Over the past thirty-something years, the Bent Spoon has become one of Australia’s least coveted awards. It is, of course, by design. Awarded annually to the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle, it serves to highlight particularly egregious instances of anti-science. While we have had all kinds of winners over the years, we reserve special scorn for those who should know better but for whatever reason fail to do the right thing.
In March 2016, NICM was nominated for the Bent Spoon. This was the nomination as it appeared on our site:
Nominee: Professors Alan Bensoussan, Gregory Kolt and Barney Glover at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, School of Science and Health, Western Sydney University
Nominated by: Frank Van der Kooy
For continuing to fully support and defend the use of homeopathy and other unbelievable complementary medicines. For ignoring the detrimental impact that their approach have on science, scientific education and the general health and well-being of the Australian population.
More information here.
On 22 November 2016, a few days before our National Convention where we present our annual awards, Australian Skeptics Inc President Eran Segev received an email from Professor Alan Bensoussan. It had a letter attached, and requested “that this letter is treated with strict confidence and only used for the purpose of removing the nomination”.
As will become clear shortly, we rejected this request as being unreasonable and unjustified both substantively and as the email was copied to two other parties not directly linked to Australian Skeptics Inc. However, there were parts of the letter that we accept should appropriately remain confidential, and we have chosen to redact those.
You can read Prof Bensoussan’s letter here.
On 3 December, a few days after the Convention, Eran Segev sent the following email to Prof Bensoussan:
Dear Prof Bensoussan,
Thanks for your email and letter. At the convention this weekend we have announced the “winner” of the Bent Spoon for this year, and I’m sure you’d be pleased to know that NICM was spared. The nominations for 2016 have now been removed from our website.
I wish to use this opportunity to express my ongoing concern over the uncritical way NICM presents information that is, at a minimum, dubious. The easiest example is the definition provided under “Energy Medicine”. Simply using the biologically meaningless terms “energy fields” and “biofields” puts you in the same category as some of the worst cranks in alternative medicine. As a minimum, I would have expected something like “it is claimed” followed by other qualifications that make it clear that NICM does not subscribe to these unscientific definitions. Unfortunately, a review of your site suggest that your claim that you “…do not defend the use of any complementary medicine unsupported by evidence” is false.
While you did not win the Bent Spoon this year, I reject your suggestion that the nomination was undeserved. Investigating complementary medicine in a scientifically rigorous manner is a credible scientific pursuit. Promoting it with weak or non-scientific evidence, as NICM often does, is not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Bent Spoon nominations for your organisation as you continue your uncritical support for implausible and evidence-free treatment modalities.
In your response to the NH&MRC review you ignored the magical pre-scientific notions that underpin homeopathy and its complete lack of plausibility, producing a statement which makes it look very much like you think this modality has some credibility, yet to be proven. The same approach permeates your site – no criticism of any alternatives to medicine in sight.
Even your warnings are mealy-mouthed: Saying “Serious forms of disease, conditions and disorders should not be diagnosed or treated without first consulting a suitably qualified healthcare professional” is not nearly good enough, when what any responsible organisation would say is “Go see your doctor” to make sure no-one sees a naturopath for a serious condition.
I also note that NICM is being sponsored by the Jacka Foundation, an organisation so uncritical of alternatives to medicine that it links to notorious anti-vaccination activists as sources of information.
I hope this will serve as a bit of a reminder of the need for scientific thinking to replace the unwavering support of complementary medicine in all its forms, which seems to inflict NICM.
President – Australian Skeptics Inc
Prof Bensoussan’s response on 5 December:
Thank you for your update note and thoughts. We are intending to revise our website over the summer and hope to address some of the issues you have raised. However, I don’t agree with everything you say and your language is in places unnecessarily offensive.
And finally, Eran’s message on 5 December:
Dear Prof Bensoussan,
We at Australian Skeptics are encouraged by the news that you intend to revise the website and look forward to seeing a more measured attitude to the evidence – or lack thereof – for various CM modalities. However, until such time as NICM has clearly made a shift in its approach, we will continue to keep a sceptical eye over the Institute and its publications, and make public our criticism of the Institute when we feel it’s appropriate.
Specifically, we refer to your letter dated 22 November 2016, which we note was headed “Strictly confidential”. We suggest that this was inappropriate and that we are entitled to republish your letter if we wish.
Your letter requested us to remove text from our publicly available website. There was no confidential information in the letter which you are entitled to protect from public disclosure.
As part of our ongoing investigation of CAM, we consider that it is in the public interest to republish the nomination, your letter and our response dated 3 December 2016.
We also give you the opportunity to respond and we will publish that, assuming it is in appropriate terms and not of excessive length. If you wish to take advantage of our offer, please respond by 5 pm Friday 9 December 2016.
President – Australian Skeptics Inc
To date, no response has been received to this last message.
We sincerely hope that NICM will change its ways; but if past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, we remain sceptical.