By Marika Sboros
The ashes have settled on the unequivocal not guilty verdict for Prof Tim Noakes but what’s next? Will there be a scientific phoenix rising? Any prospect of even a breath of fresh evidential air flowing through stale halls of “conventional” dietary advice?
Not if the dietitians involved in the case against him have anything to do with it.
Immediately after the verdict on April 21, 2017, Association for Dietetics in SA (ADSA) president Maryke Gallagher was on TV. She made it clear that ADSA would not change the “conventional” (low-fat, high-carb) dietary advice it dishes out. ADSA also issued a general, highly ambiguous statement to that effect the same day.
Two days later, the Nutrition Society of SA was equally emphatic. The verdict has “absolutely no bearing or impact on the current or future status of nutrition or the dietary guidelines in South Africa”, it said.
Thus, the dietitians and their backers have sent a clear message to Noakes. He has won the battle but the war against him and low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) science goes on. However, Noakes has made it clear he is more than ready for scientific battle. In the second in a series of reviews of the verdict, here are some views on the implications of his resounding vindication.
There has been deafening silence from the HPCSA and other doctors and nutrition academics involved in the case against Noakes. That silence speaks volumes. It suggests that the war against LCHF science will be even dirtier in future. Interestingly, the HPCSA has also yet to publish the not guilty verdict on its website. That’s after wrongly issuing a statement in October 2016 that it had found Noakes guilty.
That prompted a terse response from Pretoria advocate Joan Adams, Chair of the HPCSA’s Professional Conduct Committee. The Committee effectively acted as the “judge” in the case against Noakes. Adams said that the HPCSA’s guilty verdict was “devoid of all truth”. That turned out to be prescient.
Certainly, the Committee’s verdict was as comprehensive a vindication of Noakes as it was humanly possible to be. HPCSA rules require that its five-member Committee reached a majority verdict.
In a 60-page ruling, Adams announced a four-to-one not guilty verdict. She ruled on 10 points on which the HPCSA had failed to prove the charge of unprofessional conduct.
The points included three pillars of the charge. Firstly, the HPCSA alleged a doctor-patient relationship between Noakes and the breastfeeding mother on Twitter. Secondly, that he tweeted medical advice, not information.
Thirdly – and crucially – that his tweet was unconventional because it was not evidence-based. Therefore, the HPCSA alleged that Noakes’ tweet was dangerous and could have been life-threatening.
Click here to read: Noakes not guilty of ‘something or other’
Adams and her committee didn’t buy any of it. Instead, they agreed with much of the defence heads of argument.
Noakes’ lawyers successfully argued that the HPCSA showed bias, unfairness, hypocrisy, double standards and gross injustice towards him throughout. Strydom was little more than a “disgruntled dietitian”, advocate Michael van der Nest (SC) said. She and other dietitians were peeved because the public seemed to listen more to Noakes than to them.
The case was never about his conduct as a medical doctor, Van der Nest said. It was an “unprecedented prosecution of South Africa’s eminent scientist” simply for his views on nutrition.
The HPCSA was biased against Noakes even before it decided to prosecute him. His innocuous tweet was simply the pretext for prosecution – and persecution, Van der Nest said.
Thus, Strydom almost “miraculously” managed to get the HPCSA, a statutory body, to prosecute Noakes on a whim, he said. And the HPCSA appeared to have issued a “win-at-all-costs” order to its legal team.
The ultimate irony was that the dietitians had “cried out” for “evidence” on LCHF, Van der Nest said. And when Noakes provided it – over 6000 pages, 1200 slides and more than 340 publications and articles – Strydom wasn’t there to hear it. The HPCSA also did its level best to exclude and ignore all the evidence.
“What kind of body charges a person for being dangerous and incorrect and then tries to exclude the evidence showing he is not?” Van der Nest asked.
Advocate Dr Ravin “Rocky” Ramdass argued convincingly in favour of the relevance of all the defence evidence for LCHF.
In her latest newsletter, British obesity researcher Dr Zoe Harcombe was scathing about Strydom and the HPCSA. Harcombe was one of three expert witnesses for Noakes. The others were US science writer Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, and New Zealand dietitian academic Dr Caryn Zinn.
Harcombe said that Strydom should not have made the complaint. The HPCSA should not have charged Noakes. The case was “premeditated and malicious”, she said. It left her with “nothing but contempt” for Strydom as the complainant and “little more regard for (the HPCSA)”.
She was especially critical of the HPCSA’s claim that Noakes had brought the case on himself. “No person would choose to have this hanging over them for (more than) three years”, she said.
“No person would want the immense emotional and mental burden that this imposed upon them and their family.
And “no person would wish to waste millions of rands responding to the whim of a spiteful dietician”.
Harcombe referred to Adams as the “magnificent Chair in this hearing”. Adams carefully laid down case law to support her Committee’s verdict. That included a ruling suggesting that Committee members should place themselves “in the exact position in which (Noakes) found himself”.
Adams showed “great empathy”, Harcombe said. She and her Committee demonstrated “emotional intelligence and decency to put themselves in (Noakes’) shoes”. These were qualities that Strydom and the HPCSA “demonstrably lacked”.
Given that the case may have bankrupted lesser mortals, financially and emotionally, the human instinct for fairness said that someone should “pay for this”, she said.
“When children misbehave, they need to have consequences of their bad behaviour otherwise they don’t learn to behave,” Harcombe said.
There should be consequences from the HPCSA’s case against Noakes. If not, more dietitians across the globe would complain.
It would be understandable if Noakes and his legal team proceeded with a costs suit against Strydom and the HPCSA, Harcombe said. However, the world of nutrition and sports science would lose out if Noakes spent one more day in a court room.
His place “is in a laboratory or lecture theatre”, she said. Noakes must be able to continue his role as ” one of the (world’s) rare A1-rated scientists in this field”.
Click here to read Harcombe’s full post on The HPCSA vs Noakes: A reflection
ADSA’s statement immediately after the hearing quotes Gallagher saying: “We respect (Noakes) for his work as a sports scientist.”
The hearing was “never about winning or losing or standing for or against Noakes”, she said. It was about “protecting the health of babies and future adults”. ADSA welcomed the verdict and “the precedent this case provides on what we considered unconventional advice”.
She said that ADSA and its members would continue to provide evidence-based dietary advice. She also said that this advice was “in line with guidelines” from the Department of Health and international bodies. Gallagher claimed that these guidelines are the result of a “scientific and rigorous process”. She did not elaborate on that process.
ADSA would consider new approaches and practices based on scientific evidence that “credible health organisations” adopted, she said. However, Gallagher ignored the extensive and robust science, which the defence presented.
ADSA has now hired the CEO of a crisis management company to manage its public image. He is former Woolworths communications executive Neeran Naidoo.
His LinkedIn profile describes Hewers Communications as “a niche market crisis communication and issues management agency”.
Gallagher is also a consultant to Woolworths.
Click here to read ADSA’s statement on the verdict.
In an interview with Radio 702’s Redi Tlabi, Noakes signaled readiness for all scientific battles ahead.
At more than three years, the case against him was longer than the standard ultra-marathon, Noakes said. However, the prosecution “didn’t realise that they were up against an ultra-marathon runner”.
“We weren’t going to quit early. We crossed the finish line in first place today,” Noakes said of the verdict.
He interprets the verdict as a green light to give information on Twitter without worrying that dietitians or the HPCSA will stop him. He has also dispelled the myth that LCHF was about no-carbs or excessively low-carbs for kids.
The problem is babies born to mothers who ate lots of carbs during their pregnancy, Noakes said. These mothers also usually wean children on to high-carb diets. The children then start eating lots of carbs early on in their lives. As a result, many go on to develop the progressive condition of insulin resistance.
And by age 25 or 35, many become pre-diabetic. Consequently, the only effective treatment is to reduce carbohydrate intake.
“We are not saying that children can’t eat carbs,” Noakes said. However, “if you bring your children up properly, they can afford to eat carbohydrates during their lives”.