Category Archives: Science

The German circumcision ruling

In June this year, a court in the German city of Cologne heard a case involving a four-year-old child from a Muslim family who was admitted to hospital with bleeding following a circumcision. The doctor who performed the circumcision did so at the request of the boy’s parents, and was acquitted of the charge of grievous bodily harm for this reason.

While this particular doctor was acquitted, the court made the general observation that circumcision violated a child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity”, and that this right outweighed the rights of parents. While leaving room for circumcision to be permissible on medical grounds, the court, in other words, ruled that ritual circumcision amounts to impermissible bodily harm and also constituted a violation of the rights of children.

Contrary to the predictable cries of anti-Semitism that have resulted (and how convenient it is for critics that a German court made the ruling), this is a victory for freedom of religion. Yes, one element of one ritual is outlawed, namely that parents can no longer choose to cut flesh from the penis of their non-consenting child. But why should they ever have had that “right”?

Read more at the Daily Maverick.

Quacks like Patrick Holdford find receptive audiences in South Africa

Patrick Holford is one of the many nutritionists, doctors or specialists of one form or another who make a living by selling false or misleading promises. Sometimes, they even endorse harmful remedies, or harmful avoidance of effective remedies, as is the case with Holford’s association with HIV denialism (and Scientology). Why does a national chain of pharmacies endorse this quackery? Read more at Synapses.


The war on woo

Two recent posts that should be of interest to FSI members – on astrology, and on PowerBalance (both via Synapses). In both of these cases, the actual “product” often does little harm (although in the case of astrology, it certainly can do so). However, material harms (whether physical or financial) are perhaps not the only sort of relevant harm. These examples of pseudoscience and quackery contribute to a climate of unreason, and thereby may make us more susceptible to believing in more dangerous forms of woo.

Consumers in South Africa to stage homeopathic ‘overdose’

Press release 17/01/2011

Consumer rights activists in South Africa have today announced their intention to take a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’ next month, as part of a major global protest against the alternative remedies.

Protestors in Cape Town will swallow entire bottles of homeopathic pills on February 5th 2011, in a bid to raise public awareness of the fact that homeopathic ‘remedies’ are ineffective – putting pressure on pharmacists and healthcare providers to ensure that products sold as medical treatments actually work. Continue reading Consumers in South Africa to stage homeopathic ‘overdose’

ASASA complaint in respect of PowerBalanceSA

The FSI submitted the following complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa earlier this month. Let’s hope that they follow the example set by their Australian counterparts, and request that PowerBalance issue corrective advertising. We are aware that there are a number of similar products on the market – some making even more absurd claims than PowerBalance – and we are working on similar complaints with regard to these products.

Complaint in respect of unsubstantiated claims and misleading advertising on the part of POWER BALANCE SA

The products and claims made:

In South Africa, the PowerBalance corporation currently offer two versions of a product marketed under the promise of offering “Performance Technology”. These products (wristbands in various designs, as well as a range of pendants), can be seen on the South African section of their website:
The claims made on behalf of these wristbands and pendants are:

The substance of the complaint:

The following words and phrases contained in the promotional website are held to be misleading:

1. Performance Technology: Marketing these products as “performance technology” implies that they have benefits in terms of athletic performance. No evidence to support this claim is provided, and this claim is therefore likely to mislead potential buyers into believing that the products have benefits that they do not have.

2. Natural energy field: The claim that the body has a natural “energy field” is vague and pseudoscientific. This cannot be referring to the sort of energy measured by physicists, but instead seems to refer to undefined “life energy”. We are offered no evidence that such an energy field exists, nor how it can be identified and measured. PowerBalance also provide no evidence for their claim that their product can interact with this (unproven) energy field, and offer no explanation of the mechanism by which it might be able to do so.

3. Balance, strength and flexibility: As above, the claim that these products have any effect – whether beneficial or not – on balance, strength and flexibility are made without any substantiating evidence. The fact that the product might be favoured by certain “elite athletes” is not scientific evidence for the efficacy of the product in question.

4. Holograms: A particular frequency is allegedly embedded into the holograms in these products. This appears to be little more than meaningless technobabble, designed to sound scientific. We are offered no evidence for why any particular frequency is chosen, or for how the imprinting of the frequency on to the hologram takes place.

5. Resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body: The frequencies that are allegedly imprinted on the holograms (see 4, above) are claimed to interact with the frequencies of our bodies (see 2, above). However, “a frequency can’t exist alone but has to refer to a number of repetitions of a periodic process per period of time. What is the periodic process that generates the frequency involved in the bracelet technology ”, and how is it determined that the frequencies chosen are indeed beneficial to humans?

The “Test Video”
An additional element of deception can be found on PowerBalance’s website, at . The “test” conducted here is similar to the test that is frequently conducted at points of sale, where potential customers are shown that there are benefits in terms of strength and balance when wearing a PowerBalance product.
However, these demonstrations are simple variants of what is known as “applied kinesiology”, frequently used by stage magicians to produce entirely subjective perceptions of increased strength and balance. Not only has this effect been shown to be entirely subjective and unscientific by peer-reviewed academic research , but it has also been shown to be false in double-blind experiments conducted with PowerBalance products , where a PowerBalance salesperson was unable to correctly identify which participants in the experiment were wearing a bracelet, and which were not.
This test video, as well as variants on this test demonstrated by those hoping to sell PowerBalance products, misleads consumers into thinking that the perceived effects of PowerBalance products are scientifically demonstrable and reliable. In actual fact, the perceived effects are entirely unreliable, unrelated to the product itself, and entirely subjective rather than being a physical consequence of the wearing of any PowerBalance product.

The false and misleading claims detailed above are also reproduced on package design, as well as in retail store promotional material for PowerBalance in South Africa. PowerBalance bracelets are currently sold at various retail outlets around South Africa, including sporting goods stores (Sportsman’s Warehouse), Cape Union Mart and pharmacies. They are worn by a number of professional sportspersons, including members of the South African national rugby and cricket teams.
In all of these cases, as well as in the cases of competing (but similar) companies such as and, we request that all instances of misleading promotional material be withdrawn.

Furthermore, we believe that customers who have purchased such products will, in the majority of cases, have done so under the false belief that these products offered genuine benefits to their balance, strength or athletic performance in general. Given that these products are sold for as much as R500, the misleading and false claims made by PowerBalance have resulted in a not-insignificant material harm to many consumers. It would therefore be appropriate for a full refund on the purchase price to be offered to any consumers who have purchased these products.
There is a precedent for both the retraction and correction of the advertising material in question, as well as for the reimbursement of consumers who have purchased these products. On December 22, 2010, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ruled that PowerBalance should:

• only make claims about its products if they are supported by a written report from an independent testing body that meets certain standards
• publish corrective advertising to prevent consumers from being misled in the future
• amend the Australian website to remove any misleading representations
• change the packaging to remove any misleading representations
• offer a refund to any consumers that feel they have been misled, and
• remove the words “performance technology” from the band itself.

The Australian section of the PowerBalance website now includes a corrective advertisement, acknowledging that there is no scientific evidence for their claims relating to the products, and offering refunds to customers ( However, the same website’s South African section, as well as all their other promotional material, continues to make the false and misleading claims detailed above.

PowerBalance is distributed and marketed in South Africa by:
PO BOX 6296
Walmer, Port Elizabeth, 6065
South Africa
Tel: 041 373 8576
Fax: 086 620 5590
[email protected]

Homeopathic ‘Overdosers’ Announce Global Challenge

Consumer rights activists worldwide are being challenged to participate in a global ‘overdose’ on homeopathic pills, in order to raise public awareness that the remedies are in fact worthless.

The ’10:23 Challenge’, scheduled to culminate worldwide in February 2011, is a follow-up to the protest staged by the 10:23 Campaign in the UK, which saw almost 400 demonstrators take to the streets across UK to voice their concern at the sales of the pills in leading pharmacy ‘Boots’, and the support for such ‘remedies’ on the NHS.

Michael Marshall of the 10:23 Campaign explained the plans for 2011: “This year has been a great year in the UK for raising awareness of homeopathy – with doctors, pharmacists, politicians and – above all – members of the public speaking out against this discredited ‘treatment’.

“However, the case against homeopathy extends far beyond the UK – all around the world, people are being told that homeopathy is a valid form of treatment, and often with tragic consequences. It’s a global problem, and it requires global action.

“This is why we’re announcing the 10:23 Challenge for 2011 – we want to show global unity by gathering protesters from more than 10 countries, and more than 23 cities. Our aim is to have more than 1023 activists publicly gathering over the weekend of 5th-6th February, to make a statement: Homeopathy – There’s Nothing In It.

“Of course, safety is our number one concern – not all homeopathy is prepared as honestly and cleanly as the manufacturers state, and can include real ingredients which could be potentially dangerous. With this in mind we urge anyone wishing to get involved to prepare their own homeopathic remedies, or contact the 10:23 Campaign for more information ([email protected])”.

While International participation is yet to be announced, the challenge will culminate in a demonstration in Manchester on February 6th, at the ‘QED: Question. Explore. Discover.’ event, with over 300 protesters participating the largest ever single demonstration against homeopathy.

The 10:23 Campaign is an international movement headed by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, which aims to raise awareness of homeopathy, a multi-million pound industry based on a long-discredited 18th century ritual, selling remedies to the public which have no scientific basis and no credible evidence for their efficacy beyond the placebo effect.

While dispensing sugar pills may seem harmless, in reality the endorsement of homeopathic potions by leading health providers can have grave consequences. In September 2010, a BBC investigation discovered registered homeopaths administering ineffective ‘alternatives’ to the MMR vaccine, and in 2002 9-month old infant Gloria Sam died from serious infections after her eczema – a condition commonly treated by homeopaths – was treated with homeopathic remedies.

Mr Marshall concluded: “Homeopathy has had more than two centuries to prove itself a useful remedy, but the results consistently come back negative. In the meantime, people are being fooled into believing these pills work, often causing genuine harm. This is unacceptable, and on February 5th, we’re going to demonstrate how strongly people feel about this issue.”

For more information about the 10:23 Challenge, visit or contact [email protected].

Respecting people versus respecting beliefs

Respect is due to people, rather than to ideas. While it may be politically incorrect to say so, there is no contradiction between saying that someone has a misguided, uninformed or laughable point of view, and at the same time recognising that person’s worth or dignity in general. But our sensitivity to being challenged, and to having the intrinsic merit of our ideas questioned, often leads us to conflate these two different sorts of respect.

Read more at Synapses.

The defense of reason

On hearing that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, one response from a self-proclaimed man of god was the following post on Twitter: “God 1, Hitchens 0”. The motivation for such a callous response to a usually fatal disease (fewer than 5% of sufferers are alive after 5 years) is easy enough to trace: Hitchens, along with Dennett, Dawkins and Sam Harris, is one of the “4 Horsemen” of a groundswell of resistance to the unreason that is exemplified by religious faith, and he is thus a direct threat to the mysterious legitimacy that faith-based claims enjoy.

What our divine scorekeeper does not (of course) dwell on is the fact that according to his beliefs, all deaths are attributable to god, and that he could therefore just as well add another notch to this metaphysical bedpost if his mother, for example, were to die an equally unpleasant death. God’s victory is inevitable, as either she takes a believer “home”, or she smites down an unbeliever. Either way, a civilised response to human trauma is sympathy, rather than gloating.

Read more at Synapses.