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Science lessons
Rhys Morgan has bravely exposed fake medicines and dodgy scientific claims in the face of online intimidation. All the more impressive that he’s a 17-year-old schoolboy. By Ryan Gallagher

Rhys Morgan is not your average teenager. While many of his peers are whittling away their free time playing football or chatting on Facebook, the 17-year-old from Wales is exposing manipulative fraudsters in between speaking at conferences. In 2010, aged just 15, he made headlines nationwide after discovering a disturbing “cure all” fake medicine being offered to people across the UK with terminal illnesses, including cancer and Aids. He began a blog about how the product, Miracle Medical Solution (MMS), was hazardous – astonishingly containing industrial bleach that could be potentially lethal if ingested. His online efforts generated substantial attention. Before long, the Food Standards Agency issued a

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R H Y S

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Morgan blogs about scientific scepticism while studying for his A levels. Photo: Gareth Phillips/ Guardian News and Media

public warning and contacted the European Commission to get the product withdrawn across Europe. The story eventually spread around the world – as far as Africa, where MMS was also being peddled to the sick and vulnerable. Morgan’s work raising awareness about MMS won him wide praise. He received a prestigious award for “outstanding contribution to scepticism” from an organisation founded by prominent scientific sceptic James Randi, and soon the opportunities came knocking. He was invited to major conferences to speak alongside well-known figures, and appeared on national television and radio shows. But unlike most media personalities, on more than one occasion Morgan’s interviews were conducted during breaks from his day job – as a schoolboy studying in Cardiff. “It was a bit surreal,” he says, speaking to The Big Issue in the North from his home in South Wales. “I didn’t really get used to it – it’s still really quite strange.” What did his classmates think of the media storm brewing around him? “My school friends didn’t seem to make much of it. They were just a bit confused really.” Aside from studying for his A-levels and writing on his blog, last year Morgan started his own company – offering technical advice for computer users. He lent his support to a libel reform campaign (“I don’t think that the libel laws should be used to decide scientific matters”) and made yet more headlines after setting his crosshairs on a fresh target, getting embroiled in a legal battle in the process. The Burzynski Clinic, based in Texas, is highly controversial. It is a multi-million pound company that charges terminally ill cancer patients huge sums in return for a treatment – antineoplaston therapy – that has been variously condemned as “disproven” and based on “scientific nonsense”. Five months ago Morgan wrote a blog about the clinic that accused its

owner, Stanislaw Burzynski, of being a “quack and a fraud” and saying: “This treatment isn’t pioneering. It isn’t effective. It does not work. And yet the Burzynski Clinic continue to profit off it. I am sickened and appalled that cancer patients are being exploited.” On reading the blog, a representative from the clinic began issuing bizarre legal threats to the youngster by email, demanding that he remove the posts immediately. “I suggest you remove ALL references about my client on the internet in its entirety, and any other defamatory statement about my client immediately, or I will file suit against you,” Morgan was told. “GOVERN YOURSELF “These are ACCORDINGLY.” The Burzynski people with representative, serious Marc Stephens, illnesses and came across as they’re being highly intimidating. After taken for discovering a ride.” Morgan was a teenager, he threatened to contact his school to “inform them of your illegal acts”, even attaching images taken from Google depicting a satellite snapshot of Morgan’s family home to show he knew where he lived. Despite the gravity of the threats, Morgan kept a cool head. “It was a bit surprising, because it came out of the blue,” he says. “It was a bit concerning at first, because UK libel laws are horrific. But then, after a while, I got good legal support.” The clinic’s attempt to silence its young critic only succeeded in generating more negative publicity and, in the end, once Morgan had sent a few sternly worded emails drafted with pro-bono legal advice, the messages berating him stopped arriving in his inbox. A public apology was subsequently issued by the clinic for the conduct of Stephens. “Dr Burzynski and the clinic feel that such actions were not appropriate,” it read. “Marc Stephens no longer has a professional

relationship with the Burzynski Clinic.” Emerging somewhat victorious, Morgan has since resumed his attacks on the clinic unabated. “I find Dr Stanislaw Burzynski morally reprehensible,” he wrote in a scathing post on 13 January. “I think this because his treatment is sold for extortionate amounts of money to vulnerable, dying cancer patients in their last months – sometimes bringing them thousands of miles away from the majority of their family – so they can be injected with a drug that’s been in development for more than 30 years yet has no evidence base to support its use.” His unwavering motivation seems to stem from a set of staunchly humanitarian values, perhaps instilled by his parents (his father is a doctor and his mother a nurse). “It’s mainly the fact that vulnerable people are being taken advantage of,” he says, slightly raising his voice. “These are people with serious illnesses and they’re being taken for a ride.” Though he clearly has a large amount of compassion for others, Morgan himself has health problems. In 2010 he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition for which there is no known cure, and he has also been vocal online about suffering from depression and anxiety (“The only way to break the taboo of mental illness is by talking about it more,” he says). These conditions, however, do not appear to have stilted the teenager’s ambitions. Once he finishes with school, Morgan hopes to study medicine so he can become a doctor. He also plans to continue exposing bad science practice as a medical journalist, and aims to start a new website that will serve as an online support forum for fellow sceptics. In the meantime, his intentions are clear. “This is my main interest outside of school – tackling quacks and that kind of thing,” he says. “Getting the message out to the public is always important.”
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6-12 FEBRUARY 2012 · THE BIG ISSUE IN THE NORTH

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