‘And the Bent Spoon Award goes to…?’ The NICM nominated for the second year running!!

Reminiscent of Voldemort about to cast an evil spell, Prof Barney Glover (photo BL – resemblance is striking) is showing a packed auditorium his outstretched hand above which the mystical ‘life force’ or Chi hovers. Because no one, not even Barney, can see anything floating above his hand, Prof Alan Bensoussan (photo BR) comes to the rescue by explaining that if everyone just play along, and make as if they can see Chi, then they all stand to make a lot of money. His strenuous expression indicates that it is a hard sell, but he also knows that the money factor and quality of showmanship, usually attracts a crowd and also wins out over common sense. The photo on top is from Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter movies.  The reason why these three men looks so serious (excl. Voldemort because he is an actor, oh no, wait, all three are actors) is because they know damn well that what they are doing is ‘magic’. So, we are entering an era where all three these characters are real, or scientists should start to stand up for science!

In order to expose these ‘magicians’ and to create public awareness regarding their trickery, the Australian Skeptics Inc. annually presents the Bent Spoon Award for the top pseudoscientist of the year. It is in effect the Oscars for pseudoscientists, because both reward outstanding acting abilities. This year there are a number of nominees including the controversial National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) hosted at Western Sydney University (WSU). Below is the full nomination:

Nominee: National Institute of Complementary Medicine and Western Sydney University

Nominated by: Australian Skeptics and others

Date: 20/09/2017

For continuing to promote unsupported and debunked ‘medical’ treatments, despite promises late last year, in response to a 2016 Bent Spoon nomination, that they are “intending to revise our website … and hope to address some of these issues you have raised”. It still promotes the following treatments under the Complementary Medicine banner: acupuncture, chiropractic, aromatherapy, naturopathy, spiritual healing, crystal therapy, reflexology, ‘energy therapies’ (reiki, qigong, electromagnetic field therapy), TCM, Ayurvedic medicine, anthroposophical medicine, healing touch, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, and homeopathy. Secondly, NICM and UWS are nominated for planning to establish an on-campus TCM clinic for the general public.

Hopefully this year they will walk away with this coveted award, which is bestowed upon “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.” In 2016, the NICM tried for some reason, but in vain, to remove their nomination, but their attempts backfired somewhat. You can read about their sorry attempts here. It is also notable that the 2016 nomination was done by one person, whilst the 2017 nomination was done by a group of people, indicating that more and more people are coming around to the fact that the NICM/WSU are indeed misleading the public.

Key people in this year’s nomination is again the director of the NICM, Prof Alan Bensoussan, and the Vice-Chancellor of WSU, Prof Barney Glover. Between these two men, they earn roughly $1.2 million AUD per year, dished out by the Australian public. In return for these vast sums of money, the Australian public are being misled into believing that all of the above therapies are useful, effective and safe. This is obviously not true as you can see in my previous article which dealt with the involvement of the NICM and WSU in the tragic case of the 6yo boy who died after attending a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) based ‘slapping therapy’ workshop in Sydney. By slapping yourself you supposedly influence the flow of Chi through meridians and hence you will be cured of disease. Unfortunately, this boy suffered from diabetes and because many people belief that Chi is real, he was taken off his medication during the workshop – a life-threatening scenario. Clearly the ‘treatments’ that the NICM promote is not only ineffective, but it can also be quite dangerous.

But let us look at Alan Bensoussan. As a registered acupuncturist and herbal Chinese medicine man, he obviously falls within the category of delusional ‘healthcare’ practitioners. Because his livelihood depends on it, he will continue his unwavering support of debunked treatments, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that these ‘treatments’ simply does not work. Ineffective treatments is quite dangerous, not only to people, but to wildlife as well. In his delusional world, all TCM therapies are effective and hence he will happily go to court to act as a character witness for his business partner (another TCM practitioner) who was send to jail for importing Rhino horn, and other endangered animal material, into Australia. This was followed by promoting rhino horn as a life-saving medicine in a thesis, approved by Alan and WSU (2012). And quite recently (2017) the NICM even had a link on their website where consumers could find information regarding the life-saving properties of rhino horn, and I guess they could even buy it online (link has since been removed).  Everything works in his delusional world.

There are many more examples such as his continued support for debunked treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture etc. but this award is not only for supporting these treatments, it is also the way in which they mislead the public. For example: they fail to declare their many  conflicts of interest on many of their research papers (scientific misconduct), they design their experiments in such a way that it almost always gives a positive result (A+B vs B trial design), and even if the result is negative they will promote it as a big positive on WSU’s news site, or on social media (scientific misconduct and intentionally misleading the public). They even misled the Australian Research Council (info obtained after 2.5 years under a Freedom of Information request) who gave them a ranking of five, which stands for ‘research quality well above world standard’ in their ‘Excellence of Research for Australia’ program.  With this fraudulently obtained ranking, they lobby, but also mislead; UK royalty, ministers, regulators, foreign governments (specifically China) etc. in order to invest more money in the NICM.

But they also use this ranking to try and crush any negative reports, such as their 2016 Bent Spoon nomination – and this is where the excellent acting comes into play. Here is an excerpt from Alan’s letter to the Australian Skeptics “NICM conducts itself with the highest degree of integrity, ethics, scientific enquiry and social responsibility. Our research is independent, peer-reviewed, and is published in highly reputable, world-leading journals. NICM has been evaluated by Australia’s leading scientists under the Excellence in Research for Australia scheme and received the highest ranking of 5 for two consecutive periods, representing research that is deemed well above world standard.” None of this is true, and yet they can write these things without blushing. Their acting ability is so good, that they do not only fool the public, they actually have the acting ability to fool themselves. Any actor that can immerse themselves into a role to a point where they become the character deserves an Oscar, or in this case a bent spoon.

As for Prof Barney Glover. Well, he was warned about all of this, by myself and others, that by supporting the modus operandi of the NICM and hence these debunked treatments, including TCM, people will needlessly get hurt or even die (the Slapping therapy is a case in point). Unfortunately, Barney and the rest of WSU management decided to ignore all of these warnings and is fully supportive, and protects, the NICM at a cost of >$2 million AUD per year. I guess if you can’t beat them, join them; so, Barney has been actively involved in lobbying the Australian public that Chi exists and he has opened the door for China to use Australians as guinea pigs for their unproven and disproven TCM therapies.  It is well known that China wants to internationalise TCM, and via Alan and Barney the Australian public will now have to bear the brunt of ineffective therapies. Here is an excellent article in the ‘Economist’, explaining the dangers of doing just this – the title says it all; “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.”

Armed with this knowledge, Barney visited China on a number of occasions and together with Alan managed to get TCM in the Free Trade Agreement signed between China and Australia. This has given the impetus for Chinese companies to export more of their disproven and unproven ‘medicines’ to Australia, and it forms the cornerstone of a new TCM facility that will be built in Sydney. This facility will be co-managed by the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine (BUCM) and because it needs to be profitable within a couple of years, implies that it will be operated like a commercial clinic or hospital.  In the NICM’s own words during a industry sponsors meeting, the NICM will “lead the modernisation and integration of Chinese Medicine in the West through the
development of an effective Integrative Medicine Facility or TCM Hospital.” The BUCM has managed to start a similar 81-bed ‘hospital’ in Germany and this will likely be the model on which the Sydney facility will be based. So much for ‘evidence-based’ treatments, where evidence that a treatment does more good than harm comes first, before you start selling it to the public. But in their delusional world, all of TCM, and for that matter all of complementary medicine, works – so why should they provide any evidence?  You only have to belief that it works, and that is it!

At the heart of all of this, as usual, is money. The millions that Barney, Alan and the NICM cost the Australian public has to be recovered somehow, and hence these two men decided to destroy science, scientific education and put the public’s health at risk by allowing WSU to become the ‘scientific’ façade of a very dubious, and dangerous, complementary medicine industry. In exchange, they are handsomely rewarded with very big donations towards their ‘research efforts’, or rather, promotional research. Here they received $10 million from Blackmores, here is $4 million from the highly controversial Jacka Foundation (links with anti-vaccination activists), not to mention the millions from other complementary medicine companies, including Chinese companies and investors.

The list of misleading and false claims and statements constantly flowing from the NICM is unfortunately so long that it will require a series of books to be written in order to cover everything. It is however, quite remarkable, how similar their modus operandi is to the notorious gangster, Al Capone, who also had a ‘good guy’ public image, but beneath the surface had a somewhat more  sinister nature.  But the sad thing is that nobody can seemingly do anything about this. As long as they are in a position of power and they manage to bring in this kind of money; rules, ethics and morals simply do not apply anymore. As further evidence of their extremely good acting abilities, here is the title of Voldemort’s, oh sorry,  Barney’s speech given at the National Press club (photo) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will?” This is acting at its best, and in my view, deserving of the Bent Spoon award.

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 BlogTwitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon awards, and please, ‘Like’ and share this article – options below.

Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the NICM, and others, in this tragedy.

It is always a terrible day when children die at the hands of fake medical practitioners or pseudoscientists. It is so unnecessary and preventable, and yet, it happens every day everywhere around the world. The proverbial snake-oil salesman is not a new phenomenon, it has always been with us, but it is becoming a global epidemic since some universities decided to elevate this type of quackery, to become state-funded and university-supported quackery. This turn of events lends undue credibility and legitimacy to these ineffective and dangerous ‘treatments’ and this translates into more people being fooled, while the snake-oil salesmen and those universities stand to make more money. It is always about money! But let’s have a look at how it works with the following tragic example, followed by some suggestions as to what you can do to help prevent these things from happening.

The controversial ‘Slapping Therapy’

This example involves a complementary therapy within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), called ‘slapping therapy’ or ‘Paidalajin’. A 6yo boy suffering from type-1 diabetes attended a slapping therapy workshop in Sydney with his parents, but sadly, the boy died in his hotel room shortly afterwards. Although the case is still before the courts, it is believed that he was deprived of medication and food during the workshop. The parents and grandmother have been arrested and faces manslaughter charges while the TCM practitioner, Hongchi Xiao, was only quite recently extradited from the UK, where another person died at one of his workshops. He was not granted bail and faces a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

But what is this ‘slapping therapy’, and why is it called controversial? It involves the flow of ‘energy’ or a ‘life force’ (chi) through channels (meridians) and by slapping yourself, or being slapped by someone else, you restore the flow of chi and your body starts to expel ‘toxins’. These toxins become visible when your skin turns red, and I guess, purple and blue, depending on how hard you are being hit. The theory was, therefore, that by slapping this boy he would be cured from diabetes, and this belief is so strong, that he was also taken off his medication – a life threatening scenario. But what does science say? Chi does not exist, meridians do not exist, diabetes cannot be cured and especially not by slapping, and the so-called toxins that your body expel are called bruising (the slapping injury causes tiny blood vessels to burst and the blood gets trapped below the skin’s surface, which causes a bruise). Just imagine how many people get hurt or die, due to TCM practitioners using chi, meridians etc. to diagnose and treat disease. Because it does not exist, they cannot really diagnose anything, and hence cannot effectively treat anything!

Here is a photo of the type of bruising that you can expect, posted as a testimonial from a cancer sufferer and devout follower of Master Xiao (I always wonder how many of these testimonials are real). In addition, if you hit a young child to a point of severe bruising it is called child abuse, but in the pseudoscientific world it is apparently called ‘self-healing’.

All of TCM is controversial, or none of it is!

If you promote TCM, in whatever shape or form, you also promote its underlying pseudoscientific principles. Let’s look at acupuncture; You insert needles at specific points (acupoints) that supposedly manipulate the flow of chi through meridians – and this, according to practitioners, cures disease! This acupuncturist (at Western Sydney University – WSU) recently published a case study where she reported that her patient did not recover after receiving an acupuncture treatment. What was her conclusion? “Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi.” So, what is Yi? It is your intent (yi 意 ), and when your intentions (to cure disease) becomes permanent, then it becomes your will (zhi 志 ). In other words, acupuncture works and nobody should argue with that, the problem, this time, was that her intention for it to work were insufficient. Solution: believe more deeply!  And to think that this was part of the ‘science’ that was reviewed by the Australian Research Council in their Excellence of Research for Australia scheme, which they rewarded with the highest possible ranking (5) “evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard (something is rotten, but more about this in a next article).

But the same goes for herbal TCM, which also aims to manipulate the flow of chi through meridians. As described by ‘Prof’ Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM at WSU) in a radio interview; “The first patient would receive acupunctural herbs that disperse the accumulation of energy, the second patient would receive acupunctural herbs that strengthen and tonify the low back. It’s a tool like this concept of circulation of energy, that actually allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to distinguish these patients, and allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to treat the patients in a way that the patient themselves may understand better,”.

Disease is therefore seen as an imbalance of a non-existent energy that flows through non-existent meridians, and the ‘slapping therapist’ makes use of these ‘fake’ principles to mislead people. In their strange world, bacteria, viruses, pancreatic cells secreting insulin etc. do not exist, but rather disease is caused by your chi clogging your meridians and hence slapping yourself, or inserting needles, or taking herbs, will unclog your meridians and you will be cured of whatever ailment you might suffer from. They are continuing, to this day, to promote these false and dangerous ideas to the Australian public. And again, it is dangerous because if you cannot diagnose a disease, you cannot effectively treat it. Any successful TCM treatment (some herbs might be effective) is therefore purely based on luck. Ever wondered why a TCM practitioner will prescribe a patient a combination of 10-20 different herbs? Because it improves their chances of getting lucky, but also amplifies the many risks, 20-fold.

This is why scientists call TCM, and the many other forms of complementary medicine, belief-based healthcare systems. You only have to believe hard enough that it works and that’s it, there are more than enough gullible people who will fall for your trickery. Sure, you get true believers (delusional) and unscrupulous people (criminals) that only make as if they belief, for the sake of misleading you and to make money out of you. If you fall for them, then, unfortunately, you are on your own. Master Xiao’s comments after his arrest? “This has nothing to do with the workshop. This boy had a lot of diseases, more than we ever know.” It is never their fault.

But now a very unfortunate death has occurred, which means that many of the important role players in this tragedy will disavow the slapping therapy ‘treatment’ in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to stay out of the news. They do not accept any negative reports because it tends to clash with their Yi and Zhi. And hence they continue to promote acupuncture and TCM, even though many deaths have occurred as a direct result of acupuncture and even more due to herbal TCM remedies. And to think that most deaths, by far, occur as an indirect result after using these pseudoscientific therapies by neglecting a treatable or manageable medical condition, such as malaria or diabetes. The total number of deaths? Nobody knows.

Either all of the above therapies and treatments are controversial and should be stopped, or none of it is. I am fully supportive of the former, but those ‘open-minded’ people whose brains have fallen out, albeit delusional or criminal people, will obviously choose the latter and they will continue to make money out of the misfortunes of others. And with the current support of some universities, this problem will only get bigger.

Who is now really to blame for these tragic events? The role of Tasly Healthpac and the NICM.

No real doctor or scientist or any decent person with ethics and morals would allow a slapping therapist to give a workshop on their premises. Especially not to children suffering from serious medical conditions. What you should do, especially if you are an evidence-based healthcare practitioner, is to explain to this person that what he does is dangerous and that he should please stop doing it. And then you report him to the police. But this did not happen. So, the workshop was held at the ‘Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative Medicine’. According to a Tasly spokesperson, the slapping therapist “Mr Xiao rented a room from our centre to conduct what was described to us as a series of health seminars. The boy and his mother were participants in the seminar.” Apparently, they did not know about the slapping therapy, but is this true?

It is telling that Tasly have deleted their website or they have changed their name to Medicentral, where they continue to provide TCM and acupuncture alongside conventional treatments. No information can be found on their new website regarding the workshop, but from internet archives, it is clear that they themselves advertised this workshop. Their old website received up to 538 daily visitors, and hence their marketing efforts via their website reached many people in Australia (I would not be surprised if the parents of the deceased became aware of this workshop via Tasly’s website). On Master Xiao’s website he also states that his workshop was co-organised by an Australian medical institution. Therefore, Tasly’s statement is false. Slapping, acupuncture, herbal TCM – it is all the same thing, and that is why they allowed this workshop to be held on their premises.

A key person at Tasly is the founder, Dr Ven Tan, who started the practice more than 20 years ago and ‘through his own practice he has come to realise the limitations of conventional Western medicine and to worship the merit of Traditional Chinese Medicine’. Having a well-established practice and making statements such as above will draw the attention of pseudoscientists at some Australian Universities. WSU in Sydney (and they are by no means the only Australian university who have decided to put money before science and ethics) used public money to convert TCM practitioners into ‘Professors’ and hence, it is to be expected that they will seek funding from, or collaborate with Tasly in exchange for providing extra credibility and legitimacy for Tasly’s pseudoscientific services. ‘Integrating’ TCM with conventional therapies, with the involvement of WSU, creates trust and a sense of security in patients that all of the provided services at Tasly’s are underpinned by science, and thus more and more people will be misled.

Here (second photo on the left) is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Australian governments ‘aimed at promoting TCM in Australia through a collaborative initiative’ witnessed by Dr Ven Tan (Tasly) and Prof Alan Bensoussan (NICM at WSU). Another MoU was signed between Tasly and the NICM in 2011 which states that the NICM will provide “Assistance in the development of an Integrative Care Model: to assist the Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative medicine so that its structure aims to integrate TCM and western medical diagnostics and treatments in an integrated, patient centred way.” The result of doing just that, speaks tragically for itself.

It is well known that the Chinese government wants to internationalise TCM, it is, after all, a $170 billion industry. An excellent article about this issue, a real eye-opener, was recently published in the Economist “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.” The NICM has played a crucial role in the national registration of TCM practitioners in 2012, which elevated TCM to the same level as conventional healthcare, lending undue credibility to TCM. This extra legitimacy was used by the NICM to facilitate China’s plans for internationalisation of TCM via Australia. They lobbied various Ministers and managed to get TCM into the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015, shortly after the boy’s death from slapping. In 2016 a trade delegation of the Minister of Health (Jillian Skinner – now retired) visited China, accompanied by Dr Ven Tan and Prof Alan Bensoussan. Part of the mission was “To assist the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) secure investor and donor support for the NICM’s integrative Chinese medicine facility medicine/treatment on the Westmead Campus“.

Yes, they are building a large integrative TCM facility in Sydney, which will open in 2018. They will obviously sell this as a ‘research’ facility, but in truth, it will be operated like a commercial facility. All of this is good news for China, Tasly and the NICM, but it is definitely not good news for the Australian public.

Tasly and NICM should therefore also be held responsible for these tragic events.

The role of the regulator, the TGA, and the NICM’s influence

In Australia, this very important function to protect the public against the sort of quackery described above, is being done by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Pseudoscientists also know that the TGA is a potential key hurdle that must be overcome. They therefore lobby intensely, and some infiltrate the TGA (Alan Bensoussan has served many years on the TGA panel for complementary medicines), where they actually managed to get the job done. Even though the golden rule is that you really do not need to be a pseudoscientist in order to know what pseudoscience is, or to adequately regulate it. And yet, there are a number of TCM practitioners currently involved with regulating TCM at the TGA.

The NICM, and others, have managed to convince the TGA that almost all of these products and services are ‘low risk’, meaning low direct risk. Unfortunately, the high indirect risk is being ignored. You are probably not going to die after being slapped, but if you stop taking your real medicine it can lead to your death (the possible cause of the boy’s death). And this is exactly what this slapping therapist says. Medicine is poison so let’s slap your medical condition out of you.  What is my evidence for the bold statement regarding the TGA? They recently published their draft list of ‘permitted indications’, or the ‘medical’ claim that manufacturers can make for their products. Included in this list is 140 TCM indications. For example: “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. When a regulator allows pseudoscientists a foot in the door, then the above is the only logical outcome and now the TGA accepts the notion that meridians, chi, Yin and Yang etc. is real. And here again, the NICM is assisting Chinese companies to help them get past the TGA bureaucracy in order for them to register and sell their products in Australia. Having a partner such as the NICM in Australia, obviously makes a lot of Chinese companies very happy. Shouldn’t the TGA also be blamed when people get hurt after using these pseudoscientific healthcare treatments?

In a nutshell. The bereaved parents of the deceased are in trouble, while the slapping therapist is in jail where he will hopefully stay for a long time. But what about Tasly’s which promoted and hosted this workshop as part of their integrative medicine approach, or the NICM who collaborated with this clinic and facilitated their ‘integrative’ approach and who promoted TCM for decades and probably have misled thousands of people over the years, or the regulators who have opened their doors for pseudoscientists and who are continuing to allow this to happen? (I’ve actually volunteered my services to the TGA, but they were not interested.) Not even to speak about the politicians who could actually do something about this, but apparently have little interest to go in against the zhi (will) of the industry.

I can only hope that the courts will also look at the other players in this scenario who are partly responsible for this boy’s death, because it is time that the underlying problems be addressed, otherwise more and more people, including children, will get hurt.

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.

Stopping your support of these products and services, by informing yourself and by creating awareness about these issues, are pretty much the only things you can do in order to prevent these needless deaths. It is just such a pity that the VC’s, regulators and politicians (all funded by the taxpayer!) don’t have much interest in this, or just can’t seem to get the job done because of vested interests.  I’ll end with the wise, but somewhat empty, words of Prof Barney Glover (VC of WSU) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will!” – Clearly Prof. Glover will not stand up for the truth, hopefully, the public will!