MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Anyone who has read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’ will know that I stood up for science more than once in my life. In fact, I strongly believe that this is what scientists ought to do, and I frequently get irritated to see that some of my colleagues seem to disagree [if not even we scientists can stick our necks out for science, how can we expect others to do it?]. Being thus convinced, I surprised myself recently when I was invited to do my bid for science – and declined to comply. Here is the story:

On 16 October, I received the following invitation by email out of the blue:

Hi Dr. Ernst,

My name is John Jackson. I am Executive Director of the Adolph Coors Foundation in Denver, the charitable arm of the Coors family (not the brewery).

I would like to invite your participation in a debate on integrative medicine which will be held Sunday evening, March 20, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. The debate will be the keynote event of our Pioneers in Health conference. Your debate partner will be Dr. Andrew Weil. As our conference precedes Dr. Weil’s annual Nutrition and Health Conference, we expect excellent attendance of 700-800, possibly more.

The debate topic: “Fad or the Future: Will Integrative Medicine Play a Growing Role in the Future of Health Care?”

If you are willing to join us, we plan the following debate format: Opening statements with responses by each of you, questions put to each other, and responses by each of you to pre-submitted questions from the audience and, finally, closing statements. (Audience participation will be limited to questions submitted via an app, not by microphone.) We intend to invite a prominent journalist/business leader to moderate. Dr. Weil has recommended CNN’s health reporter but this has not been confirmed.

I have read numerous articles you have authored on this website and feel you would offer an excellent counterpoint to Dr. Weil. Indeed, Dr. Weil also feels you would be an ideal debate partner. I have also read your ground rules for debate (on this website). Dr. Weil and our foundation share your insistence on respect and politeness, whether it’s a blog post or a public debate.

In the interest of full disclosure, our foundation funds several institutions which are studying various “alternative” practices, including the recent study of the use of electro-acupuncture for hypertension on which you and others have commented. We have also funded a project involving Dr. Weil and the University of Arizona. You can read more about our interest in integrative medicine and who we fund at www.coorsfoundation.org.

Of course, if you agree to participate, we would cover your travel, meals and lodging expenses and are willing to negotiate a reasonable honoraria.

If you would like to discuss this further by phone, please feel free to give me a call. I can be reached in Denver at 303-388-1636.

Thank you, Dr. Ernst. I look forward to your response.

John Jackson
Adolph Coors Foundation
Denver

I have to admit, I was flattered and tempted in equal measure. This could be a great occasion to reach a large US audience and get a few important points across. But, at the same time, I had my doubts, and these doubts grew faster by the minute. There were several hints in this seemingly innocent email to suggest that there was more to this story than a straight forward invitation. Was this a set-up to give integrative medicine more credibility than it deserves?

Being uncertain, I asked several American friends for advice. They all seemed horrified and very strongly advised me not to accept the invitation. But I was still not entirely convinced – even if these people are a bit strange, even if it is a set-up, even if I do not ‘win’ the debate, it might be an interesting experience and I might learn (and earn!) something.

I clearly needed to find out more. I know Andrew Weil, of course, and I had seen him twice before in similar public debates. So I had no illusions that his charisma and slick rhetoric, combined with an audience full of admirers, would win the day. But I did not necessarily mind all that much; it could still be an occasion to make my arguments known and it might turn out to be a fascinating experience.

However, I certainly did not want to lend, through my presence, undue credibility to people or organisations who don’t deserve it. So, what about the organisers? What do the Adolph Coors Foundation stand for, and who are they?

One of my US friends alerted me to an eye-opening website. Other websites were even less complimentary and mentioned homophobic, racist, and anti-labor practices in relation to the funders. This made up my mind, and I wrote the following response to Jackson’s invitation:

Dear Mr Jackson,

as you may know, I do like a challenge. Therefore I was very tempted to accept your offer to debate with Andrew.

On second thought, however, I developed doubts that the event outlined in your email can be a fair debate of the issues around integrative medicine. The audience gathered for Andrew’s conference would be entirely on the side of their ‘guru’, and even the moderator would be Andrew’s choice. It is notoriously problematic to discuss scientific evidence with quasi-religious believers pretending facts were a matter of opinion.

I fear that a life debate in Denver would be akin to a discussion between an evolutionary scientist and a crowd of rampant creationists.

Since you know my blog, I suggest we conduct such a debate in writing there. This would have the advantage of a much wider, more diverse audience and provide the opportunity to check the evidence for any claims made by the discussants.

Meanwhile, I thank you for this invitation but, unless you can convince me that my fears are unfounded, I have to decline.

Regards
E Ernst

I was not at all sure whether to expect a response. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised that, on 25 October, the following email reached me:

Dr. Ernst,

Thank you for your response to our invitation. I apologize for the tardy reply. I have been travelling and generally avoid using my iPhone to respond to important emails. I have been burned once-too-often by the iPhone’s embarrassing auto-INcorrections.

Your hesitation about participating in the debate is totally understandable and, frankly, I would have been surprised if you had NOT asked for more detail. 

Dr. Weil certainly does have a substantial following of loyal and passionate followers. And there will be a healthy contingent of them in the audience. Dr. Weil’s team estimates that 200-300 of those attending his Nutrition and Health Conference will also attend our conference, including the debate. That means the remaining attendees (400-500) will be those who sign up through our public portal which will be launched in a few weeks. Our marketing is targeting Colorado’s health community, including medical providers. We also expect our conference cosponsor, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), to attract attendees through their outreach efforts. AFPF is a grassroots organization that has virtually nothing to do with any kind of medicine, conventional or integrative. AFPF’s interest is promoting innovations in the delivery of health care (more health care choice) which will be the focus of a panel earlier in the day. For what it is worth, you are more than welcome to encourage your readers to attend. We plan to keep the conference fee very low (somewhere between $25 and $50), a figure that does not even cover the food and beverage costs. So, while I cannot guarantee applause for your debate points, I believe you will find our audience open to a wide range of perspectives on the future of integrative medicine.

With regard to the debate format and moderator, we believe the format is conducive to a healthy exchange of ideas. You both make opening statements, you both respond to each other’s opening statements, you ask each other questions, you both answer questions from the moderator and the audience and you both will be given equal time to offer closing statements. Our foundation — not Dr. Weil — will select the moderator. He recommended a health writer at CNN although he has not provided a specific name. If you want to suggest a name, please feel free. We may or may not choose a moderator that either of you recommend.

Long story short, the Coors Foundation shares your interest in having a robust debate on this topic. That is exactly why we tendered the invitation to you. We hope that you will reconsider your initial declination. Since we are nearing the date at which we will launch our registration portal and agenda, we respectfully request a response at your earliest possible convenience. If we have not heard from you by Wednesday, October 28, we will assume your initial decision stands and will extend the invitation to our second choice.

Thank you Dr. Ernst. We look forward to your reply.

John Jackson
Adolph Coors Foundation
Denver

I found it impossible to be convinced by Jackson’s arguments; on the contrary, some of my suspicions were confirmed, and I did a little further research – this time on the ‘Americans for Prosperity Foundation’. I found numerous websites about them and even a Wikipedia page. What I learnt in the course of my inquiries made my alarm bells ring loud and clear. I decided to sleep over it and then sent this email as my final response:

Dear Mr Jackson,

I am afraid your second email did not manage to change my mind.

It was important for me to learn about the co-sponsor of the event. I did some research on both your and the co-sponsoring organisations and found that I share virtually none of their views. I am reluctant to give credibility through my presence in Denver to two prominent right wing lobby groups.

Furthermore I am not at all convinced that the event is designed to generate a balanced debate. On the contrary, by your description of it, I might even fear for my personal safety after presenting facts which contradict or deride the opinions of large parts of the audience, the organisers and Dr Weil.

Lastly I am still convinced that factual issues around integrative medicine cannot be debated fruitfully by pretending they are merely matters of opinion. A debate in writing, where all the arguments can be checked for their evidential basis, would surely be much preferable. I find it regrettable that you do not even comment on my offer to conduct such a debate on my blog. The offer, however, still stands.

I thank you again for inviting me. I do like to stand up for science but, in this particular instance, I fear the costs would be too high.

Regards
E Ernst

So far, I have not had a reply, and I do not expect to receive one soon.

The whole affair is little more than a triviality, of course. Yet it raises at least two important questions, I think:

  • Should we stand up for science wherever we can, or is the price occasionally simply too high?
  • What are these mysterious links between alternative medicine in the US and the far right?

I would be most interested to hear your views.

31 Responses to Standing up for science? Yes, but not at any cost!

  • Well done!

    You would not be standing up for science in such an environment. A live debate is no place to untangle the misrepresentations of science by the likes of Weil. He will hit his headline word salads and before you can explain the correct facts and logic he will have introduced half a dozen more.

    • Hear! Hear! It’s one thing to stand up for science where that counts (government bodies, formal biomedical societies, etc.) and another where it comes to ‘debates’ rigged by private organizations with a mission. Debating with fools in an audience of fools is no way to advance anything.

      • I am not so much bothered by fools as by questions of audience that must be submitted in advance instead of being asked. This suggests that audience will be there just because debate should have some.

  • Definitely one to miss. It would not be standing up for science, it would be standing up in front of a bunch of anti-scientists as bait. They would flaunt their invitation, probably they will flaunt your (impeccably polite and reasonable) refusal.

  • I sincerely applaud your decision not to attend. The bigger story here is that it would appear that right-wing political forces in the U.S. are attempting corral the alt med movement for votes. The repercussions to Dr. Weil will be interesting to watch.

  • The phrase ‘poisoned chalice’ springs to mind.

    I wonder if their ‘second choice’ (!) will find the invitation any more enticing than you did. *Heavy sarcasm*

  • I went to have a look at the official website. This is their stated aim http://www.donotlink.com/www.coorsfoundation.org/About/vision.html

    “Integrative medicine” is one of their official projects, chosen over such meritless notions as:

    Credit counseling
    Debt reduction
    Domestic violence shelters
    Emergency services (housing, food)
    Health organizations
    Homelessness
    Preschools or daycare centers
    Schools (public, charter or private)
    Senior programs (nursing homes, extended-care facilities, respite care)
    Start-up funding (organizations must be in operation for at least one full year)

    I think that about sums it up. You were right to refuse.

  • If I may be a dissenting voice, I believe it is important to stand up for science at every opportunity. If only to have bigots hear that there other opinions out there, information needs to be spread. Unless one believes that nobody ever changes their minds, there may be a chance of at least planting a seed of doubt.

    • @Ronald Green
      You are entirely right in principle, but the setting is still important. If a person is set up in a debate as a lone object of derision, which can happen in circumstances like these, then the hill to be climbed to plant that seed of doubt is much steeper than on neutral territory.

    • An admirable sentiment in general.

      However it does not take a scientist to work out that verbally debating ideologues is NOT about determining who is right, only who is loudest and most brutish with the most voracious sycophants in attendance. On such occasions the best – indeed ONLY – way to “stand up for science” is NOT to drop its pants and have it “squeal like a piggy”.

      Let Messers Jackson, Weil, et al conduct their self-congratulatory circle-jerk without by such embarrassing interruptions as facts or corrections. They’re going to do this anyway; it’s not Dr Ernst’s job to validate it as well.

      • The unfortunate result will be that each side speaks to its own followers, each within their self-congratulatory circle.

        • Absolute horsepucky – and not a little insulting to science nerds given that no-one enjoys tearing strips off their own more than they do.

          The alties will inevitably post the results of this “conference” online, just as they always do, since propagating their beliefs to others is a vital component in reinforcing those beliefs within themselves. Whereupon honest critics like Dr Ernst will leap on it enthusiastically and flail all of its errors and mendacities in FULL PUBLIC VIEW, because that’s what they do. And the alties will invariably scream and shriek at all such criticisms, and completely fail to bring an ounce of evidence to back their position up. Just as they do too.

          So put away the smelling salts: your wished-for discussion WILL happen, just as it always does. It just won’t occur in the restricted private forum wholly owned and controlled by a sole party whose entire egos and incomes utterly depend on NEVER admitting they’re wrong.

  • sorry about the broken link. I tried to re-do it, and it didn’t work – so I put the address in brackets and here again: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Adolph_Coors_Foundation

    • That is always an option but whose opinion would you alter? The believers will believe despite the evidence and that appears to be the audience. If the debate is recorded and published then it is unlikely that the inquiring person will sit through an hour or hour and a half to hear the arguments.

      However where I totally agree with you is in comment sections of weblogs or articles on alternative medicine when the misrepresentations and distortions of evidence come in bite sized chunks that can quickly be corrected. Also it is important to apply pressure to authoritative sources such as doctor and pharmacy organisations to ensure they clearly state the case.

    • It’s not that link that was broken, but the next one (the word “websites” in “Other websites were even less complimentary and mentioned homophobic…”)

  • Dear Edzard Enrst,

    Answering the first question, I think it’s possible to compare differential approaches of related people. In on stance, famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins almost never do debates. He publicly admitted that debating is exactly what creationists want – to give the impression that there is some scientific debate over the matter.
    On the other hand, Lawrence Krauss has debated many times people like Willian Lane Craig, who is very good in debates/rethoric. Michael Shermer has debated several creationists, ufologists, gun defensors, etc. Bill Nye is also particular a good example because he debated creationist Ken Ham.

    I agree with Dawkins’ opnion: when a scientist debates these folks, it might create the idea that there is a scientific debate on that matter. However, those people that believe this kind of thing no matter what the science side says are probably “lost”: they’ll believe what they want no matter what we do. But there are certain people that are somewhat in the middle ground that could be “caught” by the science debater – Krauss has stated this once in one of his debates.
    Moreover, in all debates that I’ve watched, I’m always on the science side, but I certainly have learn something.
    In addition, these folks are going to keep saying anti-science stuff with scientists debating or not.
    Therefore, I think some debate is good – their opinion, bad arguments, wrong claims are properly criticized on those opportunities.

    Another case in point is Leonard Mlodinow debate with Deepak Chopra about the misuse of quantum mechanics notations that ended up with a book co-written by both. Clearly, for some people will create the idea that Mlodinow is supporting Chopra’s nonsense. But this is only true for those who don’t read the book. Maybe some Chopra’s fan (but not too fan) will learn that Chopra indeed misuse science notation and turn to be more skeptical about his claims. Mlodinow deals with several misconcetions about science that Chopra and other have made for a quite some time – so his contribution is indeed valid.

  • http://www.coorsfoundation.org/About/index.html
    “Our grantmaking places a premium on entrepreneurship. Specifically, our traditional areas of support include one-on-one mentoring programs, job training and a variety of self-help initiatives. The Foundation also has an interest bringing integrative medicine into the medical mainstream. In each of its giving areas, the Foundation seeks evidenced-based results.”

    If they were the least bit interested in evidence, there is more than enough to show alt-med is nonsense. The far right live their fantasy world.

  • Looks like I got the same offer Prof. Ernst did. He really shouldn’t be surprised that this came from a conference beings sponsored by two right-wing foundations:

    https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/to-debate-or-not-to-debate-the-strange-bedfellows-of-andrew-weil/

  • Their motivation may be to establish the field as legitimate enough to be listed as a compensated medical service by insurers to pioneer a medical service specialty with billions in revenue.

    • From that link… “While most of us rely on access to state-of-the art medical advancements to rid ourselves of infection, fix broken bones or treat serious disease, we frequently venture beyond conventional medicine in search of alternative ways to improve our personal health.”
      Here we go again. Will somebody please explain to me what aspects of personal health require improvement in a normally functioning body? Exactly where is the boundary at which disease becomes sufficiently serious to require “state of the art medical advancements”? And how come the statement disagrees with all the integrative medicine loonies who tell us you can cure infections, cancer and all other kinds of serious disease with Big Snakeoil? What differentiates those who agree with the first part of the quoted statement and those who don’t?

      • “Will somebody please explain to me what aspects of personal health require improvement in a normally functioning body?”
        The text you’re quoting (and the text from the link itself) isn’t talking about improving a normally functioning body.

        • @jm
           
          “The text you’re quoting (and the text from the link itself) isn’t talking about improving a normally functioning body.”
           
          I ask once again: please define the boundary between diseases that require medicine and diseases that don’t. Imaginary diseases, perhaps?
           
          From the rest of the text… “This conference provides an inspiring glimpse into a different kind of health care, one that offers each of us a wide menu of options, including evidenced-based alternatives, to improve and maintain health.” Most of us maintain health by eating and drinking, preferably a broad mix of foods. Exercise, minimal alcohol and never smoking are also demonstrably good ways to maintain health for as long as possible. To imagine you can ‘improve’ health by accepting magic as medicine is downright idiotic.
           
          Yet the next sentence goes on… “You’ll hear from conventional medical doctors who are researching outside-the-box procedures to treat everything from Parkinson’s disease to high blood pressure to cancer.” Indeed, people with Parkinson’s Disease, high blood pressure and cancer don’t have normally functioning bodies. These are serious diseases requiring medical attention, not something requiring ‘improvement and maintenance’ of health. And there’s a world of difference between somebody researching ‘outside-the-box procedures’ and somebody claiming they’ve completed the research and shown unequivocally that their procedures are effective.
           
          The blurb seems to me to represent desperately confused thinking, not something that would attract an audience of people with active brain function.

        • “Most of us maintain health by…”
          Seems that most could probably skip the “maintain” portion of the program, then. That would free up some time to explore Denver – it’s a great city. Don’t miss the art museum.

          “To imagine you can ‘improve’ health by accepting magic as medicine…”
          From the text, it doesn’t seem that they are covering magic. You may have to travel to Vegas for that conference.

  • I THINK THEY HAVE FOUND SOMEONE TO DISCUSS WITH ANDREW WEIL
    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/dr-andrew-weil-and-dana-perino-to-discuss-future-of-health-care-at-pioneers-in-health-conference-300223588.html
    DENVER, Feb. 22, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — The Adolph Coors Foundation will host the Pioneers in Health Conference on Sunday, March 20 from 12:30 p.m.-9 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Denver. The conference is presented in association with the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine’s Nutrition & Health Conference and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The conference will be a one-day, education-focused gathering featuring highly respected physicians, medical professionals and policy leaders who have established themselves as innovators in the field of health care and health policy. It will highlight their work in integrative medicine, which combines mainstream medical therapies and complementary and alternative medicine therapies for which there is high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness. Attendees will include members of the health care community as well as individuals wishing to improve their health and the health of their families.

    The highlight of the conference will be the closing conversation between Coloradan Dana Perino, a former White House press secretary, political commentator, New York Times No. 1 best-selling author, and co-host of Fox’s “The Five”; and Dr. Andrew Weil, widely known for establishing a program for medical professionals in the field of integrative medicine, who will offer insights into the future of health care in America.

    The event will also feature two dynamic plenary sessions regarding evidence-based research on conditions ranging from cancer, hypertension and Parkinson’s Disease to the Right to Try movement, which allows terminally ill Americans to try medicines that have passed Phase 1 of the FDA approval process but are not yet on pharmacy shelves.

    “A third of all Americans regularly use some form of complementary and alternative medical practices,” said John Jackson, executive director of the Adolph Coors Foundation. “In fact, based on a life-changing health experience, Bill Coors has championed complementary and alternative medical practices for decades and made a substantial gift to the Foundation to make integrative medicine a cornerstone of its mission in 2011. The Foundation is proud to play a role in furthering evidence-based research to support innovation in integrative medicine, and we are honored to bring the experts driving the leading innovations on this front to Denver for this conference.”

    The conference is co-sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and its Bridge to Well-Being project, which seeks to help people and communities improve their well-being and quality of life. “Now, more than ever, it’s important for Americans to ‘own’ their health,” said Jennifer Stefano, vice president of Americans for Prosperity. “By empowering and educating citizens on the myriad of health care options available to them in the marketplace, we enable Americans from all walks of life to obtain the tools they need to live happier, healthier and freer lives.”

    Tickets to Pioneers in Health are $35 for general admission or $40 for general admission and round-trip bus transportation from Colorado Springs or Fort Collins. Prices include admittance to both plenary sessions, healthy snacks between plenary sessions chosen in collaboration with Dr. Weil’s nutrition team, a beer reception, a nutrition-friendly dinner, and the conversation between Dr. Weil and Dana Perino.

    The Pioneers in Health conference will be followed by the annual Nutrition & Health Conference, taking place March 21-23 in Denver. Led by Dr. Andrew Weil, the Nutrition & Health Conference will gather insights on nutrition, prevention and healthful living from internationally recognized researchers, clinicians, educators, authors and chefs. Those attending the Pioneers in Health Conference will receive a 15 percent discount when registering for the Nutrition & Health Conference.

    Learn more about conference details and register at http://www.healthpioneers.org.

  • Here’s a taster of what you might have missed: Weil giving a talk in Bristol recently.

    You made the right decision…

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