MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Here is a third excerpt from my new book A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. It describes the thinking behind the research strategy my team and I adopted and the main arguments for and against it.

After roughly one year of preparatory work, everything seemed to be in place for our research to start in earnest. Around this time, I was asked to write a “mission statement” for my new research unit, which had by then been given the official title of the Department of Complementary Medicine. “A very British thing”, a friend explained when I enquired what a mission statement might be. “Just put on paper what your unit stands for.” I gave it some thought and formulated our mission as clearly and concisely as I could:

  • To conduct rigorous, inter-disciplinary and international collaborative research into the efficacy, safety and cost of complementary medicine.
  • To further analytical thinking in this area.

People reading my mission statement tended to be slightly puzzled by the inclusion of “analytical thinking” as a specific, separate item, but even after two decades, I am still pleased that I added it. The fostering of critical analysis is vital to any scientific endeavour, and perhaps particularly so in a field that, until now, has been so accustomed to special pleading and so sheltered from objective evaluation.

While studying medicine, I had not been well instructed in critical thinking. It was only later that I had realized how vulnerable health care can be without it. In Vienna, we had managed to smuggle the subject onto the medical curriculum. In Exeter, I soon discovered how woefully uncritical the attitude towards alternative medicine frequently was. This phenomenon was noticeable not just when reading the popular press or when talking to lay people but also, and perhaps even more worryingly, it was equally obvious in discussions with health care professionals. This lack of critical thinking, I felt, had the potential to hinder progress or even to cause significant harm. Particularly during the later years of my time in Exeter, the theme of critical analysis would dominate my work.

My peers were happy with the mission statement, and most rational thinkers who saw it thought it was ambitious but sound. However, in many alternative medicine enthusiasts it aroused suspicion; they seemed dismayed and felt that it was misguided. Some offered the opinion that alternative medicine should not be scientifically scrutinized at all. Others believed that my work should be directed much more at promoting alternative medicine rather than questioning it. Some argued that a professor of complementary medicine should be unabashedly sympathetic towards those working in this area, and that this attitude should be specifically articulated in any mission statement. Yet others argued that the mission statement should focus primarily on sociological or psychological issues rather than medical questions.

I listened patiently and politely to everyone who wanted to comment. I discussed, re-evaluated, re-discussed and reconsidered my position. But whichever way I looked at it, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that the arguments of my critics were at best unconvincing or irrelevant, and at worst they were down-right misleading—and I became determined to show why.

I was not a politician, nor was I a propagandist or an ideologue: I was simply a scientist, and as such my role was not to further the ambitions of interested parties but to determine the true value of alternative medicine. Patients and consumers have an absolute right to know the truth about the value of the treatments they frequently use, and the obligation of a researcher is to determine truth. That required a rigorous medical research agenda which would steer us clear of the post-modernist approach advocated by so many who tried to influence me and my growing team of investigators.

Over the years, my resolve to stay on this straight and narrow path of objective medical research has provoked endless criticism. Indeed, the potential for conflict had been there from the outset, when, at that very first lecture for alternative practitioners, I had been publicly challenged: “How did they dare to appoint a doctor to this chair?” Now that I had realized that this tension existed, I had to decide how to deal with it in my professional capacity.

Initially I made a conscious effort to avoid discord, not because I lacked the necessary courage or convincing arguments, but for a variety of other reasons, both personal and pragmatic. Firstly, I do not enjoy disagreements nearly as much as some people seem to think. If conflict becomes unavoidable, I can certainly put up a good fight, but that does not mean I enjoy the process. Secondly, I was honestly tired of having disputes. The battles I had fought in Vienna had left me drained and somewhat bruised. Over the years, I did develop a thicker skin but it certainly was not something I was born with. Thirdly, conflicts take far too much time, energy and concentration away from one’s real work: the more time I was compelled to spend locked in combat, the less time I would have to focus on the science I was so eager to generate. Fourthly, if the worst came to the worst, and if I was going to have to defend my views at every turn, I needed to be entirely sure of my ground. Solid research was the only way to ensure that; and I felt the need to do the research first and have the arguments later.

4 Responses to WONDERLAND (3)

  • It would be interesting if an academic of your stature and specialty took a closer look at the zeitgeist of the lipid- cholesterol theory of heart disease and arteriosclerosis. Here would be a good place to start.

    http://www.amazon.com/Big-Fat-Surprise-butter-healthy-ebook/dp/B00A25FDUA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423235851&sr=8-1&keywords=the+big+fat+surprise+by+nina+teicholz

    • this has been done [many times, I think] – see Richard Smith in last BMJ Christmas Issue, for instance. sadly it is not my area of expertise any longer.

  • Times Higher Education Book of the Week
    Times Higher Education
    – Helen Bynum

    Jan 29, 2015

    “[F]or all its trenchant arguments about evidence-based science, the second half of A Scientist in Wonderland remains a very human memoir, and Ernst’s account of the increasingly personal nature of the attacks he faced when speaking to CAM practitioners and advocacy groups is disturbing… Ben Goldacre’s 2012 book Bad Pharma created a storm via its exposure of the pharmaceutical industry’s unhealthy links with mainstream medicine. Ernst’s book deserves to do the same for the quackery trading under the name of complementary and alternative medicine.”

    Spectator article
    The Spectator
    – Nick Cohen

    Jan 31, 2015

    “If you want a true measure of the man, buy Edzard Ernst’s memoir A Scientist in Wonderland, which the Imprint Academic press have just released. It would be worth reading [even] if the professor had never been the victim of a royal vendetta.”

    The Bookbag review
    The Bookbag
    – Sue Magee

    Jan 28, 2015

    “Ernst isn’t just an academic – he’s also an accomplished writer and skilled communicator. He puts over some quite complex ideas without resorting to jargon and I felt informed without ever struggling to understand, despite being a non-scientist. I was pulled into the story of his life and read most of the book in one sitting… I was impressed by what Ernst had to say and the way in which he said it.”

    Science-Based Medicine review
    Science-Based Medicine
    – Harriet Hall

    Feb 3, 2015

    “Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds… In addition to being a memoir, Dr. Ernst’s book is a paean to science… He shows how misguided ideas, poor reasoning, and inaccurate publicity have contributed to the spread of alternative medicine… This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.”

    Nature review
    Nature
    – Barbara Kiser

    Feb 5, 2015

    “[T]his ferociously frank autobiography… [is] a clarion call for medical ethics.”

    Times review
    The Times
    – Robbie Millen

    Feb 9, 2015

    “A Scientist in Wonderland is a rather droll, quick read… [and] it’s an effective antidote to New Age nonsense, pseudo-science and old-fashioned quackery.”

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