By Marika Sboros
What’s really behind the prosecution of scientist Prof Tim Noakes? Is it just a single tweet to a breastfeeding mother, which even she said she didn’t take seriously? Was one dietitian really so “horrified” that she reported Noakes – even though she dishes out the same information?
What of claims of a doctor-patient relationship between Noakes and the stranger on Twitter? The same dietitian admitted that there wasn’t one.
Or is it just because Noakes says things like “cardiology is an evidence-free zone”? (It often is, these days.) Or that he has exposed endocrinologists who preach that diabetes is irreversible? And that he exposes the malevolent influence on nutrition advice of food and drug industries and a shadowy international Coca-Cola proxy organisation? For proof, look to crack US investigative journalist Russ Greene.
What of the Medical Research Council (MRC) investigation into staff member Dr Ali Dhansay? Dhansay was a key witness against Noakes. Dhansay is a former president of the Coca-Cola proxy in South Africa. Will the MRC investigation reveal foul play? The Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) has turned its hearing into a full-blown trial against Noakes resumes on April 4. Here’s a preview and a look at who holds the key to Noakes’ fate.
First up will be closing argument from counsel for both sides. Thereafter, the “jury”, the HPCSA’s Professional Conduct Committee, will retire to consider its verdict. On D-Day, April 21, Committee Chair, Pretoria advocate Joan Adams, will rule.
Thus, Adams holds the key to his fate. What if she finds Noakes guilty? What if she finds him innocent – as most experts locally and internationally believe that she will find him? Certainly, this case is unprecedented and the HPCSA has lots to lose either way. It is the first time that authorities have prosecuted a distinguished, world-renowned scientist for his views on nutrition.
Adams has an awesome reputation for independence and integrity. To her credit, she has remained as inscrutable as a Chinese Buddha at a Donald Trump rally throughout this strange saga. When the HPCSA announced, wrongly, that Noakes was guilty last year, Adams reacted with swift, elegant brevity.
The guilty verdict was “devoid of all truth”, Adams said. And quite rightly so. She said a few more words than that. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if she were a power poker player. She deserves a medal for the straight face she has kept at some of the HPCSA’s antics and objections in this case.
The HPCSA has acted as if its job description mandates regular breaching of Noakes’ rights. Each and every time it did so, Adams rapped its legal team on the knuckles, figuratively speaking, in the best of firm schoolmarm fashion. She reminded the HPCSA that South Africa is a democracy and that Noakes has a constitutional right to a fair trial. As if it needed reminding. The HPCSA has appeared oddly oblivious of Noakes’s constitutional rights at times.
In the meantime, more questions buzz around this case than flies feeding off a rotting lion kill.
HPCSA’s newly acquired advocate Ajay Bhoopchand was almost funny in how hard he tried and failed to block Noakes at every turn at the February 2016 hearing. I say almost because it would have been funny were it not intended seriously. Bhoopchand objected so frequently and on such spurious grounds that he elicited exasperated comments from Adams.
It did not make sense, Adams said, to charge Noakes with giving “unconventional advice”, then not let him present evidence to show that the information he gave was not unconventional. In the HPCSA’s dictionary, “unconventional” is a synonym for unscientific and dangerous. At least, that’s how it alleged in the charge and further particulars.
Bhoopchand also tried hard to clip the wings of two of the three women who the public dubbed “Tim’s Angels“. They are British obesity researcher Dr Zoë Harcombe, US science journalist Nina Teicholz and Dr Caryn Zinn, a New Zealand-based dietitian academic. Adams stood as tall as an avenging angel herself, blocked his path and let the Angels through.
Of course, Adams is only the Chair of the “jury”. Other members include an HPCSA staff member, Noakes’ external doctor peers and a member of the public. They are all important cogs in this wheel of justice. They also hold keys to Noakes’ fate in this odd case.
Yet stranger still is the HPCSA’s charge against Noakes, not just because it is badly constructed. It’s also because the HPCSA fiddled with charge, breaching its own rules in the process.
Click here to read: DIETITIANS TRYING TO COVER THEIR BACKS?
Thus, the charge ended up: “unprofessional conduct or conduct which, when regard is had to your profession, in that during the period between January 2014 and February 2014 you acted in a manner that is not in accordance with the norms and standards of your profession in that you provided unconventional advice on breastfeeding babies on social networks (tweet/s).”
Johannesburg dietitian Claire Julsing Strydom reported Noakes for a single tweet in February 2014. Strydom was president of the Association for Dietetics in SA (ADSA) at the time. The HPCSA changed her complaint from personal to professional and made ADSA the complainant. That was yet another breach of its own rules.
That set off a chain of events that has cost millions on both sides, with no end in sight. Of course, there is an end in sight – when Adams rules on April 21. I expect her ruling to unlock some of the weirdness that has characterised the trial. Whichever way she rules, the seismic effects of this peculiar prosecution will likely reverberate worldwide.
It’s also true that HPCSA hearings are not supposed to be adversarial. Hearings are supposed to be dispassionate inquiries into the truth of a matter. However, from the outset, the HPCSA’s approach has been nothing but adversarial. Adams has negotiated those legal and ethical minefields with a gentle, intelligent humour at times. However, the adversarial nature of this case raises questions of the HPCSA’s motive in prosecuting Noakes.
As a result, the public dubbed it the Banting for Babies Trial. I dubbed it Theatre of the Absurd when it became clear that the trial isn’t about babies at all. It is also not about breastfeeding or what doctors can and can’t say on social media. After all, the HPCSA doesn’t have guidelines for health professionals on use of social media. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to accuse Noakes of breaching rules that don’t exist.
Still, the HPCSA has never let a little thing like non-sense get in the way of bulldozing its case. A lot of what it has done has made little sense to the dispassionate onlooker. Like going after Noakes as if he were a common criminal, a killer bent on genocide, as doctors and dietitians involved would have you believe.
After the November 2015 hearing, the HPCSA employed Bhoopchand as part of an expensive team of external lawyers to cauterize its hemorrhaging case. That just means that GPs will have to cough up for the costs – from their annual HPCSA subscriptions and registration fees.
I hear that the HPCSA’s subscription fees have gone up for all disciplines. I’ve asked for confirmation and for whether that includes medical. It won’t surprise me if that’s the case, as the HPCSA clearly has to find lots of lolly from somewhere to fund this case.
A reliable source told me that Bhoopchand presented a bill of close to R1million for seven days of the February 2016 hearing alone. Neither Bhoopchand, nor instructing attorney Katlego Mmuoe, of Mmuoe Attorneys, nor the HPCSA would confirm or deny the amount.
The HPCSA has stonewalled all my requests for information from the outset. So have ADSA and all universities and academics involved. It’s as if an epidemic of laryngitis has felled them all. Their vocal cords have swollen so tightly that they can’t whisper anything intelligible into my willing ear.
Or it may just be that all these doctors and dietitians have sworn an oath of silence, Mafiosi-like. They want to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions against Noakes.
After all, if Adams rules in Noakes’ favour, that means he’s right and they’re wrong. They have legions to lose. At risk are reputations, careers, funding and livelihoods. Also at risk are the vested interests among food and drug industries that have made billions from low-fat, high-carb dietary guidelines these doctors and dietitians enthusiastically dish up. The very same guidelines that have little or no science to back them up.
At the October 2016 hearing, Bhoopchand even suggested that Noakes was using the hearing as a “platform” to gain media attention for LCHF. He begged Adams and her “honourable committee” not to allow that “to happen any further”.
Click here to read: DID DOCTORS SET HIM UP IN ‘CAT ‘N MOUSE’ GAME?
Johannesburg advocate Michael Van der Nest SC for Noakes was barely restrained in response. Looking directly at Bhoopchand, a steely Van der Nest said: “With all respect to our learned friend, that is outrageous.”
Van der Nest said that Noakes did not ask the HPCSA to prosecute him. He did not ask to spend more than two years (now more than three) under a professional cloud. It was not his choice to live under ongoing stress and spend a fortune flying in experts from all over the world to defend him.
Dietitians, all ADSA members, brought the case against Noakes because he disagreed with them. “Because he had the temerity to hold a different view to them, they thought he must be prosecuted.”
Once again Van der Nest looked directly at Bhoopchand. “Do not get upset when you prosecute someone and he puts up a fight.
“That is the consequence of prosecuting someone for a tweet that the so-called ‘patient’ ignored. That is why we are here. (He) is the defendant. He is entitled to defend himself to the fullest and he will.”
The hush that Van der Nest left in his wake with those comments was almost palpable.
The MRC’s investigation of Dhansay and his evidence at the hearing throw up more questions. Greene reported in February that the MRC is investigating Dhansay’s links with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). That followed Greene’s expose of extensive links between ILSI and many of the doctors and dietitians involved in the case against Noakes. Greene also showed evidence that ILSI is a Coca-Cola front.
Dhansay is former director of the MRC’s Nutritional Intervention Research Unit. The MRC has announced that it has closed his unit. Greene notes that the MRC has also, unusually, distanced itself from Dhansay’s evidence at the HPCSA trial against Noakes.
Greene’s report links ILSI and Coca-Cola to a chain of scandals. The chain has affected the US National Institutes of Health, University of California San Diego, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the United Nations. It is a riveting read.
That puts the spotlight’s back on all the universities involved in the case against Noakes.
Will North-West (formerly Potchefstroom) University follow the MRC example? Will it distance itself from the evidence of its professors Hester “Estee” Vorster and Prof Salome Kruger, who were witnesses against Noakes? And will it investigate their links to ILSI and/or the sugar industry in South Africa? What about Vorster’s secret report, which the HPCSA kept from Noakes and used to build its case against him?
Will the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch also investigate all their academics involved in the case? If so, the universities will be busy for a very long time.
What about the letter to the Cape Times, which UCT academics wrote in 2014? In it, they defame Noakes and accuse him without proof or grounds for correctness of their views.
The academics also appear to have “irregularly obtained” the signature of a co-author of their letter. That’s lawyer-speak for using UCT emeritus cardiology professor Lionel Opie’s signature fraudulently. They may have done so without Opie’s consent merely to add gravitas to their untethered views. However, Noakes’ evidence suggested another reason. They knew that it would distress him to believe that Opie, his mentor and friend, would humiliate him publicly.
Despite copious emails to all the letter’s authors and university vice chancellors, all remain resolutely silent. All seem still to have severe laryngitis. Yet they were vocal leading up to the HPCSA decision to charge Noakes. All became quiet as mice once he began presenting his evidence for LCHF at the February 2016 hearing session and since.
There is also the very vexed question of the so-called Naudé Review. PLoS One published it in August 2014. The authors are Stellenbosch and Cape Town University researchers and a lone University of Liverpool researcher. The HPCSA used their study as the bulwark of its case against Noakes.
Noakes and Harcombe reanalysed it and found it so riddled with errors that it is fatally flawed. To date, the authors have refused to address the errors. Instead, they have gone into ostrich-mode, much like UCT vice chancellor Dr Max Price has done.
Click here to read: NO MISTAKES OR MISCHIEF AGAINST NOAKES? FAT CHANCE!
There are also questions concerning evidence of “irregular conduct” of Prof Amaboo “Ames” Dhai, head of Wits University’s Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. Dhai chaired the HPCSA Preliminary Inquiry Committee that charged Noakes. Another committee member implicated in irregular conduct is emeritus professor of surgery Dr John Terblanche.
Dhai wouldn’t comment, although Wits vice chancellor Prof Adam Habib would – sort of. He said that Dhai had assured him of “no wrong doing”. I told Habib that I expected her to say something like that. I could also have told him that if Dhai were living in the US, she could have taken advantage of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment not to incriminate herself. However, I merely said that Wits should take such a serious accusation seriously. It should investigate fully and transparently the evidence against Dhai that is on the record at the hearing.
Instead, Habib and Stellenbosch University vice chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers (an author of the letter) have chosen to ape Price’s ostrich impersonation.
There are many unintended consequences for doctors and dietitians in this trial. It is revealing whose views on nutrition really are “unconventional” and dangerous. It is exposing ultimately, who really is guilty of unprofessional behaviour.
Time, April 21 and Adams will tell all.