Archive for September 18th, 2008

What say the Nutritionistas?

September 18, 2008

In which we ponder why the “Nutritional Therapy Community” has been silent on the Goldacre-Rath libel case.

There is no doubt that Ben Goldacre and The Guardian have won a great victory for rationality and truth in their legal battle with Matthias Rath. Both should feel very proud for standing up to be counted. The fact that they defended Rath’s lawsuit under UK libel laws (notoriously friendly to plaintiffs) makes it all the more impressive. Given the potentially serious financial downside of losing a suit like this, newspapers often prefer to take the complained-of material down and settle out of court. It is to The Guardian’s great credit that they did not do this. As a regular reader for 40 years (honest) I feel the paper has justified the loyalty we leftie liberal sceptics feel towards it.

Hopefully, the judgement will see the release of a lot of new material about Dr. Rath, and particularly about his campaign to promote his vitamin concoctions to HIV-positive people in Southern Africa. The next instalment appeared in The Guardian on Monday. This second piece emphasised again the terrible human tragedy of the AIDS crisis in Southern Africa. A whole motley crew of quacks have appeared to exploit the vulnerability of those who are poor and HIV positive. Encouraged and aided by the ignorance and ideology-driven blindness of the South African government, these chancers (who come in both local and international varieties) have been able to generate a thriving trade, at a terrible cost in wasted lives.

What other things can we take from the judgement?

One point that has been made by several bloggers is that the silence from other “nutritional therapists”- including ones with high media profiles who have been known to use lines somewhat reminiscent of Rath’s – has been total. Now why is that?

Rath, of course, has been something of an Alternative Medicine rock star, touring the world giving three-hour speeches to packed halls. This is a touch surprising, since even a cursory reading of some of the vast mass of material on Rath’s myriad websites (e.g. here) reveals a lot of deeply weird stuff. I would be tempted to generate an extended post on “Matthias Rath in his own words” were it not for the fact that several such are already out there in the blogosphere. Anyway, to save time, The Guardian summarises several of Rath’s more oft-repeated accusations as follows:

“Rath could not have been clearer in his message in a campaign waged on the internet, in speeches across the world and in adverts in the New York Times: [anti-retroviral drugs] were a form of genocide against Africans, produced by drug companies responsible for the second world war, apartheid and the US invasion of Iraq.”

This in addition to Rath’s core message for the last fifteen years, namely that all cardiovascular disease is actually a vitamin deficiency (lack of vitamin C), and that people are deliberately kept in ignorance of this so that the “Pharma Conspiracy” can sell us their expensive drugs.

These accusations are not hard to find on Rath’s websites. And if that was not enough, there is his campaign to publish “Open Letters” as paid adverts in major newspapers – a selection of these can be found here.

Given the bizarre, not to mention barking mad, nature of much of this stuff, you would think many of the CAM and nutritional medicine folk – at least at the less way-out end of the “natural health” spectrum – might have sensed ”something of the night” about the charismatic Dr Matthias. However, they mostly seem to have viewed him as a hero, most probably for his “refusal to be intimidated” by conventional medicine and “Evil Pharma”.

(Translation: his ready recourse to M’Learned Friends in the case of any criticism, and the flamboyant way he has pumped out his message about how the PharmaCos conspire with governments and conventional medicine to “promote disease”).

It would seem, then, that to many in CAM Rath has been a sort of “six hundred pound gorilla”, prepared to fight the good fight for their side. A strong thread runs through many forms of CAM, increasingly so the wackier the therapy, that the practitioners and advocates are truth-seekers being “persecuted” by the force of reaction (conventional medicine and science, and/or the “Big Pharma Conspiracy”). This leads to such ludicrous things as “Health Freedom” campaigns, which largely amount to demands for the “human right” to get quack therapies paid for by public fund. Rath’s message chimes strongly with this strand of belief, and his celebrity and charisma lets people of this mindset see him as a hero, rather than a person whose weird beliefs and statements might lead you to wonder if he is losing the plot.

Of course, this highlights a key difference between CAM and the mainstream.

In the mainstream, if you are found engaging in wholly unethical practices (and/or repeatedly lying to your patients if you are a physician), you can expect to be investigated, exposed, disciplined, and potentially thrown out of “the business” for good.

If your scientific or medical evidence is found to be faked, bogus, or exaggerated, ditto.

If your science is found to be genuinely done but incorrect, you can expect to see people picking holes in your arguments, discussing your mistakes and why and how you made them, how to avoid similar errors in future, what better ways to do things are there, and what we can learn from it all.

In contrast, in far too many alternative medicine communities, none of the above happens.

So what might we expect from the “nutritional therapy” community in the wake of the court case, and the Guardian’s reporting of Rath’s activities?

In particular, what should they be saying about Rath’s attempts to use the libel laws to suppress scrutiny of what he does?

If they had any genuine ability to self-regulate – and this, remember, is something that nutritionists and other CAM practitioners are repeatedly telling the Government they are ready and keen to do – they should surely be speaking out about what a bad example Rath has set.

They should be admitting how what has been happening in South Africa bears out almost everything the sceptics and bad science watchers have said about the worst excesses of unlicensed nutritionists and nutrition companies.

They should be setting out how they would devise codes of practise for nutritional supplement manufacturers and nutritional therapists that would try and prevent these kind of abuses.

They should be insisting on open debate, on the scientific facts, and condemning the use of defamation law as a gagging tactic in matters of science and medicine, real or “alternative”.

Instead, what we have is silence.

A whole lot of silence.

Let’s hope the nutritional therapists in particular are using this silence to take a long, hard, look at themselves.

But somehow, I am not optimistic.