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.