Stolen pets and pseudoscience: 20 years of campaigners misleading the public.

20 January 2015

Posted by: Chris Magee

Category: Staff blog

Chris Magee, Head of Media and Policy, reflects upon the ASA’s findings that the antiviv group, NAVS, have been misleading the public.

As the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson once famously said 'The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” Whilst I’d probably pedantically change “science” to “a fact”, it nevertheless puts me in mind of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)’s latest ruling that the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) has been misleading the public again.



You can read the full adjudication for yourself here, but in short the ad breached rules 3.13 (Exaggeration), 3.9 (Qualification), 3.1 (Misleading advertising) thrice and 3.7 (Substantiation) – again thrice. The ASA said:

We told NAVS to ensure that claims were appropriately qualified and not to repeat the claims "animal safety tests cannot accurately predict what will happen in humans" and "The TGN 1412 drug trial disaster could have been avoided using a technique known as 'micro-dosing' with spectrometry analysis" in future ads. We told them not to imply claims were universally accepted if that was not the case.

Now, I would like to think that I would be mortified if found to be misleading the public by such a respectable independent organisation as the ASA. It might lead me to question my understanding of the topic I was discussing. NAVS took a different approach.

“The ASA has not considered the case in a fair and balanced manner, and lacks the expertise to come to an objective conclusion.” it howled, “Despite providing plentiful scientific evidence supporting the statements made in the leaflet, the ASA has found in favour of UAR.”

However, this is just the problem. It’s hard to be sure which papers NAVS cherry-picked from the wider scientific literature, but it’s odds-on they were the usual half-dozen or so unrepresentative outliers which are used by all the other anti-research campaigners. Turning this in as ‘scientific evidence’ just doesn’t wash, and never will, so the appropriate reaction might instead be some degree of introspection. Any such ‘evidence’ has to stand up against a much wider body of work and the outcomes of things such as pharmaceutical company data-sharing initiatives and, in my humble opinion, is doomed to fail.



Similarly, claims that the adverse effects encountered in the TGN 1412 drug trial could have been avoided using microdosing are cast into doubt with some extremely basic research. Microdosing is the practice of giving volunteers a dose typically 100 times lower than the clinically effective amount yet, as we can see from even the Wikipedia page on TGN 1412, the dose given was 1/500th of the clinically effective dose.

But do I think this ruling will lead NAVS and similar organisations to do better research before drawing conclusions? I do not. UAR’s predecessor RDS reviewed ASA rulings against anti-research organisations between 1991 and 2006 and found 18. Many of the same claims were made back then, and they were incorrect then, too. Here are some highlights:

The British Anti-Vivisection Association said "Before you take any more drugs, or allow your child to be vaccinated, find out the facts."

ASA ruling: "the Authority was concerned that the advertisers had not even tried to provide evidence for the claims and considered that they were irresponsible to suggest that people should stop taking prescribed medication."

NAVS claimed "they (animals) suffer from different diseases."

ASA ruling: "the Authority understood that this was not the case with all diseases and requested that the advertisers amend the claim to avoid such an implication."

Europeans for Medical Progress claimed "treatment of childhood leukaemia has also improved dramatically, thanks entirely to ingenious research on cell and tissue cultures - not to animal experiments."

ASA ruling: "we noted Glivec was a recent treatment for chronic myeloid leukaemia,

which principally affected adults and was a rare form of leukaemia in children. We also noted animal research had been carried out in the course of the development of Glivec."

These 18 were just those complaints with a pseudo-scientific basis too: there are others such as my personal favourite from ‘Flesh and Blood ’ magazine “You will feel disgust that family pets are being stolen and sold to British laboratories" as if that’s a thing. The ASA noted that they had “…failed to give details of any instance where an animal had been stolen for such purposes…”.

So long as campaigning organisations decide to go off on an ill-informed rant rather than discuss something useful like how to bolster 3Rs research, or indeed properly investigate their topic and present their case honestly, I suppose I’ll be seeing more of these ASA rulings at a rate of about about 1 a year if the last 20 years is anything to go by.

Nevertheless one lives in hope that the wider general public are not taken in by the claims of these organisations which have been found more than once to be misleading the public, skewing a complex issue and ignoring the facts whether or not they believe in them.


Chris Magee