Advice: Pseudoscience and pyramid scams being promoted

Our local makerspace recently hosted a “Talk” - this turned out to be a 30 minute sales pitch for one of the “Alkaline/Ionised water” multi-level-marketing scams. It was completely full of misleading pseudoscience and out-of-context “facts” claiming that drinking their water can cure everything from eczema to diabetes to cancer. It had all the classic scam contents - from the “All these famous people have used it so it can’t be wrong” video introduction, to claims that the drug companies are conspiring with the NHS to suppress this miracle cure.

Several people were evidently taken in, spoke about purchasing afterwards, and there were kids present also - which I consider particularly damaging.

I’m looking for advice on how this can and should be dealt with; my (admittedly vocal) complaints have mostly been rebuffed with arguments for tolerating other views and allowing people to make up their own mind - but I consider this a matter of outright scamming and false information (many of the claims are not made by the manufacturer, because doing so would likely be illegal) - and consider it abhorrent to be given an STEM platform to legitimise itself.

Any suggestions?

I suggest a strong “no platform” policy for anything product related
from multi-level-marketing
companies for a start, and definitely have policies in place for what is
appropriate for talks. As for what those guidelines should be… This could
be a starting point?

  1. Anything product based (selling, done by a company selling a product,
    tech demos from companies and developers) must be approved by the board

  2. Any presentation about scientific developments must either be presented
    as a personal experiment, or with relevant peer-reviewed references
    presented to the board first

  3. Presentations on medication, medical therapy, and therapeutic techniques
    as well as ‘Alternative Therapy’ are banned to protect the wellbeing of
    members (who may not have the prerequisite knowledge and abilities to
    safely perform, test, or consume such techniques, information and
    medication). An exception can be made for medical devices such as ECGs,
    pacemakers, ultrasound devices, etc, with board discretion.

  4. ‘Bio Hacking’ talks require board pre-approval due to the technical and
    safety aspects of this area of experimentation.

  5. Talks on illegal acts are banned without board pre-approval. This
    includes; the production, procurement, and taking of illegal substances,
    penetration of computer systems without authorisation (hacking), breaking
    copyright rules, etc.

  6. The board can request a copy of the presentation (in an
    appropriate form) or a discussion with the speaker about the presentation,
    before a date is set, and withholds the right to deny any presentation.

  7. The board or any member thereof has the right to terminate any
    presentation that is deemed inappropriate for the hackspace, before or
    during the presentation, and the ability to ban members and non-members
    from presenting.

I suggest that a board member is at each of these talks, and is willing to
quickly shut off the projector and kill the presentation.

Hope that helps,

As Chris says, basically.

Even if you vetted the talk before it being given publicly, the person(s) involved could decide to change it on the day. TEDx Salford have had similar problems where they’ve tried to keep talks and presentations within the TED standards, which are typically that they have to be factual, scientific, and religion and snake oil are kept out of it, but the presenters still change it on the day because they know they’re reaching the audience that they can manipulate/want to talk at.

If you want to keep this option open to people approaching the Hackspace then the only real alternative is to vet it first, along with the background on them (and their company) then be present on the day, and have the agreement with them that what you’ve vetted is what they present, and if they divert, then let them know you’ll shut it down and send them on their way.

I think the bigger issue you are highlighting is that you feel the space isn’t listening to what you feel is a reasoned argument, because there is an equally vocal group opposing you?

It’s the mixed blessing of a community that you have both the breath of ideas, abilities and volunteers, but also beliefs, and unfortunately when one value system conflicts with another, especially when you believe in something strongly it is very hard to reconcile that.

I’ve had that experience myself and I don’t have an answer.

Frankly all I can suggest is try talk to the directors of your organisation, if they are receptive find a way to implement more checks over what talks take place, but if they’re not then you either need to accept what is going on, or leave.

Ignoring the scam nature of this for a moment: My general view if you’re using the space for commercial purposes (which pitching a product absolutely is), you must pay for the use of the space. LHS charges £600/day for the use of the classroom, which does an excellent job of preventing this kind of behaviour.

If the pre-talk investigation didn’t reveal that the talk was a commercial pitch, I would have stopped it as soon as it became clear that’s what it was.

I’m unsure from the original post whether the Directors/Committee/Board/Whatever from the local space were OK with the pitch. It seems that there’s two clear options here:

  1. The directors weren’t OK and were looking for advice on how to prevent this occurring in the future.
  2. The directors were OK with it but a member (NickD) isn’t and wants advice for how to approach the directors about it.

In my opinion there does need to be a distinction between a scam (where proof exists to contradict the claim) and matters of opinion (where no scientific evidence exists either way, e.g. proving the absence of something).

Pyramid Schemes

Well, first of all, I’d class anything using a ‘multi-level-marketing’ or
’pyramid selling’ technique as a potential scam, and if it’s putting
forward pseudo-science and false ‘evidence’ as I believe was the case in
this incident, I’d class it as a scam - they are designed specifically to
take a cut at every level, and sign up as many marketers as possible, with
each either paying a significant signup fee, or worse, forced to spend (x)
per month personally to stay a seller (I’ve personally seen both).

These companies, and the people who actively sell for them, are highly
predatory and certainly not the kind of organisations or people you want
near a community organisation, as there is a high chance that at some point
they will try to exploit the connection. And that’s after they are done
exploiting any vulnerable members of your hackspace.

The Presentation - Scam?

This presentation, as described, also has all the hallmarks of a scam - the
’famous people use it’ and 'the government/doctors are suppressing it!'
lines. It even illegally claimed that the product could cure cancer - which
is actually a criminal offense.

As for your distinction between a scam and matters of opinion, I strongly
disagree. When you are presenting information on matters of health, or
selling a product by extorting ‘benefits’, it ceases to be an opinion and
could arguably become a feature of the product and therefore be part of the
contract. Saying that a product helps with diabetes is no ‘mere puff’
(Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co), it’s not an opinion (like whether a
brand of eye shadow will suit you), it’s presented as a fact and a reason
to specifically buy a product.

Even if it wasn’t selling a product, it could induce people to change their
healthcare, and cause actual harm - and ignoring liability issues, that’s
somthing I’m sure no hackspace wants to be associated with.

In this case, I’d go as far as to definitely call it a scam. I’d personally
go as far as to report the individual to Trading Standards and maybe Rogue
Traders, but that’s a personal choice.

Duty of Care

The other issue worth noting is that this isn’t in general conversation in
the hackspace (where randomly chatting about crazy ideas, if not a partial
aim of a hackspace, is at least accepted), this is in a publicly advertised
and accessible meeting, which could be the first experiance that someone
has of not only that hackspace, but hackspaces as a whole. That’s part what
I had in mind when I drafted those guidelines.

The other important part about this being an open meeting is a simple one -
not everyone is going to be technically, scientifically, or otherwise
experienced and literate enough to avoid scams like these, and I’d argue
as a STEAM community we have a duty of care to question, interrogate, and
even expel ideas, products, and scams such as this from spaces like
hackspaces. This isn’t a quelling of free speech, this is an issue of
potential harm, fraud, and abuse of members. Especially considering that
there are potentially vulnerable members in hackspaces.


Thanks all, there are some useful ideas and suggestions here. Badspyro, I think that’s a very good outline to work from.

I get the impression it’s mostly (2) - the UK hackspace “Code of conduct” was linked with a “Back down and respect other’s views” implication. I don’t know if this is just that they can’t tell the difference, there is some politics that I’m unaware of, or some other reason. This linking was why I started this thread - the UK hackspace site had no resources on what to do in these sort of situations, and the code of conduct certainly didn’t cover them. I thought it might be useful to have been discussed if and when it ever happens to somebody else.

As for the presentation, I won’t link any directly but if you are curious googling “Kangen water presentation/demonstration” brings up many results, with many of the same slides (I assume it’s a marketing pack the company provides and encourages sellers to remix) and several of the same water/acidity presentations (lemonade is slightly acidic - surprise surprise). Interestingly, many of these have an extra section outlining the explicit marketing model at the end, and how you can become a part of it! (the diagrams look awfully like… a pyramid…)

This is interesting to hear - has the effort to combat this been documented anywhere?

I feel this is slightly hazy and hard to pin down in exact rules, because I’d personally be fine with commercial presentations in many circumstances. Think of e.g. an oscilloscope/test tool manufacturer demonstrating the latest and greatest expensive technology - you get to see/try the latest thing, and they are betting that you’ll choose their product down the line somewhere.

But I guess the main difference is consent, when you are fully aware of what is being advertised to you, why, and are equipped to deal with it.

I feel a good comparison is the responsibility of hackspaces to advocate good safety practices when using potentially dangerous equipment/exposed high voltage. Nobody questions basic power tool safety, as just a matter of opinion (I hope!?).

I’m not involved in the setup and execution of TEDxSalford, so if they have any such documented procedure then it’s likely private.

From what I remember at the time as an attendee, a lot of people complained about the talks which prompted responses to them (which may or may not have been on social media or via e-mail) saying that they assumed the presentation was going to be one thing, but instead they presented another (or went ahead anyway).

I believe their actions to combat this in future were mainly to ban them from talking again, and/or not give them a chance if they suspected anything. I’m sorry I couldn’t be any clearer on this.