Friday 11 July 2008

A Consumer's Self Defence Class

There was an advertisement in the papers recently for a product called Canova. The advert described Canova as “a breakthrough to wellness”. If you believe what is written in the advertisement a young woman call Constance had been suffering headaches, dizzy spells and weight loss. As a result of all these dreadful symptoms she lost her job. She’d tried various medications but all to no avail. But then, Praise Be, she tried Canova and experienced a miraculous recovery. The advertisement says that Constance “applauds Canova for her recovery”.

I don’t believe a word of it. This is a good example of the sort of pseudoscientific claptrap against which we need to protect ourselves. We need to arm ourselves with some basic sceptical weapons.

Don’t trust anyone who is trying to sell you something that makes miraculous claims. It’s an old saying but if it sounds too good to be true then it certainly IS too good to be true. But how can you spot them? What are the signs you should look for?

Firstly if you’re going to evaluate something that claims scientific powers then you must understand the nature of science. You don’t need to be a qualified scientist, the basic principles of science are actually quite simple.

Science is based on evidence, controlled experimentation and open disclosure of the results of such experiments. In science there is no secrecy, nothing is hidden, nothing is allowed to masquerade as something it isn’t. All true scientists are open about how they experimented and they encourage other scientists to try and replicate their results. That’s one of the critical things. Real scientists understand that something isn’t accepted as plausible until another scientist, somewhere else, has repeated the results.

The Canova product doesn’t qualify. If you go to their website they appear to have quite an impressive range of research findings that justify their claims about Canova. But when you look a little closer you see something else. A complete lack of real evidence. There are plenty of pictures of test tubes, graphs and electron microscopy images but very little in the way of real evidence.

That’s one of the key self-defence lessons. Just because something is presented with glossy imagery that doesn’t mean it’s any good. You have to look a little deeper, past the claims, to see if what the supplier suggests is plausible.

To be fair their web site does give details of various experiments they claim to have undertaken but yet again at second glance these are less impressive. They were all conducted in Brazil by a small group of researchers. There’s nothing wrong with Brazil but if this product really was so miraculous you’d expect the news to have spread by now wouldn’t you? Also, many of the so-called research papers were never published so haven’t been exposed to that other great scientific test: peer review. Until a piece of research has been shown to other scientists and been made open to their criticism it’s simply unacceptable.

The advertisement and the web site both include a range of claims that are cleverly phrased. Whoever wrote the advertisement was very careful not to make any actual measurable claims about the product. It says that Canova “helps to control opportunistic infections” and “helps boost the immune system”. That sounds very good until you try and explain to yourself what it actually means.


For me, the most telling phrase in the advertisement is one of the least conspicuous but I think it suggests what this is really all about. The advertisement says that Canova “can be taken with any other medication”.

Next time you buy a real medication like aspirin, paracetamol or a decongestant read the leaflet that comes in the box. The one I’m looking at while writing this is for a simple anti-inflammatory painkiller you can buy over the counter and it lists a huge range of side effects, special precautions and symptoms of over-dosage. The reason this leaflet is there is because this medicine actually contains ingredients that DO something and that come with recognised risks. Every drug that does something has the slight risk of side effects, whether it’s a simple painkiller, the contraceptive pill or an antiretroviral drug.

Canova has no leaflet, has no side effects and can coexist with all other medicines for one simple reason. It does nothing.

You can tell this if you look at the packaging shown in the advertisement or in the small print on the web site. It’s a homeopathic remedy. Homeopathic remedies are based on the notion that a small dose of something that causes harm can cure that harm. They also assume that water retains the memory of a substance that it once encountered. The tiniest amount of a supposedly active ingredient is introduced into water and that water is then repeatedly diluted to 1/100th of it’s previous strength, sometime 30 times. That’s such a powerful dilution that after 30 cycles not even a single atom of the ingredient remains. It’s simply water, nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, let’s be cynical for a moment. If this Canova stuff really worked then don’t you think that the medical and pharmaceutical industry would have been in there like wild dogs? I’m no praise singer for the pharmaceutical industry but I DO credit them with self-interest. If there was money to be made from such treatments they’d be there right now, making lots of it.

So don’t buy Canova. Don’t buy any product that makes miraculous claims. It will do you no good other than to lighten your wallet.

And be sceptical. About everything.

This week’s stars!
  • Kebue Kebue who works as driver to the Assistant Minister of Finance who apparently is cheerful, hard-working and trustworthy.
  • Kabelo Mpatane from BHC who we’re told is extremely helpful, cheerful and friendly.

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