This is the title of a lecture I was asked to give yesterday to an audience of palliative cancer care professionals. During the last days, I have therefore thought about the Anderson-tale quite a bit. For those who don’t know the story (is there such a person?), it is a tale about two con-men who promise the emperor new clothes which, they claim, are invisible to anyone who is incompetent or stupid. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he is, in fact, naked. Finally, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
The story is obviously a metaphor for a scenario where something is generally accepted as being good simply because nobody has the courage or insight to oppose popular opinion – nobody except a naïve child, that is. It is a fitting tale for alternative medicine and a superb one to depict my own personal history.
It got more fascinating the more I thought about it. As a metaphor for alternative medicine it offers at least four different perspectives:
- The quacks seem to get away with even the most obvious lies.
- The VIP is too gullible and vain to realise that he is being done.
- The sycophants are happy to play along because they hope to benefit from not speaking the truth.
- The child has not yet learnt how to ‘play along’ and therefore speaks the truth without a second thought.
The parallels to the current boom in alternative medicine are, I think, so striking that I do hardly need to explain them. The parallels to my own past, however, might require some explanation.
During the last 25 years, I have met more quacks making false claims than I care to remember. Some virtually sold the emperor clothes that were non-existent. One even offered him a report that suggested that the UK’s ailing healthcare system could be saved by maximizing the use of bogus therapies, such as homeopathy, for serious illnesses – more about that in a minute.
I even once had the honour to meet the emperor, our Queen – and it is not she who I here refer to. She was not at all gullible. The emperor I mean is actually our future emperor, the Queen’s son. He has provided us with ample evidence to doubt his intelligence, and it is he who has fallen for the con-men I refer to.
The sycophants are those ‘experts’ who Charles tends to assemble around him. They do know better, I think, but they do not tell him the truth because they know that people like Charles cannot tolerate any facts that fail to confirm his views. So they duly applaud even the silliest of notions hoping to keep their place in the entourage.
And the naïve child? Yes, of course, that’s me. When I arrived in Exeter 23 years ago, I did think that I was appointed to employ science as a tool to find the truth. Once I had done the research, I shouted: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” – metaphorically speaking, of course.
And that was something neither the emperor nor the sycophants could tolerate. When I said what had to be said about the ‘Smallwood Report’, the combined effort of the emperor and his sycophants put an end to my activities in Exeter.
Yes, in relation to alternative medicine, the story of THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES could be most interesting!
But did the palliative care experts invite me to tell it?
The more I thought about it, the more I doubted this.
Eventually, I arrived at the conclusion they wanted to hear about the evidence for or against alternative treatments for cancer. A pity really, because arguably the other aspect are much more entertaining.