Calling all charlatans

A group of researchers puts companies making scientific claims on the spot

By | October 11, 2007

One day in early July, a customer service representative for a company called Crystalite Salt received a phone call from Jennifer Lardge, a physicist. Lardge was curious about the science behind one of their products: lumps of salt, called lamps, that are meant to improve your health when they are heated. "I was looking at your Web site and I was just wondering about how salt lamps actually work," Lardge said. "Right," responded the Crystalite Salt customer service representative. "Well I was just wondering how they release the ions?" "It's when it's warmed. The heat from the bulb or the candle. And it's like a reaction with the salt that then produces the ions." "OK, it's just I have studied science a little and I was thinking that the bonds that hold the salt ions together are quite strong and I was wondering if there was enough energy in an ordinary lamp bulb to release them." "Well they do get quite warm. I mean I am going by other scientific evidence, other scientific evidence that it works." "OK, which evidence is that?" "There are lots of sites that tell you about salt lamps." "Is there anything more concrete than a Web site?" "I haven't got anything more concrete -- no." Lardge is one of an informal group of scientific researchers who had met through various workshops sponsored by the UK charity, Sense About Science. Over the past several months, the researchers started chatting about all the bothersome ways that certain advertisers... well, advertised. The researchers were particularly irritated by companies that used scientific-sounding claims to back their products and market them to the public. Like Lardge, several of the researchers took it upon themselves to call up some of the companies whose advertisements they'd noticed and ask some more questions about the scientific research that went -- or didn't -- go into them. Both the US and UK allow supplement products to be marketed without explanation of scientific efficacy, but they still have to abide by truth in advertising rules. "I'm increasingly annoyed by the way companies use scientific-sounding language to make the unproven benefit of their products sound credible," wrote Harriet Ball, a biologist at Kings College London, in a report released Wednesday (October 10) by Sense About Science. The report, called "There goes the science bit..." is a transcript of 11 conversations that researchers had with customer service people at companies peddling "Aerobic Oxygen" to increase oxygen levels in the blood, "Salt Lamps" that protect from electromagnetic waves, cosmetics that fend off more electromagnetic waves, and other abounding scientific claims in ingredient lists on supermarket shelves. Ball called Nestlé about their Ski Yoghurts, which she had noticed had been recently re-marketed as containing "Activ8" -- a complex of eight B vitamins that, according to Nestlé, optimized energy release. She was put through to the nutritionist at Nestlé, who explained that Activ8 components "get the optimum nutrition out of your food and direct it to the correct areas." "Is it also helpful to people who've got a good diet anyway, and have enough B vitamins already in their diet?" asked Ball. "Well," the nutritionist responded, "if people have got enough B vitamins in their diet already, what it'll do, it'll optimize that." "What do you mean optimize?" "Well, it will get the most out of your diet anyway, by using the vitamins and minerals that's already in your healthy diet.' "If you put an excess of vitamins into people's bodies," Ball noted, "they don't really use them, they just get excreted." "Yeah, they get passed away in the normal way. If your body's got enough of the vitamins it needs, they won't do you any harm, they just get passed away in the normal natural way," was the response. Ball asked if Nestlé had published any evidence supporting the Activ8 vitamin complex, but they hadn't. Eric de Silva, a physicist and staff member at Sense About Science, called the manufacturers of the Q-link pendant, a metal pendant worn around the neck and advertised to protect from electromagnetic radiation, cure hangovers and skin conditions, improve your golf game, and reduce road rage. The customer service representative tried to explain how the pendant worked: "Well, you have an energy field because of the electrical impulses your body puts out. Your own, it's called a bio-field, the energy field around your body." "So, there are the impulses for your nerves, you're saying?" asked de Silva. "Um, yeah, yeah." "OK, so this thing, the pendant...acts against it somehow? Or..." "It acts with it." "It acts with it?" "Yeah, it aligns with it and helps amplify your own energy, it externalizes it more." "So what does that do? I mean, so if you have a nerve impulse traveling and it generates a field, and then the pendant makes that field bigger, what does that...?" "It helps protect your body from the electromagnetic frequencies from computers and electronic equipment...and cell phones." "Right, so, what's the frequency that your body has then?" "I don't know...there is some information about that on our Web site." "Right. But, all electrical things have lots of different frequencies, so you're saying it amplifies all these frequencies, or it cuts out all these frequencies?" "Yes." The conversation went on for quite a bit. The makers of the Q-link pendent said they conducted double-blind studies with the product, but they wouldn't reveal the specific elements and procedures to make Q-link. The project, says Alice Tuff, director of program research at Sense About Science, is meant to encourage other scientific researchers to openly question marketing schemes using scientific-sounding information. "It's easy to say 'that annoys me' and not do anything about it," she says. "All it takes is phone call or letter to make companies more aware of what they put on their Web sites." Andrea Gawrylewski Links within this article: T. Brown, "Making sense of science," The Scientist, November 21, 2005 Sense About Science K. Grens, "Felis Enigmaticus," The Scientist, January 1, 2007 K. Grens, "For sale: Stem cell enhancers," The Scientist, May 15, 2007. K. Grens, "Now playing: Stop the FDA!" The Scientist, June 29, 2007. "There Goes the Science Bit...", edited by Alice Tuff and Frank Swain M. Nisbet and D. Scheufele, "The future of public engagement," The Scientist, October 1, 2007.


Avatar of: Nancy


Posts: 2

October 12, 2007

I like the idea of calling the scientific claims used in advertising to the floor, but did calling these advertisements into question stop or change the company's advertising? My guess is, no.

October 12, 2007

Problems have occurred with approved Rx medications also. A few years ago when CRESTOR, a statin, was being heavily advertised by a major pharmaceutical firm, I noticed that the 'ad' contained a bar graph that compared the relative efficacies of other marketed statins and CRESTOR upon reducing the levels of 'bad' cholesterol in subjects' blood. CRESTOR had a statistically significant better result, and the message, while not stated explicitly, was that CRESTOR would produce better outcomes in cardiac treatments. I called the company and told them that their 'ad' was misleading in that respect unless they had clinical evidence that such an implied claim was true. I was told that they were 'working on this'.but that they had no intention in changing their 'ambiguous' message. However, some months later they did. Sometimes a public action may have salutary results.
Avatar of: Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne

Posts: 1

October 12, 2007

Why is it always the little guys that people like "Sense about Science" go for? Sure there are people and firms who make silly claims but anyone with any intelligence takes them with a pinch of salt anyway; just like you don't take cosmetic claims too seriously. Producing a report on it at first sight seems like the work of people with not enough to do. \n\nBut could it be that there is more of an agenda here? Sense About science claims that it is doing it to protect the good name of science which is undermined by people taking its name in vain. What is striking though is that while the SAS team are always eager to shoot fish in a barrel, they never point the finger at the 1000 pound gorilla in the room. The people who do a seriously effective job of distorting science and not only make gullible punters believe it but doctors and most patients too. \n\nI am talking about the marketing arms of the drug companies. If SAS were really serious about exposing a failure to adhere to scientific principles, then they might call up Merck and ask them about the marketing of Vioxx - all the ammunition they need can be found in a very detailed article published in the BMJ in January that sets out just how statistics had been distorted, data ignored, journals fooled etc over a period of several years.\n\nOr they might want to do some proper investigation in to the extent of off-label prescribing in this country. A study last year in the States involving over 3000 doctors and published in the Annals of internal medicine (so its a bit more firmly based than a quick ring round) found that 20% of prescriptions were written off-label, meaning that they were not backed up by those famous randomised etc trials and did not have a license. \n\nNow of course doctors should be allowed to exercise their judgement in such matters but the authors then went on to note that 70% of those decisions were not based on any scientific evidence at all.\n\nBut maybe the American's are more sloppy about scientific evidence than us. However, to give just one example, the prescribing habits of doctors in the UK where elderly people with dementia is concerned does not inspire much confidence. \n\nAround 200,000 (rather more than the number who buy salt lamps) of them are prescribed antipsychotics. Not only do antipsychotics not have a license for this group of patients but there are warnings saying they raise the risk of stroke and should not be given to them.\n\nOn top of that, there are randomised etc trials showing that they do not even help with behaviour in those patients. In other words this prescribing is not only not based on science but it is known to be dangerous and ineffective.\n\nNow that seems to me to be an abuse of science that might be worth making a few phone calls about and bringing to people's attention. But as far as SAS is concerned I'm not holdng my breath. \n\nWhat they are actually about is scaring people off non-drug medicine and making sure they keep taking the tablets even when they are sold on the basis of dodgy statistics or no evidence at all. \n\nIf SAS are serious about protecting the good name of science they should go after the gangs running the rackets rather than beating up a few teenagers caught stealing apples.\n
Avatar of: slider


Posts: 6

October 13, 2007

Well Said !! As a pharmacist (in the US) it is my impression that off label prescribing approaches 40% of prescriptions. About 1/4 of that can be supported by the literature, but most cannot; further, the direct to consumer advertising of prescription medications has been exceedingly successful for the drug manufacturers, with the consequence of drugs being precribed at the patients request without any good basis to do so. I consistently hear the justification that medicine is an "art" as well as a science to justify nonsensical prescribing.\nI applaud these scientists for addressing the claims of the companies mentioned in the article - but we really need to focus a very critical view on modern medical practice.
Avatar of: Kevin Gleeson

Kevin Gleeson

Posts: 1

October 14, 2007

From a physicist questioning the ridiculous claims of salt crystal table lamp sellers to the criticism of the serious and difficult business of drug development to the condemnation of those charged with the even more difficult and treacherous business of prescribing drugs to suffering humans in a society with unrealistic expectations. Who are the fish in the barrel anyway?
Avatar of: dikkon


Posts: 1

October 14, 2007

If a pharmacist recognizes that a lot of medications are being prescribed contrary to the recommended usage, why doesn't she/he report it?\n\nMy local pharmacist did question the doctors, but he and his wife were bought out by a national chain, and since I now have to use a pharmacy in a grocery store or mail order shop, I feel that I have lost a quality control step.\n\nMy (now retired) doctor never faulted the pharmacist for trying to clarify a prescription. I don't know about my new doctor.\n\ndikkon\n
Avatar of: sicko


Posts: 3

October 16, 2007

I wore that damn Q link (under a different name) for a year and can verify that it not only failed to improve my terrible health, it made me feel even sicker with its constant flashing light. Why did I, a reasonably educated person, bother? Because my kind and desperate parents paid £100 before i could stop them. To comply and show willing despite my reservations - the same reason i took incredibly strong drugs for 3 years "off-license" which made me catatonic. People should bear in mind that sick people are not usually in a position to say no once their carers are involved. We need more protection from these charlatans.
Avatar of: Gary Schwitzer

Gary Schwitzer

Posts: 1

October 19, 2007

Our project,, takes a parallel approach of evaluating claims of efficacy or safety in health care news stories.
Avatar of: jb


Posts: 1

October 21, 2007

Slider-\nPlease provide a link or reference to support your statement that 40% of prescribing is off-label. I'm not arguing that you are wrong (yet), but it seems high to me.\n\nFor the rest of you, do not confuse "off-label" with charlatanism or quackery, which appears to be the intent of some of the commenters here. "Off-label" means, in the USA at least, that a physician has prescribed a recognized medication for an indication that the FDA has not approved. There are many reasons why an indication may not be approved but may yet be perfectly legitimate and beneficial. Most of these reason are economic. It costs $millions to add an indication. Very expensive detailed prospective studies must be run. If the drug is not under patent (generic), there is no way for anyone to recoup these costs, yet there may be good evidence in the literature or anecdotally for the use of the drug, which has already been proved safe, though not proved effective for this particular indication, in the original FDA trial. Even if the drug remains under patent, the manufacturer must judge the size of the market and the length of patent protection remaining, before deciding that the additional indication is worth getting. None of this prevents a physician from prescribing the drug for any legitimate purpose, and it is wrong to try to confuse patients who may read these comments and not be able to make the distinction between quackery and legitimate off-label prescribing.
Avatar of: Salt Lamp

Salt Lamp

Posts: 1

May 13, 2010

Interesting comments regarding salt lamps and your interview with a lamp seller with no clue (as are 99% of the others methinks). The correct answer about salt lamps is as follows:\n\nThe myths floating around are originally based on a book titled "Water and Salt: The Essence of Life". This book states that salt lamps will fill a room with negative ions being ejected from the salt in copious amounts. Not true.\n\nSalt lamps attract water molecules from the air by hygroscopy. The evaporation of water, and reaction with sodium chloride, create negative ions, however they are short-lived and don't make it far beyond the lamp.\n\nImproved indoor air quality is achieved because attached to airborne water molecules are all the airborne irritants like viruses, bacteria, mold, and fungi; with a long list of asthma and allergy triggers as well. Moisture is REQUIRED for these things to remain in the air and viable; otherwise they fall to the floor...leaving surrounding air healthier.\n\nWhat extends the effect a salt lamp has in a given room is directly related to humidity, along with a lamp's salt surface area and the warmth of the lamp. Warmth creates a rising convection of air from the lamp and adds circulation to some degree. Existing conditions and individual sensitivities dictate the overall benefits realized. For some a little, for many a great deal. More about salt lamps here.\n\nI've worked with salt lamps exclusively for over 6 years. I've researched, handled, and lived around Himalayan salt lamps enough to understand that they are NOT pseudoscience, quackery, new-age nonsense. I've only touched on salt lamps here, there is still the use of edible Himalayan crystal salt vs ANY other salt. Which way to that debate?\n\nThanks for reading.\nDarrin Wright\\n\n

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