Scientists Accused Of Promoting "Cult" After Study Published

A business claiming breast massage can cure cancer has run into some opposition, despite the support of scientists at prestigious universities. pathdoc/Shutterstock

A leading Australian university and two medical journals are holding investigations after publishing peer-reviewed papers providing support for what is widely seen as a scam. The protocols suggest an uncritical view of the claims of Universal Medicine (UM), an organization that touts its ability to heal ills such as back pain and cancer through such practices as “esoteric breast and ovary massages”. Specialists in these conditions are skeptical about these claims, and indeed the motivations of UM's leadership.

UM was founded by Serge Benhayon, who has no medical qualifications, and claims to be the reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci and various other historical figures. Reincarnation is central to Benhayon's programs, which claim “esoteric massages” can heal “energetic disharmony” caused by bad choices in previous lifetimes.

Benhayon's charisma and the enthusiastic faith of his followers have enabled him to build a highly successful business with branches in 15 countries. Followers are instructed to keep a strict regime around food, sleep, and sex, based on Benhayon's Way of Livingness philosophy. The program has been so convincing to some people that one left $1.4 million in her will to Benhayon, to her children's horror. Former followers claim they were bullied to stay in the movement and pulled away from their families in quintessential cult manipulations.

There's no shortage of businesses selling “wellness cures” that combine easy fixes for a wide variety of conditions with something that sounds more like religion than medicine. What makes UM unusual is that among its enthusiasts are Dr Amelia Stephens, an associate lecturer in Medicine and Christoph Schnelle, a PhD candidate, both at the prestigious University of Queensland.

Schnelle, along with employees at UM clinics, has published one paper endorsing the benefits of UM in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) Public Health and Surveillance and registered the protocols of others with JMIR journal and BioMedCentral. (The registration of protocols is used to ensure researchers don't change the focus of their work mid-trial when results don't support their original hypothesis.) A larger team, including Stephens, is involved with plans for another trial. None admitted their involvement with UM in the registration process.

As cancer researcher and science communicator Dr Darren Sanders put it.

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Although the JMIR's name may sound like a predatory journal, it is in fact a peer-reviewed publication with a 20-year history and an above average impact factor. 

Getting funding to investigate the benefits of esoteric breast massage from government agencies is no doubt difficult, and gaining ethics committee approval may be harder still. Instead, the researchers are crowdfunding trials and running them in Vietnam, where regulations may be looser.

The issue has been brought to light by Emeritus Professor John Dwyer of the University of New South Wales, who inspired ABC to report on the issue. This attention has inspired both the University of Queensland and JMIR to investigate. JMIR expressed concern to the University’s office of research integrity about the failure of the researchers to declare their involvement with UM, saying: “The omission of this conflict of interest, which appears to be highly significant in this case, is a clear violation of our policies". The paper appears to no longer be online.

Benhayon and his supporters are not taking all this lying down, denouncing anyone who criticizes them, including ABC reporter Josh Robertson, as “irresponsible journalists”, if they don't get tagged as “Cyberbullies and Internet Trolls”.

Like any activity done by imperfect human beings, science has its faults. Scientists can be deceived like anyone else, and even good journals sometimes miss gaping holes in papers they publish. Where science usually sets itself apart is in recognizing its mistakes and correcting them. While some observers are incredulous UM-promoting studies got as far as they did, it looks like harder questions are starting to be asked.

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