In 2012 we helped to form The Heresy Club – a website for young writers focusing on atheism, skepticism and free-thought. However, as of today we have both made the decision to withdraw as contributors to The Heresy Club. It has become apparent that the website is taking a direction that we did not initially intend or envision, and it is one we do not want to be associated with. As young people involved in the atheism/skepticism/free-thought communities we felt it was important for such a platform to exist, but we wanted it to be a platform from which we could engage in positive discussion and critical examination about how these communities exist within a wider society, with a particular focus on how young people are involved in these communities.
Unfortunately this is not what the website has become, and The Heresy Club that exists today is not one that we want to be associated with as it feels as though controversy is often being used in place of evidence-based discussion. We cannot endorse this. We will continue to write on our personal websites where we are in control of how we are portrayed – not through the words of others, but through our own words and actions instead.
Herbalife, Forever Living, Amway, eCosway. All of these multilevel marketing (MLM) companies promote themselves as great business opportunities – invest a small amount of money to register as a distributor and set up your own business! Earn profit from the products you sell, sometimes even without having to purchase the goods yourself. Recruit more people and get a cut of their commission too! The companies have turnovers of many billions of dollars a year. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But is there more to them than meets the eye?
What are the products?
With many MLM companies, the products sold tend to be nutritional supplements, weight loss products and herbal medicines. For example, Forever Living sells aloe vera gel, a 9 day “detox” weight loss pack, bee pollen products and other supplements.
Straight away, we have many problems to deal with. Detox is a wholly bogus idea. Sense about Science have produced an excellent dossier on detox, explaining why it’s such a fraudulent idea. Simply put, our kidneys and liver already do a great job at detoxifying the body and most detox kits don’t even state what they’re going to allegedly detoxify. Just vague “toxins”, whatever that might mean.
A large number of Forever Living’s products are sold with medical claims on their website. These are small claims such as “boosts circulation” and “boosts the immune system”, but claims nonetheless. They leave the making of bigger claims, such as direct claims to be able to treat and cure named medical conditions, to their distributors, moving much of the risk to the distributors.
A couple of my friends have recently, unfortunately, signed up to become Forever Living distributors as part of a team. Inevitably, my Facebook timeline became clogged with adverts for the many gels, pills and weight loss products they’re trying to sell. Their team leader runs a Facebook page which contains claims that the products can treat named medical conditions ranging from IBS to arthritis. They’re all ridiculous claims. Many of the weight loss advertisements don’t even appear to use the same two people in the before and after comparison shots. After researching the ingredients, as I suspected, there’s very little to no evidence to back up the claims being made. For example, there is evidence that aloe vera is an effective laxative and some studies have suggested that it may help burns, but there’s no evidence it’s effective for any other use. A few more of my friends went to an informal seminar, in a coffee shop, by this team leader in which it was strongly implied the products can treat even more serious medical conditions such as paralysis and cancer.
It’s hard for me to emphasise just how wrong this is. It’s illegal to promote a treatment for cancer, under the Cancer Act 1939 s4. 1a which states “No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof…” The only exception is when the advertisement is published in a technical journal aimed at medical professionals.
I wanted to find out for certain if these products had any sort of marketing approval, as medicine law is fairly complex. I put in a Freedom of Information request to the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to find out what information they held on Forever Living’s products (whether they’re licensed in any way, if they’re allowed to be sold with claims that imply effectiveness in treating a condition etc.). They responded telling me “There are no current Marketing Authorisations in the UK for products under the Forever Living brand, according to our licensing records. These products would not be able to make medicinal claims.”
And yet, they and their distributors do anyway.
The problem with multilevel marketing
Multilevel marketing companies often advertise becoming a distributor as great business opportunities, as if you’re becoming a self-sufficient business person. This isn’t really true. You have the main company who provides the products and then you have distributors. As I mentioned before, to become a distributor, you often “invest” a small amount of money and receive some products to sell or an online store front with your name on it. After this, you continue to sell products and are pushed to recruit more distributors. You then get a cut of their money. They recruit people; you get a cut of the new person’s money as well. You’re encouraged to recruit more and more people to set up a “down-line”. This set up is unsustainable for a number of reasons.
First and most obviously, there is a finite number of people in the world. If each distributor recruits ten people, just six levels down gives you a million distributors – over three times the population of Cardiff! Having more and more sellers is beneficial for the main company as any sales distributors make, the company profits from. Theoretically, the more sellers, the more sales are made. If a distributor even sells just one or two items to their friends and family, for the main company, it all adds up. The distributors don’t benefit though, as they’re not recouping their initial cost.
Besides that, there will be no more room for expansion. Ten levels down and you have 10,000,000,000 people, about 3,000,000,000 more people than there are in the world today. And that’s not considering that many of the remaining 7,000,000,000 won’t want to be part of the company or can’t be part of the company because they’re too young or already have a job etc.
This ignores the even bigger problem that there’s nobody to sell to. When the main focus of MLMs for distributors is recruiting more people, there’s a problem. Eventually, the pyramid will collapse and only those on the top will profit. When there is unlimited recruiting, the supply of products inevitably and invariably outweighs the demand.
Given the above, it’s perhaps unsurprising if not downright obvious that MLM companies have been compared to, or straight out called pyramid schemes. Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager, has famously rallied against Herbalife, explicitly referring to it as “the best-managed pyramid scheme in the history of the world.” He argued, using calculations he published and presented in December 2012, that most of the money paid to distributors is payment for recruiting new distributors. For this reason, he’s called on the Federal Trade Commission in the US to investigate Herbalife. He also stated that if the FTC did investigate and found in Herbalife’s favour, he would lobby Congress to change the law, in the hopes of ensuring that Herbalife would not be able to continue to operate. The Commercial Court in Belgium agreed with Ackman’s assertions as they ruled that Herbalife is an illegal pyramid scheme, in a judgment in the case of Test-Aankoop v Herbalife International Belgium in November 2011.
In the current job market, it’s not surprising that people will want to work for a company that provides them a guaranteed job. But expectations need to be managed. In the vast majority of cases, working as a distributor for an MLM company won’t provide people with anywhere near enough money to live on. According to a publication called Business Students Focus on Ethics, the average annual income for MLM members is US $5,000, while USA Today have published an article in which the Direct Selling Association has stated the median annual income is as low as US $2,400. The costBill Ackman also pointed out that less than 1% of people who join Herbalife will ever join the “Millionaires Team”, distributors who have earned over $100,000 from Herbalife in their lifetime.
These figures don’t really surprise me, given the problems outlined above with market saturation, trouble recruiting more people and the impossibility of actually convincing people they need these products. When you’re constantly hard selling to friends and family, you’re going to end up annoying them. This doesn’t stop distributors from making outlandish claims about potential earnings, however. The need to set up a “down-line” ensures ridiculous adverts will continue to be published online in the hopes of recruiting equally desperate people.
The problems with multilevel marketing companies are numerous, from their doomed-by-design infinite expansion set up and the fact that they mostly sell useless products. Multilevel marketing is an unsustainable, exploitative idea that unfortunately hasn’t been stamped out yet. Raising public awareness to these problems is a vital step to take to ensure fewer people are exploited and protect them from harm. These schemes need to be examined with much more skepticism in all that they do.
Set your HDR to record – Panorama have announced the air date for their investigation into Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, his antineoplaston therapy and his clinic. Monday June 3rd at 8:30pm on BBC One (HD). Read on for more information…
Back in January, I was contacted by Panorama at the BBC. They told me they were doing an investigation into Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, the doctor who offers the controversial antineoplaston treatment to cancer patients at his Houston, Texas cancer clinic. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking part. Of course, I accepted and was interviewed later that month about my involvement with the clinic and Dr. Burzynski.
You may recall that back in November 2011, somebody called Marc Stephens, representing the Burzynski Clinic, Burzynski Research Institute and Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski himself contacted me (and others) with threats of a libel lawsuit if I didn’t remove my heavily critical, though not libellous, blog post entitled “The Burzynski Clinic”. I’d written this blog post back in August 2011 in response to one of the many big media campaigns run by families to raise the hundreds of thousands of pounds to get a place on one of Burzynski’s clinical trials. Marc Stephens went on to threaten to contact my school “to inform them of [my] illegal acts”. He also sent me Google Maps images of my own house, apparently to confirm that it was my mailing address, so they could send the legal paperwork. You can read about this all in much more detail, including the entire email back and forth on my blog post “Threats from the Burzynski Clinic”. Eventually, the Burzynski Clinic fired him, saying they found his actions inappropriate.
This was the main focus of the interview. I’m not sure what will make the final cut, but I’m confident that Panorama will handle this topic with sensitivity whilst also being firm and not falling foul to false balance.
This is something you do not want to miss. Nor the fall out that will follow in the next few weeks. Let’s just say, Burzynski is in for a hell of a time, these coming months…
Remember, Monday June 3rd at 8:30pm on BBC One (HD)!
UPDATE: I received a phone call yesterday informing me that, unfortunately, my interview hasn’t made the final cut. The programme is only half an hour long and I guess if something doesn’t fit the narrative too well in the short time they had, it’ll be left on the editing floor.
Earlier today, I was in the Apple Store, minding my own business. I was waiting for my mum to come and meet me, when all of a sudden a large group of 5 to 7 year olds in school uniform flood the iPad mini section. In a similar fashion, confusion flooded my brain. There are… children… in the Apple Store? Who approved this?
Two Apple Store employees wearing yellow shirts approach them. They’re instructors! The visit *was* sanctioned! These children are on a school trip to the Apple Store! As much as I approve of teaching children that Apple knows best, do it in private! The last thing I need in my place of worship are rowdy, excitable youngsters!
One of the Apple Store instructors then clips a microphone onto their shirt and says “Good morning!” to the children. The children respond in kind, only much louder. “GOOD MORNING!” The instructor commits the cardinal sin of replying “What was that? I can’t hear you! Good morning everyone!” The children take this opportunity to deafen St. David’s 2 shopping centre and scream back in a volume until now considered impossible for the human voice to reach – “GOOD MORNING!” Silence falls across the store as the other shoppers look around in disgust, their ears recovering from the assault. A few of us glance at each other, briefly making eye contact – eye contact of solidarity. We just wanted a nice, peaceful morning browse in the Apple Store. What did we do to deserve this?
The children are then shown the various pieces of software that they will be using throughout the day. They laugh at the “hilarious” iMovie trailer. The iMovie trailer is not hilarious. They scream and cheer as they learn they’ll be making something similar soon. They continue shouting at random intervals, leaving people no time to prepare, damaging the hearing of anybody within a 5 mile radius.
Thankfully, my mum arrives just in time, so I have a legitimate reason to abandon my church. We quickly leave to buy some ear plugs.
I returned about an hour later for a Genius Bar appointment. The children were still there. Still shouting, screaming, laughing. Disgusting.
Further to the shocking news that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to retire from being the Pope, I have decided to announce my candidacy for the position. Whilst I may not be Catholic, I feel I am a suitable replacement for Pope Benedict.
First of all, I am only 18 years old. Therefore, I wouldn’t have the problem of “being too old” for the job for at least 70 years. This would give me a long time to implement positive changes to the world. Also, I don’t have quite the negative background that Pope Benedict has. I have not been a part of the Hitler Youth, for example.
As Pope, my first act would be to set up an inquiry into the paedophilia scandal which has tarnished the Catholic church in recent years. I would employ non-Catholic church members, to ensure independence in the matter. I would be sure to hand all information over to the relevant authorities.
My second act as Pope would be to announce a reversal in policy for the Catholic church. It will no longer be against homosexuality. We will announce full support for gay marriage. I might also decide to rename marriage as “gay marriage”, so all straight people who were married in the Catholic church will now be “gay married”.
I would also reverse the Catholic church’s position on use of condoms and other forms of contraception, encouraging their use. We would also reject the idea that sex before marriage is morally superior – this is an outdated, sex-negative concept. Of course, if people choose to remain celibate, that’s their own business, but we certainly wouldn’t demand people remain so. These policies would hopefully help to reduce the rate of new HIV infections from unsafe sex.
The final policy I am announcing now is complete support for equality in the Church. People will not be denied specific positions in the Church because of their gender identity, sexuality, race etc. They will be judged on merit alone.
If you agree that these measures would be beneficial, help spread my campaign to become Pope by tweeting this blogpost and using the hashtag #RhysForPope
I am mere days away from turning 18! From the 22nd October, I will be able to buy alcohol, vote in elections and other things that only adults are allowed to do!
I’m going to be speaking for two Skeptics in the Pub events in the coming weeks as well. First is London Skeptics in the Pub on the 30th October in The Monarch Bar in Camden. Click here for more details!
Also, I am done with Cardiff High School. After a messy relationship involving far too much censorship for my liking, and some dodgy AS level results, I decided to call it quits. So instead of doing A levels, I’m studying for a BSc (Hons) in Health Sciences with the Open University!
Another really cool thing I’ve been doing recently is building the http://privatehealthscreen.org website for a group of doctors. The website tackles the subject of health screening – something that isn’t as clear cut as you might believe. Go and check it out!
However, there are some not so cool things happening too – the main one being that I seem to be going through a mild/moderate Crohn’s flare up. I’ve been having mild-moderate symptoms on and off for months, but assumed it would clear up the next time I had my infliximab. Despite my bloods being normal, a calprotectin test has shown otherwise and yes, I am having a Crohn’s flare up. Hmph.
So anyway, that’s basically what’s been happening/what’s going to be happening with me. Fun stuff!
I’ve been video blogging for a month now, so I think it’s time that I word blog about it.
I decided to start video blogging because it seemed like a good way to talk about my life and stuff I wouldn’t necessarily talk about on this here main blog. They’re 3 to 4 minutes long.
I use iMovie to edit them together. It takes me about an hour to two hours to make each video. I usually edit as I go along. It’s surprisingly un-difficult to do the editing. Working out what to say is the more difficult bit. I’m still learning how to do that bit, so I might decide eventually that scripting what I’m going to say is better.
Anyway, without further ado, here are the Diary of a Rhys videos to date!
For nearly 2 weeks now, I’ve been using the Trabasack – a bag designed for laptops. I was given a free bag on the grounds that I review it on my blog, so here I am, reviewing it!
The Trabasack is a hybrid between a messenger bag and a backpack. This is because the straps are adjustable. You get two clip-on straps in the bag. There are five different ways you can clip them on, by my count. I prefer mine in a portrait messenger bag style.
One of the main features of the Trabasack is that it also functions as a portable desk tray. One side of the bag has a hard surface to rest your laptop on and the other has a compartment filled with a removable bean bag. It’s a cool feature – but it’s not the sort of thing I’d use on a regular basis. That said, if I was going out camping or to the park, I can see myself using it a fair bit – if not as a lap tray, as something to raise my laptop off the ground to prevent it getting dirty! Whilst I may find the primary use rare, it has a secondary benefit. It also works as a shock absorber, padding the laptop and protecting it from damage. Most people still use mechanical hard drives, so shock from a drop can easily cause loss of data and a broken hard drive.
One of my only concerns about the bag is that it isn’t very deep and there’s only really one compartment. It’s the perfect side in terms of laptop space – my 13” MacBook Air fits very well, but I’d not like to pack my iPad with it as well, because I’d be concerned about scratches on either device.
Overall though, the Trabasack is a very nice piece of kit. It’s better than your average laptop slip case as it’s got the adjustable straps and padding. It’s very well made, with good materials. At £34.95, some may find it a little pricey, but I would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a slip case with extras for your laptop.
There’s been an awful lot of discussion on Twitter with the skeptical/atheist communities recently, mainly about calls for equality and respect.
Tony Ryan, AKA the CoffeeLovingSkeptic has made it clear in many blogs and tweets that he dislikes Rebecca Watson. He’s one of the people, along with others in his particular group of friends, who seems to disagree with Rebecca Watson because she’s Rebecca Watson. In the past, he’s also written posts on his Facebook page seemingly directed at my friend Hayley Stevens because she’s a rational ghost hunter. He seems to believe that because he’s not particularly interested in a topic of skepticism, e.g. ghosts and psychics, that they’re not important. All in all, I don’t like the fellow because of his opinions and how he comes across. That’s not the main focus of this blog though.
Along with another person called Tom Williamson, The Skeptic Canary, who I held a lot of respect for before I realised he was *also* one of the people who dislikes what Rebecca Watson says because she’s Rebecca Watson.
They’ve both recently become embroiled in an argument with Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers via Twitter. Here’s what happened (as far as I can tell):
Tony realised that PZ Myers had blocked him on Twitter. He tweeted about this. Tom noticed and tweeted to PZ to ask him why. PZ said he didn’t know that he had. This wasn’t good enough for Tom who said “evidence suggests you are blocking” along with a screen capture proving PZ had blocked Tony.
Rebecca Watson then tweeted this to PZ:
@pzmyers That’s the guy I blocked for calling me a cunt. He emailed begging me to unblock, then called me a cunt again when I didn’t. Ha ha
This tweet started a shitstorm about whether Tony had called Rebecca a cunt or not. Whatever the case, at least most of the tweet was true. Rebecca had indeed blocked Tony on Twitter. Tony later wrote a blog about it, which I will come to later.
PZ took a look at Tony’s blog and said it wasn’t a mistake because Tony’s an ass. He quite rightly them pointed out that he shouldn’t be expected to track and remember every asshole on Twitter. I certainly don’t remember most of the people I’ve blocked. That’s part of the reason I’ve blocked them – to block and forget they exist.
Tony and Tom seem to have some weird idea that blocking someone on Twitter is bad and constitutes an invasion to their freedom of speech, and this should only be done in the most extreme circumstances. That’s absolute bullshit. Blocking someone on Twitter only stops you seeing their tweets. It doesn’t stop them composing tweets. You can block someone for any reason you want to as well. There are no wrong reasons for blocking someone.
Someone’s a spambot? Block them!
Someone’s annoying you? Block them!
Someone’s offended you? Block them!
Someone spends a rather large portion of their time criticising things you say, seemingly because you said them? Block them!
The block feature is not just there to use as a ‘last resort’.
According to the screenshots, he sent an email saying:
Hi. I know this may be a bit odd sounding, but I (don’t know when) have been blocked on twitter by Rebecca Watson. I’d appreciate a second look at this, as I would like to follow her. I’m @tpryan007
I’m sure I must have said something insensitive in the past, but I’m not a troll, a bot, or a spammer!
This suggests to me that he seems to think these are the only real suitable reasons for blocking someone.
Anyway, Rebecca followed up with this bitingly sarcastic email:
I took a second look and you’re right, it was a mistake! I’ll fix that immediately!
PS: OH WAIT A SECOND
”I’m glad the skepchicks (ironic name in the circumstances, with an even more ironic calendar) aren’t convincing many to miss out on Dawkins’ brilliance.
I got sucked into the furore and wrote a couple of blogs on the matter (http://tonyryan.org.uk/?p=602 andhttp://tonyryan.org.uk/?p=582 ) , but I shan’t be doing any more! Time to move on to the real issues!”
“Let’s reclaim the elevator! AKA The Skepchick Delusion.”
“The only press Rebecca Watson should be getting right now is how ridiculous she’s become. A parody of a rational thinker.”
Note: You can replace the tonyryan.org.uk in the domain names mentioned with coffeelovingskeptic.com and access those blog posts.
Tony’s response in which he sounds surprised that she won’t unblock him follows like this:
I didn’t say I agreed with you on everything, especially on Dawkins, but being blocked by you on twitter and other members of the Skepchicks for disagreeing seemed to go against every facet of critical thought I was an advocate of:
Hence, “None of the Skepchicks have shown a single shred of rationality or objective thinking lately. The irony is painful”
Oh well. I asked. Thank you for at least taking the time to respond.
That’s where the email thread apparently finishes. I don’t know if there was more communication after that, but a search through his Twitter feed didn’t reveal any tweets where he called Rebecca a cunt. I don’t know if he did or didn’t call her a cunt. If he didn’t, to be fair to him, Rebecca should at least acknowledge this. I’m assuming this isn’t where this particular discussion will end, given how obsessive some of Rebecca Watson’s critics are.
He still seems surprised as of the latest email that Rebecca and the other Skepchicks have blocked him.
After reading Rebecca’s email, I’m not.
If you talk and write about someone in a patronising manner, or constantly sneer at them and make snide comments, it’s not surprising they want nothing to do with you and will block you. You have no right to expect someone to pay attention to you – especially when you’d been nothing but an arsehole towards them.
So, something to leave you with – if you don’t want people to block you on Twitter, perhaps try not being a dick to them in the first place.
The Welsh Baccalaureate, in the words of the WJEC is “a qualification for 14 to 19 year old students in Wales.” I am 17 years old, in Year 12, studying for my A levels in Cardiff High School. We are required to study the Welsh Baccalaureate along our usual A levels.
I have serious concerns about the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification. I also have serious concerns about my school requesting that I don’t criticise the Welsh Baccalaureate. This isn’t the first time they’ve attempted to stifle my freedom of speech – that honour goes to the Jesus and Mo issue. However, I’m going to be talking about the Welsh Baccalaureate in this post, not the freedom of speech problem – that’s a discussion for another day (February 11th, if you didn’t already know!)
One of the main problems with the Welsh Bac is that it is not even a proper baccalaureate. In a proper baccalaureate, you are required to study maths, English, science, and a language. With the Welsh Bac, there is no requirement to include science content. The language component is also weak. The people who developed the first draft of the Welsh Bac called the language component “a waste of time”.
In my experience, the entire course is weak – the maths section is nothing more than some scale drawings and basic calculations, and the ICT component is a watered down ICT course involving tedious activities such as capturing screenshots of every little thing you do, using Microsoft Office, laying out an article correctly, using Microsoft Office (Yes, the reliance on Microsoft Office really grinds my gears. There’s better, cheaper software out there!)
Another massive problem with the Welsh Baccalaureate is that, whilst it may be an additional 120 UCAS points, most universities do not consider it the A grade at A level that you are promised when embarking on the course. Cardiff University will only consider it a B grade at A level (personally, I think they’re being very generous), the University of Glamorgan will reduce the entry requirements from 3 Bs at A level to 2Bs and the Welsh Bac for their nursing course, and Aberystwyth Uni have stated that they will consider the Welsh Bac as a “valuable qualification in its own right … [and] we may be prepared to give a slightly reduced offer to Welsh Baccalaureate candidates, provided any course requirements are met.” They haven’t stated exactly how they’d ‘slightly reduce’ the offers though. Other universities such as Imperial College, for the BSc Medical Sciences course, provide a list of alternative qualifications. This doesn’t even list the Welsh Bac.
Most disturbing of all are the comments from Jeff Jones, chair of the WJEC when they bid for the Welsh Bac. He warned student off taking the Bac, saying “No wonder Russell Group universities who can get students from England with four A stars are not that interested. If I were a student I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole – even though I played a small part when I was chair of the WJEC in its development.” Mr Jones also said it’s “really an A level with a load of nonsense added on. It isn’t a proper Bac where students at 18 would still be required to study maths, English, a science and a language, not meaningless Mickey Mouse additions. What the heck is the use of ‘Wales and the World’ for a start?” He admitted that “Both the then chief executive and I discussed whether to bid for the pilot. We both agreed that it looked like nonsense but I argued that we needed the money and in any case, we had to bid because we were the Welsh exam board.” So there you have it – even the ex-head of the WJEC wouldn’t take the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification.
I don’t think it’s fair that we have no choice in doing the Bac. I’d much rather spend the time doing work towards the qualifications that actually matter and will affect my chances of into uni – my A levels. I hope my school, if they read this, will understand my frustration at being told not to criticise something that is in dire need of people speaking out to criticise it. I’d also like to find out how much money they’re receiving to offer the course and how that money is being spent.