Constructive skeptical activism
April's talk was another delve into the increasingly relevant battle against pseudoscience from Mandy-Lee Noble, an accredited dietician and 2020's Skeptic of the Year. Mandy is a self-labelled ‘equal-opportunity skeptic’ – out to right the wrongs of not only fraudulent marketers but also politicians and registered practitioners who are deliberately or unknowingly basing their practice on misleading or unfounded information.
Misinformation is a prevalent issue contributing to the rise of fad diets, and as a dietician Mandy’s take is that any diet with a goal of long term weight loss is essentially ‘woo’ – while many can have short term benefits, there’s very little evidence that any of them are effective at 2-5 years. However, that doesn’t mean that healthy eating and exercise are useless! They’re still great for improving overall health, just not likely to be a weight loss miracle. Less so for vitamin supplements – unless you have a diagnosed deficiency, they’re a waste of money and potentially more harmful than beneficial.
While scientific ‘fake news’ is now widely recognized, less commonly known is that many of these ‘influencers’ can operate programs registered as charities without evidence and without doing any actual charity work, making their fraudulent work eligible for tax exemption.
Spreading evidence-based approaches and making them accessible to the public is ‘constructive skeptical activism’, and there have been a few recent examples of this. They include community organisations creating resources, Guerrilla Skeptics correcting misleading information, and deplatforming both influencers and practitioners – taking away their ability to misinform.
So what can be done to stop them? Formal complaints can be a complex legal process, but Mandy helpfully details the procedures for disputing the activities and claims that are having detrimental results on the public’s perceptions and in some cases their health, such as for those discouraging the use of antibiotics and vaccination both in Australia and overseas. Unfortunately legal prohibition doesn’t extend that far, but even locally it’s still worth the effort. However, Mandy notes that the Healthcare Complaints Commission is more interested in the legislative breaches of these claims rather than their factuality (or lack thereof) unless they’re contradicting national guidelines, meaning an effective complaint has to focus more on ‘they’re not legally allowed to say this’ rather than ‘what they’re saying isn’t true’.
It is also worth noting though that not all promoters of these scams are doing it knowingly or malevolently – some are victims of woo themselves, or of conventional medicine dismissing their complaints. Being empathetic to these people is still important, and the patient’s values and needs are critical to their care, but holistic management and evidence based practice shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive
Listen to Mandy's talk: here Slides:
About the speaker:
Mandy-Lee Noble is an accredited Practising Dietitian and verified Health At Every Size ® (HAES®) Practitioner. She helps people find foods and patterns of eating that work for them.
Mandy’s practice, Nourished Approach, upholds the simple principle that all bodies benefit mentally and physically from being well nourished. She is an evidence-based practitioner who loves reading research and gaining new professional skills, and her role is primarily as a guide to her clients who are the experts in their own bodies and the foods they enjoy.
Mandy has experience in the non-diet approach, CBT-E for eating disorders, IBS and chronic disease. Her aim is for her clients to develop trust in themselves to nourish their bodies so they can spend less time worrying about food and more time on the things that matter.
Mandy is also the 2020 Australian Skeptic of the Year, awarded for her work in complaints to regulators that have seen action taken against dangerous proponents of alternative medicine. She spearheaded the complaint that saw naturopath Barbara O’Neil banned from practising, and whose research over many years finally saw Pete Evans fined for his ludicrous claims around preventing and treating COVID-19, using the pseudoscientific BioCharger machine.