Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Call Out the Quacks

By Tory Shepherd

Scientists often complain about the way the media treat their message, but journalists have reason to complain as well, since many scientists don’t help to get that message straight.

Have you heard of Scala’s magic fat-busting undies? If you don’t know them specifically, you know the drill.

  1. Target customers’ unfulfilled desires – in this case a smooth, cellulite-free derrière and no more jelly-belly.
  2. Fill their heads with sciencey-sounding words. This “BioPromise shapewear” uses Active BioCrystals to emit Far Infrared Rays.
  3. Put up some before-and-after shots and a few choice quotes from a doctor and you’re on a winner.

In this case, more than half a million bits of shapewear have been sold. The fat-blasting smalls have been covered four times in the mainstream press, twice uncritically (once in business and once in fashion) and twice critically.

The best piece took a lengthy look at their claims and their evidence and their critics. It ran on news.com.au under the headline: “Doctor says ‘fat-melting’ undies ‘pseudoscience’”. And it featured the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s nemesis, the amazing Dr Ken Harvey from La Trobe University, who has made it his life’s mission to highlight shonky medical products that are approved by the TGA. He’d put in a complaint about the underwear.

It’s harder than you think to call out pseudoscience in the media. First of all, although most of my excellent colleagues have a good nose for bulldust, few have scientific training.

Then, even if they did know absolutely how infrared rays worked and whether or not they could melt fat away, you run up against issues of balance and objectivity. A news journalist generally couldn’t declare something to be bulldust themselves – unless it was an opinion piece. There are legal and ethical complications.

So then you need an expert who knows just how effective the product is, or isn’t. However, many experts can be a little shy when it comes to talking to the media.

As journalists we are aware – and by “aware” I mean never ever able to forget because we are reminded ALL THE TIME – that in the public mind we rank somewhere between used car salesmen and Beelzebub.

People think they won’t get a fair run, that we always twist words or won’t understand what people are saying. It’s frustrating when you call up the person who you know is the top dog on a given subject and they refuse to speak to you because 2 years ago a different journalist from a different company (or their subeditor) misquoted them.

Or they don’t want to somehow give a veneer of credibility to whatever it is you’re trying to debunk merely by having their name in the same sentence as the product name.

The point is that Harvey is unusual in how willing he is to talk to the media. And because he was happy to have a crack, the critical story was written. Because he took the time to talk a young journalist through the situation, there is more truth out there. Someone Googling “biopromise” could just come across that extra bit of information.

Harvey was part of the conversation, so he changed its direction. Every time a scientist or an expert decides they’d rather not engage with the media, they cede ground to the woo woo merchants.

We need to take that ground back. Scientists need to reclaim their right of reply to all the quackery that has percolated through the internet and embedded itself in people’s brains.

The media can help. Use us. The story that exposes the hidden seamy truth of pseudoscientific undies is a good story.

Find a journalist you trust, and develop a relationship with them. It’s as easy as emailing them something interesting you’ve found, someone selling something dodgy, someone making bizarre claims.

It’s newsworthy, so tell someone. Be part of the conversation. Call out the quacks.

Tory Shepherd is the Political Editor of The Advertiser and a columnist at The Punch. She regularly writes columns exposing alternative medicine bunkum and bogus health claims.