By Marika Sboros
Prof Tim Noakes celebrated a remarkable anniversary recently. It was June 8, 2018, a year since he became a free man, legally speaking.
On that day, the legal sword of Damocles that the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) had dangled over his head for more than four years, disappeared.
Given its behaviour so far, the HPCSA did what many thought it wouldn’t do on that day. It dismissed its prosecution lawyers’ appeal against its comprehensive not-guilty verdict for Noakes in April 2017.
The HPCSA’s own appeal committee confirmed the not-guilty ruling in its entirety. It found Noakes not guilty on all 10 aspects of a charge of unprofessional conduct. Click here to read a report and the full decision. That decision reverberates to this day through medical, dietetic and scientific fraternities globally.
Noakes and I have included a chapter on the appeal in our new book, Real Food On Trial. The subtitle says it all: How the diet dictators tried to destroy a top scientist (Columbus, 2019). It’s an update of Lore of Nutrition, Challenging Conventional Dietary Beliefs (Penguin 2017).
In it, we take a deeper dive into the curious case that the public dubbed the “Nutrition Trial of the 21st Century”. I called it “Kafkaesque” and “theatre of the absurd” for the dizzying detours, twists and turns it took. I later called it “an inquisition” for the ferocity of the HPCSA’s prosecution of Noakes.
The Tweet that started it all
The trial proved a warren of vested interests of industry-led MDs, dietitians and academics meddling in medicine and science. All over a single tweet way back in February 2014.
In the tweet, Noakes dared to opine that good first foods for infants are LCHF (low-carb, high-healthy-fat). In other words, he was suggesting meat, fish, chicken eggs and dairy.
That tweet so memorably “horrified” Johannesburg dietitian Claire Julsing Strydom that she reported Noakes to the HPCSA. With that, Strydom set off what Noakes’s legal team called a “world-first prosecution and persecution of a distinguished, world-renowned scientist for his scientific opinion on nutrition”.
it quickly became clear that Strydom was not acting alone. Backing Strydom was the organisation she headed at the time: the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).
Strydom also had the backing of MDs and academics keen to silence Noakes for their own ends. They seemed determined to undermine the evidence for LCHF to treat and prevent life-threatening diseases. Among these are obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers that are epidemic worldwide.
The trial revealed the “real beef” Strydom and other dietitians still have with Noakes.
The appeal ruling left the HPCSA pondering a lesson in unintended consequences on and off social media: If you go up against a distinguished scientist on the evidence, you won’t win without all your scientific ducks in a row.
And if you’re missing any moral, ethical and legal ducks, your case could backfire on you spectacularly.
As it did in this case.
Far from discrediting and silencing Noakes on LCHF, the trial achieved the opposite. It attracted the attention of medical and scientific communities globally. It gave Noakes a public platform for disseminating the evidence for LCHF.
The case sent his international scientific profile rocketing into the stratosphere, where it remains. He is once again in demand as a lecturer and speaker, locally and internationally.
But the real meat of Real Food On Trial ended up very different from what I thought at first that it would be.
Global ‘plague’: academic mobbing
Our book lays bare the extensive rot of a global plague that infects many, if not most, of South Africa’s top universities.It is the ugly, endemic phenomenon of academic bullying or “mobbing”, as it is known. It is endemic in Noakes’s alma mater, the institution he served with distinction for nearly 50 years: the University of Cape Town (UCT).
We show that the mobsters were (and are) mostly from UCT. But they also were (and are) embedded in the University of Stellenbosch, North-West (formerly Potchefstroom) and the University of the Witwatersrand.
We show how dangerous and potentially fatal academic mobbing can be. And how and why Noakes was lucky enough to survive it relatively unscathed.
In the book, we give the names and backgrounds of all the MDs, dietitians and academics who ganged up on Noakes. We document in detail all their actions. Their antics, as one legal expert put it, would have made Machiavelli blush.
It’s a long and unedifying tale of how these academic “mobsters” banded together to try to destroy Noakes. How they insulted and defamed Noakes in public lectures and letters to the media for years before the HPCSA trial.
Mobsters and trolls
We show that all the academic institutions involved condoned the mobbing by staying silent – and do so, still. And that they facilitated the mobbing by allowing the mobsters to indulge in it with impunity, making it open season on Noakes.
It’s true that following the appeal and publication of Lore of Nutrition and Real Food On Trial, the academic mobsters and Twitter trolls have grown muter. But they haven’t gone away and many have just gone to ground.
It’s telling, say legal experts, that none of the mobsters has shown any remorse. Nor has any of them apologised, even privately, for putting Noakes through what he has described as the “hardest four years” of his life. That’s despite polite requests from Noakes for a simple apology.
But Noakes is fully recovered, even energised by his victory over the establishment forces, even as they still try to discredit him.
He has learned lessons from the trial and written about them in an open blog on the Noakes Foundation website. In it, excoriates UCT for an institutional, ” hidden culture of bullying, vindictiveness and envy”. He sees the drivers of that culture as “perhaps a desire to promote conformity, to suppress freedom of speech and expression”. And perhaps also to “limit efforts at transformation”.
The real legacy of Tim Noakes
In conversation with Noakes, it is clear that he and wife Marilyn, have taken on board some salutary words from a legal specialist, who wishes to remain anonymous: That he should go down on bended knees every day and thank UCT and the HPCSA for forcing him to up his game.
And that he, his defence team and the expert witnesses who flew in to testify for him (the public called them “Tim’s Angels”) had “advanced the LCHF cause by 10 years in what (they) have achieved, And that he could never have achieved that without the “help” of the HPCSA and all those who conspired to destroy him.
“They have to live with the humiliation they have suffered for the rest of their lives,” the legal eagle said.
That advice has helped Noakes and his wife to replace their hostility and anger with “distance, humour and thankfulness that we are not them”, he says. “And for the incredible opportunities that they have given us.”
Noakes has followed the advice of another trusted source: To put “UCT slings and arrows in a box at the back of the cupboard” and allow his optimism to flourish.
He is back to doing what he does best: being a good scientist, conducting, writing and researching optimum nutrition for health and sports performance.
Freedom of speech?
The trial is a distant memory and Noakes clearly won a strategic battle. But Strydom, ADSA and all the MDs and academics who participated in the trial show that the industry-led war against him goes on.
The trial has, thus, left troubling imponderables hanging in the ether. One imponderable is how Strydom, an industry-led dietitian with a business to protect, managed to get the might of a statutory body, the HPCSA, to prosecute Noakes on her whim.
Pioneer swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh alludes to another imponderable in a powerful foreword to Real Food On Trial. Pugh is a maritime lawyer by qualification. He always thought that the HPCSA’s case against Noakes was, at heart, a freedom of speech issue.
After all, writes Pugh, it’s one thing to deny the Holocaust or to say something that incites, racial, religious violence or hatred. It’s quite another to say you think meat, fish, chicken, eggs and dairy are good first foods for infants.
But perhaps the biggest imponderable is one that Noakes and I identify in the closing chapter of our book and still ponder today: Could the HPCSA trial have happened at all were it not for the incestuous web of UCT academics that spread to all the other top universities in South Africa?
What Real Food On Trial ultimately proves …
Pugh says that the trial and our book ultimately prove that “institutions rarely create change”. And that by their very nature, institutions are “cumbersome beasts, slow, unresponsive, often brutally destructive of those who get in their way”. It is up to “individuals dedicated to truth and just and the small teams of experts supporting them, to drive change”.
In the book’s closing chapter, I write that it’s tempting to think that it surely isn’t possible for there to be so many MDs, dietitians and academics all out of step except him. We provide uncontested evidence on public record in Real Food On Trial to show not only that it is possible – as anything is – but that it’s probable.
Here’s what some of those who defended Noakes at the HPCSA trial have to say:
Instructing attorney Adam Pike, of Pike Law:
“To be involved in a matter that re-establishes a platform for good science and provides cover to heterodox thinkers, there’s not much else that can compare. To have worked with and stood alongside men and women of principle for 27 days over three years, there’s no measure of the pleasure and pride.
“And what the matter has achieved?
“The proof is in the pudding (pun intended). Look at how mainstream LCHF is now. Dr Gary Fettke absolved. Dr Shawn Baker reinstated. CrossFit mainstream. Keto is in the open. Banting is a word that need not be whispered.
“The opposition has all but dissipated. Apart from a few trolls and a couple of wonks, there’s not much else.
“If anything, their attacks can best be compared with a farmer being ambushed by a puddle of hungry ducks. A cacophony of bleating and a lot of quacking. (pun intended). An uncoordinated flap of wings, a couple of pecks at the ankles and shins. In essence, the attack is a mild irritation.
“Chuck them a handful of corn, and they immediately scrounge away, pecking at the dirt. Temporarily satiated, they waddle back to the water and paddle about in their little pond.
British public health researcher, Dr Zoë Harcombe, an expert witness for Noakes:
“It was an honour to be part of the HPCSA vs Noakes trial. When I received the call from Prof Noakes asking if I would be an expert witness, I didn’t hesitate for one second.
“When such an esteemed scientist thinks that you can help them in some way, there’s no decision to make. We had a holiday booked, so we cancelled it and used the pet sitter for courtroom cover instead.
“The trial was fascinating, frustrating and formidable, all at once. It was one of the most amazing experiences that I have ever had. The judge, (HPCSA committee chair) Joan Adams, was extraordinary to meet and observe.
“Tim’s legal team were impressive beyond the stuff of movies and the bonds that everyone involved formed will stay with us for life. I am privileged to have played any part in this historical event.”
US science journalist Nina Teicholz, an expert witness for Noakes:
“It remains a source of pride for me to have participated in some small way in this honourable, right-minded group. And to have had the chance to stand up for truth and science, on behalf of someone with such a worthy soul.
“We were all optimists but no one more so than Prof Noakes, who inspired us all to come from our various corners of the globe. We will never be done thanking him for everything he has done for good science, for nutrition, public health, and changing the world.”
South African-born New Zealand dietitian academic Dr Caryn Zinn, expert witness for Noakes:
“Being asked to be an expert witness in this trial – which turned out to be a defining moment(s) for the field of nutrition- was an immense privilege. My small contribution was about being present as a registered dietitian, both researching and practising LCHF nutrition.
“To stand up against the dietetic profession clearly showed that it did not have a unanimous voice in opposing LCHF. It was important that the HPCSA knew this. Being exposed to scrutiny from the dietetic profession in supporting ProfNoakes in his plight was well worth it.
“LCHF continues to go from strength to strength in both science and practice. He has paved the way, bravely, thanks to his integrity, passion and commitment, as well as his amazing legal dream team.”