Finding Power and Balance: Proving and Disproving Claims

I’m very happy to have had an article published on the website of the New Zealand Science Teacher, the official publication of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators.

My article is about applied kinesiology, I’ve embedded the introduction below and you can read the whole thing on the NZST website: Finding Power and balance: proving and disproving claims

When reading a story about someone who has been scammed, it’s very easy to think ‘that could never happen to me’. From the outside, warning signs always appear obvious and the conclusion often seems untenable. It’s easy to assume that people who fall for scams or are otherwise misled must be unintelligent or gullible. The reality is less comfortable. We can all be fooled, even the best of us.

One historical example of someone very intelligent falling for what now seems to be clearly false, involves author and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Despite obviously understanding the principles of scepticism, Doyle became convinced in the early 20th century that fairies were real, based on a series of photographs of the “Cottingley Fairies”, which were revealed decades later to have been faked using paper cut-outs. Intelligence is no failsafe against being fooled.

More recently, many people, including Shaquille O’Neil and Bill Clinton, have been fooled by a plastic wristband: the makers of which claim it can improve a person’s strength and balance.

The ‘theory’ behind the tests used to promote these wristbands is also employed by various alternative health practitioners in attempts to evaluate treatment effects and to diagnose illnesses, allergies, and intolerances, despite the fact that there is no scientific proof behind it.

It’s known as ‘applied kinesiology’ and, if you don’t know any better, it can be very convincing.

ACC and Alternative Medicine

The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) is part of the healthcare system in New Zealand. To quote themselves on their purpose, they provide “comprehensive, no-fault personal injury cover for all New Zealand residents and visitors to New Zealand”. To put it simply, if you hurt yourself in an accident in New Zealand, ACC will likely pay for all treatment you require to recover from that injury.

They are not strictly part of the government, but they are a Crown organisation set up via the Accident Compensation Act 2001, and they are controlled directly by the government through an ACC minister. At the time of writing, the current ACC minister is Judith Collins. The ACC is funded publicly through various avenues, including levies on people’s earnings.

Recently, the current chair of the New Zealand Skeptics, Gold, submitted an Official Information Act (OIA) request (using the great service FYI, which makes these requests public) to the ACC asking:

Please can you tell me, for each of the last 10 years, how much the
ACC has paid out for each of the following services:


On the 20th of May 2014, the ACC responded to Gold’s OIA request with this information:

The following table shows the total amount (in dollars, excl GST) ACC has paid under Regulations for Osteopathic, Acupuncture and Chiropractic services for the last 10 years.

Financial Year $ cost
Osteopathy Acupuncture Chiropractic Total
2003/04 6,210,642 4,424,458 8,056,875 18,691,975
2004/05 6,767,849 5,452,119 8,007,011 20,226,979
2005/06 7,237,766 5,954,239 7,947,342 21,139,347
2006/07 8,038,676 7,616,042 8,734,453 24,389,171
2007/08 10,082,351 12,392,494 12,007,580 34,482,415
2008/09 10,945,880 15,761,415 13,173,902 39,881,197
2009/10 10,470,269 15,605,042 11,804,095 37,879,406
2010/11 9,802,401 16,225,902 10,832,912 36,861,215
2011/12 10,029,446 16,958,808 11,654,292 38,642,546
2012/13 10,964,806 19,961,329 12,312,832 43,238,967

Naturopath is not an ACC funded service; therefore your request for this information is declined under section 18(e) of the Act, as the document alleged to contain the information requested does not exist or cannot be found.

Here’s that information on a chart, excluding the totals. As you can see, spending on acupuncture in particular has increased dramatically over the last decade:

ACC spending on alternative therapies per financial year from 2003/04 to 2012/13
ACC spending on alternative therapies per financial year from 2003/04 to 2012/13

This OIA request was a follow-up to an earlier request from Mark Honeychurch regarding essentially the same information. The response to Gold’s request included a new column for 2012/13, as well as the “Total” column although that isn’t strictly new information. Also, the information from Gold’s request seems to have been a catalyst for an article published on the 24th of May 2014 on Big Bill for Alternative Health.

This article did a little more digging, asking questions of doctors, acupuncturists, and the ACC. I highly recommend you read it. The most interesting part to me was this:

In 2009, then-ACC Minister Nick Smith questioned the ballooning ACC bill for complementary treatments and said their effectiveness would be reviewed.

Since then, the cost has risen another $5m but ACC said no review ever took place.

ACC Minister Judith Collins did not answer questions about the review.

It is not mentioned in this article, but I have known for some time that the ACC has a document published on their website entitled Acupuncture Treatment Profiles. The document describes itself as:

a valuable guide in the application of protocols that are included within a Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) diagnosis, providing important information that assists an acupuncturist’s treatment strategy.

This appears to be an official ACC document, to be used by ACC-registered acupuncturists to determine appropriate methods of diagnosis and treatment that are approved for ACC funding. However, having a look through it one can’t help but notice egregiously wrong and pseudoscientific statements such as the following:

  • Acupuncture… Relieves pain by treating stagnation of Qi and Blood in the affected areas and channels
  • Qi is the vital force of life which… Is the material substrate of the Universe
  • Brain… Is considered to be the same in substance as marrow
  • the Kidney produces marrow

I shudder at the thought that the ACC levies I pay are partly used to fund this. It seems to me that it’s high time the ACC carried out a review of the evidence behind these therapies that it funds, so problems like this can be rooted out and dealt with. Publicly funded healthcare should be based on science, after all.

Misusing the Term “Doctor” in New Zealand Advertising

Earlier this year, I saw an infomercial on TV for “Dr Ho’s decompression belt”. This was only a few days after I’d encountered this post on Science-Based Medicine, which mentioned “decompression therapy” in a post entitled “Chiropractic Gimmickry”, so my alarm bells were ringing and I wrote down as much detail about the ad I could in one of my pocket notebooks.

Later, when I was able to look the product up online, it seemed that the only official claims made of it were related to pain relief. As far as I could tell, that seemed consistent with the evidence, so I decided not to pursue that avenue. However, I did find that so-called “Dr Ho” is not a medical doctor, but instead a “Doctor of Chiropractic and Acupuncture”.

For quite some time now, I’ve had a link in my bookmarks to an article published in 2008 in the New Zealand Medical Journal entitled Use of inappropriate titles by New Zealand practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractic, and osteopathy, and this situation reminded me very strongly of that article. To sum it up, “Doctor” is not a protected term in New Zealand, but there are laws that prevent it from being used in such a way as to imply that a person is a medical doctor when, in fact, they are not. That study outlines the law and shows roughly how common such misrepresentation appears to be (spoiler: very common). The law in question is in the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003.

In response to this, I wrote in to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority), asking if anyone there could clarify for me when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the term “Doctor” in advertising. I’ve inserted this original message at the bottom of this post.

After about a month and a half, during which I’d received a couple of notifications to let me know that they were looking into it, I received an email to let me know that the matter has been settled. About a week after that, I was sent this ruling.

It seems that the people responsible for the advertisement have altered it to clarify that Dr Ho is a chiropractor, and not an MD as was previously implied. I’m sure the distinction will be lost on most viewers, but I’m happy to consider this a victory. Even though ads tend to have short lifetimes, the fact that a precedent has been set makes me optimistic.

I would encourage other people living in New Zealand (and elsewhere, of course, but the law may differ in other countries) to make similar complaints when they observe this behaviour. If you do so, it would probably be useful to refer to this complaint and, if appropriate, the relevant provisions listed in the ruling:

Principles 2 and 3, and Part B2 Requirement 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code.

Here’s the original email I sent:

To whom it may concern,

I saw an infomercial on TV last Sunday evening (19/08/2012, around 7:30-7:45 on Prime) for “Dr. Ho’s decompression belt”. This advertisement raised my suspicions as, a couple of days earlier, I’d read an article on the highly reputable website Science-Based Medicine that described “decompression therapy” as something which is commonly recommended by chiropractors for dubious reasons.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the only claims made for this product (that it can relieve back pain) don’t seem illegitimate, and although I’ve found numerous references to the product having been “clinically tested” and “scientifically proven” without any corroborating references I’m not sure if official promotions have made such claims. However, in my search I discovered that “Dr. Ho”, as he described himself in the infomercial where he authoritatively promoted the product, is not a medical doctor. Instead, he is a “Doctor of Chiropractic and Acupuncture”.

The Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 states that “a person may only use names, words, titles, initials, abbreviations, or descriptions stating or implying that the person is a health practitioner of a particular kind if the person is registered, and is qualified to be registered, as a health practitioner of that kind”. I was under the impression, from the use of the term “Doctor” in this advertisement, that “Dr. Ho” was a licensed medical doctor and therefore actually had the authority with which he promoted his product.

My conclusion that this use of the term “Doctor” can be seen as misleading, and therefore violate the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, when used in such a context by non-medical doctors is corroborated by this article from the New Zealand Medical Journal.

I’d very much appreciate it if someone with authority on the matter could clarify for me just what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to referring to oneself as “Doctor” in a medical context within advertising. Can such behaviour be considered a breach of advertising standards, or is it considered acceptable? If it is considered acceptable, is there a list of qualifications which allow one to call themselves “Doctor”, or would no qualifications be necessary?

Thank you in advance,

Mark Hanna