Time for Inspector Plod to go after the homeopaths

Willard Foxton, at the Telegraph of all places, asks a very good question.

If we can prosecute a man for selling fake bomb detectors, how are homeopaths still in business?

Why indeed?

Remember those fake bomb detectors? I remember blogging about that years ago. In fact [goes to find the posts] – yes, in It won’t work unless the operator is relaxed and Flashing lights, and a beeping noise. A bit from the latter:

Call me sentimental but I do think this is a quotation for the ages. It’s from the guy who made the ‘bomb detector’ thingy out of an antenna and a hinge and a plastic tag, and sold lots of them for $40,000 each, and got arrested on suspicion of fraud for doing that.

We have been dealing with doubters for ten years. One of the problems we have is that the machine does look a little primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.

Do admit. The sunny innocence, the tenderly confiding honesty of that brings tears to the eyes, does it not? He sweetly admits there are ‘doubters’ – people not convinced that a stick and a bit of duct tape and a ‘card’ and a bit of plastic can actually detect explosives. He admits that one little stumbling block (to what? charging $80,000 apiece?) is that the ‘machine’ (the bendy stick with the bit of plastic inside) looks a little primitive even though in reality of course it is more elaborate and complicated and technical and sciencey than an MRI or a particle accelerator or an iPod or an electric toothbrush. And then, in the bit that is so limpid and childlike and of the dawn dawny, he murmurs of his exacting technical labors on a new model with flashing lights. So what you would have then, see, would be a bendy stick with a ‘card’ and a bit of plastic all topped, like a car wash, with flashing lights. So there you’d be shuffling around the checkpoint in Afghanistan, swinging your bendy stick around sniffing for explosives, and your life would be made more glamorous and exciting and Christmassy and convincing by these exciting flashing lights on your bendy stick. Until you stepped on the bomb, of course.

Actually that’s not a bit, that’s all of it. So that’s James McCormick and his amazingly expensive useless pseudo-machine.

At the old Bailey yesterday, the court was told McCormick’s detectors, which he had been selling at £27,000 a piece, were “completely ineffectual” and “lacked any grounding in science”.

When I read those words, I couldn’t help but think of all of the assorted homeopaths, wizards and internet psychics that plague the gullible online.

Why can’t they be prosecuted too?

Well, they could be. Maybe someday they will.

 no one is going to die using skin cream, or getting what I suspect is a shonky pseudoscientific facelift. The prosecution in the McCormick case said “McCormick showed a complete disregard for the safety of those who used and relied upon the device for their own security and protection.”

Isn’t that also true of people selling ineffectual medicines? It’s not hard to find posters on homeopathy message boards offering homeopathic treatment for everything from gout to cancer. No one will die as a direct result of taking these sugar pills, but in the same way as a fake bomb detector can kill you by not finding a bomb, taking an ineffective treatment can indirectly kill you. The difficulty in getting prosecutions for fraud on this sort of thing comes down to belief – the prosecution was able to prove that McCormick didn’t believe his products worked.

Hmm. Really? If people “sincerely” believe the magic works, it’s difficult to prosecute them? If that’s true it shouldn’t be. People will believe anything. We’re supposed to have laws to protect consumers; they shouldn’t be defeated by the credulity of people who market bullshit.

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