Comment: Free speech is important and people are entitled to their own opinion – but scepticism and barge poles have a role to play. So do common sense and, of course, science, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

In a world where free speech and opinion are valued, and appearing on screen rates more highly than working as a scientist, it is perhaps not surprising that people have tried to cure Covid-19 with bleach, Mycoplasma bovis with cayenne, echinacea, garlic (and aloe vera massaged into the cow's ear) and improve oral health (and whiten teeth) by swilling coconut oil for 20 minutes.

In all three cases, the advocates were people in prominent positions, leaders by appointment, self or otherwise. In no case was science – the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment – able to support the recommendation.

In all cases anxious people wanted to believe what they were being told because having a simple "cure" alleviated worry (even about oral health and whitened teeth). They were prepared to take the suggestions at face value, because their values aligned with those of the advocates.

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In some contrast, scientists are increasingly being accused of not understanding people's values and of being sceptics. Whether this is or isn't an insult depends upon which dictionary is being used - Cambridge or Oxford.

Cambridge suggests that the sceptic is inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions, or something that is true and useful. Oxford suggests that sceptics are not easily convinced; they have doubts about the truth of claims and statements.

Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

Scientists align with Oxford. They tend to question and test until they have proved the truth of a claim or statement. Observation may well be the first step but it is the experimentation and testing that provides the evidence from which some advances in understanding can be made.

Scientists are sceptical when claims appear on the internet.

At the end of last month New Zealanders were offered the opportunity to cure a range of ailments from multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis, to learning difficulties and anxiety, simply by buying a new device. This device costs over $750 and operates by Wi-Fi to administer vitamins vibrationally.

University of Auckland physics professor Richard Easther was asked to comment. He indicated that the mode of action put forward was not possible and that he wouldn't touch it with a bargepole.

Although the purveyor responded that sceptics "target me regularly and accuse me of all kinds of things", the fact is that it is illegal in New Zealand to make claims about a good or service without a reasonable basis.

The Commerce Commission is clear that "Consumers are entitled to rely on trader claims when making purchasing decisions. In many cases consumers will not have the time, resources or ability to establish for themselves if claims are accurate. Businesses must be able to substantiate (prove) their claims by providing evidence to support them."

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Testimonials are not proof.

Stories are not fact.

And Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has stated that "the plural of anecdote is not 'anec-data'".

Canadian Cara Rosenbloom, a Registered Dietitian and "nutrition myth buster" has been trying to assist people sort fact from fiction for some time. She has identified some warning signs.

1. One treatment protocol is said to heal a long list of conditions.

2. The information is based on testimonials and anecdotes, not on research.

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3. Science is alluded to, but no actual references to reputable journal studies are provided.

4. The words "magic" or "miracle" are used.

5. You are encouraged to spend money on products and services to achieve the lifestyle that's promoted.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Other indicators that assist in the process include identifying the person that profits from the advice, the advisor's qualifications related to the advice, and the independence of any research evaluating the advice.

Are percentages or emotive words such as "better" used rather than actual data? And how does it work? If the mechanism is not clear, perhaps it doesn't.

In particular watch out for suggestions that "mainstream or conventional scientists" are somehow the bad guys, preventing you from accessing the miracle, or that waiting for the research would waste valuable time that you don't have.

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Another ploy is to ask for research funds to prove something works – when the conclusion to the research already available doesn't support what the purveyor claims. (And scientists set out to test a hypothesis, not "to prove something").

Consumer NZ is on the case but warns that "claims are rife and enforcement is lacking which means shonky traders are making advantage of the situation".

Or of you.

A few weeks ago the purveyor of the Wi-Fi machine for vitamins was promoting a dietary supplement that could prevent Covid-19.

Recently a website selling Miracle Mineral Supplement (a bleach product) which claimed to cure not only Covid-19 but also HIV, hepatitis and acne, was shut down. The physical address was the Hauraki Plains.

Free speech is important and people are entitled to their own opinion – but scepticism and barge poles have a role to play. So do common sense and, of course, science.

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• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist and a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown. This analysis is her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com.