The Homeopathy Paradox. Use it and you could go to jail: defend, promote or sell it and be handsomely rewarded.

You can make it, sell it, teach it, promote it, defend it etc. but if you actually use homeopathic remedies you can go to jail. A tragic example of this was reported a couple of years ago. Parents were sent to jail after their child died because they opted for a homeopathic treatment instead of an evidence based effective treatment. What makes it even more tragic is that the father is (was) a lecturer in Homoepathy. You can teach it but you cannot use it, because it is ineffective and can cause you or your children harm – and this is paradoxical. The sad thing is that this is not an isolated case, there are many more cases – you can find more examples here.

As far as I can tell the father of the deceased received his Masters in Health at Western Sydney University (WSU), and this brings me again to my alma mater. WSU hosts the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) who promotes and defends all types of complementary medicines, including homeopathy. When the well-known and definitive NHMRC report on Homeopathy was released, they quickly published a statement that made this report suspect and they simply defended homeopathy – and they still do. At the time this prompted me to investigate the reasons for releasing this remarkable statement.

It turns out that the NICM is partly sponsored by homeopaths who also promotes all other types of disproven and unproven complementary medicines. They accepted a couple of million dollars from the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies and in order to extend this financial relationship, the university management decided to confer an honorary fellowship to the founding member of this foundation. It paid off, because a couple of years later they again donated millions of dollars. And this is a problem. If you, as a university, accept funding from an organisation such as the Jacka Foundation you legitimise whatever these people do and to protect your (future) income you will continue to defend what they do (at the time of accepting the funds the foundation promoted this list of treatments). That the Jacka Foundation links to anti-vaccination proponents and that they themselves promote everything from homeopathy to energy medicine is a dangerous step for any university.  To then go and reward them for it is even worse and makes a laughing stock of the academic system.

But, because the NICM is hosted at a university they cannot always say what they want to say – or at least, they cannot put it on paper. They therefore associate themselves with organisations such as Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA) who can say what they want (they are industry funded). According to the NICMs ‘communication strategy’ they will use the CMA to respond to any negative media reports concerning homeopathy, because it has never occurred to them that they have a responsibility to inform the Australian public that homeopathy doesn’t work. So, in response to the NHMRC report the CMA published their infamous “The NHMRC Review on Homeopathy had Five Fundamental Flaws” (this statement is currently being used all over the world by Homeopaths to continue to defend homeopathy). They basically state that any report indicating that homeopathy doesn’t work, is unacceptable. It ends with the rather aggressive statement that “Homeopathy has been around for hundreds of years, and I am sure will be around a lot longer than some of the critics.”

But the rabbit hole goes deeper. One would expect that an organisation such as the World Health Organisation would at least be able to provide the best scientific and evidence based advice regarding complementary medicines including homeopathy. But they don’t. In their “WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy, 2014-2023” they call for the better integration of homeopathy (and other complementary medicines) with conventional healthcare. This is shocking, but not unexpected especially if you look at who compiled the report. Michael Smith, naturopath and an adjunct of the NICM. This WHO report was, of course, accepted with open arms by the NICM and other complementary medicine proponents.

To put all this in perspective. I am writing this article in a restaurant and about 100 m from me there is a registered homeopathic clinic. In South Africa, homeopaths register with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) and any complaints, such as homeopathy does not work, should be submitted to this council. Problem is; the executive of the AHPCSA consists of chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths etc. Adjacent to the homeopath’s practice is a large pharmacy that has the appearance of a corny, cheap warehouse selling everything you can think of, including a large array of homeopathic products. One product is labelled as “every home should have one” – the Blue Box Homeopathic treatment kit.

Because I visited a game farm a week or so ago and managed to get myself stung by a scorpion, I found the homeopathic remedy for serious bites quite interesting, although shocking. It simply states “bites 30C – serious bites i.e. spider, scorpion, snake, dog bite”. A 30C dilution does not contain anything except the solvent. If you consider the large number of deadly snake species in South Africa, this homeopathic remedy can have deadly consequences, because it is nothing more than a placebo.  The kit also contains deadly nightshade to be given to babies for teething issues, but again in a 30C dilution. Let us just hope that they get their dilutions right otherwise we might end up with a similar incidence as in the US where 10 children tragically died after taking incorrectly diluted  homoepathic teething products containing deadly nightshade.

Can I now go and complain about this, because they are knowingly putting people’s lives at risk (the kit also contains a 200C natural antibiotic) for the sake of making money? I don’t think it will work, considering that I have to lodge my complaint about homeopathy to a homeopath.  As long as loads of money is being pumped into universities, as long as homeopaths wiggle themselves into the regulatory agencies, I fear that the homeopathy paradox will be with us and it might even get worse in future. If you are up against an extremely well organised and highly complex system or dare I say an organised criminal syndicate, then it will take a very long time before any progress will be made.  But, we have to try!

‘Alternative facts are lies’- something the NICM excels at. 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.

This article is, however, about his front-runners who has perfected the art of conjuring, disseminating and defending ‘alternative facts’. Because they were allowed to do so, unchecked or unchallenged, for many years, 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, these ‘facts’ will become the new norm.  It is about accepting it and not necessarily about the fact itself – e.g. nobody really cares about the real inauguration numbers.

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 scientists, at the very 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 challenge these ‘alternative facts’ with real facts, as and when promoted 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’. The award also 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), Prof Gregory Kolt (Dean of Science and Health) and Prof Barney Glover (Vice Chancellor of Western Sydney University).  Obviously, you cannot just nominate anyone; that would be just wrong and therefore the provided incriminatory information has to be double-checked and authenticated. Here is one example of the many alternative facts regarding alternative medicine that the NICM promote to the world.

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.

Needless to say, but the NICM did not change their ways (if anything it only got worse)  and was therefore again nominated in 2017.

What can you do about all of this?

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

Playing the Scientific Game and the Impact on Society – Complementary Medicine: an Insider’s Perspective

(I’ve written a letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University (WSU) in June 2015 covering some of my concerns that I had, and still have, regarding the National Institute of Complementary Medicine. Below you can read this letter, albeit in a somewhat shorter version (a much shorter and edited version you can find here). […]

How did Western Sydney University (WSU) react to my serious warnings regarding the operational matters at the NICM?

After the many conversations and numerous letters that I’ve sent WSU management regarding the seriously flawed operational matters at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), one might think that they will at least be looking into this matter. At the very least! That they are reluctant to do so is quite clear. They have […]

Homeopathy! Why do the National Institute of Complementary Medicine continue to defend it?

With age comes wisdom, but for some, age comes alone. Let me explain.

I recently noticed an UK newspaper article which referred to the much discussed Australian NHMRC review on homeopathy (published in 2014). Main finding: Homeopathy was found to be ineffective for 68 medical conditions and “people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.”  Add to this that there has been a class action lawsuit against a homeopathic company in the US, then the conclusion can easily be drawn that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo. This was also confirmed by the mass protests where people overdosed themselves with homeopathic medicine – obviously without it having any effect.  Surely then, any scientist will concede that homeopathy simply does not work for any medical condition!

But there is also a much more serious side to this. The clear warning of the NHMRC is that people put their health at risk, not due to the homeopathic medicine itself, but mainly by delaying effective treatments. That this warning is not an overstatement has been tragically demonstrated over and over. Add to this that you can also buy homeopathic medicine for serious conditions such as malaria and HIV, then I would argue that any scientist supporting homeopathy is out of their mind, and is acting not only unethically but in some countries criminally.

Now back to the year 2000. In my previous blog post I discussed the National Institute of Complementary Medicine’s (NICM), hosted by Western Sydney University (WSU), rather misleading statements regarding the efficacy of TCM and CM in general. During those particular radio interviews the statement by the NICM concerning homeopathy was;

“In homeopathy there’s a very difficult field because whilst there are some clinical trials that show benefits, and well-controlled clinical trials that show benefit, the theory that accompanies homeopathy, if anything gets up a medical scientist’s nose”.

Another participant however stated that;

“….so we have seen much better studies about homeopathy. And actually it turned out that most, I would say almost every one of those newer studies, was negative for homeopathy”. 

So even back in 2000 the NICM was trying to convince the public that there are indeed scientific evidence for homeopathy, even though they knew that high quality studies gave negative results.

If we now look at the systematic reviews that the NHMRC included in their 2014 study we find that 51 of the 58 (or 68 of the 176 individual trails) studies were published since 2000. Therefore, in the 14 years since the radio interview almost 90% of the reviews on Homeopathy were published and one might argue that with time comes wisdom and with all this new scientific information the NICM will surely change their stance on homeopathy. Unfortunately, they did not! Their response to the NHMRC report remains the same as what they claimed in 2000. According to the NICM there are a number of high quality clinical trials that support homeopathy and they simply make the NHMRC report look suspect. So, why do they continue to knowingly mislead the public?

The NHMRC stated shortly after the release of their findings the following:

Indeed the International Council for Homeopathy is currently leading a fund-raising effort: not to fund better research, but to attack the NHMRC document.”

And what does the NICM do as an “independent” scientific institute? The highlighted text on page 2 of this document should clarify their stance. They join forces with their (homeopath) sponsors in order to attack the NHMRC report. They don’t do much of the dirty work themselves but they leave that to their partners, specifically the ‘Complementary Medicine Australia’ (CMA) organisation. The CMA promptly publish a report called the; “The Five Fundamental Flaws of the NHMRC Homeopathy Review”. This report is now being used all over the world to ignore the NHMRC’s findings and recommendations.

In previous blog posts I made it clear that the NICM is nothing more than a front company for the complementary medicine industry. For them no amount of science, common sense or even compassion for people who are currently suffering at their hands will be enough to change their views or the views of the university that hosts them. If you are funded by industry or fervent supporters of CM, including homeopathy, then you will never be able to take an unbiased independent scientific stance on homeopathy.

The public needs to get unbiased information from institutes at universities who does not have this level of vested interests, in order to make informed choices regarding healthcare issues. After all, universities are mainly funded by the taxpayer. As it stands now, this is impossible and, in my view, makes the NICM a serious public health threat. This, however, is not an Australian issue but a global issue. With time comes wisdom but only if you seek the truth – and this is not something that the NICM is looking for.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention.  Stop buying their products or using their treatments, and inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and what they are up to, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.