Adventures in nonsense

A general record of my ongoing battle with all forms of nonsense.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Check you’ve got the latest version of FishBarrel ready for the Nightingale Collaboration’s next campaign

The Nightingale Collaboration will shortly be launching a new and exciting campaign that you can help out with – but you’ll need to make sure that:
  •  you’ve got the latest version of FishBarrel.
  •  you’ve added your signature in the options

Once you've go the latest version, you just need to drag & drop a PNG image of your signature, ideally with a transparent background, onto the right place in the FishBarrel options.

If you haven’t installed FishBarrel before:

Then fill out the options page.

If you have installed:
If you have installed FishBarrel, then check the version. In Chrome, go Settings > Extensions  and look for the FishBarrel extension.

If you’ve got version 2.1.5 or later:
Then you don’t need to do anything except upload your signature to the options page.

If you’ve visited the options page in FishBarrel since 2.1.4 came out, you might not have the latest version of the templates. The header for the first template has been rewritten to be super-thorough by Alan Henness - you can get the latest version by deleting the header template text and then refreshing the page.

If you’re on an older version but it starts with a 2:
Just click “Update extensions now” at the top of Chrome’s Settings > Extensions page.

Now upload your signature to the options page.

If you’ve visited the options page in FishBarrel since 2.1.4 came out, you might not have the latest version of the templates. The CNHC one has changed - you can get the latest version by deleting the header template text and then refreshing the page.

If you’re on a very old version that starts with a 1:

Manually copy any settings over from the old version to the new one (click on the duck icon, then click “options” on each tab).

Upload your signature to the options page.

Delete the older version from Chrome’s Settings > Extensions page.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Tory MP says disabled people should be forced to work in labour camps for starvation wages, then sold as meat for cattle feed

That, in itself, wasn’t very interesting. But what is very interesting was the reaction from normally intelligent, critically thinking people who read the words “disabled” and “minimum wage” together and jumped to a huge number of crazy conclusions before actually understanding what Davies was saying.

No I'm afraid he didn’t.

Er, no he’s not suggesting we should treat disabled people any differently to anyone else.

(Edit: @josephbush has since clarified that there was an element of sarcasm in this tweet.)

Davies was saying that:
  • Some vulnerable people were suffering as a result of the minimum wage legislation.
  • Disabled people were an example of a group that was affected particularly badly.
  • We shouldn’t be standing in the way of people trying to find work if they consider this legislation to be a hindrance.
This isn’t rocket science. The economy isn’t exactly booming right now. There are many people willing to take minimum wage work and the employer can take their pick. Employers will naturally take the person who is best able to do the job. Anyone less able than anyone else applying for a minimum wage position simply won’t be able to get a job – denied employment by law.

Davies doesn’t suggest that we should allow only disabled people the freedom to negotiate their wages. The conversation has moved on by this point. He’s clear that his argument applies to anyone who sees the minimum wage as a hindrance:

"My view is that for some people the national minimum wage may be more of a hindrance than a help.

"If those people who consider it is being a hindrance to them, and in my view that's some of the most vulnerable people in society, if they feel that for a short period of time, taking a lower rate of pay to help them get on their first rung of the jobs ladder, if they judge that that is a good thing, I don't see why we should be standing in their way."

The disabled were used as an example of a group that is harmed, nothing more.

He’s also not saying anyone “should” work for less; he’s merely defending their right to do so if they are unable to find higher paid work.

Work doesn’t just provide money, it provides self-esteem. It provides you with the pride in knowing you are sustained by your own work rather than charity. In my opinion, nobody should be denied this right simply because they are unable to sell their time for more than minimum wage.

The outrage caused some of the most preposterous tweets I’ve seen:

Davies said:
“some of those people with a learning disability clearly, by definition, cannot be as productive in their work as somebody who has not got a disability”
Now you could interpret this as saying a person with a learning disability is never as productive as someone without, but I think it’s unlikely that this is what was meant. What Davies likely means is that a learning difficulty is likely to make someone less productive rather than more.

If a job requires learning, then someone who finds it difficult to learn will be less productive at that element of their job.

If they are equally productive in the skill of learning, they haven’t got a learning difficulty. As Davies said, this is true by definition.

You might be ideologically opposed to allowing people to freely negotiate their income. You might get angry. You might have other reasons for thinking Davies is a cock (like voting against gay rights for instance).

But before criticising anything, I encourage you to read and understand what is being said.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Making misleading health claims online just got a little more problematic

I’ve developed several Google custom searches to make it easier to pick though the data and identify practitioners making misleading and potentially dangerous claims. These custom searches are like having a version of Google that limits itself to the websites of specific groups of alternative practitioners. They're not perfect - you'll get false positives as well as false negatives. But they do work very well.

Here are Google search engines limited only to websites belonging to members of:

You might find, for instance, that there are still some British Chiropractic Association members claiming to treat colic. Or you might find that some CNHC members are claiming they can treat ear infections by sticking a candle in your ear. Or maybe you’ll find a homeopath that is telling people that magic sugar pills can help with eczema.

Google's custom search system is far from perfect. It randomly seems to drop results, then pops them back in again. Text that is clearly found on many sites can't be found. But I expect this to improve over time as the indexing improves.

Despite these problems, if you're making misleading claims it’s now far more probable that you'll get caught. Fingers crossed that whoever finds them hasn't got FishBarrel installed.

Monday, 25 April 2011

FishBarrel: Keep what you highlight short & to the point

I’ve been looking through some of the complaints that have gone in via FishBarrel. While I can’t see the background information that people have entered, I can see what was highlighted.

A few of the complaints seem to include really large chunks of highlighted text, which is going to reduce the effectiveness of the complaint and may even mean it gets initially rejected.

Here is an example of some text that was highlighted recently:

Aromatherapy combines massage with the use of therapeutic essential oils which are found naturally in plants. Tricia Swensson The essential oils are applied to the skin and are absorbed into the blood stream which can have a therapeutic effect on the body systems. Aromatherapy massage can help to reduce stress and tension, relieve muscular pain, improve circulation and encourage the removal of toxins from the body. Aromatherapy may help with a wide range of treatments such as: Insomnia Menstruation problems Respiratory conditions Digestive disorders The use of plant extracts for health have been documented for thousands of years, the ancient Egyptians used essential oils for health and beauty and also during embalming. Aromatherapy as we know it was revived when a French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse burnt his hand during an accident; he placed his hand in a bowl which he believed contained water but in fact contained lavender oil he was amazed at how quickly the wound healed leaving no scarring. It is Gattefosse who first coined the phrase `aromatherapie’.

Much of this information is true. The complaint would be far stronger if the specific misleading claims were highlighted individually. Even if there are two sentences with misleading claims next to each other, it’s worth separating them out by highlighting them individually. Here’s how I’d deal with the above text:

#1 Aromatherapy massage can help to reduce stress and tension, relieve muscular pain, improve circulation and encourage the removal of toxins from the body.

#2 Aromatherapy may help with a wide range of treatments such as: Insomnia Menstruation problems Respiratory conditions Digestive disorders

(Note: If the header of your complaint states you’re listing misleading claims, you probably wouldn’t need to enter any background info about the above.)

#3 French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse burnt his hand during an accident; he placed his hand in a bowl which he believed contained water but in fact contained lavender oil he was amazed at how quickly the wound healed leaving no scarring.

For #3's background info, I’d add: “The above text misleadingly implies that aromatherapy is an effective treatment for burns.”

This way it’s clear what you’re complaining about and you’re not asking the ASA to do all of the work for you.

There is one exception I can think of where you might highlight a lot of text and that where the practitioner just lists a large number of diseases that their therapy treats. In this case, highlight the full list.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

FishBarrel: The easy way to report misleading health claims online.

Update: FishBarrel is now available from the Chrome Web Store here. If you previously downloaded the file directly, please uninstall and reinstall from the app store.

With thousands of misleading health claims on the web and a report to the ASA taking around ten minutes, I'd regularly come across misleading claims but do nothing about them.
So I built FishBarrel. FishBarrel is a plugin for Google Chrome that manages the process of making an ASA or Trading Standards complaint so that it takes just a few seconds.
FishBarrel also tracks all text complained about in a central database. When you turn on FishBarrel, any text complained about by other users is automatically highlighted. This prevents you from submitting duplicate complaints to the ASA.
Finally, FishBarrel can automatically revisit the websites later and check if the claims have been removed.
Watch the demo (full-screen is best), then download it for free below.

FishBarrel is free. To download, open a Chrome browser, download the plugin and install the crx extension by clicking "continue" in the warning bar at the bottom of your browser window.
There is more information available in the help section of the extension.
Next time you're on a website containing misleading health claims, it will just take a few seconds to send them over to the ASA. I hope FishBarrel makes the difference between ignoring the misleading information and getting the claim removed.
I'd like to say thank you to all of the people who helped me test this, but especially @scepticletters, whose feedback helped improve FishBarrel enormously.
All development was done with the support and collaboration of my web software development company Xibis. The team have helped enormously with the technical development and have provided the server infrastructure. Xibis are specialists in building these sorts of web based productivity systems.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

What to do about Boots.

Important Update

Boots have now removed all claims regarding menopause treatment from the website after a complaint was made to the ASA. However, the product is still for sale online and almost certainly in store. The claims are still being made on the product packaging.

Let's continue the pressure until Boots stop making these claims.

In your complaint to Trading Standards you should mention:
  • Boots have removed the claims from their website after a complaint to the ASA (not sure if it was because of this complaint)
  • Boots have edited the product photo so that the claims stated on the packaging are taken outside the ASA's remit
  • However, the claims are still being made on the packaging itself when seen in store.


If you've signed up to the pledge to complain to Trading Standards about Boots selling quack medical products, thank you. Boots has an agreement with Nottingham Trading Standards so all complaints about Boots are processed there. However, you should complain to your local Trading Standards body rather than the Nottingham one and allow them to forward it.

The initial complaints will be for Boots’ “Menopause relief magnet”. This was chosen because we believe it should be easy for Trading Standards to do something about it. If we are successful we can send them a claim that’s a little more difficult to understand.

When should I complain?

At the bottom of this post, I’ve copied and pasted a list of names and dates. Please look up your name to find your date. If you’re not on the list (some people subscribed anonymously, or after I copied the list) then please complain immediately.

Please put a reminder in your calendar for that day. You can copy this text to make it easy:

Complain to Trading Standards about Boots Quackery

Before you complain, please check that Boots is still selling the product. If not, let Simon know immediately and we’ll see if they are making other misleading claims.

Don't forget to leave a comment on Simon's blog to say you've done it.

What to mention in your complaint

You can make a complaint to Trading Standards with one paragraph (please don’t use this exact text):
“I saw this product in Boots saying it relieves the symptoms of the menopause. I think this isn't right and I want to complain about it.”
However, there are a number of things you can mention to strengthen your complaint:
  • You are complaining under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Under these regulations, it is up to the seller to provide evidence for any claims they make, rather than up to the Trading Standards body to prove the claims wrong.
  • As a Trading Standards body it is their duty to enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations.
  • Where you saw the claims being made. This may be online, but if you happen to be near a Boots, pop in and see if they’ve got one in store and complain about that.
  • Precisely quote any dodgy claims that you find on adverts, websites, packaging or photos of packaging and state that you do not believe they are backed up by robust evidence.
  • Reference the evidence for/against efficacy.
  • Why are you doing this? If it’s to protect the public from misleading medical claims then say so.
What evidence is there for using magnets to reduce the symptoms of menopause?

There are only two relevant articles I could find on PubMed, neither were trials.

They recommend "Single clinical trials have found no benefit for dong quai, evening primrose oil, ginseng, a Chinese herbal mixture, acupuncture, or magnet therapy."

In a box labelled "Approach to management of menopausal symptoms" states:
"Homeopathy, magnetic therapy, reflexology, dong quai, ginsing, evening primrose oil and vitamin E have not been demonstrated to be clinically significant compared with placebo."

and within "Non-hormonal options"
"Magnetic therapy: no benefit"
Within a section titled "Homeopathy, magnet therapy & foot reflexology" it states
"In RCTs, neither homeopathic remedies, magnet therapy, nor foot reflexology out-performed placebo in relieving menopausal symptoms."

How do I submit my complaint?

There are several ways to complain. Firstly, the easy way is to use the online form here. The submission will go via Consumer Direct, but that’s fine. There is a limit on the amount of text you can enter.

Secondly, you can contact your local trading standards direct with either an email or a letter. Their contact details can be found by entering your postcode on the form at the bottom of this page.

What about Libel?

Complaints to Trading Standards are protected from libel action, so you can make clear accusations without risk. Avoid saying anything in public and you should be risk free. Boots would be incredibly foolish to proceed with libel action.

Can I make my complaint more powerful?

Most Trading Standards offices prioritise complaints based upon two factors: how many complaints have they received, and how many people have actually lost money. If you buy a magnet, you’d have a more effective complaint.

You certainly don’t need to do this however.

Details of names & dates below:

Simon Perry 08 February 2011
Dr Michael A Ward 09 February 2011
Danny Strickland 10 February 2011
Dr Tom Williamson 11 February 2011
Richard Stelling 12 February 2011
Johnnie Shannon 13 February 2011
Chris Sexton 14 February 2011
Ian Scott 15 February 2011
Chris Richardson 16 February 2011
Mike Conradi 17 February 2011
Dr Martin Poulter 18 February 2011
Steve Page 19 February 2011
Dr Stephen Southward 20 February 2011
Mandeep Smith 21 February 2011
Dr Stuart Nicholl 22 February 2011
Steve Haigh 23 February 2011
Simon Stanford 24 February 2011
Richard Tomsett 25 February 2011
Marianne Baker 26 February 2011
Jo Hockey 27 February 2011
Rhys Morgan 28 February 2011
Dale Williams 01 March 2011
Jon Pearson 02 March 2011
Giles Wendes 03 March 2011
Conor Pendergrast 04 March 2011
Steve leigh 05 March 2011
Dr Wendy Cousins 06 March 2011
Alan Henness 07 March 2011
Mike Hall 08 March 2011
Nicola Woolhouse 09 March 2011
Gordon Wilson 10 March 2011
Darren Starck 11 March 2011
Martijn ter Borg 12 March 2011
Darren Griffin 13 March 2011
Rebecca O'Neill 14 March 2011
Paul Buckland-White 15 March 2011
B Corcoran 16 March 2011
Dan-Raoul Miranda 17 March 2011
Michael Marshall 18 March 2011
Ralf Neugebauer 19 March 2011
Jo Brodie 20 March 2011
L Pedley 21 March 2011
Ashley Frieze 22 March 2011
Sharon Smiles 23 March 2011
James Thomas 24 March 2011
Wesley perry 25 March 2011
Simon Danaher 26 March 2011
Doogie Brodie 27 March 2011
Sah Winstone 28 March 2011
Dr Cara Laney 29 March 2011
Stew Wilson 30 March 2011
Kash Farooq 31 March 2011
Sid Rodrigues 01 April 2011
David Hughes 02 April 2011
Peter Harrison 03 April 2011
Trish Hann 04 April 2011
Patrick Redmond 05 April 2011
Adam Timberley 06 April 2011
Paul Berry 07 April 2011
caroline panico 08 April 2011
James Lipscombe 09 April 2011
Emma Smith 10 April 2011
Tulpesh Patel 11 April 2011
RobertPettifer 12 April 2011
Tim Reid 13 April 2011
Jane Symons 14 April 2011
Alexandra Beuchert 15 April 2011
Tom Marinan 16 April 2011
Kevin Rose 17 April 2011
Prof Stephen Curry 18 April 2011
Hannah Haines 19 April 2011
Andy Stoker 20 April 2011
David Noble 21 April 2011
Sven Rudloff 22 April 2011
Dr J J Grattage 23 April 2011
Olivia Vinden 24 April 2011
Tony Mansfield 25 April 2011
Julia Matheson 26 April 2011
Bethan Jade McIlroy 27 April 2011
Michelle Goodger 28 April 2011
Dan Sutton 29 April 2011
Sandra hoare 30 April 2011
steven lindsay 01 May 2011
Dawn Mason 02 May 2011
Leo Donnelly 03 May 2011
James Cole 04 May 2011
Sean Ellis 05 May 2011
Stephen Griffin 06 May 2011
Elaine Pickering 07 May 2011
Alastair Grant 08 May 2011
Kevin Lowis 09 May 2011
Dominic Brown 10 May 2011
Jo Thornely 11 May 2011
Julie Williams 12 May 2011
Ms Jane Robinson 13 May 2011
Alan Wellstead 14 May 2011
Karelle Menochet 15 May 2011
Jere Koskela16 May 2011
stephen hughes17 May 2011
Audrey Johnson18 May 2011
Jamie Woolley19 May 2011
Dr Richard Morley20 May 2011
Vikki Hurst21 May 2011
Donald MacCormick22 May 2011
Matthew Hardy23 May 2011
Alan Bird24 May 2011
Ben Harris25 May 2011
Tim Bennett26 May 2011

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Boots carries on promoting quackery despite the ASA

It’s now been almost seven months since Boots was the target of 240 Advertising Standards Authority complaints by myself and others.

I didn’t blog on the outcome at the time; so, here’s a quick catch-up. Once approached by the ASA and asked for evidence, Boots decided to avoid an embarrassing ASA adjudication against them by agreeing to remove the claims.

I checked the Boots web site shortly after this and found the situation hadn’t seemed to improve. In many cases, Boots had not removed the claims, but simply taken away the 3 for the price of 2 offer.

If you remember, the ASA will not adjudicate against claims made upon websites (not until March 1st). But, they will adjudicate against claims made as a part of a promotion wherever they appear. By removing quack products from the 3 for 2 offer, Boots simply side-stepped the claims outside the ASA’s remit.

So what’s the situation now? Well in many cases, Boots has removed the claims completely. In other cases though, they’ve reduced the misleading text but carried on making essentially the same point, or at least carried on implying it. Surprisingly, some of the claims are still sitting there in full with the 3 for the price of 2 offer displayed prominently on the page.

My favourite quack product was what can only be referred to as a “fanny magnet”, what sadly what Boots refers to as a “Ladycare menopause relief magnet”. By simply clipping it to your panties, Boots originally claimed it can help to “reduce or completely eliminate symptoms of menopause”. They’ve now removed this precise claim but are still making essentially the same point. They still call it a “menopause relief magnet”, there’s still a photo of it claiming it’s “the most exciting discovery for menopause”, and there’s a list on the photo of symptoms claiming it’s all you may need for everything from hot flushes to vaginal dryness. They’ve side-stepped the ASA by simply taking it out of the 3 for 2 offer.

Shockingly, Boots is still making implying effectiveness for two forms of homeopathic teething relief. Boots’ own brand “Teething Pain Relief - 24 sachets” makes its claims in the title. And their “Nelsons Teetha” product is apparently “a homeopathic remedy specially designed for the soothing and calming relief of the symptoms of teething”. The product photo contains the phrases "Teething Granules", "Teething and pain relief" and "Soothes and calms".

Overall, Boots has improved since the last complaint. A lot of claims have been removed.

Today, I reported Boots to ASA a second time for 5 separate products. I’m hoping this time the ASA will adjudicate and Boots will finally clean up their act.