Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud?

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Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud?

In my years as a vegan I’ve attended a number of ‘veggie’ events in several different countries. I generally attend hoping to sample delicious products, listen to informative or entertaining talks and socialize with like-minded people. I have joked many times about inventing a reusable extending toothpick to reach over around or between the throngs of people gathered around a new brand of vegan cheese samples and have been known to gorge so much on the samples that the food I actually purchase goes uneaten for days. Though I enjoy the camaraderie and often learn something new and interesting at veggie themed events, for me, food is the focus. I’m always surprised to see a people gathering around a stall selling non-food items and though of course I appreciate a handbag made from something other than skin as much as the next vegan I usually breeze past these stalls sharpening my toothpick for the next onslaught upon an unsuspecting purveyor of snack food.

Magic bracelets only £40

Last year I was at a vegan event and during a brief moment of respite from gluttony I noticed a stall selling rather expensive and not-particularly attractive bracelets. The person selling the bracelets was demonstrating their effectiveness at improving the wearer’s balance with a simple technique I recognised as applied kinesiology. Applied kinesiology is a technique invented in 1964 by a chiropractor in which the practitioner asks the subject to resist them when they try to push down on their outstretched arm, then repeat the test when the subject is holding/wearing the product the practitioner is trying to sell. The salesperson I saw performing this trick was asking potential customers to stand on one leg and raise their arms out either side at shoulder level in a T shape. The salesperson then pressed down firmly on one arm near their elbow directing the force of their pressure away from the persons body - inevitably the person would topple over, this inability to remain upright was, the salesperson insisted, due to the effect of EMF radiation. The potential customer was then directed to don the magic bracelet that supposedly defended them from EMFs harmful effects, they stood on one leg, raised their arms and the salesperson pushed down in the same place but in a different direction. This time the salesperson directed their pressure down and towards the person’s body, a difference that is difficult for the person to detect but changes the outcome dramatically, because now the salesperson is pushing towards the persons center of gravity and the person has a much easier time staying upright. This demonstration is supposed to convince the wearer of the bracelets effectiveness and persuade them to part with a substantial amount of money to buy one.

I’d seen this trick done before by people selling Power Balance Bands bracelets, which were sold on the promise of increasing ‘sporting performance’. These hologram bracelets were withdrawn from sale amid criticism for false advertising, numerous independent investigations proving their claims for the bracelets effectiveness were baseless and a $57 million dollar lawsuit. The bands were just cheap plastic trinkets with shiny stickers and Power Balance were forced to run a series of advertisements in the Australian media after an investigation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission:

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974. If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologize and offer a full refund*.

I didn’t know whether the EMF radiation that these bracelets were claiming to protect their wearers from was real let alone dangerous and I found it hard to imagine how a bracelet could protect you from radiation but the unscrupulous use of the applied kinesiology trick combined with the similarity of this product to the power balance bands which I knew to be a scam concerned me.

I tried to speak to one of the people selling the bracelets but they could not tell me any more than was printed on their leaflets and the person performing the demonstrations was surrounded by hordes of unsuspecting vegans ready to be convinced to part with their money. I felt angry and impotent as I saw all these good people being taken advantage of in what I felt was supposed to be a safe fun space. It seemed worse than selling these things in a mall as people had come to this event because they were trying to do the right thing and be responsible consumers. I felt as though the organisers of events like this should protect their attendees from fraud as diligently as they seek to protect them from accidentally consuming animal products by having rules in place to prevent stallholders from selling non-vegan items. Unfortunately when I get angry I shake and my voice gets shrill so I decided to give up on the idea of a confrontation with the snake-oil merchants and send an email to the organisers when I got home.

Getting angry from the safety of my laptop

I did some research that evening on EMF radiation and found that though there is much speculation and concern in the general public that EMF frequencies (such as those produced by wifi or mobile phones) cause health problems these worries are unfounded. The World Health Organisation are one of the many institutions that have conducted international studies surveying the effects on human health of the non ionising EMF frequencies we expose ourselves to by using modern tecnology, their conclusions based on a recent meta-analysis of the scientific date are as follows:

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research*.

Research does not back up the claim that EMF of the type and level we are commonly exposed to has any negative effect on human health let alone the vague catalogue of symptoms that the bracelet manufacturers in their alarmist literature.

So the bracelets claim to protect against something that is not believed to be harmful via a highly improbable mechanism of ‘harmonic frequencies’ which is never clearly explained in any of their literature. They demonstrate the effectiveness of their product with a well-known trick that you can find, demonstrated on several you-tube videos* that has previously been used to sell other fraudulent products. I was confident that when I explained to the event organisers they would be grateful about the heads up on this scam being unknowingly perpetrated at their event and maybe pledge to insert a clause into their stallholders terms and conditions prohibiting the sale of fraudulent merchandise.

It seems I was a little too optimistic. The organisers replied that ‘opinion was split’ on the issue and that they had received some positive feedback on the presence of the bracelet-selling stall. The response was thoughtful and admitted that other people had raised objections to the same stall and that it was an issue that the organizing team would discuss. It seems I put on my skeptical superhero cape too quickly; while I had intended on helping by informing them of the scam going on at their event they perceived my objections to be counter to the spirit of inclusivity they were trying to foster. Their response made me feel like a snarky ol’ spoilsport who wanted to ban people and transform the festival atmosphere into a fascist state where vegans march in lockstep from table to table collecting their allotted rations of samples in an orderly fashion. Admittedly, I am oversensitive to emails that don’t open with ‘how can we ever repay you?’

The darker side of Pseudoscience

I was not dismayed enough by the response to avoid going to a future event hosted by the same organisers and though I did not see any of the bracelets for sale the snarky ol’ spoilsport in me was provoked once again and this time on less frivolous grounds. A stall advertising holistic healthcare was abounding with leaflets selling products or services that ranged from interesting (nutritionalist seminars) to bonkers (homeopathy) a friend of mine engaged the leaflet purveyor in conversation on the topic of homeopathy, I zoned out while she explained Avogadro’s number* and browsed the other leaflets. Amongst them was a pamphlet that really disturbed me which focused on the alleged dangers of vaccinating children.

The anti-vax movement has been responsible for spreading the dangerous and unscientific idea that vaccinations cause autism since before the now discredited Andrew Wakefield published a study based on abusive experiments conducted on children in 1998. The website antivaccinebodycount.com lists the number of preventable illnesses causes by not vaccinating children from June 3rd 2007 to July 26th 2014 as one hundred and thirty seven thousand and twenty three, the number of preventable deaths at six thousand, two hundred and sixty three and the number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccinations as zero*. This is a bit more serious than a few people wasting money on bracelets.

Vegans need Skepticism

The question is what to do about the seemingly unstoppable tide of dangerous psedo-scientific products and information being marketed to the vegan community? We cannot expect vegans to inform themselves on every potential scam or read all the current scientific literature so they can recognize a pseudoscientific or potentially dangerous piece of misinformation. It seems we cannot expect event organisers to prevent fraudulent products being sold, bogus health claims being made, or misinformation being promulgated at veggie events.

I think it is important to register our displeasure at seeing our fellow vegans being scammed out of money or injured by unscrupulous charlatans or misinformed anti-science proponents. It may not be fun to be made to feel like a spoilsport but we owe it to our community to try and protect them and to event organisers to inform them of what they are lending their name and implied stamp of authenticity to. Raising issues like these with events organisers is important but it is just defending aganst the encroaching waves of woo, to rid veganism of these predators entirely requires a more sustained effort.

A few years ago I may have purchased a bracelet like those I saw being sold, I may have been frightened by the claims of anti-vaccination leaflets and hesitated to vaccinate my (hypothetical) children. What makes me unsusceptible to these kind of magic tricks and fear mongering today is a familiarity with the scientific method which gives me a way of assessing truth claims based on evidence and reason. I only learnt how to apply reason in my early twenties when I first began exploring both skepticism and veganism. It seems absurd that I reached adulthood without being furnished with the tools necessary to think, but I am not alone. We can continue to tell our fellow vegans to put their wallets away when they see a pseudoscientific trinket or explain the dangerous consequences of not vaccinating their children but to truly immunize them against falling prey to potentially deadly misinformation we must give them the gift of scientific skepticism.

As vegans we recognize the truth that purchasing animal products commissions the torture and/or death of animals this realization is a result of seeing the world more clearly, of piercing the veil of our cultures expectations and propaganda. We can use this gift of insight to assess all claims more clearly and rigorously and make the world a better place, for animals and humans. Skepticism is a invaluable tool for understanding the world and one as vegans we have not only great need for but also perhaps a natural aptitude for which has not yet been fully realized. I’m not going to discard my plans for the worlds longest toothpick yet but I am going to try to find ways to educate my fellow vegans so we can protect ourselves from those people who exploit ignorance and hopefully build a vegan community which will not allow predators and snake-oil merchants to set up stalls which cause us skeptical vegans outraged induced dyspepsia.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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