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International summit on quackery and pseudoscience

Science-based evidence. Accurate and ethical communication.

Stellenbosch University

Stellenbosch University hosts first international summit to counter quackery, pseudoscience and fake news in healthcare

The dangers of pseudoscience and quackery in healthcare will come under scrutiny later this year at a ground-breaking international summit in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Numerous high-profile health and science communication experts will gather at the International Summit on Quackery and Pseudoscience to explore how science communication efforts by the media, scientists, health regulators and governments can counter the impact of pseudoscience and advance the use of evidence-based healthcare practices.

The summit will be held from 20-21 November at the University of Stellenbosch (SU). It will be jointly hosted by the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care (CEBHC) of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), and the Centre for Science and Technology Mass Communication (CENSCOM) of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at SU.

"Snake oil salesmen, charlatans and con-artists have long been known to prey on vulnerable people with health problems. People desperate for cure or relief from a dreaded disease, weight problem or the effects of ageing are easy targets, often willing to fork out large sums of money on any remedy offering some hope. The sad reality is that these treatments frequently turn out to be useless or even harmful," says Prof Jimmy Volmink, Dean of the FMHS.

"The summit is an effort to push back against these exploitative practices whose pernicious impact is being amplified through the internet and social media. It will not only highlight the threat of pseudoscience to the well-being of society, but will also offer effective tools to help people assess healthcare claims and make sound choices," he adds.

"This summit will bring researchers and journalists together to emphasise the joint responsibility for ethical and evidence-informed health reporting to better serve the interests of the public," says CEBHC director, Prof Taryn Young.

"The media play a crucial role in communicating health research and other messages to the public. They can influence people's perceptions about the safety and efficacy of health practices, and when the media relay pseudoscientific and unreliable messages, it can be harmful to people's health," Young emphasises.

"Our vulnerability to step in the trap prepared by reckless and unscrupulous marketers of quasi-scientific health products knows no bounds," says CENSCOM director, Prof George Claassen. "This is enhanced by celebrities in the spread of disinformation of fake science, which often has a devastating influence on the wellbeing of the public." He points out that newspapers, the internet, social media and broadcast channels bristle with dubious statements by so-called quacks who make money because their victims are often ignorant or simply too naïve to distinguish truth from lies.

"We hope that the summit will lead to a much-needed change, enlightening the public and all the role players in the science communication process about the dangers of quackery. To quote the eminent South African born UK developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert: 'Science provides by far the most reliable method for determining whether one's beliefs are valid'; the summit aims to re-emphasise the value of sound science communication and evidence-based healthcare," says Claassen.

In 1995, he developed and established the first science communication course in Africa at SU's Department of Journalism. Claassen is a former science editor of the Cape Town daily newspaper, Die Burger. He elaborates about the reasons for organising the summit. "Ignorant, uninformed or merely poorly informed people often make decisions that are harmful to their health, their interpersonal relationships, their financial affairs and how they should spend their money, and what the future holds in store for them. Unfortunately, this often takes place through dubious information and pseudo-knowledge, obtained from quacks, tricksters and swindlers who too regularly have a free pass in the media to propound their unscientific claims as if it were the truth. It is as if a 'post-truth' has fully dawned in the field of healthcare, with anyone's claims to truth being accepted, the most recent iniquitous examples the anti-vaccination campaign, or faith-healers telling HIV-positive people to throw away their medicine."

According to Claassen, the summit hopes to create an awareness among the public how to recognise fake news, not based on any trace of evidence and distributed by charlatans and scam artists to sell their "health" products. "And who, when confronted and their practices exposed, often turn to the courts to silence scientists and science journalists, acting in the interest of the public," he emphasises, referring to various cases, also in South Africa, where evidence-based health practitioners and journalists were and are still being threatened with legal action if they do not keep quiet. The most famous of these cases is probably that of the British Chiropractic Association against the scientist and award-winning author Simon Singh in 2009. Singh won the case after thousands of scientists signed a petition to support him and the case led to a change in British laws on defamation. He will be joining via Skype in order to be part of the Q & A-session with the theme "Sense about science: Why evidence matters."

The CEBHC's mission is to advance evidence-informed healthcare in Africa and globally. "A key pillar of our Centre's work is supporting the use of current best evidence in healthcare policy and practice, and the media are key intermediaries in bridging the gap between research and the public. If well-informed journalists work together with researchers they can elevate good practice in health reporting that is informed by a solid understanding of best evidence and its value in ethical health journalism," says Young.

The summit will host scientists from the fields of communication, medicine, healthcare and the law, as well as other areas over which quackery and pseudoscience cast its shadow of ignorance and misleading claims. Besides award-winning author Simon Singh (joining via Skype), some of the other participants as speakers will be the UK's Good Thinking Foundation's project director, Michael Marshall; Jacques Rousseau, co-author of Critical Thinking and Pseudoscience - Why We Can't Trust Our Brains; Tom Zeller, award-winning journalist, formerly of The New York Times and now executive editor of the digital science magazine Undark at the Knight Science Journalism programme of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Nathan Geffen, editor of GroundUp and author of Debunking Illusions; Dr Harris Steinman, publisher and editor of CAMcheck and nemesis of many a quack in South Africa; Prof. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, vertebrate paleontologist and science communication award-winning author from the University of Cape Town; Prof Keymanthri Moodley, Director: Centre for Medical Ethics and Law at the University of Stellenbosch and editor of Medical Ethics, Law and Human Rights; multiple award-winning science journalists and authors Mia Malan, Elsabé Brits, Daryl Ilbury and Marina Joubert; Janusz Luterek, legal expert on Food Science & Technology; and Prof Roy Jobson, pharmacologist en health regulatory expert.

The summit's sessions will focus on the following themes:

  • The rise and dangers of pseudoscience and science denialism: Communicating uncertainty in science

  • Health regulation, science in court and other protection mechanisms: Are consumers left in the cold?

  • The media and pseudoscience: Reflecting science through a 'dirty mirror'?

  • Sense about science: Why evidence matters

  • Is quackery harmless? Exploiting the desperately ill, the vulnerable and the ignorant

  • Communicating accurate science: Why scientists should leave the laboratory and engage the public

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Information and enquiries about the summit can be obtained from Claassen at gnclaassen@sun.ac.za or censcom@sun.ac.za, 27218513232 or 27835432471.

To register for the summit, please click here

The final programme is here

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