‘I reject your reality and substitute my own’ – a quote made semi-famous by Adam Savage from the TV series, Mythbusters, and obviously meant as a joke at the time. But it seems that this one-liner has caught on with some of the world’s most powerful. Donald Trump, working tirelessly to solve the world’s biggest problems, decided during his first few days in office to release a statement, via his team, that they will provide the ‘alternative facts’ regarding the number of attendees at his inauguration. Truly important stuff, resulting in a deluge of twitter comments including the hilarious ‘Officer I am not drunk, I am alternative sober’.
This article is, however, about his front-runners who has perfected the art of conjuring, disseminating and defending ‘alternative facts’ and because they were mainly allowed to do so, unchecked or unchallenged, for many years or decades they arguably assisted in paving the way for creating the current situation we find ourselves in. For example: scientists are now holding their breaths due to Trump’s plan to review current vaccination policies and for whatever might follow once this review is completed. What kind of ‘alternative facts’ will this review reveal? Allowing ‘alternative facts’ to go by unchallenged, even the tiniest of deviations that may seemingly not have any measurable impact, creates societies that accepts ‘alternative facts’ and hence for it to become the norm. It is about accepting it and not necessarily about the fact itself – e.g. nobody really cares about the inauguration numbers (correction; there might actually be one person who truly cares).
Nowhere is ‘alternative facts’ or ‘alternative truths’ more common than in the world of alternative medicine, in all of its different shapes and sizes. But as Edmund Burke apparently said sometime in the 1700’s “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing”. It is therefore important that men and women, specialising in different areas of science, to at least try and present the real facts when confronted with the unchallenged dissemination of ‘alternative facts’. Yes, it can get you in hot water, but it needs to be done. In the world of alternative medicine this also seems to be a full-time job, but luckily there are a number of brave souls, and a number of organisations, who expose these ‘alternative facts’ with the real facts, as and when presented by the alternative, complimentary and integrative medicine fraternity.
One such organisation is the Australian Skeptics who annually reward the ‘best performing’ Australian with the coveted Bent Spoon award for “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle, and it serves to highlight particularly egregious instances of anti-science”. A number of ‘alternative fact’ proponents were nominated in 2016, including Prof Alan Bensoussan, Director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Western Sydney University, Australia. Obviously, you cannot just nominate anyone; that would be just wrong and therefore the provided incriminatory information has to be double-checked and authenticated.
In a recent newsletter of the Australian Skeptics an article appeared about the efforts by Prof Bensoussan to get his nomination removed (without providing a shred of scientific evidence!). You can read the full text of this riveting article here and below is mainly the e-mail exchange between the Skeptics and the NICM (republished with permission):
“On 22 November 2016, a few days before our National Convention where we present our annual awards, Australian Skeptics Inc President Eran Segev received an email from Professor Alan Bensoussan. It had a letter attached, and requested “that this letter is treated with strict confidence and only used for the purpose of removing the nomination”.
As will become clear shortly, we rejected this request as being unreasonable and unjustified both substantively and as the email was copied to two other parties not directly linked to Australian Skeptics Inc. However, there were parts of the letter that we accept should appropriately remain confidential, and we have chosen to redact those.
You can read Prof Bensoussan’s letter here.
On 3 December, a few days after the Convention, Eran Segev sent the following email to Prof Bensoussan:
Dear Prof Bensoussan,
Thanks for your email and letter. At the convention this weekend we have announced the “winner” of the Bent Spoon for this year, and I’m sure you’d be pleased to know that NICM was spared. The nominations for 2016 have now been removed from our website.
I wish to use this opportunity to express my ongoing concern over the uncritical way NICM presents information that is, at a minimum, dubious. The easiest example is the definition provided under “Energy Medicine”. Simply using the biologically meaningless terms “energy fields” and “biofields” puts you in the same category as some of the worst cranks in alternative medicine. As a minimum, I would have expected something like “it is claimed” followed by other qualifications that make it clear that NICM does not subscribe to these unscientific definitions. Unfortunately, a review of your site suggest that your claim that you “…do not defend the use of any complementary medicine unsupported by evidence” is false.
While you did not win the Bent Spoon this year, I reject your suggestion that the nomination was undeserved. Investigating complementary medicine in a scientifically rigorous manner is a credible scientific pursuit. Promoting it with weak or non-scientific evidence, as NICM often does, is not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Bent Spoon nominations for your organisation as you continue your uncritical support for implausible and evidence-free treatment modalities.
In your response to the NH&MRC review you ignored the magical pre-scientific notions that underpin homeopathy and its complete lack of plausibility, producing a statement which makes it look very much like you think this modality has some credibility, yet to be proven. The same approach permeates your site – no criticism of any alternatives to medicine in sight.
Even your warnings are mealy-mouthed: Saying “Serious forms of disease, conditions and disorders should not be diagnosed or treated without first consulting a suitably qualified healthcare professional” is not nearly good enough, when what any responsible organisation would say is “Go see your doctor” to make sure no-one sees a naturopath for a serious condition.
I also note that NICM is being sponsored by the Jacka Foundation, an organisation so uncritical of alternatives to medicine that it links to notorious anti-vaccination activists as sources of information.
I hope this will serve as a bit of a reminder of the need for scientific thinking to replace the unwavering support of complementary medicine in all its forms, which seems to inflict NICM.
President – Australian Skeptics Inc
Prof Bensoussan’s response on 5 December:
Thank you for your update note and thoughts. We are intending to revise our website over the summer and hope to address some of the issues you have raised. However, I don’t agree with everything you say and your language is in places unnecessarily offensive.
And finally, Eran’s message on 5 December:
Dear Prof Bensoussan,
We at Australian Skeptics are encouraged by the news that you intend to revise the website and look forward to seeing a more measured attitude to the evidence – or lack thereof – for various CM modalities. However, until such time as NICM has clearly made a shift in its approach, we will continue to keep a sceptical eye over the Institute and its publications, and make public our criticism of the Institute when we feel it’s appropriate.
Specifically, we refer to your letter dated 22 November 2016, which we note was headed “Strictly confidential”. We suggest that this was inappropriate and that we are entitled to republish your letter if we wish.
Your letter requested us to remove text from our publicly available website. There was no confidential information in the letter which you are entitled to protect from public disclosure.
As part of our ongoing investigation of CAM, we consider that it is in the public interest to republish the nomination, your letter and our response dated 3 December 2016.
We also give you the opportunity to respond and we will publish that, assuming it is in appropriate terms and not of excessive length. If you wish to take advantage of our offer, please respond by 5 pm Friday 9 December 2016.
President – Australian Skeptics Inc
To date, no response has been received to this last message.
We sincerely hope that NICM will change its ways; but if past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, we remain sceptical.