Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The French Verdict

The 30 Second Skinny Staff members of the Church of Scientology in France have been found guilty of fraud and fined €600,000. The fraudulent activities in question are not the peculiar acts of a a few bad apples but the same kind of behaviour that is routinely expected of staff members. The situation is similar to that of Operation Snow White in which a number of high-ranking staff members were convicted of breaking into Governtment buildings in America. The individuals were supposed to have been expelled from the church but it seems they never were.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Being Normal

The 30 Second Skinny Danone's have been told not to make further claims in their advertising about Actimel being better for a child's immune system than not having Actimel. Increasingly medical claims are being made for food products. Actimel is particularly of note because its entire marketing and identity is of a sciencey, medicinal product, not a foodstuff. This is becoming increasingly typical of food products, usually when there is no evidence to back up whatever claims is being made for it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Underground Updated

I got the following response back from the ASA on the Zhea Clinic ad.

Dear Mr Xxxxxxx


Thank you for your continued patience.

We have visited the Zhai Clinic website which provides further information about Dr Zhai. It states that she is qualified in both western and Chinese medicine. It also appears that the Zhai Clinic practises both western and Chinese medicine. On that basis and without further evidence to suggest otherwise, I’m afraid we do not have grounds to pursue this matter further.

If you can provide evidence to show that Dr Zhai does not hold a qualification in western medicine and more detail about why you believe the clinic does not have a 70% success rate, please forward it to me. In the meantime however I will close our file.

Our website, www.asa.org.uk, contains further information about the ASA and the work we do.

To be honest, I am no expert on fertility treatment so I took this opportunity to get more acquainted with the success rates of infertility treatment. Taking figures from the HFEA I found that the 70% figure, if it represents a treatment cycle success rate, is about double the average success rate. And the London Fertility Centre's success rates match those average success rates. The ad does say that over 70% of couples following the Zhea clinic's programs go on to conceive, which might explain the discrepancy; these programs may consist of more than one treatment cycle. This, to me, would nevertheless still be misleading; if the program consists of as many treatment cycles as it takes to conceive (with, presumably, less chance each time), then is it still a single program in any real terms?

Added to that is the fact that these treatments clearly aren't "natural", and the TCM plays little if any part in efficacy. Dot dot dot

Dear Xxxxx,

Seventy percent is a very high success rate for any kind of fertility treatment. Traditional IVF treatment offers about 30% success if the woman is under 35, and that figure only decreases with age.

Furthermore the ad is making a claim about conceiving "the natural way" and is bringing in traditional Chinese medicine as a route to that natural conception. I don't see how they can say that IVF or related treatments can be deemed natural methods of conception.

Also I was unable to find Dr Zhai on the GMC database, although I've since learnt that the Zhai Clinic is a satellite for the London Fertility Centre.
Kind regards,


Monday, October 12, 2009

The Parliamentary Question Carter Ruck and Trafigura don’t want you to see

Thanks to the work of Don't Get Fooled Again...

From The Guardian

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights. Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found. The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret. The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors
Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

From Parliament.uk,

“Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009″

N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

The question above may or may not be the subject of the gagging order. Who can say?

The Guardian covers the Trafigura case, and why it matters, here. Private Eye have also been making some noise about the gagging laws, and how ridiculously open to abuse they are.

And Twitter is alive with coverage, which raises the question that, if gagging orders are so easy to sidestep, isn't it time we got rid of them all together?

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Consumer Indirect

I know that recently the Unfair Commercial Practices Bill came in, broadening the measures that exist against naughty traders, and that despite making a large number of commerical practices unlawful, no budgetary increase was made to allow the Trading Standards Offices to actually cope with the attendant increase in workload. This, to some extent, is irrelevant anyway, because the TSOs decide what they should or shouldn't investigate.

However the following is my experience to date with attempting to get the diploma mill Chelsea University shut down. As explained in previous posts, I managed to find out an office address for the business in Westminster. Thinking that the easiest thing to do would be to complain to the TSO in Westminster, I trotted off an email explaining my concerns.

A few days later, I received an email from the Westminster TSO saying that I could only complain to my local TSO; that is, the TSO closest to my home address. To that end, if I were ripped off in Norwich, say, my first port of call would be Lambeth TSO. This seemed nonsensical, but not outrageously unreasonable. One short dish of cut and pasta later and I had emailed Lambeth.

I then heard nothing. For about six weeks. I fired off another email to ask what the delay was, and received a reply, stating the following:

Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your email dated 8th October 2009 where you expressed concerns about the Chelsea's University website. Yesterday I checked the Trading Standards Inbox but was unable to locate your original enquiry dated 25th August 2009. This will probably explain why your enquiry was not acknowledged sooner. Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused. I forwarded your message to a Trading Standards officer and he suggested that you refer the matter to Consumer Direct. Consumer Direct - www.consumerdirect.gov.uk, is the free advice and information service for UK consumers, initiated by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (formerly the Department of Trade and Industry) and supported by the Office of Fair Trading. You can contact them on 08454040506. They provide clear and practical advice to help sort out problems and disagreements with suppliers of goods or services. Your call will also ensure that the details are entered on the national database so that all complaints against the company can be monitored.

If Consumer Direct feels that a criminal offence has been committed or business practices need to be investigated, they will refer the case to the trading standards team where the company's head office is located or registered since Lambeth's team has no enforcing powers outside the borough. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention, and I hope it will be resolved shortly.

Yours sincerely

Customer Services Officer
Public Protection
Housing, Regeneration and Environment
Lambeth Council

Let us leave aside whether "Yesterday I checked the Trading Standards Inbox but was unable to locate your original enquiry dated 25th August 2009." actually will "probably explain" the delay. Let us not ask quite whether my query fell into Housing, Regeneration or Environment. Let us instead revel in the fact that, having gone direct to the Westminster TSO, redirected to Lambeth, I was now being asked to contact a third body (given over to advice and information, rather than the handling of complaints) so that they might, in turn contact the same organisation I went to first.

But complain to Consumer Direct I did. Today I received the following:

Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your enquiry to Consumer Direct dated 7th October. Your reference number for this case is LR – XXXXXX and should be quoted in all further correspondence regarding this case. Based on the information you have provided the key legal points in response to your enquiry are as follows: Consumer Direct is a practical advice service only and does not intervene or take action against traders. We have however created a case and passed this to trading standards for their consideration. Whilst being under no commitment to contact you they may take further action against the trader if they deem it necessary. If you require consumer advice, if you have paid this organisation or have a personal dispute then we request you get back to us with such details. If it was simply to report the trader then this has been logged and trading standards will take the appropriate action.

If you require any further advice or information about this case, please do not hesitate to contact Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06 quoting the case reference number.

Thank you for your enquiry.

Consumer Direct

Tel: 08454 04 05 06
Web: www.consumerdirect.gov.uk
Open: 8:00am to 6:30pm Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 1:00pm Saturday

So I am left now in a situation where an organisation is under no obligation to let me know whether my complaint merits investigation, and the onus is on me to contact them. I will, needless to say, be pursuing whether or not they do anything about Chelsea University, or the dodgy certificate seller, but I am somewhat irritated by the confusing level of administrative pass-the-parcel that has had to take place in order for the first person I contacted to actually decide whether or not the fraudulent degree mongers are worthy of the attention of the law.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Dark Satanic Diploma Mills

Because I find them useful people to know, and because they have a long history of involvement with skepticisim, I know a magician or three. Much of what interests me is about how beliefs in odd things are created and maintained, and magicians offer a way into exploring elements of that in a way that, being entertainment-led, is no less ethical than, say, a horror film.

It was through my magician friends that I learnt of a regular meeting of hypnotists that had to be disbanded due to the harrassment of an individual so dependent on publicity that I will simply refuse to name him here. He cited the 1952 Hypnosis Act which forbids unlicensed paid performances of hypnosis. Said contretemps felt that a bunch of mesmerists meeting up once a month and putting willing punters under the 'fluence was therefore breaking the law (despite no money changing hands) and put a small but thorny stick in the spokes. I should add, also, that the guy sold training materials that would teach people how to perform hypnosis within the law, so his vocal disapproval was as much a marketing exercise for him as any kind of altruism.

Wanting to learn more about him, I tracked down his web page where I learnt that he not only performs stage hypnosis, but under an assumed name also practices hypnotherapy. Not only did he assume a name, but he also assumed a title, that of Doctor. You might be tempted, knowing that Doctor is an unprotected title, that he merely plucked his doctorness out of thin air, but no. As he is quick to point out he has a "genuine" honorary phd from Chelsea University. Leaving aside the fact that you'd have to be a complete arse to actually call yourself "doctor" if your Phd is honorary, Chelsea University is not real. It's a diploma mill.

The registrar at Chelsea has an office at 63 Draycott Place, SW3 2SH. Or at least he would do if such an address existed. The website, on the other hand, is registered to 26 York Street, London, W1U 6PZ, which does exist, but is the site of a virtual office, so might as well be a PO Box.

Chelsea University is also listed on a number of websites devoted to exposing diploma mills, and warning foreign students that the education certificates offered by such places are not recognised in the real world. Chelsea University has no degree-granting status.

I've put in a complaint to Consumer Direct about them, as much to see what will happen as anything. CU is a ghost university, and I can't quite see how one can regulate against a university that has no buildings or staff. Hopefully the ISP can be asked to remove the site, which seems to be the sole base of operation.

And that nice Mr X has turned his noctorate to foul purpose. He offers as "novelty" items, very real looking and humourless qualification certificates so that untrained NLPers and hypnotherapists can claim they are adept in such innoccuous fields as "advanced psycho-sexual therapy". How fun to pretend you have specialist training in the use of advanced psycho-sexual therapy when you do not! How your patients will chuckle when they realise! You can get that full bundle of hilarity for about £127. Consumer Direct know about him, too, now...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Problem Just Goes Underground

A friend the other day accused me of seeking out things that annoy me. This was following me posting a link to the Twitter feed that is promoting the execrable piece of HIV denialism House of Numbers. No, not the idiots at Raindance; someone else. As I explained to said friend, I tend not to hunt these people out. The joy of Twitter is that these people find me, c/o dumb computers and Twitter bots.

It is equally true that, as a result of having to ride the underground, I routinely encounter ads that are just plain wrong. Mainly these are for Vitabiotics (with their tiny tiny "this product probably isn't for you" writing) but tonight's journey offered up the Zhai clinic. They use a holistic, traditional Chinese approach to fertility treatment, boast a 70% success rate, and speak of Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai, who does not appear to be on the GMC register.

Thank heavens for camera phones and the ASA website, what?

The ad stated the clinic, which employs traditional Chinese medicine, enjoyed a 70% success rate. It also made a reference to a Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai.

I would be curious to know whether they can substantiate the 70% claim, and whether or not Mr Zhai is medically qualified.

It transpires that Zhai Clinic is listed under the HFEA, the authority in charge of fertility clinics. They are a "satellite clinic" for the London Fertility Clinic, which means "[the] assessment of patients, drug therapy and monitoring may take place [there] but the egg collection, mixing of sperm and eggs, embryo culturing and embryo replacement are all carried out at the primary clinic". The Zhai ad talks about traditional Chinese medicine - it is "Where Conception Comes Naturally". The implication is that the 70% success rate claimed (the website makes a claim of "about 80%") is attached to this incorporation of TCM; both the ad and the website downplay the role of the rather unnatural IVF program. Either 70% of couples conceive naturally, without IVF, or they conceive unnaturally with, to quote Zhai's site "artificial, invasive fertility treatments", or the 70% figure, which is high even for IVF, has been plucked out of the sky.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

HPV Vaccine Ruled Out As Cause Of Death

It transpires that Natalie Morton died of a malignant tumour, which obviously doesn't make her death any less tragic, but does give us a clearer picture of how slight the risks are of the HPV vaccine.

For decent information on the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer, visit the following links: