“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)

The NICM’s undeclared conflicts of interest. Is there some ministerial interest in this? An update.

‘Competing interests: The authors declare that they have no competing interests

-‘Conflict of interest: There are no known conflicts of interest and no competing financial relationships exist.’

-‘Competing interests: The authors of this article do not have any financial and personal relationships with other people or organisations that could inappropriately influence their work.’

Three examples (of the many that do exist) where no Conflicts of Interests (COI) were declared. In my previous post, it was made clear that being involved as consultants, with a ‘for profit’ organisation who donated a substantial amount of money to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), is a clear COI. Something that has to be declared and yet this is intentionally not being done. You can read about it here.

This COI information was send to three journal editors where the NICM published some of their acupuncture papers. It was also send to the Director of the acupuncture clinics to ask for clarification regarding the NICM’s role and any (financial) benefits coming from this – past and present. And to find an answer to a relatively simple question; is there anyone working at Western Sydney University (WSU), who hosts the NICM, that understands the problem at hand (pseudoscience being promoted and protected at WSU and the subsequent detrimental impact on science and on society) and who are willing to do something about this? The only way to find out is to ask. Therefore, this COI information was also send to about 1500 employees of WSU to ask for their opinions.

So, what happened since?

Only one journal responded, first by telling me that the info has been passed on to their ‘production team’, and a second message; that this matter is being investigated and the outcome of the investigation will be passed on to me – and hopefully the NICM and WSU. No response has yet been received from the two other journals and as for the Director of the acupuncture clinics – no response from either the director, who was send this information twice, nor from the clinics general email address.

That leaves us with the employees of WSU – but first a bit of stats. The number of views that a particular post generates is logged, as well as the country where these views originates from. Another interesting aspect is when you send this large number of emails, approximately 10-20% will immediately bounce back with an automatic out of office reply. Using these two parameters it is possible to see if the emails have actually been send and how many people (you don’t know their identities) have actually read it – or at least clicked on the article link. So, you can make a rough estimate of the number of people at WSU who have accessed your article. So, of the roughly 1500 emails (of the 4000 that I have), about 300 unique visitors viewed, on average, two articles each. The remaining 2500 emails could not be send because the out of office responses suddenly and completely dried up and the number of views from Australia flattened out. And this can only mean one thing; my email address has been blocked. This has happened before but at least a couple of hundred WSU employees have seen this information. So, the question is; did anyone respond?

A grand total of five people responded whereas four of the responses was a simple ‘please remove me from this email list’. The remaining response contained useful and thoughtful comments on this particular issue. Thus, there is at least one person, of those who have accessed this information, that was prepared to give this issue some thought. Is there anyone else out there at WSU who has some thoughts on this matter?

Great, so one might argue that it is mainly silence as usual with not that many people appearing to care much about this or all other issues raised in this blog. But there is some good news. Some journalists made contact, granted not solely because of this COI issue, but rather because of the bigger issues facing Australia regarding complementary medicine. Hopefully this will lead to something happening. But then there is a potential humdinger. Normally one would not expect the minister of health to just send you a letter out of the blue and yet this happened. Again, granted I have send all ministers of health letters regarding the NICM’s modus operandi, but that was almost a year ago – at the time some replied but most did not. So, what is going on here? Why now?

Any politician will be (or should be) concerned if the government dished out more than $600 000 to conduct another controversial acupuncture study. This particular study was even called a ‘wacky waste of cash’ in the media when it was announced. If it now turns out that this study, and most other acupuncture studies conducted at the NICM, has serious COI issues, then this has the potential to make headlines (there is a lot of taxpayers’ money involved).

And if that happens, then it is usually the minister of health that will be grilled. Hence, a simple way of avoiding this would be to say that the matter is under investigation, or that they are still gathering more info or that the matter has been deferred to a different department who can, or should be able to, better deal with this issue – importantly, this needs to be done before it makes headlines. But, the good news is that they might actually be investigating this matter. Hopefully, the investigation will not be limited to this COI issue but the whole modus operandi of the NICM and WSU and the subsequent impact on science, scientific education and the impact on society. Only time will tell.

So, no concrete progress yet, but the ball is starting to role. Let’s see if anything happens in the next week or so.

The NICM and their undeclared conflict of interest. An example of scientific misconduct!

Let’s say you are a highly experienced scientist. You’ve been an academic for decades, you’ve supervised many students and published hundreds of scientific papers. Due to your experience, you’re also on the editorial board of scientific journals, involved in your university’s management structures and you act as a consultant for, or are involved with, various governmental bodies and even with different companies and industries.

Because of your experience you are also well aware that it is of critical importance that your involvement with any company from any industry has to be declared. All scientific journals ask authors to declare any possible, financial or otherwise,  conflicts of interests (COI) that they  might have. Most universities also require academics to publicly declare any type of possible COI’s. There is nothing strange about this – everything has to be transparent and above board.

But what will happen if you intentionally fail to declare that you have a COI? For example: you publish numerous scientific research papers on products or services sold by a company, and you intentionally omit to declare that you are also a consultant for this company? Well, if people find out about this, all of your research results will suddenly become highly questionable because you intentionally did not declare your COI. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a consultant but there is a problem if you don’t declare it. The problem gets even bigger if you receive consultation fees or donations from this company – if this goes undeclared, then you are in serious trouble.

Unfortunately, this type of thing does happen and usually the scientists involved will be found guilty of scientific misconduct and depending on the severity of the case they might even lose their jobs. It should however be about the principle and not the amount of money involved, but having said that, a $10 dollar infringement will typically be ignored whilst a million dollar undeclared donation will get you into serious trouble.

The example given above is not hypothetical –  it is a real. It is just another example of how the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) operates. A recent article explained the issue, that as an acupuncturist turned researcher you have a COI by default – but let’s ignore that for the moment. The acupuncture gurus at the NICM, Alan Bensoussan and Caroline Smith, never seem to declare their COI’s in their acupuncture publications – and they have been publishing quite a lot of them lately. This is interesting for a number of reasons.

-They are both highly experienced scientists and therefore they are fully aware of what a COI is and hence they intentionally omit to declare a COI,

-They are both consultants for a chain of acupuncture clinics in Australia (they tend to delete this kind of information from the website when they are caught out – you can find a screenshot here),

-The NICM did receive a substantial donation from these clinics (so there is financial gain),

Students of the NICM/WSU find employment at these clinics (info used to attract new students?),

-WSU, in all likelihood, know about this COI because donations have to go through their research office,

-Neither of the two researchers have declared involvement with these clinics in the researcher portal under ‘Consultancy’ (you can find it here and here) or in their staff profiles,

-The clinics use their research publications as well as their presence on the team as a marketing tool (Here is a wonderful example. First read how they describe it on their website and then the paper – obviously missing that important declaration of having a COI),

-WSU will probably do zilch about this, because the NICM is one of the Institutes that generates the highest amount of external income for the university – it is after all, all about money.

-WSU is known to delete information once they are exposed and are therefore brothers in crime with the NICM.

So, a clear case of a COI which was intentionally not declared. Now the question needs to be asked; why didn’t they just simply declare to have this COI?

The reason is rather simple. Scientists know that acupuncture is a pseudoscience – it doesn’t really work for the treatment of anything. As soon as the NICM publish an acupuncture paper and they include their COI with these clinics, scientists, and for that matter, anyone reading the paper will question the results – and rightfully so. Therefore, they have to look as if they are conducting their research completely independently – it is supposed to give their results a bit more credibility. But even without this COI issue, they will struggle because external scientists looked at some of their acupuncture publications and the statement was made that it constitutes scientific misconduct – and this was based only on their experimental design, results and how they market their results in an overly positive way to the public. Add the COI issue to this mix, and all their acupuncture publications becomes highly questionable.

The risk that they took by not declaring their COI is, of course, once people find out about it they will lose their credibility – or what is left of it. But then again, who will now actually go and study the modus operandi of the NICM – well, that is what we are here for!

This brings us to the current large acupuncture clinical trial at the NICM, funded by the NHMRC to the tune $ 600 000, focusing on acupuncture and IVF (this also happens to be the ‘speciality’ of the clinics for which they are consultants). When this funding was awarded to the NICM in 2013 this study was labelled “Universities in a wacky waste of cash”. That pretty much sums it up, but will the NICM declare their COI when they publish these results? Highly unlikely – for some reason they consider themselves to be above the law.

We have written a letter to the editors of three different journals where they’ve published some of their acupuncture research to ask them for their thoughts on this matter. We have also written a letter to the director of these clinics to clarify what kind of (financial) benefits the NICM receive in return for their consultation services. No response from anyone yet, but let’s give it a week or so.

The NICM and the missing $5 million. Where did it go?

Now you see it and now you don’t. Where is the $5 million donation that the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) received from the controversial supplement company Blackmores? And for that matter, where are the two separate $300 000 donations received from the very same company? A number of weeks ago it was listed on Western Sydney University’s (WSU) researcher portal, under Prof Alan Bensoussan’s projects, but now it has been deleted. Maybe because we have written an article about this controversial issue a while ago? It puts us in a spot of bother because the said article had to be updated to clarify that this information has now been deleted from WSU’s website.

The only remaining donation from Blackmores is their scholarship funding program to the value of $330 000. The likely reason why this hasn’t been deleted is because these scholarships were reported on in the news, and once that happens it is always difficult to get rid of the information (and yes, scholarship funding is somewhat different than a fist full of cash to be spend on refining your techniques of how to hoodwink people). The same goes for the $500 000 received from the extremely controversial Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies – this was also in the news and hence it is still listed. But this is also the reason why neither the NICM nor WSU published a press release proudly telling the world about one of the biggest ‘industry’ donations ever received by WSU – once it is in the news it is difficult to get rid of the information.

Clearly the NICM and WSU doesn’t want a public outcry similar to what happened after La Trobe university accepted millions of dollars from Swisse Wellness and more recently when the University of Sydney accepted money from Blackmores to establish a chair in complementary medicine. These two events did indeed cause a stir and there were even commentary and concerns coming from as far as the UK. No, this is not what WSU wants, so they simply delete this information and hope that no one would notice (they actually hoped that no one would notice that it was listed in the first place).

Apparently, they have learned from the mistakes made by other universities – or did they? If they did they would not have accepted this money, so no, the only thing that they have learned was to keep this information quiet – to fly under the radar, something that the other universities did not do. So, they decided not to be transparent and publicly defend their dubious decision, but at least they can now continue to mislead the public in peace and quiet without anyone noticing – or so they think (if any journalist reads this, please ask WSU what the hell they are doing – they are becoming an embarrassment for Australian science).

But the question remains – where did the money go? Maybe Blackmores decided to pull out? Unlikely, because the contract has been signed making it difficult to pull out without facing some sort of penalty. Did WSU and the NICM suddenly grew a conscience and decided to put science and the well-being of the public first?  Well, a leopard never changes its spots so this is never going to happen. The NICM will never part with a single dollar, so the money is likely still there but they have just hidden it somewhere.

Maybe it is hidden under the name of a different researcher at the NICM? Unlikely, the more money you bring in as an individual researcher relates directly to the number of gold stars you get on your forehead from the Vice Chancellor – and Alan loves his gold stars. So, looking under the names of different NICM researchers did not yield any information, as expected. Maybe they moved it from ‘projects’ to ‘consultancy’? – nope, no luck there either.

Thankfully, there is a thing called screenshots. If it wasn’t for these screenshots, that you can find here and here, nobody would have known about this $5 million funding. Searching the WSU website using the project reference number (P00023564) gave one result where this project is described. The only problem is that there is no mention of the value of the project. The same goes for the $300 000 donations. All these projects are there but none include the monetary value of the projects. The millions of dollars from Blackmores therefore remains to be hidden out of sight and this is of course done intentionally – they simply do not want the public to know about this. Strange, isn’t it?

You have to ask yourself why this is. What are they so afraid of? Well, if you read the other articles on this blog site you will see what they are afraid of. They are intentionally misleading the public, causing harm and even death, for the sake of money and they want nobody to know about this. And hence they will gladly accept the money from Blackmores as long as nobody to knows about it. If the public finds out they might receive unwanted attention which might lead some people asking probing questions that neither the NICM nor WSU wants to answer.

So, what will be their next move? It does indeed look a bit suspicious when a university delete information, especially if its information regarding millions of dollars received from a controversial company. Will they now list these projects again after this article is published? Let’s see what happens.