MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

This article in THE DAILY MAIL caught my eye. It’s about ear-candles, a subject we have discussed before on this blog. Apparently, the ‘TV doctor’ Dawn Harper was had to apologise after recommending ear candling for clearing ears of wax. This prompted various protests from listeners of her programme one of whom even called Dr Harper a ‘dangerous quack’. Dr  Harper apologised to listeners by saying: ‘It was recommended to me by an ENT surgeon but seems to have fallen from favour. I’ll discuss next week.’

One would think that this is a non-story, but not for THE DAILY MAIL. The paper continues by citing my article published in 2004:

Edzard Ernst, an expert in the study of alternative medicine and former professor at the University of Exeter, has published an article entitled ‘Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science’ and said there is no evidence they work.

He said a study of ear candles show that its ‘mode of action is implausible and demonstrably wrong’ while there was ‘no data to suggest that it is effective for any condition’.

He added: ‘The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.’

He also points to a number of cases in which patients suffered injuries from the practice, including one woman, from London, who suffered hearing loss and another who burned a hole in her ear.

This seems fairly correct, except the quotes must be straight from my paper, because no MAIL journalist actually talked to me. This means that phraseology like ‘he said’ and ‘he added’ is misleading. But this is not what irritates me about the article (I have had enough contact with journalists to get excited about trivialities); the annoying bit, in my view, is what follows:

Ironically since the publication of Professor Ernst’s paper in 2004 ear candles have become more, not less, popular.

The manager of St James’ Beauty, a clinic that provides the treatment in London, said: ‘Everybody says they do work. Quite a lot comes out of the ears which is amazing.

‘People say their sinuses improve and their senses are better.

‘We don’t have very many, about one a month. But it does have a strong following because it’s been around for such a long time.’

Lynne Hatcher, a complementary health practitioner from Wolverhampton, claims ear candles are ‘a pleasant and non-invasive treatment of the ears, used to treat a variety of conditions’.

Writing on her website she adds: ‘This is an ancient and natural therapy handed down by many civilisations. It is believed that the Ancient Greeks used ear candles, initially probably for cleansing, purifying and healing on a spiritual basis, but much later on a purely physical basis.’

I know, journalists feel the need to create balance, and therefore always quote the ‘other side’. But there are instances where what they perceive as balance is really inappropriately false balance. In the above incidence, the MAIL quoted a total of 3 people they consider to be experts. My paper summarized the known facts. The MAIL then ‘balanced’ them with the opinions of two people who earn their money with ear-candles. Consequently, the article gives the impression that ear-candling is probably quite good after all. In truth, this is not creating balance but introducing bias.

This would, of course, be utterly trivial – if it would be an exception. But it is much more the rule, I am afraid. I have seen this hundreds of times in alternative medicine:

  • a journalist phones me to ask me for a quote,
  • I volunteer a factual quote that is easy to understand for a lay-person,
  • the journalist then phones several quacks who contradict the facts based on their opinions,
  • the quotes are then published such that the quacks have the last word,
  • the resulting article is published and turns out to be a promotion of quackery.

This is maddening, of course, but sometimes, it also has its humorous side: in the above case, THE MAIL starts by repeating the allegation against the TV-doctor being a quack; as the article progresses it becomes clear that the true quack is THE DAILY MAIL.

12 Responses to Ear-candles, a TV-doctor, THE DAILY MAIL, and journalistic ‘balance’

  • These days, of course, it’s often called ‘Hopi ear candling’, something which irritates the Hopi people to a considerable extent since 1.They had never heard of it and 2.They-quite understandably- resent their culture and history being used as random decoration by silly New Age fools. I ‘reviewed’ a book on the subject on the Amazon site, at the same time recommending the ancient art of Yorkshire Arse Candling I don’t know whether that’s caught on fully as of yet. Perhaps it would be interesting to check with some A and E departments.
    One of the daftest variants of this lunacy was something called ‘Head Lights’. They resembled small earphones which, it was claimed, improved your health and ‘wellness’ by shining simulated sunlight down your earholes and on to your brain, where sunlight normally didn’t reach.
    It reminds me of the-true- story a couple of years ago about a young fellow who was surprised to see his friend’s mother tilting her head to one side when applying ear drops, and plugging her other ear with her finger to stop the liquid pouring out the other side.

    • “It reminds me of the-true- story a couple of years ago about a young fellow who was surprised to see his friend’s mother tilting her head to one side when applying ear drops, and plugging her other ear with her finger to stop the liquid pouring out the other side.”

      In this lady’s case, had she not plugged the opposite ear, the oil would have poured out!

  • The Mail borders on WDDTY-level misinformation and irresponsibility.

  • At least the MAIL also included your opinion – “He added: ‘The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.’”

    And, you seem to have included your own version of false balance. “…the opinions of two people who earn their money with ear-candles”. If the manager of St James Beauty is right in that they do ear candling once a month…it’s kind of a stretch to say that’s how they earn their money.

  • as predicted, the story turns out to be a great boost for quackery. this is what the SUN reported yesterday (https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/1749487/ear-candles-rid-wax/):
    What are the benefits of ear candles?
    According to natural healers, the benefits of ear candles can include:
    1.Clearing wax and debris from the ear canal
    2.Relieving pressure from behind the eardrum
    3.Sharpening mental functions, vision and hearing
    4.Reducing earaches, headaches and sinus pressure
    5.Relaxation from the charge of the herbal smoke
    6.Promoting the healing of nerve endings

    • As I pointed out earlier, knowing as I do that the Hopi tribe strenuously deny any knowledge of ear candling, I did some research into the ancient- at least 2 months old -art of Yorkshire Arse Candling.
      Simply laugh off the uneducated jibes of those who enter the room to find you flat on your stomach with a Father Christmas candle -the only one I had in the house- inserted into your jacksie, pointing ceiling-wards, and with the tinfoil tray from a Mr Kipling Family-Size apple style pie balanced on your bum-cheeks to catch the hot wax.
      They laughed at Galileo once you know.

    • Maybe that will double St James Beauty’s ear candle business!

  • Candles are dangerous every time I blow one out I become a year older! This is fact and can be proven by my 40 year experiment!

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