Greasing the wheels of skeptical activism: FishBarrel

Update April 22: Possibility of a U.S. version, we need feedback on which forms to target. See bottom of post.

The reason this blog has “software tools” in its title is because I wanted to focus on how skeptics can use software in general (and the web in particular) to further the aims of skepticism. Logo of UK's Advertising Standards AuthorityOften I’ve discussed general purpose tools that can be adapted to the needs of skepticism, such as Wikipedia or Web of Trust.

Increasingly skeptics are building their own purpose-built web sites or software that are particularly adapted to their needs. My own site What’s the Harm is one very simple example, it is intended as a resource you can give to believers who ask the titular question. A more complex example is Andy Lewis‘ widget the Quackometer, which measures whether a particular URL or persona is engaged in quackery. Joel Birch‘s WordPress plug-in Nofollowr is another example.

This week a new one called Fish Barrel was released, that I would really like to highlight in this post. More details after the jump…

Activism through complaining

In the U.S. it is sometimes difficult to get regulatory agencies to take action against pseudoscientific claims, much to skeptics’ chagrin. There are complaint procedures such as the form provided by Federal Trade Commission, but results can be very slow in coming. Homeopathy in particular is given a “free pass” because of historical regulatory loopholes. Other regulations vary widely from state to state, making it difficult for national skeptical organizations to give local skeptics good guidance.

The situation in the U.K. is a bit better. There are a number of agencies such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Trading Standards which encourage the general public to file complaints directly. Skeptics have taken advantage of this.

When Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel, skeptics led by Simon Perry scoured chiropractic websites for claims that went beyond what was legally allowed and filed hundreds of complaints to Trading Standards and the chiropractor’s own regulator. This certainly got the chiropractors’ attention, and resulted in many claims being retracted.

As of March 1 of this year, the ASA expanded their remit to include websites. Naturally this was of huge interest to skeptics, because so many ridiculous claims are made on websites all the time. A new group called the Nightingale Collaboration was set up to educate skeptics on how to take advantage of this and coordinate efforts. As you can see from Nightingale’s ASA help page, there are several steps to making an effective complaint. Information must be gathered, screen captures made, and forms filled out.

This cries out for automation.

Enter FishBarrel

Simon Perry, the same skeptic who filed 500 chiropractor complaints, has applied his experience with the complaint process to make it easier for others. The result is FishBarrel, a piece of free software that automates many of the more tedious steps.

It operates as a plugin for Google’s Chrome web browser. Once you install it, a new button appears on the browser toolbar. While reading a website that makes unsupportable claims, you can click the button and begin the process of reporting that site to the authorities right there. It assists you in taking screen shots and selecting text to use in your report.

The name, of course, comes from the old phrase “shooting fish in a barrel,” an idiom meaning an absurdly easy task. By posting their ridiculous pseudoscientific claims right on the web where anyone can find them, some practitioners make filing complaints exactly that easy. This is a fantastic sort of skeptical software tool that we need more of. Now no skeptic in the U.K. has an excuse not to file an ASA complaint for any website.

An aside: truth be told, many of these complaints simply result in the claims being removed. How is that effective? Doesn’t it just drive the practitioners underground? Well, maybe for some. But any claim that can’t be made is one less reason for an unsuspecting user to buy that product. If skeptics are effective, some alternative medicine websites might end up saying nothing at all.

You can download the plugin from Simon’s blog post about it.

Simon has posted a walkthrough to demonstrate using the tool, which I’ve embedded below. Even if you are not in the U.K. (and therefore can’t use the tool) I highly recommend watching it. It’s a great example of how a little bit of software help can make skeptical activism much easier.

Skeptics everywhere need to look for and exploit other opportunities like this to grease the wheels of skeptical activism.

Update: Possibility of U.S. Version

After I first posted this, and word of FishBarrel got around among skeptics on Twitter, there arose quite an interest in doing other versions targeted at the authorities in other countries. I’ve seen discussion of the U.S. and Australia, but of course there are many countries where this approach would work.

Since Simon is in the U.K., he asked me to coordinate what skeptics in the U.S. would want our version of FishBarrel to cover.

Just because there is an online complaint form, that doesn’t mean it is worth anyone’s time to fill it out, or Simon’s time to reverse-engineer automating the same. A long time ago I spent some time carefully documenting a software bug and reporting it to that company’s online bug reporting form hosted on a particular (now defunct) online service. I got no response. Years later I met a person from that vendor and asked them whether they ever got my bug. It turned out the person who monitored the online bug reporting system had quit, and had never been replaced. All my work had gone into the proverbial bit bucket.

And so, U.S. skeptics, Simon needs your feedback. Which of the following U.S. methods for reporting quacks or frauds has been effective in your experience? Which are not worth the trouble?

Possible targets:

Which have I forgotten? The site lists many more as does an old page on Quackwatch. Are any of those useful to skeptics?

Please limit your comments to real-world experience, not speculation. We’re interested in which ones actually work.