Some rules need to change

Some rules need to change

Content note: This article discusses transphobia, and includes examples of it.

I’ve always been big on rules. When I was a kid, I had a lot of trouble grasping the idea that there was a difference between “right and wrong” and “following the rules”. My parents used to quip that I’d probably grow up to be a lawyer.

I don’t think the idea that some rules are just wrong really clicked for me until my early twenties. I’m sure the transition was far more gradual than I recall, but I can remember one moment that certainly feels like a turning point in retrospect.

When I was 21, my partner at the time complained to me about a set of traffic lights that turned red far too quickly, and as a result many people would just drive through after they had turned red. A younger me probably would have said something judgemental about it being wrong to run red lights, but instead I said I thought the lights should be changed because they obviously weren’t working.

Though I came to it fairly late, this idea that rules — including the law — aren’t always right has very much solidified in my mind since then. I’ve also learned a lot about how to work within systems of rules, which any long-time readers will surely have seen in my writing on topics such as the Advertising Standards Authority and on the Official Information Act.

One set of rules that I think currently needs to change is the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act (BDMRR Act). One of the things regulated in this law is the process through which someone can change the sex marker on their birth certificate.

Currently, changing the equivalent marker on other official documentation, such as a driver licence or a passport, is a pretty sensible process. It only requires a statutory declaration. Changing the same marker on a birth certificate, however, is a challenging and inaccessible process that requires medical intervention and the family court.

If you see any claims that the Media Council — in its ruling discussed below — found the article was exonerated in this respect, or that they found the article was not discriminatory, I hope you’ll keep in mind the precise wording of the rule that the “not upheld” ruling refers to.

Thankfully, there is a bill currently before parliament that aims to update this law. It went through the standard consultation process a year ago, receiving over 500 submissions.

468 of those submissions were sent in by the Green Party (they can be read here and here), who conducted a campaign they called Documents with Dignity to collect submissions from people who backed their call for the process for correcting the sex marker on a birth certificate.

You can peruse all submissions received on the bill on the Parliament website, including my submission in support of streamlining the process for correcting birth certificates.

In August 2018, after the consultation period was finished, the Governance and Administration Select Committee published their report on the bill. They proposed adding changes in the bill that would allow the sex marker on a birth certificate to be corrected on the basis of a statutory declaration, as well as including the option of “intersex” and “X (unspecified)” for this marker.

These suggestions seemed to have the full support of the committee, which I think is significant in this context. The National Party has historically held more conservative stances regarding the rights of gender and sexual minorities: 92% of National MPs voted against Homosexual Law Reform in 1986, and 54% of National MPs voted against the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill at its third reading in 2013. However, the reported noted that the National Party members on the select committee “do not wish to stand in the way of reform of self identification of nominated sex on birth certificates”.

Over recent months, an anti-transgender group opposing the proposed changes in the BDMRR Bill, calling itself “Stand Up For Women”, has been complaining that there wasn’t adequate consultation on the bill and encouraging fellow TERFs to contact members of parliament to express their disagreement.

If you’d like to know more about the proposed changes, and what you might be able to do to help improve things for trans people in New Zealand, you can have a look at the Right to Self ID website (for full disclosure, I helped to proofread the template letter on this website) or this page set up by Gender Minorities Aotearoa to provide an overview of what these changes will mean.


If you look through the list of submitters on the BDMRR Bill, you might notice something odd. A bunch of the submitters’ names are prefixed with “Miss” or “Mrs”.

The reason for this is, sadly, bigotry against transgender people. Particularly against transgender women.

Many of the people who submitted on the bill believe, wrongly of course, that transgender people are all incorrect about their gender. Those who subscribe to this ideology are commonly referred to as TERFs – Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists. Over the past few years, many of them have come to strongly object to that term, so it’s worth knowing that if you see someone describe themselves as “gender critical”, they’re almost certainly referring to the same trans-exclusionary ideology.

This ideology is what those submitters have alluded to by prefixing their names with “Miss” or “Mrs”. The idea is that, by using this title, they are signifying that they are “real” women. They consider this to contrast (again, wrongly) with transgender women, who they do not believe are women.

You can find other varieties of this tactic online, for example by looking at TERF accounts on Twitter. For example, some will include “XX” in their username, referencing sex chromosomes, in a nod to their ideology. Some others include text or images of their definition of woman (typically they use the wording “Adult human female”) in their bio or avatar, for similar reasons.

These are implicit versions of a much more explicit rhetorical technique often used by TERFs, which is to outright say that a trans person’s gender is not what they say it is. They will often do this by refusing to use appropriate pronouns to refer to someone, for example referring to a trans woman as “he” and “him”. This tactic is known as misgendering.


I wish I could tell you that this sort of gross and disrespectful bigotry was limited to the basements of the internet, but I can’t. Last year, the New Zealand Herald published an article on the BDMRR Bill by one of their opinion writers, Rachel Stewart, and it included a lot of misgendering.

(I don’t want to raise the platform of the bigoted statements made in her article, so I’m not going to the link to it. If you really want to find it, you can go searching.)

Myself and another complainant, whose name I have also redacted below in an effort to protect them from harassment, independently lodged complaints about the article. These went first to the editor of the NZ Herald and then to the Media Council, in November 2018.

Today, the Media Council has published their decisions on these complaints on their website. My complaint was not upheld, whereas the other complainant’s was upheld in part.

Unfortunately, the part of their complaint that was upheld is nothing to do with the bigotry expressed in the article. Rather, it is about this paragraph, which was misleadingly put forth as a statement of fact:

Sure enough, American transgender lobby groups are being funded by the likes of billionaires Warren Buffett and George Soros. Why? Because investors want to help normalise the altering of human biology, and Big Pharma stands to make a fortune. It’s already started.

Rachel Stewart

Because that complaint was upheld, the Herald has now had to publish a note at the top of the article regarding the ruling. They have also published a note about the ruling on page A14 of today’s paper.

My complaint focussed on a different issue. I’ve included my complaint and all responses at the bottom of this article, so scroll down if you’d like to read them. Please note that I have redacted a person’s name from my article, including where I quote Stewart using it, so that repeating her statements here won’t add to the online abuse already aimed at this person.

As far as I’m aware, the Media Council (formerly known as the Press Council) is really the only system of oversight that can hold mainstream media to account in New Zealand. Like the Advertising Standards Authority, it’s an industry body of voluntary regulation. The NZ Herald is one of the Media Council’s paying members, and has agreed to abide by its rulings.

However, the grounds on which the Media Council will hear a complaint — its Principles — are quite limited. They are mostly what you would expect, setting in place requirements around things such as accuracy, clearly distinguishing between comment and fact, and declaring conflicts of interest.

The closest they have to a Principle that deals with this kind of bigotry is Principle 7, which regards Discrimination and Diversity. However, this rule only restricts some very specific behaviour:

Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

Media Council

The Media Council’s principles give no grounds under which I could argue Stewart’s column should be censured because it is harmful, or bigoted. I could only argue that it places “gratuitous emphasis” on transgender people, but this is not a commonly used or clearly defined phrase.

Honestly, because they don’t really have a rule for it, I did not think the Media Council was very likely to uphold my complaint. I already knew going into this that they rarely seem to uphold any complaints. I’ve written in the past, for example, about a complaint of mine that they did not uphold, which I still think was a bad decision on their part.

Thankfully, I don’t think my complaint needed to be upheld to send a message to the editorial team at the Herald that this is not acceptable. That’s why I included several references to NZME’s published commitments to inclusion and diversity in my complaint, even though they would not be directly relevant to the Media Council.

I hope my message has been heard.

This short saga has also made me think that, like the BDMRR Act, the Media Council’s rules may need to change. Though they do have a rule in place that appears as though it is intended to protect vulnerable groups from harm, I think the Media Council’s decision that Rachel Stewart’s transphobic article did not breach this rule goes to show that it is not fit for purpose.

This paragraph, quoted from my complaint, gives some context to the concerning precedent that may have been set by the Media Council’s decision here:

I hope that the NZ Herald would not consider, under any circumstances, publishing a similar opinion piece which treated gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, or asexual people with the same disdain as Stewart has shown here for transgender people.

Mark Hanna

If the Media Council will not be able to protect minority groups from bigotry in the media, then it is up to editors to refuse to publish that bigotry. I think the NZ Herald editor who wrote the paper’s response to my complaint got it exactly right here in his initial response to my complaint:

This does not mean columnists are entitled to publish carte blanche – discretion lies with the editor.

David Rowe, NZ Herald


Complaint documents

My initial formal complaint to the New Zealand Herald:

Tēnā koe,

I am writing to you to lodge a formal complaint regarding Rachel Stewart’s column published in the NZ Herald and on the nzherald.co.nz website today, headlined “Rachel Stewart: TERF a derogatory term to shut down debate” (published online at [URL redacted]).

Put bluntly, the article is horrendously transphobic. It is harmful, and I think the decision to publish it was incredibly irresponsible.

Stewart’s transphobic views have been widely known for some time now, in no small part due to her expressing them openly on social media. Just two weeks ago, for example, in response to positive coverage on Stuff of a transgender person who is not a woman, Stewart tweeted a link to the article along with this message:

“Have read this, and I need a cold compress & a lie down in a darkened room. I’m sorry, but I cannot partake in the delusion that this pregnant woman is a man. Not because I’m transphobic (I’m not), but because I recognise when people need psychiatric help.”

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the concept of misgendering: referring to a transgender person as though they were of a different gender, commonly through the use of inappropriate pronouns like using “he” when referring to a woman. It’s a common tactic among transphobic people meaning to deny transgender people’s genders. For many transgender people it is used against, it can be very distressing.

In her article today, Stewart repeatedly uses this tactic, both against imagined transgender women and against [name redacted], with clear intention to falsely imply that they are men. Examples include:

“the current craze of people – overwhelmingly men – who say they were born into the wrong body”

“Under the proposed new law, a man can call himself a woman without ever medically transitioning (most never do) and insert himself in female-only spaces such as changing rooms, women’s refuges, and prisons.”

“a grown male stranger naked in the changing rooms at her local swimming centre”

“How about [name redacted] competing straight-faced as a female in [sport redacted]?”

I hope that the NZ Herald would not consider, under any circumstances, publishing a similar opinion piece which treated gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, or asexual people with the same disdain as Stewart has shown here for transgender people.

I do not see any reason why that same bare minimum level respect should not be extended to transgender people. They certainly deserve it, and I would have hoped that would be clear to everyone working at the Herald.

Just over a year ago, NZME issued a press release proudly proclaiming that they were “the first media company in New Zealand to be awarded the Rainbow Tick, acknowledging its active effort to be a diverse, innovative and inclusive organisation.” (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU1710/S00268/nzme-awarded-rainbow-tick.htm)

The press release went on to discuss NZME’s Inclusion and Diversity strategy, saying it encouraged employees to “bring your whole self to work”. After this, NZME adopted rainbow branding in celebration of its Rainbow Tick accreditation.

The decision to publish Rachel Stewart’s transphobic article today clearly flies in the face of any commitment NZME might have had to encouraging diversity. I don’t know how any transgender person working at NZME could be comfortable with the decision to publish it, and I hope it hasn’t been too distressing for them.

This sort of transphobia existing in the darkest corners of social media is bad enough, but it’s quite another thing for it to be published in the country’s most widely read newspaper. Intentionally or not, the decision to publish Stewart’s transphobic views there comes with clear tacit endorsement of them. I can only imagine how distressing that decision must be for any transgender people working at the Herald, or who may hope to one day work there.

To my reading, the Media Council’s principle on “Discrimination and Diversity” is not clear where it stands on this point, noting only that publications should not “place any gratuitous emphasis” on issues of gender or minority groups. Whether this opinion piece falls afoul of that principle or not, I hope on reflection you will agree with me that it should never have been published. The fact that it was published as an opinion piece is not sufficient justification for its bigoted content.

The impact reporting has on people is important. The Herald has published some great work with a good, positive impact on people. The work done by Herald journalists on the mistreatment of Ashley Peacock is a great example on this. But for the Herald to take credit for that, it must also take responsibility for the harm done by other reporting.

I hope you will retract Rachel Stewart’s transphobic opinion piece without further delay and publish a prominent apology to those harmed by it, along with a statement in support of transgender people and a commitment to never publish similarly transphobic articles in the future.

Ngā mihi,
Mark Hanna

The response I received from the NZ Herald:

Kia ora Mark,

Thank you for your email.

I apologise for the unintended offence caused to you by Rachel Stewart’s column.

Stewart’s piece is clearly a very personal view of a very difficult issue. It is clearly marked as her opinion.

In the column, Stewart argues that fundamentally, “all human beings – including trans peoples – deserve human rights and respect”.

However, she feels that the adoption of the term “Terf” has been used to shut down debate on the issue of transgender rights – which is important given proposed changes to the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act.

She takes issue with the use of the term by a Member of Parliament, Louisa Wall.

Stewart raises concerns about changes to the law, which she feels have been difficult to debate in the present climate.

Stewart acknowledges some of the scenarios she describes in the column are fanciful:

“Look I’m trying to make light of this stuff because no other approach has our government listening.”

Stewart’s discussion of the funding of transgender groups and the role of Big Pharma is posited as a theory to answer a question: “When movements gain full throttle as rapidly as the trans train has, it must be asked, who stands to gain from it?”

While some of the language used by Stewart is confronting, it is important that difficult issues can be freely debated. In this case, it is one which has drawn strong comment from an elected MP and relates to an impending law change.

The issue has emerged out of the debate about the decision to ban uniformed officers from marching in the Pride Parade, which has been covered extensively.

Part of the brief of a columnist is to comment – often provocatively – on social issues and attitudes. They have licence to push the boundaries of what might be considered “polite” or politically correct in everyday conversation.

While causing offence is certainly not the intention, it is almost an inevitable consequence of a cutting-edge columnist.

This does not mean columnists are entitled to publish carte blanche – discretion lies with the editor. As such, I can assure you an editor does not publish such comment lightly.

The easier course is, naturally, to censor anything that might be seen to be controversial: it would certainly make an editor’s life less troublesome. However, the easy course is not at always the best course, and an editor must always be mindful of a duty to protect freedom of speech and provide a plurality of opinion.

We note, too, that the NZ Media Council has ruled that readers do not have the right to not be offended.

“No-one is forcing the complainant to read that column or even that newspaper or website.” The reader has a right to ignore a columnist and hold different views, the council says, but that does not mean they have the right to stop the columnist expressing theirs.

In response to Rachel Stewart’s column, we have welcomed a contrasting view from Louisa Wall, which can be read here:

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12168621

You are also welcome to make your own views publicly known in a letter to the editor to be considered for publication. I have included the submission guidelines below.

Kind regards,
David Rowe
Senior newsroom editor
NZ Herald

My escalation to the Media Council:

Tēnā koutou,

I am writing to you to escalate a formal complaint regarding Rachel Stewart’s column published in the NZ Herald and on the nzherald.co.nz website on 2018-11-28, headlined “Rachel Stewart: TERF a derogatory term to shut down debate” (published online at [URL redacted]).

On the day it was published, I sent a formal complaint to formalcomplaints@nzherald.co.nz. The next day, I received a response from the editor. I have included both of these messages at the bottom of this email.

I was disappointed to find that the response I received from the editor did not directly address any of the issues I had raised in my complaint. Since having received this response, I have become aware that an identical response was also sent to others who lodged complaints about the same article. I have heard from other complainants that their complaints dealt with substantially different aspects of the article, but that these issues they raised were also not dealt with by the identical response they received from the editor.

As well as the issues raised in my original complaint, I would like to address parts of the response I received from the editor.

The editor highlighted the disclaimer included at the end of Rachel Stewart’s article that “all human beings – including trans people – deserve human rights and respect”.

I have a background in anti-quackery activism. Over the past few years, I’ve lodged dozens of complaints with authorities such as Medsafe and the Advertising Standards Authority regarding misleading health claims in New Zealand advertising, as well as writing about the various forms of regulation around this issue in New Zealand and where they fall short. One feature that comes up again and again in this context is the false disclaimer. In the context of misleading health claims, it typically takes a form like this:

“Our product can cure cancer.

We don’t make any claims that our product can treat or cure any disease.”

You might be familiar with false disclaimers in other contexts, such as in the case of sentences starting with “I’m not racist, but”.

I believe the disclaimer at the end of Rachel Stewart’s article is a false disclaimer of this nature.

Stating that she believes trans people deserve human rights and respect does not somehow negate the lack of respect she shows in the intentional misgendering in her article, which I detail in my complaint.

Nor does this false disclaimer negate her campaigning against the rights of trans people, such as her signing of a letter written by a group dedicated to challenging and undermining the rights of transgender people in New Zealand, which seeks to write biological essentialism – the philosophy underlying the incorrect view that trans women are really men – into law.

The response I received from the editor also has a focus on offence, including what is commonly known as a “not-pology” of the form “sorry you were offended”, which implies all responsibility falls to the person receiving the apology.

At no point in my complaint did I raise offence as an issue. Rather, I explained that publishing bigotry on this level does harm. As I stated in my original complaint, “for the Herald to take credit for [reporting that has a good, positive impact on people], it must also take responsibility for the harm done by other reporting”.

Regarding the Media Council’s principles, as expressed in my complaint to the Herald, I unfortunately find the wording of the principle regarding Discrimination and Diversity to be confusing and unclear. It notes that publications should not “place gratuitous emphasis on any such category [of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability] in their reporting”. However, I am not sure what is meant by “gratuitous emphasis”, or where the line might fall.

I would hope that you will agree with me that the publication of bare-faced bigotry such as what was seen in Stewart’s article should not be acceptable under the Media Council’s principles. As I expressed in my complaint to the Herald, I do not believe it would be seen as acceptable to publish a similar level of bigotry were it aimed at gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, or asexual people. I do not see any reason why that standard should be different for transgender people.

I note that, since my complaint, the Herald has published a response by Louisa Wall, and they have also published a small correction to one part of Stewart’s article that was factually incorrect. I do not believe either of these responses deal with anything that I have raised in my complaint, and I stand by my recommendations for how the Herald should proceed:

“I hope you will retract Rachel Stewart’s transphobic opinion piece without further delay and publish a prominent apology to those harmed by it, along with a statement in support of transgender people and a commitment to never publish similarly transphobic articles in the future.”

Thank you for considering my complaint.

Mark Hanna

The NZ Herald editor’s response to the Media Council:

Dear Mary,

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to these complaints. I will address both complaints in this response, as they touch on similar issues and relate to the same Media Council Principles.

Both Mark Hanna and [name redacted] argue that the column “TERF a derogatory term to shut down debate”, by Rachel Stewart, breaches Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity. [name redacted] argues the column also breaches Principle 4 – Comment and Fact – and likely Principle 5, Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters.

While I understand the concerns expressed by Mr Hanna and [name redacted], I do not agree that the column is in breach of Media Council principles.

The column needs to be judged as a whole, and in the context of a wider debate.

The article is an opinion piece and is clearly labelled as such. It is a response to comments made by a publicly elected Member of Parliament, Louisa Wall, in which she was recorded saying: “I don’t want any f***ing Terfs at the Pride Parade.”

The column is also written in the context of proposed changes to the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act.

Stewart argues that the use of the term “terf” – or trans-exclusionary radical feminist – is being used to shut down debate on the issue.

It emerged out of the discussion surrounding the decision to ban uniformed officers from marching in the Pride Parade, which has been covered extensively.

While there had been some reporting on the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill, it had been limited, with little coverage of dissenting voices.

In Britain, a similar discussion is taking place about reforms to its Gender Recognition Act to allow people to self-identify and has been the subject of far more extensive media coverage.

That why it is important Stewart’s views should be allowed to be heard.

[Name redacted] argues Stewart breaches Principle 4 – Comment and Fact when she writes: “Sure enough, American transgender lobby groups are being funded by the likes of billionaires Warren Buffett and George Soros. Why? Because investors want to help normalise the altering of basic human biology, and Big Pharma stands to make a fortune.”

It is a matter of public record that Buffett and Soros have funded, through charitable foundations, transgender groups in the United States. While it could be argued Stewart is drawing a long bow to the potential gains made by pharmaceutical companies, exploring such a theory is not in itself a breach of Media Council principles and I believe there is sufficient information available online and elsewhere for readers to make up their own minds.

I strongly reject [name redacted]’s claim of anti-semitism in Stewart’s column. Mentioning Soros as being among billionaires to have donated to transgender lobby groups does not prove such a claim. His ethnicity or religious background is not relevant and is not mentioned. The statement certainly does not place “gratuitous emphasis” on a protected group.

[Name redacted] also argues that the following paragraph breaches Principle 4:

“I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be locked up alone in a cell all night with a hairy, muscly, sex-starved inmate of either gender – but particularly one with his full kit and caboodle intact.”

This is clearly Stewart’s personal view, and not a factual assertion that “trans women prisoners will be rapists”, as [name redacted] says.

I also disagree that the statement breaches Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity. The principle holds that: “Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas.”

While the language used by Stewart is confronting, she is expressing personal views that reflect her own fears. Unacceptable as they may seem to many readers, some of her concerns are shared by others. Given that these opinions relate to an impending law change, I believe it is relevant and in the public interest to express them.

I do not agree that the column is in breach of Principle 5 – the article is clearly identified as an opinion piece. I not believe the requirements for a foundation in fact have been breached. We did acknowledge one factual error in the piece – relating to the earliest age at which certain medical treatments are given to children. This was corrected both in print and online and does not undermine Stewart’s fundamental arguments.

In his complaint Mr Hanna, refers to a letter signed by Rachel Stewart and comments made earlier on Twitter. Neither is relevant to the complaint – the column must be judged on the words within it.

Mr Hanna argues that Stewart is guilty of misgendering. The Herald agrees that transgender individuals should be referred to by the gender by which they live, and that is our reporting policy.

However, when Stewart uses the pronouns in the paragraphs quoted she is talking in general terms and about hypothetical scenarios under the new law, not about transgender individuals. The reference to [name redacted] does not use such a pronoun.

Mr Hanna disregards Stewart’s conclusion in her column as a false disclaimer, however I don’t think it can be dismissed outright and must be considered as part of assessing the column: “I believe all human beings – including trans people – deserve human rights and respect. What I don’t believe is why anyone questioning the obvious dangers lurking within the proposed new law, should equate to them not being afforded the same.”

Mr Hanna mentions NZME’s Inclusion and Diversity strategy and its Rainbow Tick accreditation. He argues that publishing Stewart’s views is a tacit endorsement of them.

This is incorrect. The Herald aims to be a broad church of opinion, and publication of an opinion is certainly not an endorsement of that viewpoint.

It is NZME’s policy to be inclusive and diverse in all of our operations, actions, policies and procedures.

However, we do need to be a platform for robust debate, even if that is sometimes uncomfortable or painful.

I agree with Mr Hanna that the impact of reporting is important, and the Herald must take responsibility for any harm done by its reporting.

The reaction to this column has been very strong on both sides. On social media, the debate has been passionate and sometimes vicious. This shows both the difficulty of having such a discussion in mainstream media – but also the importance of doing so.

It is better, I believe, that views such as those expressed here by Stewart can be discussed and debated in the open.

Since publishing the column, the Herald has welcomed a response from Louisa Wall and a piece from ActionStation, providing views from trans people on the issue.

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12168621

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12172412

This month, we have run an-depth news feature on the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill, explaining the issue, the political implications and canvassing people on both sides of the debate.

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12180576

We have also run an editorial, which addresses the need to have an open debate about the Bill, but also makes the Herald’s own position clear:

“The Herald believes that trans people should be recognised and respected according to the gender by which they live. The proposed law change removes potentially discriminatory processes which make it harder for those without the resources to meet the medical criteria and go through a Family Court process.

In principle, we support the bill.”

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12180948

While, of course, Stewart’s column must be judged on its own merits, it has been the catalyst for discussion and reportage which has ultimately helped our audience better understand the issues involved.

Kind regards,
David Rowe
Senior newsroom editor
NZ Herald

My final response to the Media Council:

In their response, the editor denies that Rachel Stewart used misgendering in her article. I believe it is clear that she was not referring to hypothetical cis men pretending to be trans women. Rather she was referring to hypothetical trans women, and using misgendering as a rhetorical device to imply that they are really men.

This is all particularly clear when the context of Stewart’s transphobic statements elsewhere is taken into account, which is why I believe it should not be entirely ignored as the editor suggests.

Though they note no pronoun was used when Stewart discussed [name redacted], the implication of Stewart’s clear incredulity at [name redacted] “competing straight-faced as a female” is that Stewart believes and means to imply that [name redacted] is not a woman. I hope it is clear how closely this rhetoric is to more explicit misgendering through the use of inaccurate pronouns.

The editor admits in their response that misgendering transgender people is counter to the Herald’s reporting policy. I would hope this extends to misgendering a hypothetical transgender person in order to discredit trans women in general, as well as the clearer case of misgendering a specific person.

I understand that part of the role of an editor is to support their writers, but it seems to me that in this case it has resulted in a defensiveness that has led to the Herald failing to enforce the policy that they quoted.

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Bad Science Case Study: Dog Bones

Bad Science Case Study: Dog Bones

The New Zealand Herald and Jimbo’s have provided us with an idealised “bad science” case study.

Today, the Herald published an article about a “trial” published by pet food manufacturer Jimbo’s: No bones about bones

The trial was intended to evaluate how eating bones affects the dental health of dogs. Thankfully the article makes it pretty clear why Jimbo’s would be looking into this, although it reads more like a quote from a press release than the declaration of a conflict of interest that it really is:

Jimbo’s sells over 300 tonnes of bones per year which help thousands of cats and dogs keep healthier teeth.

This trial seems rather special in that it’s a rare composite of just about every aspect of poor methodology all put together at once. I think it makes for an excellent “bad science” case study, which could hopefully be a good resource for journalists who might find themselves in danger of reproducing the Herald’s results.

And it’s not just journalists that can benefit from understanding this. Being aware of the potential shortcomings of research can make everyone more savvy when it comes to parsing science news. None this is particularly hard to understand at a high level.

Pared way down, designing a study is about two things:

  1. Finding a way to test a hypothesis by attempting to disprove it.
  2. Taking measures to account for as many sources of bias as possible.

Jimbo’s failed the first of those objectives spectacularly, but at least they were up front about it:

The Jimbo’s Dental Trial was carried out because we wanted to prove what we already knew – that a species-appropriate diet including a bone a day can improve or maintain dental health in our furry friends.

Jimbo’s Dental Trial – 2015

It’s roughly possible to pair up different aspects of good methodology to the source of bias they’re trying to account for. For example, having a large sample size is a way to diminish the effects of random variation within your sample population.

Here’s a list of the methodological problems with this Jimbo’s trial, and the corresponding sources of bias that they aren’t accounting for:

  • Source of bias
    Publication bias, where positive results are more likely to be published than negative results.

    How you should account for it
    Register your trial ahead of time, and ensure it gets published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    As far as I can find, the trial wasn’t pre-registered. Instead of being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it was published as a PDF on the Jimbo’s website.

  • Source of bias
    Random variation within your sample population.

    How you should account for it
    Have as large sample size as possible. Of course larger sample sizes makes research more expensive, but if your sample is too small you won’t be able to reliably detect an effect.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    The study used a sample of eight dogs. This was further reduced to seven after one dropped out for not following the diet.

  • Source of bias
    Regression to the mean, changes unrelated to the experiment, Hawthorne effect etc.

    How you should account for it
    Have an appropriate control group, for example a group of dogs not on the special diet.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    The study did not include a control group.

  • Source of bias
    Bias, unconscious or otherwise, from researchers making measurements.

    How you should account for it
    Blind researchers making measurements so they don’t know whether the participant they’re evaluating was in the control group or the experimental group.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    There was only an experimental group, so blinding was not possible.

    2016/10/30 Edit: Thomas Lumley has made a good point about blinding over on StatsChat. That is, the researcher evaluating the photos could have been blinded to whether each one was a “before” photo or an “after” photo. The study doesn’t mention if this was done, however.

  • Source of bias
    Differences between the populations in the control and experimental groups.

    How you should account for it
    Randomise which group each study participant ends up in.

    What Jimbo’s did in their trial
    There was only an experimental group, so randomisation was not possible.

The trial also lacked any sort of statistical analysis. Without a control group, there isn’t really a good way to do this, but it seems like Jimbo’s didn’t even try to figure out how likely it was that their result was a false positive.

I always find it amusing to see research that fails so spectacularly to be well-designed, as this has, but there’s a downside as well. This was picked up completely uncritically by the New Zealand Herald. In fact their story reads to me more like an advertisement or press release than the critical analysis I’d expect to see from a high quality media outlet.

Although in the end, the Herald did one thing right. They provided a link to the original research so all of its readers could see for themselves how spectacularly bad it is.

It’s Detox Season

It’s Detox Season

Summer is detox season, but beware misleading health advice.

Every summer, we are bombarded with advertisements, editorials, and advertorials chastising us for all the toxins we have poisoned ourself with by indulging in fruit mince pies and Christmas ham. But it’s okay, we are told, for there is a solution to this toxic overload. And that solution is…

The detox

Sound advice and playing to our holiday guilt gets a foot in the door. Eat your greens, shed those Christmas kilos, make a New Year’s resolution to avoid toxins. They may even appeal to the rationalist in us: your kidneys and liver are your detox organs, but they need support to do their job optimally.

Next comes the sale. They just so happen to know the perfect thing you can do to detox. Their dietary supplement, their green juice, their herbal tea. This is the secret to ridding your body of toxins, we are told.

But these products, so often forgotten by March, rarely stand up to closer inspection. No evidence (although perhaps some testimonials) are offered in support, specific toxins are rarely mentioned, and claims about what the products can do are often restricted to vague claims such as “support your body’s natural detoxification process”. Such ambiguity is necessary to avoid being held accountable for specific claims.

In practice, the current regulations allow for claims like “supports your body’s natural detoxification process” to be made without supporting evidence. If a product is said to “support” something that happens already in a healthy person, and there’s no evidence it has harmful side effects, the regulators will tend to steer clear of it.

This hasn’t stopped action being taken against detox claims. In the past two years, there have been 12 complaints against detox ads laid with the Advertising Standards Authority. In every single case, the advertisement was found to be misleading.

So who can we trust? In the case of advertisements and advertorials it’s clear that the company behind them has something to gain from us buying their products. Conflicts of interest are important, and in those contexts they are clear. But can we trust other sources of information to be accurate and free from this bias?


If conflicts of interest are hidden from us, we can be misled. A well-informed society depends heavily on the press, and it’s in our best interest for mainstream media to report without having undeclared conflicts of interest. One of the Press Council’s principles describes why conflicts of interest are an important consideration for the press:

To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence.

The New Zealand Herald recently published a column giving health advice about detoxing from an expert, but didn’t adequately declare the author’s conflict of interest. In truth, the columnist makes a living from the sale of the exact products they were promoting in the article, but you wouldn’t know unless you did some digging.

The column was published on Sunday November 29, just before the start of detox season. It was headlined “Detoxing: What you need to know” and clearly marked as the opinion of Sandra Clair:

Sandra Clair detox opinion headline

Sandra is described briefly before and after the article:

Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

She’s clearly framed as an expert in the field she’s writing about, rather than someone with a conflict of interest. So it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if someone reading her article about everything they “need to know” about detoxing would take her advice seriously. But let’s take a closer look at the advice she gives.

The article starts off giving some sound advice, appealing to the sceptic in us that knows “quick fix” health products are often too good to be true:

At this time of year, detox diets and miracle products spring up like brightly coloured daisies. Many of them promise quick weight loss and eternal youth at the drop of a hat, or a pill.

It is easy to get swayed by enticing marketing when trying to find an approach to rejuvenate or drop those annoying extra kilos.

However, most of these products and fad diets are neither successful nor sustainable, and their harsh, artificial composition can strip the body of essential nutrients resulting in a worse state of health.

So far, I’d been nodding along to her article. She’s got her foot in the door, and it’s not too long before she moves on to the sale. According to Ms Clair, the secret to detoxing is drinking two types of herbal tea, and making this a lifestyle change instead of something you do for just a brief duration:

In more serious health issues it is advisable to follow a targeted cleansing regime for a minimum of eight weeks, as this is the minimum time it takes for the liver to restore and cleanse deeper layers. By the end of that time most people find it easy to incorporate better choices into their daily lives for long-term health.

The easiest way to support your body’s daily detoxification is to take a medicinal tea with bitter liver herbs before breakfast. Liquid plant medicine is perfect for detoxification since water has additional flushing benefits over and above the therapeutic ingredients of the tea.

Follow this with a kidney cleansing medicinal tea mid-morning to complete the flush by removing the released water-soluble toxins. Golden rod, horsetail, birch leaves, nettle and raspberry are traditionally used to improve kidney function and help clear the body of water-soluble metabolic wastes and toxins, excess sodium, uric acid and inflammatory by-products. I call this combination your daily ‘internal shower’.

At first glance this just looks like advice from an expert in the field, not a marketing pitch for specific products. But not all is as it seems.

As mentioned in Ms Clair’s bio, she is the founder of Artemis Natural Healthcare. And it just so happens that Artemis sells a “Liver Detox Tea” and a “Kidney Cleanse Tea”. The wording in her article seems like it could easily have been tailored specifically to match the marketing for these teas, listing their ingredients and using terms such as “kidney cleansing medicinal tea” and “medicinal tea with bitter liver herbs”.

Surprise surprise, if you search for either of those phrases from the article on Google in a New Zealand context, the first results are for Artemis’ products:

Google Liver Detox Tea

Google Kidney Cleanse Tea


I found about these products when the December catalogue for Health 2000, which is New Zealand’s natural health retailer and has been in trouble in the past for misleading claims about toxins, was released on the Wednesday after the Herald article. It advertises Artemis’ “Liver Detox Tea”, which prompted me to check further and led to me finding out about their “Kidney Cleanse Tea” through their website.

Health 2000 Artemis Liver Detox Tea

I sent a message to the New Zealand Herald’s online editors the day after I found this out, to express my concern about this conflict of interest and about the misleading content of the article. It’s been over a week now, and disappointingly I’ve had no response from them. You can read my message at the bottom of this article.

The morning after I sent that message, the New Zealand Herald was distributed along with a copy of the Health 2000 December catalogue. The same catalogue advertising one of the products Ms Clair was surreptitiously promoting in her Herald column only days earlier.

As far as I’m aware the New Zealand Herald has yet to acknowledge the full extent of this conflict of interest, but I hope that hearing about this will make you think twice before trusting detox advice. Without taking the time to look behind the curtain, it can be hard to tell if someone stands to gain financially from the advice they’re giving.

As always, if you think a health claim might not be all it claims to be, the best approach is to ask for evidence. If all you’re given is anecdotes, it’s probably not trustworthy. In the case of detox advice, asking for specifics on which toxins they’re talking about can also be a good approach.


It seems appropriate for me to state here that I have no conflicts of interest to declare. All I’ll gain if you take my advice to be sceptical of misleading detox claims is peace of mind.


Here is the letter I sent to the New Zealand Herald’s online editors:

Earlier this week I read an opinion piece published on your website by Sandra Clair, entitled “Detoxing: What you need to know” (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11552384)

I’m concerned that the article contains misleading content and that her substantial conflict of interest is not made adequately clear to readers.

As noted at the bottom of the article, the author is the founder of Artemis, a for-profit business that sells herbal healthcare products. One of the products this company sells, advertised in the latest Health 2000 catalogue which was released this week, is “Liver Detox Tea”. You can see it advertised on page 22 of the catalogue online here: http://www.health2000.co.nz/december-2015_1268

In Ms Clair’s article, she says:

“The easiest way to support your body’s daily detoxification is to take a medicinal tea with bitter liver herbs before breakfast. Liquid plant medicine is perfect for detoxification since water has additional flushing benefits over and above the therapeutic ingredients of the tea.”

This very closely echoes the marketing for her business’ “Liver Detox Tea” product.

Artemis also sells a “Kidney Cleanse Tea” to “Flush those toxins away”. According to the Artemis website it contains Birch leaves, Golden Rod, Horsetail, Nettle, and Raspberry leaf. In her article, Ms Clair also says:

“Follow this with a kidney cleansing medicinal tea mid-morning to complete the flush by removing the released water-soluble toxins. Golden rod, horsetail, birch leaves, nettle and raspberry are traditionally used to improve kidney function and help clear the body of water-soluble metabolic wastes and toxins, excess sodium, uric acid and inflammatory by-products. I call this combination your daily ‘internal shower’.”

This too very closely echoes the marketing for her business’ “Kidney Cleanse Tea” product.

It seems fairly unlikely that the timing of her article and the increased marketing of “detox” tea products by her business are a coincidence. It is absolutely in the interest of your readers to be made aware of her conflict of interest involving these products, and it does not seem to me like this has been done adequately.

Furthermore, I’m concerned that much of the information presented in her column is likely to be misleading. It is absolutely true, as she says in the opening paragraphs, that “detoxification” is the role of your kidneys and liver. However, the article is written in such a way as to imply, without any supporting evidence as far as I am aware, that products like the “Liver Detox Tea” and “Kidney Cleanse Tea” sold by her company are able to provide health benefits such as “improved immune system” and “better circulatory and lymphatic function”.

I’m also concerned that the article advises readers to “Reduce pharmaceutical drug intake”. As the conflict of interest statement refers to Ms Clair as “one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field”, I am concerned that this advice might be taken seriously by some readers and as reliable health advice, and result in some degree of harm.

I think we are all aware that summer is the time of year where businesses in the “natural health” industry most strongly market “detox” products. As the chair of the Society for Science Based Healthcare, I see a significant amount of misleading advertising for these products, particularly at this time of year.

Over the past two years, 12 advertisements about detox products have been complained about to the Advertising Standards Authority, and in every one of those cases the advertisement was found to be misleading. Many more of these advertisements will surely have been similarly misleading, but will not have attracted formal complaints.

I understand that opinion pieces such as this may not be bound by the same requirements for accuracy and balance as non-editorial content, but I hope that you nevertheless do care about and understand the importance of the accuracy of content presented as expert health advice.

I hope you will discuss these matters with Ms Clair, and ensure that her conflict of interest is stated much more clearly if you publish future articles from her.

Here’s the follow-up message I sent the next morning:

Further to my message last night regarding your columnist Sandra Clair’s conflict of interest, this morning I see that the New Zealand Herald was distributed with the December Health 2000 catalogue.

This is the catalogue that I raised as a concern due to the fact that it advertises Ms Clair’s “Liver Detox Tea” product.

The fact that the New Zealand Herald is distributing marketing for one of the products lauded in a Herald article makes it all the more important that the nature of this conflict of interest is made clear to readers.

I hope you will treat this matter seriously.

100% Natural and Chemical Free

This afternoon, the Advertising Standards Authority released their decision to uphold an interesting complaint regarding advertisements for a couple of cleaning products on a website. Here is the ASA’s description of how the products were described on the website:

The Wendyl’s website (http://wendyls.co.nz/) for “100% natural cleaning and beauty products” advertised their products as having “all their ingredients listed and contain no fillers, chemicals or synthetics.”

The webpage for Wendyl’s Oxygen Bleach 1KG (sodium Percarbonate) stated, in part:

This is powdered hydrogen peroxide which is a greener alternative to chlorine bleach because it breaks down to oxygen and water in the environment.

The webpage for Wendyl-San oxygen soaker 1KG stated, in part:

I’ve spent years testing this oxygen soaker and stain remover and I’m so glad to have something which is so free of chemicals and additives. Secret ingredient is sodium percarbonate, a powdered hydrogen peroxide bleach which breaks down in the environment to oxygen and water…

The complainant, food scientist Claire Suen, said that they breached the Advertising Code of Ethics and the Code for Environmental Claims. This excerpt is, I think, a good summary of their complaint:

The advertiser uses words such as “100% natural”, and “contains no fillers, chemicals, or synthetics”.

However, the product in question is sodium percarbonate, which is not a naturally occurring product. The main active ingredient, hydrogen peroxide, is also not a naturally occurring product and it is not stable in nature.

Both are synthetic chemicals.

After hearing from the advertiser as well, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board sided with the complainant. Here is a summary from the headnote of their decision:

The Complaints Board said it accepted the Advertiser’s view that “sodium percarbonate is a much safer and more environmnetally friendly alternative to chlorine bleach” but not that it was “chemical free” and “100% natural.” The Complaints Board said the advertisement was likely to mislead consumers into thinking the products were “100% natural” and “chemical free” when they actually contained naturally occurring chemicals, in breach of Principle 2 of the Code for Environmental Claims and had not been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility to consumers in breach of Principle 1 of the Code for Environmental Claims.

Accordingly, the Complaints Board ruled to Uphold the complaint.

The most interesting part of this complaint is, I think, who the advertiser is. As well as selling cleaning and beauty products online, Wendyl Nissen writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald called “Wendyl Wants To Know“. The Herald describes the column as:

Each week, Wendyl Nissen takes a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells you about its contents.

Have a look for yourself, but from the columns of hers that I’ve read it seems the main argument is typically along the lines of “natural is good, chemicals are bad”. So I find it very ironic that she’s now had a complaint upheld against her for misleadingly claiming that a product she sells is “100% natural” and “chemical free”.

For a counterexample to the attitude of “natural is good, chemicals are bad”, you need look no further than the “recipes” section of her website. There, she has some pet recipes which she makes available for free including one for De-Flea Powder for Cat Biscuits and another for Doggy De-Flea Treats. In both recipes, she claims the active ingredients are yeast and garlic:

The theory behind this powder is that fleas hate the taste of yeast and garlic so will hop off and look elsewhere.

Elsewhere on her website, she recommends that if you:

Put a garlic clove in your pet’s water you can help deter pests such as mites and fleas.

Although it certainly is natural, garlic is also toxic to cats and dogs, especially for cats. I couldn’t find any warnings about this on Wendyl Nissen’s website.

The lessons to be learned? Natural isn’t always good, and don’t take advertisers’ word for it when they claim something is “100% natural” or “chemical free”. As always, ask for evidence.

The Price of Painkillers

DISCLAIMER: Since I mention some specific branded pharmaceutical products in this article, I want to make it very clear that I don’t intend to promote any particular product and have no conflict of interests to declare.


Last Saturday, the New Zealand Herald’s Consumer Affairs reporter Morgan Tait published a very good article about a topic I’ve come across before. Many painkiller products cost different amounts despite having exactly the same active ingredients, and for some reason this isn’t common knowledge. Here’s a link to her article: Expensive and cheap pain-relief pills use same ingredients

I first discovered this from watching a Consumer Advocacy TV show from Australia called The Checkout. It’s quite light-hearted in its approach to issues, which I admit I find a bit painful at times, but that’s just a matter of taste and the information in the show is pretty consistently good. Although its content is sometimes only relevant to an Australian audience, a lot of it is also relevant to New Zealanders and I’d highly recommend you watch it if you get the chance.

Their episode that deals with painkillers is season 1 episode 5. The main point, which is also made in Ms Tait’s recent article, is that many painkillers you can find in pharmacies and supermakets cost different amounts but have exactly the same active ingredients. The prime example given in both the article and the episode is Nurofen.

Nurofen is an ibuprofen-based painkiller made by the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser. They sell a product range of “specific pain relief” products:

  • Nurofen Migraine Pain
  • Nurofen Tension Headache
  • Nurofen Back Pain
  • Nurofen Period Pain

(Before I go into any criticism of these products, I do want to note that the efficacy of these products is not something I mean to call into question. I only intend to examine issues associated with their advertising and sale.)

If you look at the Nurofen website, you’ll also see that they have a lot of marketing claiming that their products can target specific types or sources of pain. For example, here’s the Nurofen logo as it appears in the upper left corner of their New Zealand website:

Nurofen

As you can see, their slogan “Targeted relief from pain” is pretty prominently displayed. Other sections of the site, such as their “Nurofen Treatment Advisor” (which recommends Nurofen products based on what sort of pain you say you have) also imply that certain products are more applicable to certain types of pain than others. However, all of the products I listed above have exactly the same active ingredient: 342 mg ibuprofen lysine.

I hope I don’t need to explain that, as all products are taken in the same way (a “caplet”) and contain the same active ingredient, your body isn’t able to distinguish between them so they’re all going to act in exactly the same way. If you take a Nurofen “Nurofen Period Pain” caplet for your migraine pain, it will be just as effective as a “Nurofen Migraine Pain” caplet.

The obvious explanation for this is that having specific products makes it easier for consumers to understand that this product can help with their specific type of pain. It probably helps Reckitt Benckiser sell more products too, just quietly. However, I can definitely see how this could be confusing to consumers – I know I was surprised for this very reason when I found out the products were effectively identical – and if the products are available for different prices people might end up paying more than they need to for exactly the same product.

The price issue, of course, is not an issue if all the products cost the same. However, this isn’t always the case. After I first became aware of this in March this year, I had a look and found that Pharmacy Direct stocked these products for different prices:

Of course it’s not particularly surprising that the 12 caplet packs are relatively more expensive than the 24 caplet packs, but the price differences between packs of the same size seems quite odd. I also find it very strange that it’d be cheaper to by two 12 caplet packs of Nurofen Migraine Pain than a single 24 caplet pack of the same product.

I emailed Pharmacy Direct on the 27th of March to ask about the price discrepancies. Their response was basically that yes, the products do all have exactly the same ingredient, and they thought the suppliers did that for marketing reasons. They told me that the difference in price was due to them selling more of some packs than others, so they can justify buying more of them from their supplier and getting a bulk discount that allows them to sell the products to consumers for a lower price. They also offered me the option to pay the lowest price for any of the products if I mentioned our conversation in the “notes” section when buying them online.

If you’re looking for a cheaper ibuprofen-based painkiller as an alternative to Nurofen, you can buy a 24 pack of Countdown’s “Homebrand” version (just one example, I’m sure there are others) for $2.99. That’s $0.12 per pill, compared with $0.73 per pill as the cheapest Nurofen branded option from Pharmacy Direct. Now if you check the packet you’ll see that Nurofen pills contain 342 mg of ibuprofen lysine, whereas this particular unbranded option contains 200 mg of ibuprofen per pill.

I’m by no means an expert on the differences between ibuprofen and ibuprofen lysine, but I’m under the impression that 342 mg ibuprofen lysine will have a faster onset than 200 mg ibuprofen but provide the same amount of pain relief. If anyone knows more please say so in the comments. If you look at a pack of Nurofen, you’ll see that they’re considered equivalent:

ibuprofen lysine 342 mg (equiv. ibuprofen 200 mg)
ibuprofen lysine 342 mg (equiv. ibuprofen 200 mg)

Other types of painkiller can suffer from similar problems. For example, a 20 pack of Panadol (500 mg paracetamol) from Countdown costs $4.19, but a 20 pack of their own equivalent “Home Brand” paracetamol (which also contains 500 mg paracetamol per pill) costs $2.19.

While these cheaper alternatives do often contain the same amount of the same active ingredient (or equivalent), they’d unlikely to be exactly the same. For example, they may use different “fillers” to make up the rest of the pill. If you’re concerned about the differences or want to know more, your GP or pharmacist should be able to give you some advice.

It can be worth looking for an unbranded version if you’re looking to save. So-called “generics” are typically made available after the patent on a drug ends, and other companies are able to start producing and selling it. They tend to be much less expensive, and are sometimes subsidised if you have a prescription, but are often also less well-known.

Poor Science Reporting on the Paleo Diet

This morning I saw an article in the NZ Herald on the “paleo diet” that rather frustrated me. It seems like a great example of poor science reporting, trying its hardest to turn a study into a story instead of doing any actual science reporting. The role of a science reporter is not to sensationalise, it’s to accurately report on science, and that includes making the drawbacks of a study clear and not exaggerating the conclusions.

In this case though, it looks like the author chose to omit half the results of the study, presumably so as not to pollute the narrative they had chosen. The take-home message of the article can be found in the first paragraph:

the best way to lose weight is by copying our ancient ancestors, a study suggests.

I’m not even going to get into the problems with characterising the so-called “paleo diet” as “copying our ancient ancestors”, that’s been adequately covered elsewhere. The information used to support this weight loss conclusion is that the study in question found that:

Women who adopted the so-called Palaeolithic diet lost twice as much weight within six months as those who followed a modern programme based on official health guidelines.

Wow, that sounds impressive. Case closed, right? Except, if you look at the actual study (not open access, unfortunately), which of course is not linked to from the online article, you’ll find another result that is curiously omitted from the Herald article:

Both groups significantly decreased total fat mass at 6 months (−6.5 and−2.6 kg) and 24 months (−4.6 and−2.9 kg), with a more pronounced fat loss in the PD [Paleolithic-type diet] group at 6 months (P<0.001) but not at 24 months (P=0.095).

So there was a statistically significant difference in fat loss after 6 months, as mentioned in the article, but after 24 months there was no statistically significant difference in fat loss between the groups. That is a negative result.

Although there was still an observed difference in fat loss between the groups at 24 months, it wasn’t big enough for the researchers to be reasonably confident that it wasn’t just due to random variation. That’s partly due to the size of the difference observed, and also because the study was so small. 70 people split into 2 groups is very small for this kind of study, whereas a good sample size would be hundreds or even thousands of participants, not just a few dozen. Of course, such large studies are much more difficult and expensive to undertake, so a lot of smaller studies like this do happen. Sample size is very important though – small studies like this are not nearly as reliable as the much larger ones – so it’s important to remember to take the sample size into account when evaluating a study’s conclusions.

The Herald article does mention, way down near the bottom, that all of the participants in the study were obese postmenopausal women. Everywhere else, however, it avoids that caveat and seems to imply that the conclusions should be applicable to everyone, or at least to all women.

It’s also rather frustrating that the article says that the study “found [the “caveman diet”] more effective than some modern diets”, and that this study suggests it is “the best way to lose weight”, even though the study didn’t compare it with “some modern diets”. It compared it with a single other diet, one based on the Nordic Nutritional Recommendations.

If the Herald wants some tips on how to report on science, a great place to start would be to take another look at the science itself. The conclusion in the abstract of the study they’re writing about seems much more appropriate, even if it does seem a bit dismissive of the negative 24 month results:

A PD [Paleolithic-type diet] has greater beneficial effects vs an NNR [Nordic Nutritional Recommendations] diet regarding fat mass, abdominal obesity and triglyceride levels in obese postmenopausal women; effects not sustained for anthropometric measurements at 24 months. Adherence to protein intake was poor in the PD group. The long-term consequences of these changes remain to be studied.

Then again, perhaps I should be glad the Herald didn’t reprint the original headline from the Daily Telegraph:

Caveman diet twice as effective as modern diets

I’m not sure I could come up with a more misleading headline if I tried.

Despite the horrific headline, the original article does have a bit more information in its second half from the study’s primary author that was truncated from the Herald’s reprint.

Why Same-Sex Marriage Should Be Legal

The NZ Herald has published an article about the result of an unscientific internet poll on whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalised. Ignoring the obvious issues with lending credence to the results of a self-selecting internet poll, I’d like to focus on one quote from the article in particular:

Opponents of gay marriage say the jump shows people are waking up to the negative social effects of changing the Marriage Act.

In typical Herald style, no source is given for this assertion, but I’ll be nice and not dwell on that failure either.

What I’d like to talk about is that there are no “negative social effects” of allowing same-sex marriage. In fact, many states around the world have legalised same-sex marriage and the very fabric of their society disappointingly failed to unravel in the aftermath.

To the great surprise of homophobes everywhere the only effect of legalising same-sex marriage is same-sex couples getting married. Of course, this fact is conveniently ignored when the laws of their own country are being considered; they all seem to believe that their home is the one place that finally won’t be able to handle the unending horror of some other couples getting married while happening to not be of opposing sexes.


Of course, all of the arguments against allowing same-sex marriage fall flat pretty quickly.

The claim that marriage is somehow intended to be for procreation is bizarre considering that it’s obviously not immoral for infertile people to get married, and that having menopause before you have kids doesn’t mean you also have to have a divorce.

The claim that children need a mother and a father similarly falls flat when you observe not only that single parents are commonplace but that same-sex couples seem to do just fine as parents. For example, to quote a 2008 review by Charlotte J. Patterson published in the journal Child Development1:

To date, however, there is no evidence that the development of children with lesbian or gay parents is compromised in any significant respect relative to that among children of heterosexual parents in otherwise comparable circumstances.

Opponents of marriage equality often also argue that, if a child’s parents are gay, the child might also grow up to be gay. I’m tempted to look up the evidence to see whether or not this claim is true but to be honest I don’t think it matters. So what if legalising same-sex marriage makes being openly gay more common? It’s not as though it will eventually lead to everyone being gay, just like how opposite-sex marriage being legal hasn’t made everyone straight, so we hardly need to worry about humanity dying out because no one’s making babies any more.

The claim that legalising same-sex marriage has negative effects on society in general is pretty obviously untrue when you observe the countries that have legalised same-sex marriage. For example, take a look at Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Spain, Canada, Netherlands, and Portugal. Despite having legalised same-sex marriage, these 8 countries (out of 11 which I believe have currently legalised same-sex marriage) are all in the top 20 of The Economist‘s 2005 Quality of Life Index2.

Sure, legalising same-sex marriage might piss off some homophobes, but’s that’s no more worth considering than the argument that apartheid shouldn’t have been abolished because it could piss off some racists.

Another common argument is that marriage has traditionally been defined as between a man and a woman so it can’t be changed because mumble mumble… This is quite simply trying to avoid thinking too much so you can maintain your unsupported biases. If an established idea is challenged you don’t get to ignore the challenge because the idea is already established. Instead you must re-evaluate the idea in light of the challenge in order to determine if it still appears to be worth supporting.

Ideas worth supporting must have more than just tradition to stand upon. Other traditional ideas about marriage, like a wife being her husband’s property and interracial marriage being prohibited and supposedly immoral, have previously been abandoned and now (rightly) seem abhorrent to modern society.

The typical fundamentalist rantings about homosexual behaviour being prohibited by their religious book are bizarre enough that I’d hope not to even have to bother responding to it, but I’m not quite naive enough to think that’s the case. In the words of Gregory House, “I don’t have time to talk you out of your religion”, so instead of bloating this post with anti-apologetics I’ll settle for thanking those bigots for making it so easy to point out that religion is not a reliable source of moral advice. For all I care a church can be as bigoted as it wants, but a secular government can’t.

One final argument, which I think is one that finally gets close to the real issue at hand, is that marriage is a religious institution, so it’s not a government’s business to mess with it. Honestly, I think this argument might have been enough one day, but not today. The reason it no longer holds water is that the premise on which it rests – that marriage is solely a religious institution – is no longer true. Marriage is a public service, provided by the government, and a secular government has no business telling its citizens they don’t have a right to a public service because they or their partner are the wrong sex. As I said earlier, for all I care a church can be as bigoted as it wants, but a secular government can’t.

If marriage were still solely a religious institution several aspects of modern society would be quite different. Surely people with no religion, such as myself, would not be allowed to get married. Also, a secular government would have no business giving special rights to married couples, as this would be discriminating based on religion. I also think that, were that the case, making civil unions available to all couples would be a valid approach for a government to provide equality. However, the fact that marriage is not solely a religious institution, but a social service, means this is not enough. “Separate but equal” is not equal.

It’s worth noting that, as a result of the select committee’s report, New Zealand’s Marriage Amendment Bill has been amended so that marriage celebrants will not have to conduct marriages of same-sex couples if it offends their religious sensibilities.


  1. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1992.tb01679.x/abstract
  2. http://www.economist.com/media/pdf/QUALITY_OF_LIFE.pdf