Who’s responsible for this?

I was recently having a conversation with someone when we saw a commercial or an “all natural” healing product that made some pretty outrageous claims. I made a comment that I thought it was ridiculous that that company could put that commercial on television, making claims that were clearly and utterly bogus. To my surprise, my friend disagreed with me, since the product wasn’t harmful, they reasoned, people are free to take whatever they want and companies should be allowed to market their products to people as long as they’re safe.

Now on the surface that sounds reasonable.

But a few issues should be discussed. The safety of a product is paramount. For example, if I were to go on my show and advise people to drink paint to cure cancer that would be immoral and dangerous. Drinking paint can cause you harm. Just like if a soda pop company started advertising a new kind of pop that contained uranium; that would be outrageous.

However, safety is only one concern here, if one makes a claim that a product can do something it can’t, that’s false advertising and possibly fraud. Going out into the public and making a claim that homeopathy can cure the flu, for instance, is an example of lying to people.

But there’s a bigger problem here than just lying. When you go out and make a claim that some natural medicine will cure a disease (when there is no scientific way it can) you might not be directly putting someone at harm (the natural medicine alone won’t kill them) but you are indirectly creating a dangerous situation”¦someone could take that natural medicine instead of science based medicine, as a result they could die or cause more harm to the community.

I hope that seems reasonable to most people. But where we often find some disagreement is how this problem should be confronted. Some people in the skeptical community would like to see strict regulations on what can and cannot be sold to the public. The problem is homeopathy won’t kill you. But taking homeopathy instead of science based medicine can. Whose fault is that? The company making the homeopathy, or the consumer?

As my friend pointed out, people are free to make their own decisions, if they chose to buy a harmful product, why should the makers of that harmful product be punished? They are after all providing a service to the consumer. There are lots of cases the skeptical movement is familiar with of desperate people being taken by snake oil salesmen selling quackery. But where does the responsibility lay? Are we to blame the consumer? They didn’t make an informed decision and now they’re paying for it. There was a child in Australia who died from eczema because her parents treated her with homeopathy instead of science based medicine, her parents were charged with negligence”¦however once you grow up you’re capable of making your own decisions and if you make the wrong one — well, I guess you’re out of luck.

One might suggest banning homeopathy, but as lawyers will surely remind us, homeopathy alone won’t kill you; James Randi even ate a whole bottle’s worth of homeopathic sleeping pills when he visited the University of British Columbia last year. After that, the lawyers might remind us, cars can be used to kill people and we don’t punish car companies every time someone crashes.

Now that’s all true. But we do regulate who can drive a car. We make laws over who can buy cigarettes or alcohol. But even those examples don’t quite qualify with the dangerous skeptics warn about, homeopathy, anti-vax, acupuncture — cigarettes and alcohol are naturally dangerous. Homeopathy isn’t.

But let’s get back to the claim, homeopathy claims to cure diseases, yet all scientific evidence shows it can’t. But most practitioners of homeopathy have caught on. Rarely do they say things like “homeopathy will cure cancer” or “homeopathy will cure H1N1″ (although sometimes they do) often, they say things like “homeopathy will make you feel better” or “homeopathy increases your wellness.” Those are completely unfalsifiable claims.

And how do you police unfalsifiable claims? That’s a difficult question to answer. Personally, as I told my friend, I think it’s outrageous to advertise a product that has to be deliberately vague about what it does in order for it be legally sellable.

I guess I don’t have any real answers on this. To what degree should we regulate alternative medicine? Even that along is debatable. Perhaps by regulating alternative medicine you give it more credibility than it deserves. Of course, people should be free to make their own decisions, but if they are being misinformed about the capabilities of the product they are taking shouldn’t there be some way of punishing the makers of that product? Of course, what if people don’t believe they’ve been misinformed? All in all, I think this is a discuss the skeptical community should be having. I think it should be a public debate and I think people should be vocal about it.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.