‘Celebrity’ endorsements! The NICM seeking Royal endorsement using their ‘faked’ ERA ranking!

Nooo waaay!! If Gwyneth Paltrow can promote that, then surely, I can promote some of my very own quackery! Don’t call me a snake oil salesman, look at Gwyneth, she is selling ‘psychic vampire repellent’ and ‘jade eggs’ – my quackery is not nearly as crackpot as that, and, she gets away with it!

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

Pure quackery, but whatever these Demi-gods endorse, usually result in a large number of worshippers to blindly follow. Their faith is so blind, that they will even give their own children water as medicine. Unfortunately, but also predictably, some children die as a result, but apparently, this is a small price to pay in order to appease these Demi-gods. But luckily, there are a number of brave warriors (or scientists) who are standing up for science, understands social responsibility, and openly question the validity and motives of these apostles of quackery.  And you need to be brave, because this can backfire depending on the unique powers and influence of the Demi-god in question. As was illustrated by Prof Edzard Ernst, after he publicly, but fairly, called a Demi-god a snake oil salesman.

As for Gwyneth Paltrow, she is merrily continuing to promote the most bizarre healthcare rubbish via her company Goop. Her beauty, apparently,  has a hypnotic effect on her followers because they just continue to buy whatever she conjures up. At least, she won this year’s inaugural Rusty Razor award for “the ‘best’ promoter of the ‘worst pseudoscience of the year.” Well done, Gwyneth, although this will probably only strengthen the resolve of her followers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much more to come on this issue.

 

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

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

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

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

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

The NICMs undeclared conflicts of interests

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

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

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

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

The response from the British Medical Journal Open (BMJO) 

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

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

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

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

Response from the journal ‘Trials’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do about this?

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Prof. Robinson

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

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

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

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

 I hereby request that this matter be investigated.

Thank you in advance.”

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

“Dear Dr Van der Kooy

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

Regards

Prof Nicola Robinson”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GREGORY SHANE KOLT

Date of offence: Between 1996 and 1998

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

Magistrate: John Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come!

‘Take control of your health’, and we’ll take control of your wealth!

“Take charge of your health by being an informed consumer” or “….empowering patients to take control of their health and wellbeing” etc.

These are very common statements made by proponents of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine (CAIM), and it conveys a very clear message; you should take control of your health! But the question is; what do they really want to achieve with this message? If we look at this superficially, we might think that they refer to a healthy diet, physical exercise and other positive lifestyle changes, but then again, any medical doctor will give you this advice as well.  One might think that being an ‘informed’ consumer is clearly good advice, but then again, why do they continue to provide the public with misleading and false information regarding their CAIM products and therapies? So, it cannot be this either. So, what is it that these people really want to achieve with statements like this?

Well it’s simple, they want more people to buy their disproven and unproven products, and hence they aim to manipulate us, with using statements like this, in doing just that. One of their techniques is what I call, a soup kitchen approach, where they provide some good information for free, in order to lure us into their web of deceit. Because they do not make much money with their ‘good advice’ (e.g. lifestyle changes), they are thus hoping that we will also fall for their false and misleading information regarding the benefits and safety of a huge range of products, that they happen to sell.  To give you a rough idea of the sheer number of ‘products/services’ in their arsenal, please have a look at this table.

So, allow me to translate what they actually want to achieve with their ‘take control’ statement. There are two important aspects; creating distrust in conventional healthcare, and masterfully exploit a very common innate cognitive bias that we all suffer from, in order to increase their sales.

Let’s first look at creating distrust in conventional healthcare. With this message, they are implying that our health is currently in the hands of someone else, and that we should now take it back – it is our right. This is quite misleading. Lifestyle choices is indeed in our hands, but even people with the healthiest lifestyles, still get sick. And when you do get sick, you should go to a qualified medical doctor, get a proper diagnosis and a conventional medicine prescription – if needed (most people do not have the medical knowledge to do this themselves). In this conventional approach, we do not have much control and we put our trust in the hands of trained professionals.  According to the CAIM proponents this is not a good system because you need to be in full control.

So, with their ‘take control’ message they are actually creating distrust in conventional healthcare  with some even going as far as stating that very little of conventional healthcare has been proven to work, or that medicine just treats the symptoms and not the cause, or medicine doesn’t work at all, it is just toxic etc. Clearly, the real message here is that we should not really trust our doctor or conventional medicine, but we should trust ourselves and we should make our own healthcare decisions. The CAIM proponents only provide the ‘options’ that we can choose from, but unfortunately, they are notorious for making false and misleading claims about these ‘options’. And don’t they provide a massive range of products to choose from (and importantly, many pharmacies also benefit from this situation). In Australia, you have a choice of roughly 20 000 CAIM products. In South Africa, it is estimated that there are more than 155 000 products, and I have been informed that none of these products have had their quality, efficacy or safety verified!  But who cares, they want you to trust yourself and to decide which of these products will work for you.

The second aspect is exploiting an innate cognitive bias that we all struggle with. All of us are continuously performing risk-benefit analysis, usually, without us even knowing it.  Everything we do; getting out of bed, driving to work, going for a walk in the park etc. carries a risk and hence we will continuously perform a risk-benefit analysis. The CAIM proponents are skilfully exploiting the fact that we sometimes struggle to get this right, and in some cases, we just get it completely wrong. For example: we are far more likely (up to a thousand times) to downplay or ignore a risk if we perceive to be in control of a situation. A good example: we are far more likely to get into a car (we are in control) than getting into a plane (a trained professional is in control), even though the former is much riskier than the latter. Using false and misleading claims for their products and making their ‘take control’ statements, we are hoodwinked into perceiving that we can be in full control of our health, and hence we are far more likely to ignore the (in)direct risks associated with CAIM products.  And this is where they are really making a killing with their ‘take control’ message. Add to this the distrust that they are creating in trained professionals and conventional medicine, then it is no wonder that more and more people are consulting Dr Google and buying OTC CAIM products.

The CAIM proponents are quite happy with this situation because they can now use the explosive growth in sales figures as ‘evidence’ that their products work – the typical appeal to popularity fallacy (another weapon in their arsenal). So, what is the take home message? With their statement, they are trying to take healthcare out of the hands of professionals and they want to place it in your hands (and you don’t have the medical knowledge), knowing fully well that in such a situation we are much more prone to take a risk by dipping our toes into their disproven and unproven CAIM therapies and products – it is all about money!

But is there anything we can do about this? We are irrational beings, so trying to change or influence human nature is highly unlikely to succeed. The only thing we can do, is to continue to expose how the CAIM industry misleads the public, and hopefully, one day, politicians and regulators will start to impose very tight restrictions on this industry, which frankly speaking, should not have existed in the first place.

Western Sydney University’s new TCM ‘hospital’ opening soon in Sydney!

About a year ago I added some factual information on Western Sydney University’s (WSU) Wikipedia page. This information reflects their unbridled support of all sorts of quackery, in exchange for industry funding – hence, very important info for any prospective student or academic (wish I had this info before embarking on a 3 year stint at WSU). This addition led to a full-blown ping-pong match between myself and an employee of WSU, who continued to delete everything that I’ve added. The end result of this was that the WSU employee, who is a paid contributor, was named (and shamed?) by Wikipedia: “The following Wikipedia contributors may be personally or professionally connected to the subject of the article. Relevant policies and guidelines may include Paid contribution disclosure, Conflict of interest, Autobiography, and Neutral point of view.”

Great news, because the most important information that I’ve added stayed on their Wikipedia page, but at the same time, terrible news, because over the past year, WSU has made absolutely no attempt to investigate or rectify the problem at hand – let alone ‘repent’ from their open support of quackery. This is after all my main objective!! If anything, in 2017 things just got worse, and 2018 promises to be a humdinger of a year – that is, if you are a pseudoscientist.

At the centre of WSUs controversial support of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine is the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM). They have very big plans and a lot of money is involved. For example: Say Hello to the newest Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) ‘hospital’ opening in 2018 in the Westmead health precinct of Sydney. Using the smokescreen of “Integrative Medicine” and partly funded and operated by the controversial Beijing University of Chinese Medicine (BUCM), this should be the highlight of 2018 for any pseudoscientist. This new ‘hospital’ will emulate Germany’s first TCM hospital (also funded and operated by BUCM) in Bad Kötzting, and if you have a look at their website, any person with half a brain would be extremely worried – but not WSU management!

TCM has also been on the radar of the controversial supplement company Blackmores. This promises to be a very lucrative deal for Blackmores because their recent $10 million ‘gift’ to the NICM for ‘integrative medicine research’ is dwarfed by the potential for them to tap into the $170 billion TCM market. But, it will also fulfil a life-long dream (some people call this a nightmare) held by the director of the NICM and also an adjunct of the NICM, Prof Kerryn Phelps, who describes integrative medicine as “the emerging mainstream”. Sure thing, I just wonder why Prof Phelps won the Bent Spoon award for quackery and why the Director of the NICM was nominated for the same award in 2016. But this story still needs to unfold and that brings me back to the latest Wikipedia addition under their “recent history” section. So, to reflect these latest developments, here it is:

“The controversy surrounding the university’s support of pseudo-scientific integrative and complementary medicine, continued in early 2017, with the university unsuccessfully attempting to block their ‘Bent Spoon’ nomination for “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle”. This led to a number of articles appearing in the media taking an in-depth look at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, who are at the centre of this controversy. Not only did their attempt to block this nomination failed, but it also further exposed their unbridled support of pseudo-scientific complementary medicines. The university’s motivation for their continued support became clear, after they accepted an untied gift of $10 million  from the controversial supplement company, Blackmores. These funds will partly be used to establish a traditional Chinese medicine ‘hospital’ in Sydney’s health precinct, Westmead. The University will manage this ‘hospital’ because the public will be more at ease with such an controversial establishment when it is fully supported by a local university.”

And to think that WSU is currently conducting: “A study looking into ways of reminding people to take their health supplements is being conducted by a PhD student at Western Sydney University.  An avatar- based iPad application that can verbally express reminders along with a portable pill organiser that can emit alarms at scheduled times are being tested as a part of the study.” Uhm, Blackmores donates $10 million, Uhm, Blackmores also happens to sell these supplements –  truly top flight medical research happening at WSU.

A LOT more to come, especially about the TCM ‘hospital’!

VC Barney Glover is standing up for science! (or is that for pseudoscience?)

I would argue, pseudoscience! Because if you do not see the following as pseudoscience, then all hope is lost.

The BlueBoxTM homeopathic remedy kit, produced by Pegasus Homeopathics, contains 28 easy-to-use remedies for the treatment of just about everything, and therefore; “The BlueBox™ is a must have for every home”. Their marketing strategy is focussed on children and on the ease-of-mind of their parents, with Pegasus telling us that it: “Treats the whole family from infants to the elderly; Safe for babies as well as pregnant and breast feeding mums; Readily taken by children, no alcohol or nasty-tasting syrups; Can’t overdose – even if a child swallows the contents of a bottle it’s the same as one dose.” One of the 28 remedies in this kit is called Anti-virabac 200C, described as a; “natural antibiotic, safe for those allergic to penicillin. Indications: A homeopathic ‘antibiotic’ for use in viral and bacterial infections, that is best implemented at the earliest stage of the infection. Safe for use in penicillin-allergic individuals.”

There is a lot wrong with this, but let’s just focus on what this remedy contains. It is a mixture of nine homeopathic remedies, including Belladonna 200C and Gunpowder 30C, with the purpose of the latter being; “Localises the infection preventing deeper penetration into tissues.” The 200C and 30C indicates that these substances have been diluted by a factor of 10400 and 1060 respectively, and consequently neither contain a single molecule of the original substance. This might be a good thing, especially for Belladonna which is a highly poisonous herb, and something that you definitely do not want to give to your children.  Incorrectly diluted Belladonna (in a different homeopathic remedy) has recently been implicated in the deaths of ten infants in the US. As for the Gunpowder 30C, well, some homeopaths are known for diluting the Berlin Wall for the treatment of depression, and a whole host of other conditions, so why not gunpowder?

But let’s step into the mind of a homeopath, and try and explain the logic behind the Gunpowder 30C. Here goes: Gunpowder is used to fire a bullet which will, depending on the entry location,, cause serious harm or death. If you are only wounded, the wound can become infected, the infection might spread throughout your body, and eventually you may die. Using the homeopathic principle of ‘like-cures-like’, it therefore ‘stands to reason’ that when you dilute gunpowder, by a factor of 1060, it will localise and prevent the infection from spreading any further. Because the underlined words look alike, it is irrefutable scientific evidence that Gunpowder 30C is a remarkably effective remedy. I am however only guessing here, but it is clear that the amount of science involved is truly mindboggling (any homeopath reading this, please correct me if I am wrong). A quick search reveals that homeopathic gunpowder is more commonly used for the treatment of septic wounds in people and animals, which I guess, makes more sense in a homeopathic sort of way.

Let’s say that I do not have any scientific background and that I’ve decided to buy the BlueBoxTM. Before coming to this decision, I’ve spoken to a homeopath (a specialist), I’ve discussed it with the extremely helpful people at the pharmacy, I’ve read all the info on the website of Pegasus (the producers), and I’ve even gone as far as to read the lengthy WHO report, which recommends that homeopathy should be integrated with conventional healthcare. All-in-all, it paints a very positive picture and I, and many others, will feel confident in the safety and effectiveness of this product. And hence, I will happily give these remedies to my children. Why not?

But what now if my young child die, due to an infection that I’ve treated with anti-virabac 200C? The infection worsened very quickly, within 48 hours, and upon hospitalisation it was already too late to save his life. At the end of the day, this remedy contains nothing other than the diluent, and will do absolutely nothing against any infection. A fact that is reflected in the Australian NHMRC homeopathy report, where they clearly state that: “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.” Tragically, this happens quite often, with an unknown number of people dying because they have chosen ineffective homeopathic remedies. Gunpowder 30C for the treatment of infectious diseases and/or septic wounds, really? The number of victims is unknown because the BlueBoxTM, and all other homeopathic remedies, are bought over-the-counter. There is no paper trail and hence no system in place to document ‘adverse events’. So, if you or your child dies, the cause of death will simply read infectious disease or septic wound – and that will probably be the end of it.

Who is to blame for this situation?  The homeopath, pharmacist and all other role players are legally doing what they are doing. They are allowed to sell you water as a treatment for many different medical conditions.  You, on the other hand, as a parent who’s child died because of these  ineffective remedies, can however be taken to court and you might even be send to jail – and this is the ‘Homeopathy Paradox’.

This is also where the important role of Vice Chancellors (VC) come into play. They are instrumental in deciding on what path science will take in a specific country. Their role is becoming more important, especially in light of some politicians nowadays resorting to all kinds of alternative facts.  Take someone like Prof Barney Glover, VC of Western Sydney University (WSU), and also the current Chair of ‘Universities Australia – The Voice of Australia’s Universities’. He has influence over the whole scientific landscape in Australia, and quite recently gave a very good speech at the National Press Club (photo above),  about the necessity and importance for universities to stand up for facts and the truth, because nobody else will.  This is very encouraging but, unfortunately, very misleading.

Prof Glover was notified in 2015, that he should urgently investigate the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), because of their continued (in)direct support of homeopathy and many other disproven complementary medicines. For example: the NICM had a big influence in compiling the WHO report, calling for the better integration of homeopathy (implying that it is an effective healthcare system) with conventional healthcare, and by way of their extended network, has tried to discredit and destroy the NHMRC report on homeopathy. Their incorrect and misleading response to the NHMRC report is now being used by homeopaths, all over the world, to continue to mislead the public regarding the effectiveness of homeopathy.

Unfortunately, neither the VC nor anyone else in WSU’s management has yet taken the very important step of standing up for science. Therefore the VC, and others, were nominated for the Bent Spoon Award in 2016. A nomination that they tried to block, but after independent review, did not manage to do so.  VC’s that do not stand up for science can therefore have a far-reaching impact, such as convincing me, who live on the other side of the world, to buy the BlueBoxTM, which in turn, might lead to my child’s death. Let’s call it the ‘butterfly effect’, with a ‘minor’ act (allowing pseudoscience at their university) on one side of the world, causing a lot of carnage on the other side of the world, or the world over.

(The reason for WSUs refusal to investigate the NICM seems to be as simple as increasing their external income. And it works, because quite recently the controversial supplement company Blackmores donated $10 million, and a year or so ago, the extremely controversial organisation, the Jacka Foundation, donated $4 million. These numbers appear to be enough for WSU to continue to hold their hand of protection over the NICM).

WSU is by no means the only university that has put money before science and ethics. Take for example the University of Johannesburg (UJ) who has a ‘Department of Homeopathy’ (they featured on this Blog before – see for instance  here).  A couple of days ago I emailed the Dept. of Homeopathy, asking for advice regarding homeopathic malaria remedies for my 6yo son before we travel to the Kruger park. They advised me that they do not sell it themselves, but that I should contact a specific pharmacy and ask for….wait for it….a banned herbal remedy and for homeopathic antimalarial drops – the latter, of course, does not contain anything other than solvent. This advice comes straight from a University, and although this issue is still unfolding, I am hopeful to have more luck with UJ’s VC – but I am not holding my breath. So, if you happen to work at any one of these two universities, could you kindly forward this article to your VC? For what it is worth.

(this article was first published on Prof Edzard Ernst’s blog site – you can find it here)