A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

False Light

Posted by apgaylard on January 30, 2008

In late October last year I complained to the BBC about a ridiculous advertorial piece that it ran on a pseudoscientific treatment for SAD, or ‘the winter blues’ as the BBC called it.

This puff-piece ran as part of BBC One’s Breakfast News programme; rather conspicuous billing.

The therapy, Lightwave Stimulation (LWS), is obvious nonsense with absolutely no proper evidence of effectiveness in any condition; let alone SAD.  Nonetheless a small private clinic, the Sound Learning Centre, will still happily charge you £60 per hour for it.

The piece featured an interview with its Director, Pauline Allen; a person with no medical qualifications.

The Deputy Editor for ‘Weekend Breakfast’ made an entirely unsatisfactory response, so I complained to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU).  I’ve just received their judgement; it makes interesting reading.

Not only is it satisfying to have my complaint upheld in every respect, but the response provides some interesting insights into the standards that the BBC is trying to operate by.

The reply noted that the programme team had made some additional responses and that “literature on the internet” about LWS had been consulted.  It then quoted from the BBC’s editorial guidelines.  First, on accuracy:

“[…] The BBC’s commitment to accuracy is a core editorial value and fundamental to our reputation. Our output must be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language. We should be honest and open about what we don’t know and avoid unfounded speculation

We aim to achieve accuracy by:

  • the accurate gathering of material using first hand sources wherever possible.
  • checking and cross checking the facts.
  • …corroborating claims and allegations made by contributors wherever possible […]”

Next, on product prominence:

“[…]We need to be able to reflect the real world and this will involve referring to commercial products, organisations and services in our output.

We must avoid any undue prominence or giving the impression that we are promoting or endorsing products, organisations or services. To achieve this we must:

…ensure that references to trade names, brand names and slogans are clearly editorially justified […]”

It’s already very clear which way the judgement is heading.  The reply then accurately summarised my complaint.

“[…] It seems to me that your complaint falls into two parts:

  • That the piece was misleading in that it discussed a treatment which suggested that there was a properly- researched scientific basis for the claims made on its behalf, when in fact there is not;
  • and that by doing so, the piece served to promote this treatment, and the clinic providing it[…]”

Now, onto the findings (emphasis is mine):

“[…] Having watched the piece, I think that it is highly likely viewers will have taken from it the clear impression that this is a proven treatment.  The commentary line, for instance, saying that:

For many this is the answer: test what light you are missing and give a colour top up.  The extra light triggers the hormones that can make you happy…

Is quite unequivocal, and not qualified or contradicted by either the reporter or any other contributor.  This might be justifiable if […] there was a sound scientific basis for the claims being made, but we have not been able to find any.  Our own internet searches have revealed nothing in the way of peer-reviewed scientific literature providing support for these claims, and the programme-makers have been unable to point us to any.  Nor is any referred to in the “research” section of the Sound Learning Centre’s own website.  In the circumstances, I have to conclude that the claims are not supported by scientific evidence and so the terms in which it was described in the piece were misleading.  I am, therefore, upholding this part of your complaint […]”

It’s always gratifying when people agree with you.  So much for the Deputy Editor’s view that “…Richard Westcott did express the scepticism of some scientists over both the condition and this particular treatment of SAD…”.  No he didn’t, and the ECU agrees.

It is also interesting to note the concern with having evidence based on peer-reviewed research.  I’ll certainly bear this in mind when I watch BBC programmes in the future.

It’s a shame that the programme-makers didn’t do these searches themselves.

Next, my contention that the piece amounted to advertising.  The initial response from the Deputy Editor contended that as the piece had included some scepticism: “…She therefore does not believe it is fair to say the coverage amounted to an advertisement.”  Well, it is already clear that the basis of this defence has evaporated.

“[…] As the guidelines make clear, it is perfectly appropriate for products, services, brand names etc to be referred to in news reports, even where a consequence of doing so might be to promote them, provided that there is sufficient editorial justification.  In this case, the treatment discussed was filmed at the Sound Learning Centre and this piece included a short interview with the Director of the Centre.  This piece was uncritical and may well have had the effect of promoting both the treatment and the Centre.  In the absence, however, of any properly conducted, peer-reviewed research which might provide a basis for believing the treatment to be efficacious in treating SAD, there is no obvious editorial justification for the promotional effect of this piece.  I am, therefore, also upholding this part of your complaint.[…]”

So, it turns out that I was being fair: this was promoting both the nonsense treatment and the dubious clinic.  The criteria applied here are interesting: commercially available treatments can only be covered if they are subject to criticism, or if there is a basis in the peer-reviewed literature for believing the treatment to be efficacious.

I think that this is fair; but it still leaves the door open to treatments with positive results from poor trials, or those published in the unreliable CAM ‘peer-reviewed’ literature.

Then to the conclusion:

“[…] A summary of my conclusion, with a note of the action taken as a result of this finding, will be published in the complaints section of the BBC website, bbc.co.uk.  I will, of course, send you a copy when it has been posted. […]”

This still does not say what action the BBC will take.  This gross error was made in a prominent part of the schedule; I’ll be asking that a correction is given equal prominence. 

It’s sad that this credulous infomercial is still on the BBC’s website.  It’s galling that the Sound Learning Centre were also allowed to peddle this nonsense on BBC Radio Scotland as well.

Lack of any evidence doesn’t seem to bother this ‘Clinic’; as a representative told me when I enquired (emphasis mine):

“[…]Although there is much anecdotal evidence that treatments like Lightwave Stimulation provide positive results for sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder, we are not aware of trials reported in peer-reviewed journalsWe do not offer “medical interventions”, but our own experience is that sufferers of SAD feel much better after Lightwave Stimulation treatment. We do not claim that this constitutes proper research.

We regret that at this stage we cannot offer you any research data on the use of Lightwave Stimulation to treat sufferers of SAD. […] We have collated our own internal research data and are able to discuss our experience with our clients and the results we obtain with Lightwave Stimulation and this may well also be of interest to you […]”

The only things that interest me in this are why people sell therapies that they have no objective evidence to support, why the BBC featured this twaddle and how they are going to set the record straight.

2 Responses to “False Light”

  1. dvnutrix said

    Well done, APG. I shall be interested to see what, if anything, the BBC does in the way of rectifiying this item. The BBC, inter alia, is sorely in need of a regular dose of Bad Science – either that, or they need to update training for their staff.

  2. apgaylard said

    Dvnutrix:
    Thanks. I’m going to keep pushing this. They should have done much better in the first instance.

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