‘Celebrity’ endorsement of quackery – with a twist!

‘Celebrity’ endorsement of quackery – with a twist!

Whaaaat!! If Gwyneth Paltrow can promote that, then surely, I can also promote some of my own quackery! (picture left). Don’t call me a quack, look at Gwyneth, she is  selling ‘psychic vampire repellent’ and ‘jade eggs’- my quackery is not nearly as crackpot as that, and, she gets away with it! (picture right).

And off they go, endorsing and promoting everything from water as effective medicine, to jade eggs to be; “used by women…. [to be inserted, you know where] ….to help connect the second chakra (the heart) and yoni for optimal self-love and well-being.” And, yes, psychic vampire repellent to ‘banish bad vibes and shield you from the people who may be causing them.’ Celebrity endorsements, using social status to (un)intentionally mislead the public, and in some cases, enrich themselves even further! Squeezing out every single financial drop, from their 15 mins of fame.

Pure quackery, but when celebrities promote it, usually a large number of people fall for it. Imagine giving your own child water as a preventative medicine for malaria – it will not end well. But luckily, there are a number of brave scientists who are standing up for science, understands social responsibility, and openly question the validity and motives of celebrity endorsement of quackery – they are the true visionary people. And they are brave, because this can obviously backfire depending on who the celebrity is, as Prof Edzard Ernst experienced, after he publicly, but fairly, called the Prince of Wales a snake oil salesman for his promotion of quackery.

As for Gwyneth Paltrow, she is merrily continuing to promote the most bizarre healthcare rubbish via her company Goop. But at least, she won this year’s inaugural Rusty Razor award for “the ‘best’ promoter of the ‘worst pseudoscience of the year.” Well done, Gwyneth!

In the picture above there is a banner that does not fit the ‘bigger’ picture; “Excellence in Research for Australia” (ERA). The reason that this banner is there, is because celebrity endorsement of quackery has the tendency to attract the attention of a very ‘special’ kind of person – the promotional ‘scientist’. It is, in fact, a vicious circle. Quackery generates a lot of money – partly because of celebrity endorsements – which partly flows into the coffers of willing universities, who provides further ‘scientific’ endorsement of quackery (much appreciated by the celebrities), which in turn leads to an increase in sales – and round we go.  These promotional scientists actively seeks endorsement from celebrities or royalty such as Prince Charles, and they pursue any opportunity to make this reality – an excellent way of spending public money! Endorsement gives them, and the quackery that they peddle, (undue) credibility and legitimacy.

And this brings me to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Australia, who actively sought the endorsement of the Prince of Wales to become their patron. Here is an excerpt of the NICMs attempts, written by Prof Alan Bensoussan;

“I understand that HRH The Prince of Wales is a keen advocate of integrated healthcare and of proven complementary treatments and therapies.  His goals align substantially with those of NICM, which seeks to build an evidence-based complementary medicines sector in Australia and more broadly. Subject to the approval of HRH The Prince of Wales, I envisage that the role of patron would be to officially endorse NICM, for example, by the inclusion of letters written by HRH The Prince of Wales on the NICM website and in seminal publications.”

The words ‘proven’ and ‘evidence-based’ is somewhat out of place, because both the NICM and Prince Charles continue to promote debunked homeopathy (water as medicine against malaria etc.) and a lot of other crackpot treatments, so, these words are meaningless, coming from the NICM.

But there is another type of endorsement that they actively pursue. And that is being endorsed by a respected organisation, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), or in this case, the Australian Research Council (ARC), which manages the ERA scheme (the NICM does have a man on the inside at the WHO – more about this at a later stage). Under the ERA scheme, universities submit their research outputs and based on this data they receive a ranking out of 5, for each field of research. In the NICMs case, they were ranked in the “Complementary and Alternative medicine” field of research in both the 2012 and 2015 rounds, and they are currently submitting data for the 2018 round.  This is what the NICM told Prince Charles;

“We are the only Australian complementary medicine research centre to receive a ranking of 5 in the Commonwealth Excellence in Research for Australia exercise – signalling research well above world standard.”

So, clearly the NICM has been endorsed by the ARC under their ERA scheme, and indeed they did receive the highest ranking of 5, in both the 2012 and 2015 rounds, which they now use to lobby for further recognition and endorsement from celebrities or royalty. They even managed to legitimise traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Australia using this ARC endorsement, and they are currently building a TCM hospital in the heart of Sydney. This is dangerous, because many people get hurt, or even die, because of ineffective fake healthcare systems such as TCM. Here is one example, where the NICM was indirectly involved in the death of a 6yo boy.

But there is a problem with the ERA endorsement. Having first-hand knowledge of the promotional research that the NICM conducts, there is no way in this world that they can or should receive a ranking of 5, so, clearly there is a discrepancy somewhere. For example; below is an abstract of one of their ‘scientific’ articles that was reviewed by the ARC, and you’ll be excused if you think that it was written by Gwyneth Paltrow;

This case report describes a 25-year-old woman who presented with nausea and vomiting (NVP) in her seventh week of pregnancy. The treatment was not successful overall and resulted in both patient and practitioner losing confidence. The following reflective questions challenged my practice and led to an examination of what makes acupuncture work. – Why, after a course of acupuncture, did the nausea and vomiting continue? – What led to a loss of confidence in the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat this ailment? Multiple traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) research reviews show some benefit for nausea and dry retching using acupressure and acupuncture, and limited results for vomiting. Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi. I needed to encourage the patient (‘Laura’) to take more responsibility for her own health and we both needed clarity around the treatment result expected.

This is something that only people such as Gwyneth Paltrow will come up with, and not something that you’ll expect from a university in Australia – especially not if they are ranked ‘well above world standrd’. The fact that case reports (there is more than one) are ineligible to be submitted as a scientific article is an issue (ERA guidelines section 5.4.8.5 page 41), but I believe the contents of their work is a far bigger problem – it is pure and unadulterated pseudoscience! But this isn’t even the biggest problem. The NICM submitted 89 scientific articles for review in the 2012 round, and 151 articles in the 2015 round. Of the 89 articles, close to 50% was not produced by the NICM and in the 2015 round, close to 25% of articles was produced by other universities. This is not only completely unethical, this, in my view, is fraud. You cannot take the work of others and claim that it is your own – just imagine what will happen if you do something like this on your CV? (here is a full list of the NICMs publications, interesting stuff).

But what does the ERA guidelines say about this? Well, to be honest, nothing. I could not find any clear information in the guidelines, which implies that they were allowed to do this. The ARC, and the expert committee members who reviewed the NICMs application, was contatced for clarification, but unfortunately only the ARC responded and none of the 25 committee members. The answer from the ARC was also somewhat vague;

“Therefore if you review the individual outputs of a specific unit of evaluation within a university they may not all have a publication association listed but could still be within the submission guidelines.”

So, there appears to be an unwritten rule which ‘allowed’ the NICM to submit the work of others as your own – a typical loophole? And what better way to identify these loopholes than to serve on the expert committee reviewing these applications? As expected, the director of the NICM, Alan Bensoussan did indeed serve on the expert committee in 2010, where he, as an expert promotional scientist, identified the loopholes which they exploited in full in the 2012/2015 rounds. But, this is only true if this is indeed a loophole, otherwise, it is plain and simple fraud! But, to be honest, I could not care less what the ERA guidelines say, it is never okay to take another person’s work! Because what example do you give to students, and what about the international universities who have now unwittingly contributed to the legitimisation of dangerous pseudoscientific healthcare systems in Australia?

For example. Leiden University has unwittingly contributed 7 scientific articles towards WSU’s scientific output. The authors of these articles worked at Leiden university while being paid by the Dutch taxpayer! And at the time, they were completely unaware of the existence of the NICM or WSU. But, unfortunately, without them knowing about it, they have assisted these ‘scientists’ at WSU to promote quackery. I am convinced that Leiden University, and the many other universities who are involved, will not appreciate this.

Although this issue is still unfolding, and there are still a lot of questions to be answered, it just again shows that almost everything that pseudoscientists do, is misleading or false. They will even mislead the celebrities or royalty from whom they seek their much-needed endorsements. And this does not bode well, because the NICM who has extensively used their ERA ranking to lobby the Australian and Chinese governments, has managed to strike a deal with China and, in effect, has legitimised TCM in Australia.

So, if you suspect that this practice is widespread at Australian universities, you can always request the information from the ARC under a Freedom of Information Act (section 6.4, page 69). And if you are an academic considering taking up a job at an Australian university, be careful, because they might just stick you in a dark hole and use your extensive publication record as their very own scientific outputs. But let’s hope that this fraud is limited to the NICM, and not a widespread phenomenon.

Much more to come on this issue

What can you do about all of this?

The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex, so the best thing to do is to stop using their products and treatments – e.g. prevention. Inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. I have also started a FaceBook page where I regularly post contents regarding the NICM, and complementary medicine in general(@CompleMedQuacks).

Gwyneth Paltrow has won the inaugural ‘Rusty Razor’ award for her promotion of quackery, so let’s hope that the NICM will win this year’s Bent Spoon Award for which they have been nominated, for the second year running. And please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – see options below.

Are the Gatekeepers of Science made of stone? The journals respond to the NICMs undeclared conflicts of interests.

Are the Gatekeepers of Science made of stone? The journals respond to the NICMs undeclared conflicts of interests.

Imposing figures, these gatekeepers pictured above. Problem is, they only give the appearance that they serve a purpose because they are made of stone, and hence, anyone, friend or foe, can easily pass. In the world of science we also have gatekeepers  (scientific journals, peer reviewers, university management etc.) who’s sole duty is to distinguish friend from foe. The former being ‘real scientists’ and the latter, ‘promotional scientists’ or ‘pseudoscientists’.  The gatekeepers’ duty is therefore to stop the promotional scientists in their tracks, and not allow them entrance into the scientific system. As soon as these people are allowed in, society will be engulfed with fictitious or alternative ‘facts’, and this can only lead to chaos (unfortunately this has already happened in many countries).

Real scientists understands social responsibility and impact, whereas promotional scientists ignores it, for the sake of more funding and increased sales for their sponsors. How to determine the difference between the two? Good place to start is to have a look at who funds a scientific study. Usually this information can be found within the conflicts of interests’ section, which has to be completed by all researchers. Being funded by industry does, of course, not necessarily mean that the research in question is biased. Consequently, it is not entirely fool-proof, but a good starting point nonetheless. It is, however, fool-proof when researchers intentionally fail to declare their obvious conflicts of interests, which implies that their research results are very likely to be biased, and geared towards promoting a specific product or service that their sponsors happen to sell.

Another way to tell the difference between the two, is if a research group always report positive results. These positive results doesn’t necessarily have to be reflected as such in their scientific articles, but more so when they use (social) media to ‘translate’ these results to the public. It is hard, but not impossible, to cheat in a scientific article and it is also risky business. You could lose your job, but then only if you have effective gatekeepers in place. To use (social) media to falsely promote ‘positive’ results is far safer because it is unregulated, it reaches the target audience better (the public), and hence it is far easier to get away with it. It basically circumvents the gatekeepers of science. This is an important aspect, because the public does not read scientific articles (it isn’t always available and it’s written in a scientific language that few people understand), but rather read someone’s interpretation of it on Facebook or in the newspaper.

Some of these promotional researchers have the ability to take a neutral or negative result and advertise it on social media as a clear positive. This is unethical, but unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines in place to prevent this from happening. Hence, another loophole in the academic system that unscrupulous promotional researchers exploit to the full. But let’s only look at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine’s (NICM) undeclared conflicts of interests, and I’ll get back to their advertising via social media prowess at a later stage.

The NICMs undeclared conflicts of interests

In a previous article I’ve written about the NICM and their intentional failure to declare their very obvious conflicts of interests in many of their acupuncture studies – and this has been going on for years. Currently, the most notable and largest study is an ‘acupuncture for infertility’ clinical trial (final results not available yet). When they published the trial design they ‘forgot’ to mention that Alan Bensoussan and Caroline Smith (both from the NICM) are consultants for commercial acupuncture-fertility clinics, the director of these clinics serve on the NICM’s advisory board, students of the NICM finds employment at these clinics, and that these clinics have donated money to the NICM (you can read about the details here and here).

I’ve also reported that Western Sydney University (WSU) who hosts the NICM, simply refused to even respond to this issue after I’ve raised it with their ethics committee.  One of the four journal editors who was contacted, also ignored this issue even though the journal, ‘European Journal of Integrative Medicine’ (EJIM) clearly states that;

All authors must disclose any financial and personal relationships with other people or organizations that could inappropriately influence (bias) their work. Examples of potential conflicts of interest include employment, consultancies, stock ownership, honoraria, paid expert testimony, patent applications/registrations, and grants or other funding. If there are no conflicts of interest then please state this: ‘Conflicts of interest: none.”

The reason why this editor ignored this issue, became clear when I looked at who she was.  Prof Nicola Robinson, happens to be an acupuncturist, she was also admitted to the  illustrious ‘ Alternative Medicine Hall of Fame’ (for ‘researchers’ that never publishes negative results),  and she has co-authored an acupuncture article with the NICM entitled; “Does acupuncture improve the outcome of in vitro fertilization? Guidance for future trials”. Needless to say, but even in this article under the heading ‘Conflict of interest’ they also declared to have ‘no competing financial interests’. Clearly, WSU and this editor has completely removed the role of gatekeepers and they are allowing everything to pass as ‘science’. This is also the reason why the NICM and WSU have again been nominated in 2017, for the Bent Spoon award, given to the best Australian pseudoscientist of the year.

The response from the British Medical Journal Open (BMJO) 

The BMJO published the NICMs article entitled “Complementary therapies for labour and birth study: a randomised controlled trial of antenatal integrative medicine for pain management in labour”. Here again we see that the NICM loves to combine or integrate acupressure (acupuncture without the needles) with interventions that in all likelihood will yield a positive result. In this study they combined six interventions (incl. acupressure to unblock your meridians so that your life-force or Chi can flow freely) and all interventions taken together gave them very good results. It also received a lot of (social) media attention. Now, any scientist will know that when you combine six interventions as a single treatment, there will be no way of telling which of these actually contributed to the positive outcome. And this is exactly what the NICM wants. And hence, although these overall results can be applauded, it again shows that the NICM have ulterior motives which, simply put, is to integrate fake treatments with real treatments and use these results to convince more people to use their commercial acupuncture clinics.

Although the journal did respond to this issue, and we have had a number of conversations, they eventually decided that “we do not feel that the authors have a competing interest”. Even though, BMJO clearly states that;

“A competing interest exists when professional judgement concerning a primary interest (such as patients’ welfare or the validity of research) may be influenced by a secondary interest (such as financial gain or personal relationship). There is nothing inherently unethical about a competing interest but it should be acknowledged and openly stated.”

Agreed, and this is exactly what the NICM intentionally did not do, but, unfortunately, this was also the last correspondence I had with BMJO.

Response from the journal ‘Trials’

Journal three was a bit more thorough. It concerns a publication in the journal ‘Trials’ entitled “Acupuncture to improve live birth rates for women undergoing in vitro fertilization: a protocol for a randomized controlled trial” (The media called this large and expensive study “Unis in a wacky waste of cash” at the time.) In this article, they again intentionally failed to declare their very obvious conflicts of interests, but eventually they were forced to publish a correction, which reads;

After publication of our article [1] we realised that our Competing Interests statement should have read as follows: Jane Lyttleton is the Clinical Director of The Acupuncture Pregnancy Clinic. Caroline Smith has had an association with The Acupuncture Pregnancy Clinic. She states that she has not received any financial compensation for this relationship at any time.”

Although a move in the right direction, not completely true, because Caroline Smith is/was clearly a consultant for these clinics (over an 8-year period, but this info was deleted from the clinic’s website after I published my first blog post on this issue), and it does not even mention the donations that the NICM received from these clinics – and this is the crux of the matter! Sure, Caroline Smith probably did not receive any money in her own bank account, but the NICM did accept donations for their research activities. All of this counts towards academic promotions, more students and she was even named WSU’s researcher of the year in 2015. So, she clearly benefited from it all.

Response from ‘Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine'(ECAM)

The fourth journal, ECAM (published by Hindawi) is still investigating this matter. But true to their nature, the NICM first tried to mislead the journal. The journal was even planning to publish a correction, but luckily, they decided to run this ‘correction’ past me first. And, knowing the NICM well, it was quite easy to point out how they were being misled with clever wordplay. After the NICMs failed attempt to mislead Hindawi, WSU also stopped responding to Hindawi’s further queries based on this new information. Only after Hindawi lodged a formal complaint with the university’s ‘independent conflicts resolution unit’ did they respond. Although I am not at all convinced regarding this unit’s independence (I’ve had some bad experiences with them), they even started to respond to my initial queries that I’ve emailed to them about 10 months ago.

Surprisingly, I am currently in contact with WSU’s department of Audit and Risk, who has now apparently forwarded this matter to an external investigator (I haven’t heard anything from them yet). It is surprising, because I am not in contact with scientists or ethics committees who are the best suited to deal with these matters – this is after all a simple case of scientific misconduct. As Alan Bensoussan publicly stated “We understand conflict of interest concerns, but this is why we have strict guidelines and ethics committees …..”

So, WSU is in all likelihood trying to mitigate the potential risks regarding this comparatively small issue, whereas they should start to address the far bigger underlying problem of allowing pseudoscientists a foot in the door.  Apparently, WSU’s gatekeepers will allow anyone in as long as you hand them a bit a cash – and this does not bode well. Promoting pseudoscientific healthcare systems, especially via universities, leads to a lot of people (and animals) getting hurt or even die, as was tragically illustrated with the 6yo boy who died after attending a ‘Slapping Therapy’ workshop at a clinic of one of the NICMs partners.

It is quite interesting to note the big difference between how the journals or ‘gatekeepers’ of science responded to this issue. From an absolute and resolute ‘let’s completely ignore the issue’, to a very thorough ongoing investigation, and everything in-between. It is at least good to see that some journals still understand the importance of fulfilling their gatekeeper role. This again shows that science might be factual, but human interpretations of factual observations is, or can be, strongly influenced by our diverse and many vested interests. And this leads to fiction becoming fact and vica versa.  Or put differently; science is simple, scientists are complex! And this is, unfortunately, a growing concern and danger to public safety and makes it increasingly difficult for the public, to make informed decisions regarding healthcare. Although this article only dealt with conflicts of interests, a rather ‘minor’ issue, a next article will deal with the ‘scientific’ content of the NICMs acupuncture articles. This will clearly illustrate how the NICM is intentionally promoting placebo treatments at the expense of science and public safety, and how WSU is not only allowing this to happen, but that they are even actively assisting the NICM to achieve their dubious objectives.

What can you do about this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop believing that Chi is real, because it simply does not exist. Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their sick game and what the dangers are regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards (the NICM has obviously been nominated), and please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.

 

 

 

 

‘And the Bent Spoon Award goes to…?’ The NICM nominated for the second year running!!

‘And the Bent Spoon Award goes to…?’ The NICM nominated for the second year running!!

Reminiscent of Voldemort about to cast an evil spell, Prof Barney Glover (photo BL -resemblance is striking) is showing a packed auditorium his outstretched hand above which the mystical ‘life force’ or Chi hovers. Because no one, not even Barney, can see anything floating above his hand, Prof Alan Bensoussan (photo BR) comes to the rescue by explaining that if everyone just play along, and make as if they can see Chi, then they all stand to make a lot of money. His strenuous expression indicates that it is a hard sell, but he also knows that the money factor and quality of showmanship, usually attracts a crowd and also wins out over common sense. The photo on top is from Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter movies.  The reason why these three men looks so serious (excl. Voldemort because he is an actor, oh no, wait, all three are actors) is because they know damn well that what they are doing is ‘magic’. So, we are entering an era where all three these characters are real, or scientists should start to stand up for science!

In order to expose these ‘magicians’ and to create public awareness regarding their trickery, the Australian Skeptics Inc. annually presents the Bent Spoon Award for the top pseudoscientist of the year. It is in effect the Oscars for pseudoscientists, because both reward outstanding acting abilities. This year there are a number of nominees including the controversial National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) hosted at Western Sydney University (WSU). Below is the full nomination:

Nominee: National Institute of Complementary Medicine and Western Sydney University

Nominated by: Australian Skeptics and others

Date: 20/09/2017

For continuing to promote unsupported and debunked ‘medical’ treatments, despite promises late last year, in response to a 2016 Bent Spoon nomination, that they are “intending to revise our website … and hope to address some of these issues you have raised”. It still promotes the following treatments under the Complementary Medicine banner: acupuncture, chiropractic, aromatherapy, naturopathy, spiritual healing, crystal therapy, reflexology, ‘energy therapies’ (reiki, qigong, electromagnetic field therapy), TCM, Ayurvedic medicine, anthroposophical medicine, healing touch, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, and homeopathy. Secondly, NICM and UWS are nominated for planning to establish an on-campus TCM clinic for the general public.

Hopefully this year they will walk away with this coveted award, which is bestowed upon “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.” In 2016, the NICM tried for some reason, but in vain, to remove their nomination, but their attempts backfired somewhat. You can read about their sorry attempts here. It is also notable that the 2016 nomination was done by one person, whilst the 2017 nomination was done by a group of people, indicating that more and more people are coming around to the fact that the NICM/WSU are indeed misleading the public.

Key people in this year’s nomination is again the director of the NICM, Prof Alan Bensoussan, and the Vice-Chancellor of WSU, Prof Barney Glover. Between these two men, they earn roughly $1.2 million AUD per year, dished out by the Australian public. In return for these vast sums of money, the Australian public are being misled into believing that all of the above therapies are useful, effective and safe. This is obviously not true as you can see in my previous article which dealt with the involvement of the NICM and WSU in the tragic case of the 6yo boy who died after attending a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) based ‘slapping therapy’ workshop in Sydney. By slapping yourself you supposedly influence the flow of Chi through meridians and hence you will be cured of disease. Unfortunately, this boy suffered from diabetes and because many people belief that Chi is real, he was taken off his medication during the workshop – a life-threatening scenario. Clearly the ‘treatments’ that the NICM promote is not only ineffective, but it can also be quite dangerous.

But let us look at Alan Bensoussan. As a registered acupuncturist and herbal Chinese medicine man, he obviously falls within the category of delusional ‘healthcare’ practitioners. Because his livelihood depends on it, he will continue his unwavering support of debunked treatments, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that these ‘treatments’ simply does not work. Ineffective treatments is quite dangerous, not only to people, but to wildlife as well. In his delusional world, all TCM therapies are effective and hence he will happily go to court to act as a character witness for his business partner (another TCM practitioner) who was send to jail for importing Rhino horn, and other endangered animal material, into Australia. This was followed by promoting rhino horn as a life-saving medicine in a thesis, approved by Alan and WSU (2012). And quite recently (2017) the NICM even had a link on their website where consumers could find information regarding the life-saving properties of rhino horn, and I guess they could even buy it online (link has since been removed).  Everything works in his delusional world.

There are many more examples such as his continued support for debunked treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture etc. but this award is not only for supporting these treatments, it is also the way in which they mislead the public. For example: they fail to declare their many  conflicts of interest on many of their research papers (scientific misconduct), they design their experiments in such a way that it almost always gives a positive result (A+B vs B trial design), and even if the result is negative they will promote it as a big positive on WSU’s news site, or on social media (scientific misconduct and intentionally misleading the public). They even misled the Australian Research Council (info obtained after 2.5 years under a Freedom of Information request) who gave them a ranking of five, which stands for ‘research quality well above world standard’ in their ‘Excellence of Research for Australia’ program.  With this fraudulently obtained ranking, they lobby, but also mislead; UK royalty, ministers, regulators, foreign governments (specifically China) etc. in order to invest more money in the NICM.

But they also use this ranking to try and crush any negative reports, such as their 2016 Bent Spoon nomination – and this is where the excellent acting comes into play. Here is an excerpt from Alan’s letter to the Australian Skeptics “NICM conducts itself with the highest degree of integrity, ethics, scientific enquiry and social responsibility. Our research is independent, peer-reviewed, and is published in highly reputable, world-leading journals. NICM has been evaluated by Australia’s leading scientists under the Excellence in Research for Australia scheme and received the highest ranking of 5 for two consecutive periods, representing research that is deemed well above world standard.” None of this is true, and yet they can write these things without blushing. Their acting ability is so good, that they do not only fool the public, they actually have the acting ability to fool themselves. Any actor that can immerse themselves into a role to a point where they become the character deserves an Oscar, or in this case a bent spoon.

As for Prof Barney Glover. Well, he was warned about all of this, by myself and others, that by supporting the modus operandi of the NICM and hence these debunked treatments, including TCM, people will needlessly get hurt or even die (the Slapping therapy is a case in point). Unfortunately, Barney and the rest of WSU management decided to ignore all of these warnings and is fully supportive, and protects, the NICM at a cost of >$2 million AUD per year. I guess if you can’t beat them, join them; so, Barney has been actively involved in lobbying the Australian public that Chi exists and he has opened the door for China to use Australians as guinea pigs for their unproven and disproven TCM therapies.  It is well known that China wants to internationalise TCM, and via Alan and Barney the Australian public will now have to bear the brunt of ineffective therapies. Here is an excellent article in the ‘Economist’, explaining the dangers of doing just this – the title says it all; “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.”

Armed with this knowledge, Barney visited China on a number of occasions and together with Alan managed to get TCM in the Free Trade Agreement signed between China and Australia. This has given the impetus for Chinese companies to export more of their disproven and unproven ‘medicines’ to Australia, and it forms the cornerstone of a new TCM facility that will be built in Sydney. This facility will be co-managed by the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine (BUCM) and because it needs to be profitable within a couple of years, implies that it will be operated like a commercial clinic or hospital.  In the NICM’s own words during a industry sponsors meeting, the NICM will “lead the modernisation and integration of Chinese Medicine in the West through the
development of an effective Integrative Medicine Facility or TCM Hospital.” The BUCM has managed to start a similar 81-bed ‘hospital’ in Germany and this will likely be the model on which the Sydney facility will be based. So much for ‘evidence-based’ treatments, where evidence that a treatment does more good than harm comes first, before you start selling it to the public. But in their delusional world, all of TCM, and for that matter all of complementary medicine, works – so why should they provide any evidence?  You only have to belief that it works, and that is it!

At the heart of all of this, as usual, is money. The millions that Barney, Alan and the NICM cost the Australian public has to be recovered somehow, and hence these two men decided to destroy science, scientific education and put the public’s health at risk by allowing WSU to become the ‘scientific’ façade of a very dubious, and dangerous, complementary medicine industry. In exchange, they are handsomely rewarded with very big donations towards their ‘research efforts’, or rather, promotional research. Here they received $10 million from Blackmores, here is $4 million from the highly controversial Jacka Foundation (links with anti-vaccination activists), not to mention the millions from other complementary medicine companies, including Chinese companies and investors.

The list of misleading and false claims and statements constantly flowing from the NICM is unfortunately so long that it will require a series of books to be written in order to cover everything. It is however, quite remarkable, how similar their modus operandi is to the notorious gangster, Al Capone, who also had a ‘good guy’ public image, but beneath the surface had a somewhat more  sinister nature.  But the sad thing is that nobody can seemingly do anything about this. As long as they are in a position of power and they manage to bring in this kind of money; rules, ethics and morals simply do not apply anymore. As further evidence of their extremely good acting abilities, here is the title of Voldemort’s, oh sorry,  Barney’s speech given at the National Press club (photo) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will?” This is acting at its best, and in my view, deserving of the Bent Spoon award.

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop believing that Chi is real, because it simply does not exist. Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their sick game and what the dangers are regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my BlogTwitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards, and please, ‘Like’ and share this article – options below.

Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, and others, in this tragedy.

Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, and others, in this tragedy.

It is always a sad day when children die at the hands of fake medical practitioners or pseudoscientists. It is so unnecessary and preventable, and yet, it happens every day everywhere around the world. The proverbial snake-oil salesman is not a new phenomenon, it has always been with us, but it is becoming a global epidemic since some universities decided to elevate this type of quackery, to become state-funded and university-supported quackery. This turn of events lends undue credibility and legitimacy to these ineffective and dangerous ‘treatments’ and this translates into more people being fooled, while the snake-oil salesmen and those universities stand to make more money. It is always about money! But let’s have a look at how it works with the following tragic example, followed by some suggestions as to what you can do to help prevent these things from happening.

The controversial ‘Slapping Therapy’

This example involves a complementary therapy within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), called ‘slapping therapy’ or ‘Paidalajin’. A 6yo boy suffering from type-1 diabetes attended a slapping therapy workshop in Sydney with his parents, but sadly, the boy died in his hotel room shortly afterwards. Although the case is still before the courts, it is believed that he was deprived of medication and food during the workshop. The parents and grandmother have been arrested and faces manslaughter charges while the TCM practitioner, Hongchi Xiao, was only quite recently extradited from the UK, where another person died at one of his workshops. He was not granted bail and faces a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

But what is this ‘slapping therapy’, and why is it called controversial? It involves the flow of ‘energy’ or a ‘life force’ (chi) through channels (meridians) and by slapping yourself, or being slapped by someone else, you restore the flow of chi and your body starts to expel ‘toxins’. These toxins become visible when your skin turns red, and I guess, purple and blue, depending on how hard you are being hit. The theory was, therefore, that by slapping this boy he would be cured from diabetes, and this belief is so strong, that he was also taken off his medication – a life threatening scenario. But what does science say? Chi does not exist, meridians do not exist, diabetes cannot be cured and especially not by slapping, and the so-called toxins that your body expel are called bruising (the slapping injury causes tiny blood vessels to burst and the blood gets trapped below the skin’s surface, which causes a bruise). Just imagine how many people get hurt or die, due to TCM practitioners using chi, meridians etc. to diagnose and treat disease. Because it does not exist, they cannot really diagnose anything, and hence cannot effectively treat anything!

Here is a photo of the type of bruising that you can expect, posted as a testimonial from a cancer sufferer and devout follower of Master Xiao (I always wonder how many of these testimonials are real). In addition, if you hit a young child to a point of severe bruising it is called child abuse, but in the pseudoscientific world it is apparently called ‘self-healing’.

All of TCM is controversial, or none of it is!

If you promote TCM, in whatever shape or form, you also promote its underlying pseudoscientific principles. Let’s look at acupuncture; You insert needles at specific points (acupoints) that supposedly manipulate the flow of chi through meridians – and this, according to practitioners, cures disease! This acupuncturist (at Western Sydney University – WSU) recently published a case study where she reported that her patient did not recover after receiving an acupuncture treatment. What was her conclusion? “Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi.” So, what is Yi? It is your intent (yi 意 ), and when your intentions (to cure disease) becomes permanent, then it becomes your will (zhi 志 ). In other words, acupuncture works and nobody should argue with that, the problem, this time, was that her intention for it to work were insufficient. Solution: believe more deeply!  And to think that this was part of the ‘science’ that was reviewed by the Australian Research Council in their Excellence of Research for Australia scheme, which they rewarded with the highest possible ranking (5) “evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard (something is rotten, but more about this in a next article).

But the same goes for herbal TCM, which also aims to manipulate the flow of chi through meridians. As described by ‘Prof’ Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM at WSU) in a radio interview; “The first patient would receive acupunctural herbs that disperse the accumulation of energy, the second patient would receive acupunctural herbs that strengthen and tonify the low back. It’s a tool like this concept of circulation of energy, that actually allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to distinguish these patients, and allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to treat the patients in a way that the patient themselves may understand better,”.

Disease is therefore seen as an imbalance of a non-existent energy that flows through non-existent meridians, and the ‘slapping therapist’ makes use of these ‘fake’ principles to mislead people. In their strange world, bacteria, viruses, pancreatic cells secreting insulin etc. do not exist, but rather disease is caused by your chi clogging your meridians and hence slapping yourself, or inserting needles, or taking herbs, will unclog your meridians and you will be cured of whatever ailment you might suffer from. They are continuing, to this day, to promote these false and dangerous ideas to the Australian public. And again, it is dangerous because if you cannot diagnose a disease, you cannot effectively treat it. Any successful TCM treatment (some herbs might be effective) is therefore purely based on luck. Ever wondered why a TCM practitioner will prescribe a patient a combination of 10-20 different herbs? Because it improves their chances of getting lucky, but also amplifies the many risks, 20-fold.

This is why scientists call TCM, and the many other forms of complementary medicine, belief-based healthcare systems. You only have to believe hard enough that it works and that’s it, there are more than enough gullible people who will fall for your trickery. Sure, you get true believers (delusional) and unscrupulous people (criminals) that only make as if they belief, for the sake of misleading you and to make money out of you. If you fall for them, then, unfortunately, you are on your own. Master Xiao’s comments after his arrest? “This has nothing to do with the workshop. This boy had a lot of diseases, more than we ever know.” It is never their fault.

But now a very unfortunate death has occurred, which means that many of the important role players in this tragedy will disavow the slapping therapy ‘treatment’ in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to stay out of the news. They do not accept any negative reports because it tends to clash with their Yi and Zhi. And hence they continue to promote acupuncture and TCM, even though many deaths have occurred as a direct result of acupuncture and even more due to herbal TCM remedies. And to think that most deaths, by far, occur as an indirect result after using these pseudoscientific therapies by neglecting a treatable or manageable medical condition, such as malaria or diabetes. The total number of deaths? Nobody knows.

Either all of the above therapies and treatments are controversial and should be stopped, or none of it is. I am fully supportive of the former, but those ‘open-minded’ people whose brains have fallen out, albeit delusional or criminal people, will obviously choose the latter and they will continue to make money out of the misfortunes of others. And with the current support of some universities, this problem will only get bigger.

Who is now really to blame for these tragic events? The role of Tasly Healthpac and the NICM.

No real doctor or scientist or any decent person with ethics and morals would allow a slapping therapist to give a workshop on their premises. Especially not to children suffering from serious medical conditions. What you should do, especially if you are an evidence-based healthcare practitioner, is to explain to this person that what he does is dangerous and that he should please stop doing it. And then you report him to the police. But this did not happen. So, the workshop was held at the ‘Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative Medicine’. According to a Tasly spokesperson, the slapping therapist “Mr Xiao rented a room from our centre to conduct what was described to us as a series of health seminars. The boy and his mother were participants in the seminar.” Apparently, they did not know about the slapping therapy, but is this true?

It is telling that Tasly have deleted their website or they have changed their name to Medicentral, where they continue to provide TCM and acupuncture alongside conventional treatments. No information can be found on their new website regarding the workshop, but from the internet archives, it is clear that they themselves advertised this workshop. Their old website received up to 538 daily visitors, and hence their marketing efforts via their website reached many people in Australia (I would not be surprised if the parents of the deceased became aware of this workshop via Tasly’s website). On Master Xiao’s website he also states that his workshop was co-organised by an Australian medical institution. Therefore, Tasly’s statement is false. Slapping, acupuncture, herbal TCM – it is all the same thing, and that is why they allowed this workshop to be held on their premises.

A key person at Tasly is the founder, Dr Ven Tan, who started the practice more than 20 years ago and ‘through his own practice he has come to realise the limitations of conventional Western medicine and to worship the merit of Traditional Chinese Medicine’. Having a well-established practice and making statements such as above will draw the attention of pseudoscientists at some Australian Universities. WSU in Sydney (and they are by no means the only Australian university who have decided to put money before science and ethics) used public money to convert TCM practitioners into ‘Professors’ and hence, it is to be expected that they will seek funding from, or collaborate with Tasly in exchange for providing extra credibility and legitimacy for Tasly’s pseudoscientific services. ‘Integrating’ TCM with conventional therapies, with the involvement of WSU, creates trust and a sense of security in patients that all of the provided services at Tasly’s are underpinned by science, and thus more and more people will be misled.

Here (second photo on the left) is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Australian governments ‘aimed at promoting TCM in Australia through a collaborative initiative’ witnessed by Dr Ven Tan (Tasly) and Prof Alan Bensoussan (NICM at WSU). Another MoU was signed between Tasly and the NICM in 2011 which states that the NICM will provide “Assistance in the development of an Integrative Care Model: to assist the Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative medicine so that its structure aims to integrate TCM and western medical diagnostics and treatments in an integrated, patient centred way.” The result of doing just that, speaks tragically for itself.

It is well known that the Chinese government wants to internationalise TCM, it is, after all, a $170 billion industry. An excellent article about this issue, a real eye-opener, was recently published in the Economist “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.” The NICM has played a crucial role in the national registration of TCM practitioners in 2012, which elevated TCM to the same level as conventional healthcare, lending undue credibility to TCM. This extra legitimacy was used by the NICM to facilitate China’s plans for internationalisation of TCM via Australia. They lobbied various Ministers and managed to get TCM into the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015, shortly after the boy’s death from slapping. In 2016 a trade delegation of the Minister of Health (Jillian Skinner – now retired) visited China, accompanied by Dr Ven Tan and Prof Alan Bensoussan. Part of the mission was “To assist the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) secure investor and donor support for the NICM’s integrative Chinese medicine facility medicine/treatment on the Westmead Campus“.

Yes, they are building a large integrative TCM facility in Sydney, which will open in 2018. They will obviously sell this as a ‘research’ facility, but in truth, it will be operated like a commercial facility. All of this is good news for China, Tasly and the NICM, but it is definitely not good news for the Australian public.

Tasly and NICM should therefore also be held responsible for these tragic events.

The role of the regulator, the TGA, and the NICM’s influence

In Australia, this very important function to protect the public against the sort of quackery described above, is being done by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Pseudoscientists also know that the TGA is a potential key hurdle that must be overcome. They therefore lobby intensely, and some infiltrate the TGA (Alan Bensoussan has served many years on the TGA panel for complementary medicines), where they actually managed to get the job done. Even though the golden rule is that you really do not need to be a pseudoscientist in order to know what pseudoscience is, or to adequately regulate it. And yet, there are a number of TCM practitioners currently involved with regulating TCM at the TGA.

The NICM, and others, have managed to convince the TGA that almost all of these products and services are ‘low risk’, meaning low direct risk. Unfortunately, the high indirect risk is being ignored. You are probably not going to die after being slapped, but if you stop taking your real medicine it can lead to your death (the possible cause of the boy’s death). And this is exactly what this slapping therapist says. Medicine is poison so let’s slap your medical condition out of you.  What is my evidence for the bold statement regarding the TGA? They recently published their draft list of ‘permitted indications’, or the ‘medical’ claim that manufacturers can make for their products. Included in this list is 140 TCM indications. For example: “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. When a regulator allows pseudoscientists a foot in the door, then the above is the only logical outcome and now the TGA accepts the notion that meridians, chi, Yin and Yang etc. is real. And here again, the NICM is assisting Chinese companies to help them get past the TGA bureaucracy in order for them to register and sell their products in Australia. Having a partner such as the NICM in Australia, obviously makes a lot of Chinese companies very happy. Shouldn’t the TGA also be blamed when people get hurt after using these pseudoscientific healthcare treatments?

In a nutshell. The bereaved parents of the deceased are in trouble, while the slapping therapist is in jail where he will hopefully stay for a long time. But what about Tasly’s which promoted and hosted this workshop as part of their integrative medicine approach, or the NICM who collaborated with this clinic and facilitated their ‘integrative’ approach and who promoted TCM for decades and probably have misled thousands of people over the years, or the regulators who have opened their doors for pseudoscientists and who are continuing to allow this to happen? (I’ve actually volunteered my services to the TGA, but they were not interested.) Not even to speak about the politicians who could actually do something about this, but apparently have little interest to go in against the zhi (will) of the industry.

I can only hope that the courts will also look at the other players in this scenario who are partly responsible for this boy’s death, because it is time that the underlying problems be addressed, otherwise more and more people, including children, will get hurt.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying complementary, alternative, traditional or integrative ‘medicines’ and stop  using their ‘treatments’. Inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are, regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and how they continue to promote these ‘medicines’ and ‘treatments’, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon Awards, for which the NICM has again been nominated. Please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.

Stopping your support of these products and services, by informing yourself and by creating awareness about these issues, are pretty much the only things you can do in order to prevent these needless deaths. It is just such a pity that the VC’s, regulators and politicians (all funded by the taxpayer!) don’t have much interest in this, or just can’t seem to get the job done because of vested interests.  I’ll end with the wise, but somewhat empty, words of Prof Barney Glover (VC of WSU) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will!” – Clearly Prof. Glover will not stand up for the truth, hopefully, the public will!

The NICMs undeclared conflicts of interest! The response from a journal editor.

The NICMs undeclared conflicts of interest! The response from a journal editor.

“We understand conflict of interest concerns, but this is why we have strict guidelines and ethics committees …..” – Prof Alan Bensoussan, director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Western Sydney University (WSU). All academics, including Alan, are fully aware of the importance of research integrity, in which, potential or perceived conflicts of interests play an integral part. As such, WSU does indeed have many rules and regulations to safeguard research integrity in order to ensure that one thing remains intact – summed up in one word: trust.

These guidelines should ensure that the trust between taxpayer and scientist (or the scientific system) remains undamaged, because once it is broken or damaged it can have very serious consequences. We can notice all around us that the trust in the scientific system has been eroded over time. Just look at the number of people who do not ‘believe’ in vaccinations or climate change, then clearly, many people have grown a very healthy distrust in scientists and in the scientific system. It is therefore extremely important that universities act swiftly and decisively when a scientist endangers this trust, because the public does not necessarily look at the specific field of science where a transgression has occurred, they tend to distrust the whole academic system – and remember they keep the system afloat, financially.

So, what is this all about? About a year ago I noticed that in a large number of published peer-reviewed acupuncture papers, authored by the NICM, they failed to declare a conflict of interest. This was quite interesting because they clearly had, and probably still have, a glaring conflict of interest. For example; both Alan Bensoussan and Caroline Smith is (was) listed as consultants, for many years, of commercial acupuncture clinics (they deleted this information as soon as they became aware that I am investigating this issue – you can find an archived page here), the director of these clinics is part of the advisory board of the NICM, students of the NICM find employment at these clinics, the NICM is actively doing research where a positive outcome will clearly benefit these clinics, and the clinics have donated $20 000 to the NICM for the “IVF project” – clearly something that needed to be declared.  You can find more details about this very obvious conflict of interest here and here. But what is this IVF project? An independent journalist called it “Universities in a wacky waste of cash” whilst the NICM called it “Acupuncture to Improve Live Birth Rates for Women Undergoing IVF”, approved by a WSU ethics committee and funded to the tune of $600 000.

This is what an IVF expert had to say about this project: “IVF expert Professor Colin Matthews was outraged the National Health and Medical Research Council had allocated more than $600,000 for a study into acupuncture’s effect on IVF.” The WSU ethics committee that approved this study is fully aware that acupuncture has been shown to be nothing more than a placebo and that it is based on fake scientific principles – hence it is called a pseudoscience. This is now a problem because not only have they abandoned science but they also, seemingly, abandoned their ‘strict guidelines’ to ensure scientific integrity.

But let’s argue that the ethics committee simply did not know about this. Surely, when they are notified about this they will certainly take action to ensure that the trust between the public and academics do not further erode? So, I notified the WSU ethics committee, the advisors to the ethics committee and a number of other people at WSU regarding this issue over a number of months. And now I can reveal their response, and I will quote them; “………………………………..”. Nothing, they did not even acknowledge that they have received this information. After six months, it might be safe to assume that WSU do not plan to do anything about this issue. But then again, I am not at all surprised, as science adheres to the laws of nature (chemistry, physics, biology, etc.), pseudosciences are above those laws. Scientists are held accountable by enforcing these strict guidelines to ensure scientific integrity, sadly, these guidelines do not seem to apply to a pseudoscientist – they are just above it!

Let me try to put all of this into perspective. Most people do not consider infertility to be a life threatening medical condition.  It does, however, have a severe impact on a person’s life, causing broken relationships, severe depression and in extreme cases, even suicide. The more treatment methods a person tries in order to conceive without a positive outcome, the more prone a person is to fall into severe depression (maybe it should be considered as a life threatening condition?). And this is where a pseudoscientist strike, they feed off desperation. If a researcher knows that the method that they recommend is only a placebo, then the project is unethical by default, and it should never have been approved. And oh boy, don’t they know this. There is a reason why they want to ‘integrate’ acupuncture with IVF (which has a success rate of around 45% at 35 years of age or younger, and around 5% when 42 or older), because they know acupuncture is nothing more than a theatrical placebo, and therefore they need to piggy back on something that actually works. If acupuncture worked that well, why don’t they use it as a standalone treatment option? Why did they start these commercial clinics in 2008 and only in 2013 are they doing a ‘scientific’ study to test if it is actually effective or not – wrong way round, maybe?  And if the study turns out to be negative, will they close their clinics? For some reason, I don’t think so!

Having said that, I do not expect to receive any response from WSU. In a previous article I have written about the dishonest type of people that you need at the NICM, this article illustrates that the WSU management themselves are not much better – they are just as dishonest. Hence, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Barney Glover, who is aware of this and many other issues at the NICM, was also nominated for the Bent Spoon award in 2016. Oh, and did they try to squash this nomination, but to no avail – you can read about their hilarious attempts here. But, maybe it is a good idea if a couple of readers can email the ethics committee at WSU, just to ask what is going on with this issue. This might even prompt them to respond (email Steve Hannan at  s.hannan@westernsydney.edu.au).

This brings me to their scientific publications. Journals are usually independent of universities, and as such, they might be able to perform the important job of being the ‘gatekeepers’ of scientific integrity. I have contacted the editors of four scientific journals regarding only five of the NICMs scientific publications, where they intentionally did not declare their obvious conflicts of interest. Here I will discuss the response that I got from one editor (I’ll report separately on the response from the other editors, and the other organisations investigating this issue).

Here is my original message to the editor of the ‘European Journal of Integrative Medicine’:

“Dear Prof. Robinson

 I am contacting you in regard to a recently published article in a special issue in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine of which you are the Editor, “Participation in a randomised controlled trial of acupuncture as an adjunct to in vitro fertilisation: the views of study patients and acupuncturists. Kylie Barr, Caroline A. Smith, Sheryl L. de Lacey. 8 (2016) 48–54”

The authors state under Conflicts of Interest that “There are no known conflicts of interest and no competing financial relationships exist”

 Senior author Caroline A. Smith is a Consultant for a chain of acupuncture fertility clinics in Australia who in turn has donated a substantial amount of money to her research group. The information regarding her consultant capacity for these acupuncture clinics has since been removed from their website but can still be found on the internet archive which you can access here. The reason for this removal appears to be based on an article that I’ve written regarding this matter.

This is not an isolated case, with four articles published in 2016 on acupuncture and fertility related issues where their conflict of interest is intentionally omitted. The editors of the other journals have also been contacted.

 I hereby request that this matter be investigated.

Thank you in advance.”

And here is her response dated 17/01/2017:

“Dear Dr Van der Kooy

I have contacted my Elsevier publisher and she is investigating as you requested and will get back to you in due course.

Regards

Prof Nicola Robinson”

This was unfortunately also the only response that I received from this editor and needless to say, nobody from Elsevier contacted me. As this is now more than 6 months ago, with all my subsequent follow-up emails being ignored, I believe it is safe to assume that this editor never intended to do anything about this issue. So, I had a look at this editor and it turns out that Prof Robinson happens to be an acupuncturist and that she has co-published with the research group in question – and the title of the research paper? “Does acupuncture improve the outcome of in vitro fertilization? Guidance for future trials”. So, she knows the people at the NICM quite well, she know the project quite well, and hence she is also aware that pseudoscience does not abide by the laws of nature nor does pseudoscientists abide by the laws that should ensure scientific integrity. They just need to remain quiet and ignore any complaints, and hopefully everything will blow over and they can happily continue to mislead the public. So, in this case, don’t expect anything from this ‘gatekeeper’ of science – she apparently has way too many vested interests.

In a next article, I will report on the feedback from the other editors, the NICMs attempts to mislead one editor and a couple of corrections to their ‘scientific’ publications that they have been forced to publish.

Once a criminal, always a criminal? The curious case of Gregory Kolt, the guy that signs off on the NICMs plans

Once a criminal, always a criminal? The curious case of Gregory Kolt, the guy that signs off on the NICMs plans

So, who is Gregory ‘guy that signs stuff’ Kolt? Well, as his name implies he is the man who has to sign off on just about everything. How loud you may talk, how fast you may walk and even when you may take a bathroom break. You can just imagine that Gregory, as Dean of the School of Science and Health at Western Sydney University (WSU), has a huge number of documents that needs to be signed on a daily basis, in order to keep his subjects in line. On top of this, he is also the man to whom the director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) reports, and hence he also has to sign off on almost everything that the NICM plan to do. Regular readers of this Blog will by now know, that most things that the NICM does is simply put, dishonest, and as such Gregory is fully aware of what the NICM is up to. He is, after all, on the NICM’s advisory board where ways to make more money by misleading the public is openly discussed.  And again, if you can promote, defend or sell water as medicine to sick children then you are not only dishonest but, in my view, a common criminal.

Because of this, the ‘guy that signs stuff’ was nominated for the Bent Spoon award (for the pseudoscientist of the year) together with Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM) and Barney Glover (VC of WSU). These three musketeers are fully aware that what they are doing is at best dishonest and that it will have a detrimental impact on society, not even to speak about the impact on science. They tried their best to block this nomination, but to no avail, with their measly attempts now providing us with some excellent, or even hilarious, reading material (you can find it here). Unfortunately, they did not win the award in 2016.

But it turns out that Gregory has signed one too many document, or 137 to be more exact. It is a type of document that claims money for patients that do not exist – oops. You can find the description of the court case here (page 36). Below is a copy:

“GREGORY SHANE KOLT

Date of offence: Between 1996 and 1998

Date of prosecution: 19 January 2000 at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court

Magistrate: John Hardy

The defendant, a physiotherapist, submitted invoices claiming payment from the Victorian WorkCover Authority in relation to his purported treatment of four injured workers. The invoices related to 137 physiotherapy consultations that had never taken place. As a result, the defendant fraudulently obtained a total of $5,864.15 from the Authority over a period of 14 months. When the matter was investigated, the defendant provided false information and documents.

Breaches of the Accident Compensation Act 1985, sections 248(1) and 249(1) x 2.

The magistrate noted that the defendant made admissions and full restitution to the Victorian WorkCover Authority. In ruling out conviction, the magistrate referred to Section 8(1) of the Sentencing Act i.e. the impact of a conviction on the defendant’s career. He also acknowledged that the defendant had no prior convictions and an extraordinary record of professional achievement and community involvement. Result: Without conviction, fined $2,500 re: Section 248(1) and $1,500 re: Section 249(1). Total fine $4,000 plus $1,022 costs.”

Some might now say that digging up old court cases, to put someone on the spot many years later, is not a nice thing to do. Many people make mistakes, pay for it and then learn from it. But I am afraid that this court case show that Gregory planned his offence well, it occurred over a long period of time and then he tried to mislead the investigators by covering up his actions. And this means, in one word, that he is a dishonest person. Dishonesty is something that runs in your blood and it is part of your DNA, and if you draw the line through to 2017, not much has changed. Dishonesty is of course not all bad, for example; with this sparkling attribute you can easily find a job with just about any political party, the mafia also comes to mind, and then of course, you can also become the guy that signs off on all of the NICM’s dishonest plans.  Once a dishonest person, always a dishonest person? But enough on Gregory for the time being (I am sure there will be more to come).

There is another interesting example, just to illustrate the type of people that the NICM work with. This time it relates to a convicted person. In 2006 Yu Long Yu was sentenced after a large amount of endangered animal material, including Rhino horn, tiger etc, was found in his possession. Because mister Yu was (is) a business partner of Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM), Alan was in court to defend his good friend: “Character witnesses – including Alan Bensoussan, director of the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the University of Western Sydney – told the court Yu was “absolutely exceptional”. “There are very few clinicians of his ilk in Australia,” Professor Bensoussan said of his friend and sometime business associate of 20 years.” “He [the barrister] said Yu had tried to pull the wool over officials’ eyes.”

And again, we have a person linked to the NICM who tried to BS officials. One would think that Alan as a ‘honest scientist’ would try his best to explain to Mr Yu that traditional Chinese medicine is based on pre-scientific ideas and that it is a believe-based healthcare system, and as such, is dangerous not only for people but also for (endangered) animals (they are currently skinning donkeys alive for their purported medicinal value). This, of course, applies to any believe-based healthcare system, but I guess this would have been the honest thing to do and honesty does not sit well with the NICM – simply because honesty will cost them way too much by way of a significant decrease of external funding. So, here and here you can read about the NICM’s view on using endangered animals as medicine. Mr Yu was send to prison for a couple of months, and as expected, the NICM is currently still collaborating with him.

The examples that I have given above isn’t isolated cases, but it should help to illustrate what type of person you need at an Institute such as the NICM. My next article will give another example of an even grander scale of dishonesty where, as it currently stands, they are trying to cover up their undeclared conflicts of interest. And as usual, money seems to be at the heart of the problem. It turns out that these people are not only above the laws of nature as expressed by physics, chemistry, biology etc., but that they are also above the rules that should ensure scientific integrity – it simply does not apply to them.

More to come!

Superfoods (& most complementary meds). They all come with the same steaming side dish: a hearty helping of bullshit.

Superfoods (& most complementary meds). They all come with the same steaming side dish: a hearty helping of bullshit.

A bit of humour to let off some steam, but also to continue to battle the flood of misleading information regarding complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). Because, who wants me to explain how CAM is regulated in Australia? ‘Booooring’, ‘yaaawn’, ‘move on mate’ – I can hear you say. Short answer; no one.  So, how can one get this important, albeit boring, information regarding how we are being misled, to as many people as possible? Well, humour might play an interesting role, because everyone loves a good laugh. But then again, how can anyone squeeze any humour out of such a dreary subject? Luckily, there are some exceptionally gifted people, who can do exactly that. Not only can they give this subject a hilarious spin, they can also get the complicated message across – and hopefully many people will learn from this while enjoying some very good comedy.

And it even gets better, because it is all on youtube. I have listed a couple of videos where the consumer program “The Checkout” looked at various aspects regarding CAM regulation and misleading claims made for specific supplements, including superfoods. Sure, the focus is on Australian issues, but the CAM industry in other countries use very similar techniques  – so these videos are perfect for anyone who wants a good laugh, and learn something while doing so. Below is a short description and the total length of each video.

  1. The Australian Complementary Medicines industry is worth over $1.2 billion a year. But do manufacturers have to prove their products work? Or is a celebrity endorsement enough? Craig Reucassel looks into these questions and more. You can find the video here, length 8:47min. (they were sued for defamation based on this segment).
  2. Pharma Sutra: Seems you can buy anything at a pharmacy these days. But are pharmacists breaking their own code of conduct? You can find the video here, length 7:32 min.
  3. Chlorophyll: Kirsten Drysdale throws stones in the chlorophyll glasshouse. You can find the video here, length 3:20 min.
  4. Nicole Kidman Joins The Checkout + Dodgy Swisse Labelling: Consumer affairs Ambassador Nicole Kidman speaks out for the first time about her Swisse ads. And Craig follows up The Checkout’s first investigation into dodgy labelling of complementary medicines, analysing Swisse’s dodgy reaction to their dodgy products being banned. You can find the video here, length 2:30 min.
  5. Swisse update: Craig looks at Swisse’s push for more self-regulation in the advertising of complementary medicines. You can find the video here, length 3:32 min.
  6. Superfoods: They’re ancient, exotic, jam-packed full of antioxidants, and all come with the same steaming side dish: a hearty helping of bullshit. You can find the video here, length 9:00 min.
  7. Fish Oil: Kirsten Drysdale finds something fishy in the world of omega-3 supplements. You can find the video here, length 9:00 min.
  8. U. Tube: Howdy Partner! A special welcome to the ABC’s new commercial partner, Swisse, with a trip down memory lane! You can find the video here, length 1:27 min.

The patriarch of the supplement company Swisse, who features in many of these videos, did sue the Checkout for defamation after video 1 aired, but the case was eventually settled. And as expected, Swisse just continue to sell their dodgy products, using very dodgy claims. Enjoy the videos, and if it is any good please distribute their links via your network!

What can you do about the flood of misinformation re CAMs?

Well, if you are not a politician, Vice Chancellor or work for the regulators, to be honest, not much. One obvious thing that anyone can easily do, is to stop supporting unproven and disproven complementary, alternative and integrative therapies and medicines, even if it might look like harmless interventions (a balanced diet, exercise and drinking enough water is far more beneficial than all these complementary medicines combined – and it’s a lot cheaper).

Another important thing that anyone can do is to inform yourself, because you, or a member of your extended family or friends, will sometime during your lifetime be confronted with fake medicines or fake medical practitioners. The problem is that these people are so good that they can sell ice to an Eskimo, and hence, they can mislead anyone; your age, level of education etc. does not matter. To be well informed will be your only defence.

A very good source of valuable information, with an Australian focus, is the group called ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM). They are doing excellent work by providing accurate information regarding healthcare, but they are also doing much more than that. They are trying very hard to persuade Australian universities, politicians and regulators to stop their support of pseudoscientific healthcare systems – to fulfill their gatekeeper role. To join the 1100 concerned academics/healthcare professionals you can add your voice by becoming a friend of FSM or follow them on Twitter (@FriendsOfSciMed) or FaceBook. Their newsletters detailing all of their efforts also comes highly recommended. You can subscribe here.

A second valuable source of information is the website of Prof. Edzard Ernst in the UK. Prof Ernst was the first professor of complementary medicine (now retired), but luckily also happens to be a real scientist. He has many decades of experience, which he now shares via his website. This information is invaluable and deals with specific complementary medicines but also with how people around the globe are being misled by pseudoscientists. He has also written many books written in a style that anyone can understand (info on his website) dealing with this subject – it comes highly recommended. Twitter @EdzardErnst

You can also continue to read about my attempts to explain how the minds of pseudoscientists work, and what they are trying to achieve. Although my focus is on the NICM, many universities around the world have similar Institutes who’s modus operandi is exactly the same as the NICMs. You can follow my blog at (frankvanderkooy.com) or Twitter (@frank_kooy) or connect on LinkedIn. A simple and easy thing to do is to use the ‘Like’ function, because algorithms pick up on the number of likes which leads to the article being made available to a wider audience, and thereby creating more public awareness regarding these issues.