Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA). Masters in selling ice to Eskimo’s, but occasionally, they do slip up and acknowledge it!

Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA). Masters in selling ice to Eskimo’s, but occasionally, they do slip up and acknowledge it!

It is always interesting, and sometimes hilarious, when Complementary Medicine proponents slip up, especially when it is on national TV. As we all know, these people try their utmost best to lobby just about everyone in order to increase the sales of their, mostly ineffective, products. Asian countries are now being targeted by Australian companies such as Blackmores and Swisse, with the latter even sponsoring the ABC’s international network giving them exclusive advertising rights in Asian countries.  Contrary to this rather shocking revelation, the ABC’s program ‘Four Corners’ took an in-depth look at the vitamin and supplement industry in Australia, and reported, unsurprisingly, that most of their products are unproven (although, disproven might have been a better term to use) – you can find the full transcript of the program here.

At the end of the program Carl Gibson, the CEO of Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA), responded to plans to reform the regulation of Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) in Australia, by having it independently tested and labelled accordingly. In other words; this product has been tested and it was found that it does not work! One can imagine that a company like Blackmores, who has recently donated $10 million to the National Institute of Complimentary Medicine (NICM), will not approve of this idea, as this implies that they will have to label 90% plus of their products as ineffective. But only if their products are truly independently tested.  And hence, the CAM industry is in all likelihood lobbying with the NICM, for the latter to become this ‘independent’ testing facility.

The problem is rather obvious, the NICM is not independent at all. They receive huge sums of money from the CAM industry, they are listed as an associate organisation of the CMA, they sponsor organisations such as the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association who peddles all sorts of disproven and unproven CAMs, and in return Carl Gibson sits on the NICMs advisory board, whereas the Directors of the Blackmores Institute are both listed as adjuncts of the NICM etc. etc. A very good example of their inability to accept that a specific CAM simply does not work, is Carl Gibson’s rather aggressive response to the NHMRC’s report that Homeopathy is ineffective. The NICM published a more measured but similar response. They just won’t accept the NHMRC’s recommendations regarding homeopathy – you can read their response here. Surely, there are some serious question marks around the NICMs independence?

But having said that, all of these organisations and people work in unison by lobbying extremely hard to be able to expand their range of mostly ineffective products, specifically targeting Asian countries.  That this is exactly what they are up to, can be seen by Carl’s little slip-up. The whole program was about the unproven and disproven nature of the CAM industry’s products and this is what he had to say about it. Here is an unedited excerpt from the transcript:

“GEOFF THOMPSON: Lobbying continues against any labelling system which would make unproven products look bad.

CARL GIBSON: We have a growing international trade. So if you’re an Asian consumer and you pick up 2 products identical and the NZ product doesn’t have that disclaimer and our does I think you’re actually disadvantaging the Australians.

ASSOC. PROFESSOR KEN HARVEY: The challenge will be to see who wins. Will industry lobbying destroy any reform yet again or will the weight of time, the pressure from consumer groups and health professional groups and others actually mean that this time, something might happen? I’m not holding my breath.”

So, what does Carl Gibson say? – allow me to translate. “We know damn well that most of our products does not work and hence, that it should not be sold to the public. But, we don’t give a hoot because it is all about money, and if we don’t bullshit the Asians, somebody else will!”

It will be interesting to see how these regulation reforms will unfold over the next couple of months or maybe years, and how the different role players will try and influence the process. But, like Prof Harvey said, we should not hold our breaths for any significant reforms!

Western Sydney University capitulates against the $10 million Blackmores tsunami. Cheerio science!

Western Sydney University capitulates against the $10 million Blackmores tsunami. Cheerio science!

We’ve seen it last year and now we see it again. Early in 2016, Western Sydney University (WSU) awarded an honorary fellowship to Judy Jacka. She is the founding member of the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies with links to notorious anti-vaccination groups and who openly and fully support all types of quackery, from energy medicine to horse shit as medicine. Any scientist might now want to know why would any university do such a thing. As always, the world revolves around money. If you donate a substantial amount of money to WSU, a couple of million dollars in Judy’s case, it seems that WSU will then add their weight behind whatever you stand for, and hence give it credibility and legitimacy, and they will even reward you for it with an honorary “award” – probably because they hope that you might donate more money in future.

2017 is however quite interesting. A couple of weeks ago the Vice-Chancellor of WSU gave a speech where he proclaimed that universities should stand up for facts and the truth because “if we don’t, who will?” Interesting, because he is fully aware of the attempts by a few brave scientists over the past couple of years, to indeed stand up for the truth and who are trying to persuade WSU that it is not in the best interest of science, scientific training and the Australian public, to support and give credibility to pseudoscientists such as Judy Jacka – but WSU simply squashed all these (ongoing) attempts.  His failure to stand up for the truth led to a nomination for the “Bent Spoon” award bestowed upon the “perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle” – and they even tried to squash this as well. The good news, however, is that their attempts to squash this, failed spectacularly – you can read about it here, here and here.

So, WSU could have actually stood up for the truth after their Bent Spoon debacle but, no, it seems that such a brave move would have cost them too much money. The big news was published a week ago. The controversial supplement company Blackmores, who made the headlines recently for grossly misrepresenting research results, donated a cool untied $10 million to WSU. And in a show of force, indicating that WSU has learned nothing, and in all likelihood, will never put science and the health of the Australian public before money, bestowed an honorary doctorate upon Marcus Blackmore, the founder of Blackmores – maybe because he is ‘loaded’?

WSU has now made it as clear as daylight. They have capitulated against the big money, making them nothing more than a for-profit company – who will now stand up for facts and the truth, Mr Glover?  As long as you give us a substantial amount of money we will promote and defend whatever you are trying to sell – simple stuff. Surely, WSU and the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, who received these funds with open arms, and who continue to mislead the Australian public deserves another Bent Spoon nomination in 2017?  You can find the nomination page here.

“Swallowing It!” The ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ takes a look at the Australian vitamin and supplement industry. And the NICM’s role in all of this?  

“Swallowing It!” The ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ takes a look at the Australian vitamin and supplement industry. And the NICM’s role in all of this?  

Swallowing it: How Australians are spending billions on unproven vitamins and supplements.” A catchy title and a very important subject to investigate. It is however unfortunate that the term ‘unproven’ is used, instead of ‘disproven’. There is a major difference between these two terms.  The former means that vitamins and (mineral) supplements has not been tested, and therefore it is unknown if it is beneficial or not, whilst the latter indicate that it has been tested, to infinity and beyond, and it was shown not to be beneficial for most people, but for a select small group of people and for very specific conditions (e.g. vegans, pregnant women etc.). In reality, it has been tested, over and over – very little benefit and it might even carry a risk. It is therefore mainly disproven.

Herbal supplements are somewhat different. Many, such as St Johns Wort and Gingko biloba, have been tested thoroughly, whilst many haven’t. Therefore, we have a combination of unproven and disproven herbal supplements and very few that might actually be beneficial. Having said that: this does not matter one iota for the Complementary Medicine (CM) Empire – they just couldn’t care less. Why do I call them an Empire? Because of the remarkable similarities between their modus operandi and that of the well-known gangster, Al Capone. You can read about it here and here.

To say that a specific CM does not work, and that the public should stop taking it, is for these people totally unacceptable.  Here is a simple example of how it works:

A large clinical trial, called SELECT, (involving more than 35 000 men) was conducted to test if Vitamin E and Selenium prevents prostate cancer. It was stopped prematurely because not only did it not prevent prostate cancer (no benefit), there were, although not significant, “….more cases of prostate cancer in men taking only vitamin E” (indicating that it might actually be harmful). Based on this information, any responsible scientist will now conclude that the benefit of taking this supplement for the prevention of prostate cancer has now been disproven (no benefit and it might even be dangerous). Simple stuff.

Therefore the ‘National Cancer Institute’ in the US provides this information on their website; “Should men take vitamin E or selenium supplements for cancer prevention?  No. Scientists do not understand how these supplements really work and more importantly, the interactions that these supplements have together or with foods, drugs, or other supplements. There are no clinical trials that show a benefit from taking vitamin E or selenium to reduce the risk of prostate cancer or any other cancer or heart disease.”

Although the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), in Australia, did not take part in the SELECT trial, they felt compelled to release a press statement regarding the trial outcome. Whenever a negative (no benefit) result is published that might influence the sales figure of their main sponsors, they will react. In a long, and somewhat confusing, statement the NICM reaches the following conclusion and recommendation “….the precautionary principle would suggest that men over 50 and any man over 40 with a family history of prostate cancer should avoid selenium and vitamin E supplementation at doses that exceed recommended dietary intakes if not prescribed by a health professional.”

In other words; continue to buy the stuff that our sponsors sell. The well-known Australian supplement company, Blackmores, who has given the NICM more than $5 million in 2016, happily continues to sell these supplements to the Australian public. Asking Blackmores online Naturopath about the products for men with prostate issues, this is what they recommended “Blackmores has a product called Prostate Health Formula which contains both vitamin E and selenium along with a few other ingredients. Here is the product link for your information:  https://www.blackmores.com.au/products/prostate-health-formula. Frank, if you require any further information please contact the Naturopathic Advisory Service at advice@blackmores.com.au

So, is the naturopathic advisory service the ‘health professional’ that the NICM refers to in their statement?

This is a simple example of how it works. These people (and I have to exclude those very few that are conducting unbiased research into CAM’s) cannot accept that most CAM’s doesn’t have any benefit, some are dangerous and very few might be beneficial. If they do, and advise the public accordingly, their whole empire will collapse. And as usual; it is all about money and therefore it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the share price, before and after the Four Corners program airs, of the main producer of these products in Australia, Blackmores. It just might give us an indication if this program will have any sort of impact.

The Four Corners program airs tonight (13/02/2017) at 8:30 pm (AEST) but will also be archived on their website, that you can find here.

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”- Al Capone and the Complementary Medicine Empire. Part 2: The profitable political and regulatory connections.  

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”- Al Capone and the Complementary Medicine Empire. Part 2: The profitable political and regulatory connections.  

Al Capone’s “…mutually profitable relationships with mayor William Hale Thompson and the city’s police meant that Capone seemed safe from law enforcement.” If you want to build, maintain and expand a dubious empire, then this is the way to do it. Popularity and a positive public image alone won’t do it, you need strong ties, with mutual benefits, with politicians and regulators.

In Part 1 of the Capone series of articles, the well-known ‘appeal to popularity’ was discussed with Capone’s famous quote “All I do is satisfy a public demand”. Capone was very popular and improved his already positive public image by opening up soup kitchens during the great depression. This is strikingly similar to what the Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine (CAIM) Empire is doing by ‘only satisfying a public demand’ while their proverbial soup kitchen is to provide some very good advice such as a balanced diet, exercise etc.  To understand the context of the current article Part 1 should first be read.

Political and regulatory connections

Capone was big buddies with the mayor, as well as with key figures in the police force (the regulators). To such a degree that he basically got away with murder. The CAIM empire achieve the same feat via organisations such as Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA), the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) etc. Every country has similar organisations, which again link up on an international level. These organisations lobby endlessly to achieve further legitimisation of disproven therapies, for example, through mandatory registration of disproven CAIM practices and therapists (TCM, Osteopathy, Chiropractic etc.). They aggressively defend against any negative scientific evidence and advertise their proverbial soup kitchens via ‘friendly’ journalists – to name but a few things.

But let’s focus on Australia; the deputy mayor of Sydney, Kerryn Phelps, has very strong ties with the NICM and is currently listed as an adjunct, she was the former president of the AIMA and, of course, she operates two integrative medicine clinics in Sydney. The NICM provides the ‘scientific evidence’ and she puts it in practice via her clinics. So, what type of political protection will she wield over the Sydney branch of the Empire, including the NICM? How will they further legitimise disproven therapies? But this is only the deputy mayor of Sydney, here is list of other Australian politicians that have been approached. Here is one senator that has clearly fallen for it – resulting in gems such as genital acupuncture that cures infertility.

What they want is protection, they want to be safe from prosecution, while continuing with their dubious activities. So who better to ask than the big champion of the CAIM Empire, HRH Prince Charles, to join the Sydney club.  Who will dare to touch you when you have the big guns on your side. But we have to be fair. Some politicians and other high profile people will reject the advances of the Empire, problem is, many might not. Be as it may, political connections are of utmost importance making them pretty much untouchable – same as with Capone.

As for the regulators; they have a very strong presence and even chaired the ‘Advisory Committee on Complementary Medicine’ advising and influencing the Australian regulator on CAIM issues. Currently a tremendous effort goes towards further relaxing the already extremely lax regulations governing CAIMs in Australia; “….excessive regulatory burden from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) as the biggest challenge affecting their business” They want to be able to make it easier and cheaper to sell the public whatever they fancy.

As for their global aspirations. There is one document that seems to have had a major impact on their credibility and expansion drift more than any other, and it is used to defend against any scientific evidence that a specific CAIM does not work. A respected global authority clearly gave them the thumbs up and a green light to go.

“….on the stance that Australia’s peak medical science authority takes towards the aspirations and commitment of the WHO 2014-2023 Traditional Medicines Strategy” (letter from the Australian Homeopathic Society in response to the negative NHMRC Homeopathy report).

The recent release of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 provides an important message to all world Governments that TM is an important and underestimated part of health care found in almost every country in the world, and community demand for it is increasing.”

“…will be in line with the World Health Organization’s strategy of increasing public awareness and strengthening the role traditional (indigenous) and complementary medicine plays in keeping populations healthy.”

The WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 recommends member states, in effect, to integrate disproven and unproven CAIM therapies with conventional healthcare. This is, surprise surprise, exactly what the CAIM Empire wants and now they use this document as an ‘order’ from the WHO to aggressively expand their operations – because who can argue with the well-respected WHO? Does this report say anything regarding the horrific trade and use of human body parts, ‘harvested’ from children while alive, or the use of endangered animals in their products? (apparently, donkeys are being skinned alive nowadays for their purported ‘medicinal’ value). The NICM approved a thesis in 2008 where the lifesaving properties of Rhino horn was being promoted and currently they direct consumers on their website under the ‘CM resources’ tap, to a site where Rhino horn is listed as a ‘herb’ for when ‘your blood feels hot’! Just 1-2 grams will do the job.

What is their strategy to root out these horrific practices? You would expect at least a chapter on this issue, but no, it is completely ignored and instead a lovely ‘soup kitchen’ strategy is presented. This WHO strategy clearly has the fingerprints of the CAIM Empire all over it, and lo and behold, it was indeed compiled by another adjunct (a naturopath) of the NICM. Anyone that raises serious concerns? Well, it is not us that want to integrate CAIM, the command comes straight from the WHO (they just fail to tell you that they have written it) – and they just continue as before.

Politicians and regulators; it worked wonders for Capone, but the CAIM empire makes him look like a boy scout. They are indeed a very clever, although unethical, bunch of people. Part 3 will deal with breaking the law –  another similarity between the Capone and CAIM Empires.

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”-Al Capone. Part 1: A quote perfected by the Complementary Medicine Empire.

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”-Al Capone. Part 1: A quote perfected by the Complementary Medicine Empire.

“I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want”. “All I do is satisfy a public demand”. Two quotes made by the (in)famous American gangster, Al Capone. Little did Capone know that his quotes will be fully exploited and perfected by another business empire, almost a hundred years later. Nowhere is this sort of argument more prominent than in the world of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine (CAIM). ‘There is a growing demand for it, so surely our products work and are safe to use’ (this Capone approach is currently being used in a relatively new development, to integrate their ‘goods’ with conventional healthcare).  For people with the skill of critical thought, this is the well-known fallacy of “appeal to popularity”. Undeniably, this approach is quite effective and therefore also employed as one of their main vehicles to expand their empire.

Here you can find some recent examples where these statements were made in the public domain. There is, however, one example that I want to give here. “…given the number of people using these therapies, it was unethical for doctors not to practise in an integrative way.” This statement was made by Prof Kerryn Phelps, founder of Sydney Integrative Medicine and Cooper Street Clinic and consequently also a former winner of the Bent Spoon award for the promotion of pseudoscience. It comes as no surprise that she is also a conjoint professor at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), but it is somewhat surprising that she is deputy mayor of Sydney who will; “…call out BS when she sees it…”.

So, they do not only supply the growing demand, but they claim it is also unethical not to do so. Said differently, they are trying to legitimise disproven ‘health’ products, because the public demands it – they are the good guys! In effect, they take it one step further than Capone, who at least admitted that he was a criminal. The CAIM empire expressly state that they only integrate evidence-based CAIM’s and reject disproven or ineffective CAIM’s. Problem is; they almost never specify which those latter ones are, let alone removing ineffective therapies – and this is the big problem. If they actually go and do what they claim they do, their empire will contract by 95% or more, which will result in only one thing, and that is total collapse. But this also means that there are many more parallels that can be drawn between the Capone and CAIM Empires.

Populism and a positive public image

Capone rose to power during the great depression of the 1920-30’s, and it stands to reason that public sentiment during these hard times was firmly anti-establishment. Much like today, any populist with anti-establishment sentiments seems to be able to garner the support of many. Such was Capone’s popularity that the crowds would cheer for him at ball-games, as they saw him as some sort of modern-day Robin Hood. He was also a master in polishing his public image by donating to various charities and even running soup kitchens for the unemployed during the depression years. Although commendable, this was only done to build and maintain a positive public image in order to expand his highly profitable criminal empire.

Similarly, CAIM proponents have created, over a very long time, a firm anti-healthcare sentiment under the general public. The anti-vaccination movement is a case in point. They focus solely, and of course publicly, on existing problems within the healthcare establishment. Yes, there are many problems within conventional healthcare, but those problems needs to be identified and addressed – this is also known as progress. But unfortunately, their motives are not all that pure. They want to replace conventional healthcare with mainly disproven and unproven CAIMs, and again, the anti-vaccination movement is a case in point. They thrive on the anti-healthcare sentiment and while they work towards achieving their goals, the crowds are cheering them on. The fact that most of their treatments by and large fail to have any effect, and some might even be quite dangerous, seems to be of minor importance.

The CAIM empire specialises in public relations by providing the public with a proverbial soup kitchen. Commendable, but unfortunately these soup kitchens are being used to hide a more sinister world – very similar to Capone.  You be the judge! Here is a list compiled from the websites of ten organisations in six different countries, advertising the wholesome goodness of their soup kitchens, using phrases such as “wellness”, “patient centred”, “holistic”, “evidence-based”, “safe”, “cost effective” etc. It is more than enough to satiate the appetites of the hungry masses – and it might even convince some scientists.

But, if we look behind the soup kitchen we find a completely different world, which, I might add, is much more sinister. Here is a list compiled from the websites of the same ten organisations, detailing what they’re actually selling – and it is much more than just soup.  A quick scan of the list will tell you that although it contains some good medical advice, it basically contains everything that has ever been invented as a complementary or alternative medicine. A very large number of disproven and unproven therapies are listed -therapies that are known to have no benefit and to have caused harm to patients. They continue to advertise, use, defend, and importantly, refuse to publicly criticise those that sell these disproven therapies. This list reflects what their empire really stands for, and it has rightfully been called “…….one of the most colossal deceptions in healthcare today”.

Although a lot can be said about this list, I only want to focus on one aspect. When one or more of these treatments are shown, with scientific evidence, not to work (and hence it becomes dangerous to use) the Empire reacts by simply hiding their involvement and full support for those treatments from public scrutiny, and they continue as before.  For example: The AIMA currently do not list a single specific “medicine” (although their NZ counterparts still do).  This wasn’t always the case, as can be seen in the table, they simply decided to remove this (incriminatory) information and currently, they only provide the soup kitchen. The NICM do exactly the same thing, but once authorities were notified that their main funders, the Jacka Foundation (with links to anti-vaccination proponents), lists some shocking disproven “treatments”, this information was simply removed – and they continue as before. And what about the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital – they simply changed their name not to reflect what they are actually doing and they basically continue as before.

The Empire get rid of incriminating paper trials, they refuse to acknowledge that a specific CAIM doesn’t work and they become better and better at drawing the public’s attention away from what they really do and to deflect the attention towards their soup kitchens – this is called, deception!

Part 2 will deal with some other striking similarities between these two empires and, of course, the eventual fall of ‘Good Guy’ Capone.

‘Officer I am not drunk, I am alternative sober!’ Skeptics stand by Bent Spoon nomination.

‘Officer I am not drunk, I am alternative sober!’ Skeptics stand by Bent Spoon nomination.

‘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.

Sincerely,

Eran Segev

President – Australian Skeptics Inc

Prof Bensoussan’s response on 5 December:

Dear Eran

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.

Kind regards

Alan

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.

Sincerely,

Eran Segev

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.

The mystical circulating ‘energy’ at the heart of TCM – has any progress been made in this important area of research?

The mystical circulating ‘energy’ at the heart of TCM – has any progress been made in this important area of research?

“….the concept of circulation of energy is paramount in Chinese Medicine. The Chinese physicians have always said there’s more than just blood circulating in the body, there’s also energy, human energy of some sort circulating in the body. We don’t know how to measure that yet.”

This is a quote from a radio interview where the wonderful and mysterious world of TCM was explained to the unsuspecting Australian public – this interview took place about 16 years ago. You can find more details regarding this very interesting interview here. From the above quote, it is clear that the circulation of “energy” is paramount to TCM and that, at the time, it could not be measured nor could its existence be shown. The quote, however, ends with the word ‘yet’, indicating there is full support for the notion that this energy field do indeed exist and that it is only a matter of time before it will be detected.

Now, just imagine if someone do indeed discover this energy field with a simple experiment that can be independently reproduced by others. As soon as you can measure it, you can influence it and hence control it, which implies that you will be able to significantly improve and personalise your TCM treatment – and this will almost certainly lead to a Nobel prize in medicine and you might even become stinking rich as well. Fame and fortune up for grabs. It therefore stands to reason that TCM researchers worldwide including those at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), the latter who are well funded and have excellent research facilities, would have had more than enough incentive and would’ve spent a significant amount of research effort to study this energy field in the 16 years since they gave the interview.

So, have they done any research on this very fundamental issue? They can vindicate TCM and for that matter most of complementary medicine if they did, never mind the major improvements in healthcare that might flow from this. The short answer is, no, they haven’t. I am not aware of any study done by any TCM researcher, or anyone at the NICM, past or present, investigating this extremely important issue. So, no progress, but also absolutely no interest in studying this extremely important aspect of TCM. But why is this?

The answer is really quite simple: As soon as you conduct a well-designed experiment you are bound to end up with a yes/no answer – or at least this is what you want. Yes, my hypothesis is correct or no, it is incorrect. Granted, you can also design an experiment that will almost always give you a positive result such as the A + B vs B clinical trial (well known to integrative medicine researchers). But for argument sake, let’s assume that they did study this aspect in a well-designed experiment and that they came up empty handed – which is quite likely because you cannot detect something if it does not exist – this will then be further evidence that the fundamental principles of TCM is absolutely rubbish. And this is of course something that they cannot publish or admit, so it is far better for the TCM researchers and the NICM to completely ignore this issue.

A second reason is that they know damn well that this energy field do not exist but they have to continue to sell this idea to the public in order to import more and more TCM modalities into Australia –  for them it is all about business (it is that $170 billion TCM market that they want to tap into). This is the most likely explanation for their failure to investigate this fundamental principle of TCM.

There is however a couple of other general issues: There is a true believe that this energy field exist because in the TCM world all modalities work – evidence for this concept is that close to a 100% of TCM clinical trials conducted in China gives a positive result. That the NICM and TCM practitioners believe this (either because they truly believe it or they make as if they believe it for the sake of their business interests) can be seen if you look at the long list of medical conditions for which something like Rhino horn is considered to be an effective treatment; “High fever, sun stroke, trauma, mania, convulsion, sore throat, epilepsy, febrile disease, infectious disease, macula, bad skin conditions, subcutaneous bleeding.”  It works for just about everything. And this goes for all TCM modalities. TCM researchers are completely happy to entertain this notion because they are actively trying to sell the energy concept to the public, and once accepted by the public, they will flood the market with TCM modalities.

It is also remarkable to think, and please correct me if I am wrong, that there are still people in China that die due to any medical condition after receiving a specific TCM treatment – if this energy field exist this should not really happen. Granted, due to logistical issues, some people might not receive their lifesaving TCM modalities in time but surely there are people who died even after timely administration of a TCM remedy?  And for that matter, if TCM works so well, why would China import or use modern conventional medicine which is, according to the TCM proponents, ineffective, toxic, expensive etc. Surely, you are not going to replace something that works (TCM) with something that doesn’t work (conventional medicine)! Or is maybe the other way around?

Another interesting aspect regarding TCM is that it seems to be impossible to make a mistake (is it even possible to misdiagnose a patient?). Take acupuncture for example: the theory, or should I say, hypothesis, is that pain is caused by either an excess or deficiency of energy (as explained by the NICM in the very interesting radio interview). Acupuncture restores this energy balance and hence your back pain, which might have been diagnosed as an excess of energy, will now dissipates. But what will happen if an inexperienced acupuncturist use too many, or too few needles and maybe even insert them at the wrong acupoints?  According to the hypothesis, too much energy will now flow from your lower back and this will cause an excess of energy somewhere else (causing pain in that region), but your backpain will still be there because you now have a deficiency of energy in your lower back.  Is this sort of treatment ‘mistakes’ known to happen in acupuncture? Puncturing of an organ or infection due to dirty needles is well known but I am not aware of any examples where the above-mentioned treatment ‘mistakes’ have been documented. If these energy fields do exist this should happen quite regularly. The only explanation that this doesn’t really happen is that these energy fields simply do not exist.

TCM researchers including the NICM have no interest in studying the “energy” aspect of TCM and their only purpose is to sell these pseudoscientific principles to the public. More TCM products means more profit. For the NICM this should pave the way to open their very own TCM hospital in Sydney where the Australian population will be used as guinea pigs. I truly feel sorry for Australians because it appears that it is not only their cricket team that is struggling at the moment, some of their universities are in real trouble because they decided to put profits and pseudoscience, before science, scientific education and the welfare of the public.

(this article appeared as a guest post on Prof Edzard Ernst’s blog site)