Religious Healing Claims not exempt from CAP Codes


Today the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) advised via their website that claims of Religious and Spiritual Healing are not exempt from being found to breach CAP Codes stating ‘Rule 12.2 prohibits marketers from discouraging essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.  They should not offer specific advice on, diagnosis of or treatment for such conditions unless that advice, diagnosis or treatment is conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional.’ 

They cited specific claims that would be in breach of CAP codes with examples of times such claims had been made by religious organisations and also used as an example my successful complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about the claims being made by the ‘Healing on the Streets’ organisation in Bath who claimed that their god could heal everything from colds and broken bones to HIV and crippling disease.

They should avoid referring to conditions such as brain tumors, infertility (Kings Church Salisbury, 25 March 2009), cancer (Mount Zion Restoration Ministries, 2 June 2010), HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, depression, leukemia (All Nations Church, 11 February 2009) broken vertebrae and autism (Medway Revival Fellowship, 8 June 2011).

CAP explained that ‘Marketers offering religious or spiritual healing should therefore ensure that they do not state or imply they can treat or cure those conditions listed in the Help Note on Health, Beauty and Slimming Marketing Communications that refer to Medical Conditions.’ 

This help note, available from the CAP website by clicking here, mentions Rule 3.7 which states

“…marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation”.

Later on, the guide also comments on matters of opinion, advising that

Marketers who do not hold satisfactory evidence of the purported qualities of their product can ask the CAP Copy Advice team for help in devising an acceptable marketing platform. This might involve the marketers giving their opinion on the desirability of their product, though they must clearly be expressing their opinion and not stating fact. Claims that go beyond subjective opinions are subject to the Code’ rules on substantiation.

Bringing attention to advertisers who make unsubstantiated claims about health treatments and cures has never been about not allowing people to share their opinion, and has always been about ensuring opinion doesn’t get presented as factual information to people looking for a way to treat their illness.

Share your opinion all that you like, but unless you have the empirical evidence that shows your opinion is factual then don’t expect to share it without being challenged. That’s what the ‘Healing on the Streets’ fiasco boiled down to – not religious intolerance, not faith based persecution as the Daily Mail and Fox News would have you believe, but good old fashioned facts being held in higher regard than personal faith in an idea.

h/t Alan Henness

I am woo? I am skeptic.

thumb question

Despite what some would have you believe, there is a problem with skeptics dismissing good parapsychology work & paranormal research as nonsense and pseudo-science and taking the word of big name skeptics as the authority on the subject when this isn’t always the logical thing to do. This is because some who call themselves skeptics don’t realise that their predetermined position on these subjects (that they are nonsense and pseudo-scientific) means they are reacting with bias towards new information and research without considering the new information on its own merits before reaching their biased conclusion.

Lots of parapsychology and paranormal research is illogical, but not all of it is.

I have personally dealt with this attitude from skeptics time and time again and it is quite disappointing. I have observed this behaviour from skeptical authorities and it is quite disappointing. It is a bit like ghost hunters deciding an odd voice on their Dictaphone is a ghost based on their previous experiences on ghost hunts, rather than considering that it might be something else. Illogical and flawed.

Many who are involved with skeptic outreach projects or organisations have little or no interest in engaging with people that they see as ‘the others’ or ‘the woo’ – people who believe in the things that skeptics challenge or refute. Over the last year or so I have become quite concerned with the behaviour of figures of authority within skeptical communities – from outright lying to questionable ethics. When I first became involved in skepticism I aspired to reach the same dizzy heights as many of these people, but now I aspire to be as unlike them as possible.

I identify as a skeptic but I also identify as a Paranormal Researcher and  think it is important to engage with those who believe in paranormal ideas and work with them. As a Paranormal Researcher I know that Ghost Researchers, Ufologists, Cryptozoologists and Parapsychologists are not always the pseudo-scientific bad guys that skeptics often presume them to be. Skeptics should always try and work with believers and paranormal researchers that they come into contact with to some extent, rather than just insisting that they either get on board with the project themselves or stop complaining. This attitude will always further extend hostilities and anybody that doesn’t see that as a problem is the problem.

I’m not talking about withholding skepticism of their claims, nor am I not talking about wrapping people in cotton wool. Some will ask ‘how do we work with those we don’t agree with?’ as though it’s a foreign concept, and my suggestion would be to grow up and ask them that same question, then go from there. It is easier to dismiss people than it is to talk through your differences, but it’s only by talking that you will find your common ground. Common ground is good because common ground is shared.

It might be hard for some to accept, but those who believe in illogical ideas often do so because they think they are logical ideas and not because they are evil and hate science. The majority of people who believe paranormal ideas are against the promotion of misinformation, fraud, hoaxes and unethical behaviour (just like skeptics are) and often make good research allies whether they believe something to be true or not. It’s a shame that this potential is often overlooked just because they are not skeptics.

People often tell me that it’s good that I engage with paranormal believers because skepticism needs people like me to do this sort of work. This is quite patronising because I don’t engage with paranormal believers on skepticism’s behalf. I engage with them because I am a paranormal researcher and I find them to be worth engaging with. I see them as people and not as ideas.  I see them as people with ideas and I know that behind all ideas are stories.

Many people involved with organised skepticism have a bias blind spot and do not account for their own biases when entering into dialogue with others, and often seem unable to apply their skepticism inward as well as outward. This is problematic and embarrassing.

I support a lot of skeptical outreach – mainly the grassroots sort and the stuff that assists rather than insists. I’m a fan of the Ten23 Campaign, Skeptics on the Fringe, Good Thinking Society, Sense about Science and more. I would hate to think that some would consider my issues with some skeptics as issues with all skeptics because that simply isn’t the case.

Skepticism can be a healthy methodology used by the curious to question whether claims are supported by empirical research. This is my skepticism. I am ‘a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions’ if the evidence doesn’t seem to shape up.

This is not the skepticism of everyone who identifies as a skeptic and this is why I am as skeptical of the skeptics as I am “paranormalists” and you should be too. This isn’t one of those blog posts where I talk about not being a skeptic… I am a skeptic, I’m just probably not the type of skeptic you think I am and I’m not going to automatically agree with you that psychics are losers, parapsychology is bunk and ghosts are stupid. Feel free to roll your eyes and dismiss me as ‘woo’ because, frankly, it’s no skin off of my nose.

Further thoughts of the day


I’ve had some annoying feedback on my last blog post regarding my thoughts about the problems with ‘believers vs. Guerrilla Skeptics’  and I wanted to address some of the misrepresentations people are making of my position as it’s getting pretty annoying.

I was simply writing my observations of why people were hostile towards a group that had a combative name who were open about the fact that they are mass editing Wikipedia, but people seem to think I am claiming that people should be able to make any claims they like without being challenged when there is no evidence to back up their claims.

That’s a good observation on their part, except for the part where they are completely fucking wrong.

Also incorrect is the idea that I was suggesting the Guerrilla Skepticism group were editing Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page, despite the fact that I linked to an article where this was shown to not be true and even pointed out this had been denied. However, why let reading a blog post you’re commenting on get in the way of commenting on it, hey? Hey?

It has also been suggested that I am affording Rupert Sheldrake respect I am not affording other skeptics. This is, quite frankly, bullshit and feels like an attempt to dismiss me and my points.

are you kidding me

I thought I’d blog again to make my exact points a little clearer, as people seem to be innocently and accidentally reading between the lines.

People – sometimes people who identify as skeptics – have been fact checking Wikipedia articles long before the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project came around. Sometimes these edits have dismissive of research into paranormal cases with a heavy bias towards the position of skeptics. Believe it or not skeptics are biased too, being human and all.

I was not suggesting the the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project were guilty of this, or even that they caused this problem. I was pointing out that they have entered an arena where this problem already exists and have done nothing but fan the flames some more. I did not suggest they did this on purpose, but if they were not aware that this would happen when they started their work, then this was very shortsighted of them. I do not believe it is unreasonable for them to address these issues, or to try and build bridges.

Despite what people have said to me in response to my last blog post, not everyone involved in paranormal research is a closed minded bumbling idiot who is opposed to ensuring claims are well sourced, and building bridges works. It is important to enter into dialogue with people from opposite sides of any argument or debate you are involved with and to consider their feedback or criticism otherwise you start working inside of an echo chamber.

If you claim otherwise, as many have, then that is problematic.

Acting as though all of those who disagree with you are doing so because they are all blinded by their own biases and don’t like not being allowed to promote those biases without being challenged is pretty disingenuous and is an easy way to avoid listening to them.

im not listening seal

The fact is that many people I have observed being critical of skeptics who edit Wikipedia – Guerrilla Skeptics or not – are pretty open minded individuals despite what they personally believe, and have good points worth listening to. It’s infuriating to see their thoughts being dismissed as though they’re ‘closed minded believers’ who have an agenda.

On Guerrilla Skepticism & Skeptical Outreach


I feel that I need to clarify myself after a comment I made on Twitter about the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Project has caused confusion.

The Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Project (GSOW) aim to ‘improve skeptical content of Wikipedia … by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudo-scientific pages.’ It’s a good idea at it’s core, and I hope that nobody would think I oppose the sourcing of claims about paranormal topics considering my approach to paranormal research and claims.

It isn’t without it’s problems though, and one of the unintentional by-products of their work is criticism from within paranormal communities (i.e. researchers, fans, believers and so on) about the way in which articles are edited, and also about the way in which the project communicates what it does. There have also been accusations that the skeptics involved in GSOW are aggressively editing the pages of certain individuals, which has since been denied. (I personally think this is probably being done by skeptical individuals with a chip on their shoulder rather than the organisation).

I don’t know enough about editing Wikipedia entries to comment upon who edited what and so on, but I can comment upon what I have observed and this is where my criticism comes from. I think it’s great to edit pseudo-scientific Wikipedia articles, but I also think that it isn’t enough to do just that. It should be clear to anyone that this activity is going to cause bad feeling within paranormal communities, and it seems as though GSOW haven’t factored this into their plans and have no intention of engaging with the people in the communities they encounter through their work, and that’s a shame. It is, of course, important to point out that this isn’t a unique problem, and similar can be seen with many skeptic campaigns.

There will always be mistrust of skeptics within paranormal communities and that is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to consider this when starting skeptic outreach projects. Skeptics should always try and work with believers and paranormal researchers that they come into contact with to some extent, rather than just insisting that they either get on board with the project themselves (in this case provide sources on wikipedia) or stop complaining. It ain’t that simple, and this suggestion made on my Facebook wall when I asked my Friends what could be done to limit ill feeling was really shortsighted.

Skeptic Outreach Projects will never please everybody and more often than not the focus has to be on those who are undecided about a subject, and there will always be those who are offended when skeptics start making changes, and that’s fine… but not all of those who oppose skeptical work are just being closed minded. Sometimes there are problems with what is being done or the way it is being communicated and as skeptic activists we have to face facts and address that.

This was a problem I encountered with Project Barnum. When it was first launched it was targeting venues that host psychic shows and attempting to change their minds about doing so. I thought it was a good idea and I had loads of support, but then I realised that it just isolated the very people I  had intended to help – those who attend the shows. I reflected on what Project Barnum was doing and I changed the focus so that it was no longer something that attacked, but instead was something that assisted. Rather than trying to stop the psychic shows and make the decision on behalf of the attendees, I turned it into something that would help people understand what they were actually seeing at those shows so they could make informed decisions for themselves. It was a major success and is currently being developed to be more useful.

As a Paranormal Researcher I know that Ghost Researchers, Ufologists, Cryptozoologists and Parapsychologists are not always the pseudo-scientific bad guys that skeptics often presume them to be. It might be hard for some to accept, but those who believe in illogical ideas often do so because they think they are logical ideas. The majority of people who believe paranormal ideas are against the promotion of misinformation, fraud, hoaxes and unethical behaviour and make good research allies whether they believe something to be true or not. It’s a shame that this potential is often overlooked.

I hope this clears up any confusion or questions about my previous comments.

Note: I would also recommend that people read Extra Sensory by Brian Clegg (read my review here) to get a grasp of how complex the topic of psychic phenomena and parapsychology really is. It’s dismissed out of hand so readily by some. The same can be said of hauntings, ghost phenomena and poltergeists too. Once you get an idea of the complexity of these subjects it’s easy to see why people get so annoyed when such things are just passed off as bullshit.

Belief in Ghosts is rising: Looking beyond the headline claims


In September there was much news coverage about how a study conducted by YouGov showed that belief in ghosts has risen. Examples here at The Metro and The Telegraph.

More than half of those taking part (52 per cent) said they believed in the supernatural, a marked increase on the two previous comparable studies, in 2009 and 2005, which both found a level of around 40 per cent.

The survey also found that one in five claimed to have had some sort of paranormal experience … The new study was carried out for the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), for its annual conference.

I was at the conference that the results of this study were announced at and I was instantly interested in finding out more, so when I got home I started digging through past studies to find which 2005 and 2009 studies the results had been compared to, but I had some difficulty because the poll information being written about was not obtainable anywhere.

With this in mind I contacted ASSAP and asked for the details. The results of the YouGov poll commissioned by ASSAP were then make available to view on their website. I think this is important because if you’re making big claims – especially in the media – you ought to make the information that backs your claims up available for people to study. It’s wrong to insist people take you at your word on something like this.

Yet, even with the ASSAP poll results now to hand, it was still difficult to work out exactly what 2005 & 2009 studies these results were comparable to, because the questions asked did not match any previous poll questions that I could find. I turned to other researchers to see if they were aware of any 2005 & 2009 polls that I wasn’t, but they too could find nothing that was comparative.

I again approached ASSAP for clarification, and was told that the results had been compared to a 2005 Gallup poll and a 2009 Comres poll. This was baffling.

View the 2013 ASSAP poll results online by clicking here.
View the 2009 Comres poll results online by clicking here.
View the 2005 Gallup poll results online by clicking here.

The ASSAP poll, run by YouGov, asked participants ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?’
– ‘I believe some people have experienced ghosts (i.e. seen, heard, smelt or otherwise sensed the spirit of a deceased person or animal)’
– I believe some people have witnessed UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) that have an extraterrestrial origin.

Participants then selected that they either ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘slightly disagree’, ‘slightly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘strongly agree’ or ‘not sure’.

The Comres poll asked people ‘do you believe in the following?
-Life after Death
-The human soul
-Fortune Telling/Tarot

The Gallup poll asked participants ‘For each of the following items please tell me whether it is something you believe in, something you’re not sure about, or something you don’t believe in.’ Participants then had to apply these three options to this list of things:
-That houses can be haunted
-Astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives
– That extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth at some time in the past
-That people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died
You can see, just by glancing at the approach each poll took to their subject, that each poll is quite different and that the questions and available answers are wide open to interpretation. For example, the Comres poll lists both ‘the human soul’ and ‘ghosts’ as two different things you may or may not believe in, but many might suggest these were the same. The other polls do not make this split. The Gallup poll makes no mention of ghost whatsoever, and only talks about haunted houses… a topic that I’m sure many will agree is complex.
If you are asked to say you either ‘believe’, ‘aren’t sure’ or ‘don’t believe’ that ‘houses can be haunted’ by a 2005 poll, but in 2013 are asked if you ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘slightly disagree’, ‘slightly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘strongly agree’ or are ‘not sure’ that ‘some people have experienced ghosts’, are you really answering similar questions – the answers to which are comparative? I’m inclined to say no. Haunted House ≠ Ghosts in everybody’s mind, and that isn’t the only problem here.
If you have three options ‘believe’, ‘not sure’, ‘don’t believe’ when it comes to haunted houses, but have more answer options when it comes to people experiencing ghosts, what was a ‘believe’ in haunted houses could suddenly become a ‘slightly agree’ that people experience ghosts, and what was a ‘don’t believe’ in haunted houses could also become a ‘slightly agree’ too. YouGov appear to use a 5 point linkert scaling system and it seems that ‘slightly agree’ and ‘agree’ would both be counted as positive answers (i.e. that support the idea belief is rising), so if what was negative in the Gallup poll turns into a ‘slightly agree’ on the YouGov poll, then of course it will seem as though more people believe in the paranormal than before, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily happening.
With all of this in mind I don’t think saying that the 2013 poll indicates that belief has risen in comparison to these earlier polls is a safe or trustworthy conclusion. I can imagine that belief may indeed have risen considering how easily accessible information about ghosts and the paranormal is nowadays, and how often society is bombarded with pseudo-scientific information about ‘ghost evidence’ and ‘ghost hunting’ and so on, but I’m just speculating here.
I asked ASSAP why the 2005 & 2009 polls were chosen as comparison polls and was told that it was YouGov themselves that made this selection. When I voiced my concerns about the validity of these comparisons I was told:

That’s a methodological question. And the methodological experts disagree. I’m taking their advice on this. My focus now is to fundraise to ensure the polling can be repeated each year to allow a full picture to be built up over time. Our focus on this was the level of belief, much more so than the comparisons but newspapers chose to take that angle.

This is the start of what is hopefully a growing set of data that will come in year on year. I don’t want that project to get off to a bad start.

These are fair goals to set out, however I feel that this project was off to a bad start the moment the papers were handed the incomplete data set from this project and allowed to sensationalise how belief in ghost is rising, when the organisation that commissioned the study themselves admit that this is an incomplete and ongoing project.

thanks to CJ Romer, Bob Dezon, Stuart Ritchie & Wendy Cousins.