’d better have good evidence that bacteria can live in that environment. Once they fleshed out the details, their work was accepted, and indeed became the stuff of legend. The problem is not that medicine will not test SCAM, it’s that SCAmmers won’t accept an answer that conflicts with their beliefs. SCAMmers think a good test is one that validates their idea, science thinks a good test is one that establishes the truth. It doesn’t matter how passionately you believe that apricot pips cure cancer, the evidence says otherwise.

    SCAMmers often admire Kuhn and the idea of the paradigm shift, the seismic change in understanding that will suddenly (they wish) validate their beliefs. They ignore the fact that (a) Kuhn was a philosopher, what he said was just opinion; and (b) where a paradigm shift could justly be said to exist it has consistently provided a better and more complete explanation of the facts, but has rarely if ever refuted prior observations.

    Einstein refutes Newton, but Newton is still good enough for virtually all everyday purposes.

    Each of these paradigm shifts – in reality moments of clarity in which patterns are established that previously were not seen – has in fact tended to make the beliefs of SCAMmers less plausible. Homeopathy, acupuncture and the like may have been plausible in the 18th or 19th Century. They ceased to be plausible long before the end of the 20th.

    SCAMmers also portray science as arrogant. This is fundamentally wrong. Science is inherently humble. Albert Einstein disputed quantum statistical mechanics, he firmly believed in determinism. His eminence, the reverence with which he was viewed, made precisely no difference to the fact that he was wrong, and everybody knew he was wrong.

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