At first glance, there seems to be a rather effective safeguard preventing Australians from being sold anything that erroneously claims to treat illness or relieves us from discomfort. The Therapeutic Goods Association is the regulatory body responsible for assessing and monitoring therapeutic goods or materials that are marketed in Australia. It covers what can and can’t be said in advertisements, the necessity of clinical trials and the provisions for what can be termed a complimentary or alternative medicine.
For the most part the TGA’s regulations maintain a high level of safety when it comes to the types of medications we have available to us. Thanks to the national customs service, it’s also relatively difficult to procure medications that are deemed to be unsafe or illegal. Yet ever-present loopholes, both semantic and procedural, continue to threaten the health and hip pockets.
One such gap in this medical chain-link fence is both the scourge of scientists and the joy of scientifically illiterate journalists – what I term as the ‘proof paradox’. As far as science philosophy goes, proof is a provisional term. Indeed, certainty is so heavily reliant on context, the word ‘proof’ is typically softened to reflect a sense of probability when it comes to scientific conclusions. Things can be proven logically, yet such solutions are constrained by context of accepted premises.
Scientists consider their ideas as a sliding scale of confidence, approaching absolutes but never committing whole-heartedly. Such philosophical scepticism is useful for scientists, should new evidence ever arise that casts past observations in a completely new light. As such, all conclusions carry a silent caveat that says ‘given that the surrounding scaffold of knowledge continues to hold true’.
Colloquially, this reservation takes on a new weight and substance. The term ‘theory’ grows heavy in the public domain, anchored by doubts scientists would dismiss as merely provisional. All scientific ideas are painted in shades of mights and maybes, where evidence is regarded as subjective regardless of one’s epistemological values. With the caveat dropped, all things are indeed possible. No longer is a statement implicitly ‘false or misleading’ should it say a material ‘might’ treat, cure or alleviate symptoms.
There is no conflict in the eyes of the majority of people, who know of no such footnotes, caveats or hidden contexts. To the average citizen, that ‘might’ carries weight. To the scientifically literate, it is a weasel word that lurks in the shadows beyond abandoned hypotheses and weak p values.
The second gap is less philosophical. When an advertisement is challenged as false, the TGA is currently alerted to it as having broken its regulations. What happens there, according to ABC reporter Steven Cannane in this Lateline report, is something of a mystery.
Short of tightening up science literacy amongst the general public, it’s difficult to address the contrast between the public’s practical view of doubt and science’s provisional scepticism. It’s arguable that the TGA should be given the authority to mediate the use of weasel words such as ‘might’, ‘may’ and ‘could’ when it comes to not-so-subtle suggestions of dubious efficacy, treating even vague suggestions of treatment as if they are making solid claims.
When it comes to the reporting of obvious advertising breaches, however, lets hope changes are in the wind that will see to more forceful actions being engaged over matters of non-compliance. Having a watch-dog that barks but doesn’t bite is about as effective as a placebo authority.