We could have expected it, couldn’t we? With so much homeopathy in the press lately, Dr Dixon (we have seen him on this blog before, for instance here, here and here) had to comment. His article in yesterday’s NURSING IN PRACTICE is far too perfect to abbreviate it; I just have to cite it in full (only the reference numbers are mine and refer to my comments below).
HERE WE GO
Should homeopathy be blacklisted in general practice?
I have not prescribed them myself but I know of many GPs and patients who find homeopathic preparations helpful, especially in clinical areas where there is no satisfactory conventional treatment . They are cheap and entirely safe , which cannot always be said of conventional treatment . Is the concern about cost? That is implausible as GP prescriptions cost a mere £100,000 per annum, approximately £10 per UK General Practice but effectively less as some patients will be paying for them and they may reduce other prescriptions or medical costs . Is it about evidence?  Possibly, and that is because the necessary pragmatic trials on comparative cost effectiveness have never been done . Homeopathy thus joins the frequently quoted 25% of general practice activity that has an insufficient evidence base… So, why not do the research rather than single out homeopathy for blacklisting ? Apparently, because it irritates a powerful fraternity of “scientists”  with a narrow biomedical perspective on health and healing, who feel the need to impose their atheism  on others. They seem opposed to “patient-centred medicine” which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them . Led by the World Health Organization, many countries are examining the appropriate role of complementary and traditional medicine (CAM). Indian Prime Minister Modi has created the first minister for medicine in this area (called AYUSH with the “H” standing for homeopathy). Australia, whose government and medical deans (unlike the UK ) are not intimidated by this breed of scientific fundamentalism, has invested money in research, regulated its herbal  practitioners and created important trade links with China in this area . Meanwhile the UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM and appears to have a closed mind . General practice is at its best a subtle and complex blend of science and art combined in a heady mixture, which recognises personal belief and perspective and respects differences . Blacklisting homeopathy would be the thin edge of the wedge. It would be a mean-minded act of outside interference by many who do not treat patients themselves, denying patient choice and signifying a new age of intolerance and interference . It is a threat to the autonomy of general practice that should concern every GP and patient whatever their views on homeopathy .
About the Author
Chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP
Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP at College Surgery in Cullompton, Devon and a Royal College of General Practitioners presidential candidate.
END OF QUOTE AND BEGINNING OF MY DELIBERATELY BRIEF COMMENTS
- Whenever this argument comes up, people fail to cite an example. Are they afraid that we would point out what can be done for such a patient other than prescribing placebos?
- Actually, they are extremely expensive considering that they are just lactose or water. And the claim that homeopathy is safe merely displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge; see the many posts on this blog that deal with this issue.
- Classical ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; display of the ignorance of the risk/benefit concept for judging the value of medical interventions.
- Display of ignorance regarding the actual evidence, see here, for instance.
- Yes, it’s the evidence but also it’s the biological implausibility and the fact that disregarding it undermines rationality in general.
- Pure ignorance again, see my point 4.
- Are ~ 300 clinical trials and about 100 systematic reviews not enough? How much more money needs to be wasted?
- It seems that Dixon has a problem with science and those who pursue it to improve future health care for the benefit of patients.
- Does Dixon admit that homeopathy is a religion?
- Patient-centred medicine which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them – does Dixon not know that all good medicine fits this description, but homeopathy certainly does not?
- Every one with an IQ above 50 knows by now that herbal is not homeopathic; is Dixon the exception?
- What about the Australian report which concluded that “Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.”
- This is simply not true, and Dixon should know it.
- No reason to include disproven nonsense like homeopathy.
- Intolerance is on Dixon’s side, I think. Improving health care by abandoning disproven therapies in favour of evidence-based treatments is no interference, it’s progress.
- This can only be true, if we misunderstand autonomy as arbitrariness without rules, checks, ethics and controls. Good general practice has, like all medicine, be in the best interest of patients. An obsolete, expensive, unsafe, ineffective and implausible treatment is clearly not.
Yes, I got an award – and a very prestigious one at that!
Thanks to everyone who supported me in often difficult times and made this possible.
Here are some details from the website of Nature:
Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor at Peninsula Medical School, and Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford, have been awarded the international 2015 John Maddox Prize for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so.
Edzard Ernst is recognised for his long commitment to applying scientific methodologies in research into complementary and alternative medicines and to communicating this need. Prof Ernst continued in his work despite personal attacks and attempts to undermine his research unit and end his employment. As a result, he has addressed a significant gap in the research base in this field and has brought insights into discussions with the public, policy makers, commentators, practitioners and other researchers.
Susan Jebb is recognised for her promotion of public understanding of nutrition on a diverse range of issues of public concern, from food supplements to dieting. Prof Jebb tackled misconceptions about sugar in the media and among the public, and endured personal attacks and accusations that industry funding compromised her integrity and advisory capabilities. Despite this experience, she continued to engage with the media and the public on issues of dietary advice, talking about the need for sound science and high quality research, and advocating for high standards of research governance.
The John Maddox Prize is a joint initiative of the science journal Nature, the Kohn Foundation, and the charity Sense About Science, and it is awarded to one or two people a year. The late Sir John Maddox FRS, was editor of Nature for 22 years and a founding trustee of Sense About Science. A passionate and tireless communicator and defender of science, he engaged with difficult debates, inspiring others to do the same.
For full award details see http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/maddox-prize-2015.html.
END OF QUOTE
On the day, I was quite nervous – so much so that I forgot the little text which I had prepared for the occasion. Therefore I had to memorize it and got a bit muddled up in my excitement. For all who were not present, here is the very short (they asked me for 3 minutes only!) ‘thank-you-address’ I had wanted to give:
I am delighted to receive this prestigious award and to have the research of my team recognised in this way. But, as a true sceptic, I have to ask whether I really deserve this prize.
What is remarkable about what I have done?
For the last 20 years, I have tried to find out the truth about alternative treatments. The results were often not what enthusiasts of alt med had hoped for. But my job was to test and not to promote alternative medicine. So I published our findings and, if necessary, I defended them – nothing truly remarkable about that; it is exactly what scientists should be doing. To me, it seems almost as obvious as explaining that 2 + 2 = 4.
The remarkable thing is not standing up for well-documented facts; the remarkable thing surely is that there are others who claim that reductionist science is not applicable to such a problem, and that it has to be solved holistically: 2 and 2 must be integrated not added, and anyway, the whole is greater than its parts. Therefore 2 + 2 is not for 4, it is whatever you want to make of it.
The even more remarkable thing is that, about 10 years ago, my peers in Exeter all of a sudden seemed to defend such lunacy and joined the charlatans who promoted this nonsense in attacking me, my work and my integrity.
I thank you for the prize and I thank you for the cheque that comes with it. I have decided to donate the money to THE GOOD THINKING SOCIETY founded by my friend Simon Singh. This charity stands up for science by correcting some of the many false claims that are currently being made for bogus treatments. I think this is in the spirit of John Maddox and the prize in his honour. I hope the prize will inspire other scientists to stand up for science – because our science can only be as good as the integrity of our scientists.
For me, the most touching thing of the entire evening was a man who came up to me afterwards, shook my hand with enthusiasm and said: “If we all had courage like you, the world would be a better place”. Then he disappeared into the crowd and left me fighting back my tears.
The INDEPENDENT carried a nice article about the prize, Prof Jebb and myself the next day. It attracted a comment by someone calling himself ‘ZimJay’ which typifies the level of debate in the field of alternative medicine quite well, in my view:
Who knew there’s a science award for thumbsucking? is there is a bigger white male whiner than Edzard Ernst acting out like a 4 year old while living in the UK? Name them.
The University of Exeter has, as far as I know, not put out a comment. Odd, as it is not every day that a professor from this institution wins an international prize of this standing. Or perhaps not odd at all? But it is early days, of course – I wait and see.
Today, the INDEPENDENT published a short editorial with this conclusion:
During two decades patrolling the boundary between magic and medicine, he has protected our dignity, our pockets and our health. For that, we salute him.
I WOULD NOT HOLD MY BREATH FOR FURTHER VILE COMMENTS BY ALTERNATIVISTS – AND, IN THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE, I OUGHT TO THANK THEM: WITHOUT THEIR INCESSANT DIRTY WORK, I WOULD PROBABLY NOT HAVE BEEN AWARDED THE JOHN MADDOX PRIZE 2015.
We used to call it ‘alternative medicine’ (on this blog, I still do so, because I believe it is a term as good or bad as any other and it is the one that is easily recognised); later some opted for ‘complementary medicine’; since about 15 years a new term is en vogue: INTEGRATED MEDICINE (IM).
Supporters of IM are adamant that IM is not synonymous with the other terms. But how is IM actually defined?
One of IM’s most prominent defenders is, of course Prince Charles. In his 2006 address to the WHO, he explained: “We need to harness the best of modern science and technology, but not at the expense of losing the best of what complementary approaches have to offer. That is integrated health – it really is that simple.”
Perhaps a bit too simple?
There are several more academic definitions, and it seems that, over the years, IM-fans have been busy moving the goal post quite a bit. The original principle of ‘THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS’ has been modified considerably.
- IM is a “comprehensive, primary care system that emphasizes wellness and healing of the whole person…” [Arch Intern Med. 2002;162:133-140]
- IM “views patients as whole people with minds and spirits as well as bodies and includes these dimensions into diagnosis and treatment.” [BMJ. 2001; 322:119-120]
During my preparations for my lecture at the 16th European Sceptics Congress in London last week (which was on the subject of IM), I came across a brand-new (September 2015) definition. It can be found on the website of the COLLEGE OF MEDICINE This Michael Dixon-led organisation can be seen as the successor of Charles’ ill-fated FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED HEALTH; it was originally to be called COLLEGE FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE. We can therefore assume that they know best what IM truly is or aspires to be. The definition goes as follows:
IM is a holistic, evidence-based approach which makes intelligent use of all available therapeutic choices to achieve optimal health and resilience for our patients.
This may sound good to many who are not bothered or unable to think critically. It oozes political correctness and might therefore even impress some politicians. But, on closer scrutiny, it turns out to be little more than offensive nonsense. I feel compelled to publish a short analysis of it. I will do this by highlighting and criticising the important implications of this definition one by one.
1) IM is holistic
Holism has always been at the core of any type of good health care. To state that IM is holistic misleads people into believing that conventional medicine is not holistic. It also pretends that medicine might become more holistic through the addition of some alternative modalities. Yet I cannot imagine anything less holistic than diagnosing patients by merely looking at their iris (iridology) or assuming all disease stems from subluxations of the spine (chiropractic), for example. This argument is a straw-man, if there ever was one.
2) IM is evidence-based
This assumption is simply not true. If we look what is being used under the banner of IM, we find no end of treatments that are not supported by good evidence, as well as several for which the evidence is squarely negative.
3) IM is intelligent
If it were not such a serious matter, one could laugh out loud about this claim. Is the implication here that conventional medicine is not intelligent?
4) IM uses all available therapeutic choices
This is the crucial element of this definition which allows IM-proponents to employ anything they like. Do they seriously believe that patients should have ALL AVAILABLE treatments? I had thought that responsible health care is about applying the most effective therapies for the condition at hand.
5) IM aims at achieving optimal health
Another straw-man; it implies that conventional health care professionals do not want to restore their patients to optimal health.
In my lecture, which was not about this definition but about IM in general, I drew the following six conclusions:
- Proponents of IM mislead us with their very own, nonsensical terminology and definitions.
- They promote two main principles: use of quackery + holism.
- Holism is at the heart of all good medicine; IM is at best an unnecessary distraction.
- Using holism to promote quackery is dishonest and counter-productive.
- The integration of quackery will render healthcare not better but worse.
- IM flies in the face of common sense and medical ethics; it is a disservice to patients.
One of the questions that I hear regularly is: ‘What happened to your research unit at Exeter?’ Therefore it might be a good idea to put the full, shameful story on this blog.
After the complaint by Prince Charles’ secretary to my Vice Chancellor alleging that I had breached confidentiality over the Smallwood report, my University conducted a 13 months investigation into my actions. At the end of it, I was declared innocent as charged (it should have been clear from a 10 minute discussion that I had done nothing wrong: I had not disclosed any information from the report, and even if I had, it would have been a matter of public interest and medical ethics to blow the whistle. However, the Vice Chancellor never once bothered to talk to me.). Subsequently, all support that I had once enjoyed broke down, my staff’s contracts were terminated, and I eventually had to take early retirement (full details of this part of the story can be found in ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’).
A few months later, a new dean was appointed at my medical school. The new man seemed to have a lot more understanding for my situation than his predecessor. Provided that I accept to go into early retirement, he offered to re-employ me for one year (half time) to help him find a successor for my position.
I did accept because, above everything, I wanted to prevent the closure of my unit. We then developed criteria for advertising the post and conducted two rounds of advertisements. Several candidates applied but none them seemed suited in our view. Eventually we did find several experts who were promising; one even came to Exeter from abroad and had detailed talks with the dean and several other people.
However, Exeter was unwilling to equip my potential successor with any funds to speak of. The suggestion was to appoint the new chair with the onus to raise all the necessary funds himself. This is a proposition that no well-qualified academic at the professorial level can possibly find attractive. Consequently, the candidates all declined.
Meanwhile, there had been an initiative by several altruistic UK public figures and friends to raise funds for the new chair and thus save my unit from closure. Sadly, however, these activities did not generate in the necessary cash. When my year of half-time re-employment had expired, I left Exeter and my unit disappeared for good.
To the present day, I am not at all sure what the true intentions of Exeter had been during this final stage.
- Was I offered re-employment simply to keep me sweet?
- Did they fear that I would otherwise sue them or cause a public scandal?
- Did they truly believe they could find a suitable successor?
- If so, why did they not put up the money?
I do not expect to ever find conclusive answers for any of these questions. However, I do know what, in an ideal world, should have become of my unit. If it had been for me to decide, I would have equipped the chair with the necessary core funds and appointed an ethicist with a documented interest in alternative medicine as the new professor. I see two main reasons for this perhaps less than obvious choice:
- In my experience, Exeter would greatly benefit from an ethicist to give them guidance on a range of matters.
- After two decades of being involved in alternative medicine research, I have become convinced that this field foremost needs the input of a critical ethicist.
In case either of these last two statements puzzles you, I recommend you read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’.
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed: I recently published a ‘memoir‘.
Of all the books I have written, this one was by far the hardest. It covers ground that I felt quite uncomfortable with. At the same time, I felt compelled to write it. For over 5 years I kept at it, revised it, re-revised it, re-conceived the outline, abandoned the project altogether only to pick it up again.
When it eventually was finished, we had to find a suitable title. This was far from easy; my book is not a book about alternative medicine, it is a book about all sorts of things that have happened to me, including alternative medicine. Eventually we settled for A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. A MEMOIR OF SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE. This seemed to describe its contents quite well, I thought (the German edition is entitled NAZIS, NADELN UND INTRIGEN. ERINNERUNGEN EINES SKEPTIKERS which indicates why it was so difficult to put the diverse contents into a short title).
Then a further complication presented itself: at the very last minute, my publisher insisted that the text had to be checked by libel lawyers. This was not only painful and expensive, following their advice and thus changing or omitting passages also took some of the ‘edge’ off it.
Earlier this year, my ‘memoir’ was finally published; to say that I was nervous about how it might be received must be the understatement of the year. As it turned out, it received so many reviews that today I feel deeply humbled (and very proud), particularly as they were all full of praise and appreciation. In case you are interested, I provide some quotes and the links to the full text reviews below.[Ah, yes! Some people will surely claim that I did all this for the money. To those of my critics, I respond by saying that, had I done paper rounds or worked as a gardener or a window-cleaner during all the time I spent on this book, I would today be considerably better off. As it stands, the costs for the libel read are not yet covered by the income generated through the sales of this book.]
AND HERE ARE THE PROMISED QUOTES
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.”
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 – Barbara Kiser, Feb 5, 2015
“[T]his ferociously frank autobiography… [is] a clarion call for medical ethics.”
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.”
AntiCancer.org.uk – Pan Pantziarka, Feb 19, 2015
“It should be required reading for everyone interested in medicine – without exception.”
Mail Online review
Mail Online – Katherine Keogh, Feb 28, 2015
“In his new book, A Scientist In Wonderland: A Memoir Of Searching For Truth And Finding Trouble, no one from the world of alternative medicine is safe from Professor Edzard Ernst’s firing line.”
James Randi Educational Foundation review
James Randi Educational Foundation – William M. London, Mar 9, 2015
“The writing in A Scientist in Wonderland is clear and engaging. It combines good storytelling with important insights about medicine, science, and analytic thinking. Despite all the troubles Ernst encountered, I found his story to be inspirational. I enthusiastically recommend the book to scientists, health professionals, and laypersons who like to see nonsense and mendacity exposed to the light of reason.”
The Pharmaceutical Journal review
The Pharmaceutical Journal – Andrews Haynes, Mar 26, 2015
“This engaging book is a memoir by a medical researcher whose passion for discovering the truth about untested therapies eventually forced him out of his job… [This] highly readable book concentrates on fact rather than emotion. It should be required reading for anyone interested in medical research.”
Skepticat – Maria MacLachlan, Apr 18, 2015
“A Scientist in Wonderland is more than an autobiography and I’m not sure I can do justice to the riches to be found in its pages. Sometimes it’s reminiscent of a black comedy, other times it’s almost too painful to read.”
Spiked! – Robin Walsh ,May 15, 2015
“Ernst’s book is a reminder of the need to have the courage to tell the truth as you understand it, and fight your corner against those in authority, while never losing a compassion for patients and a commitment to winning the debate. ”
Australasian Science review
Australasian Science – Loretta Marron, Jun 10, 2015
“Edzard Ernst is a living legend… The book is easy to read and hard to put down. I would particularly recommend it to anyone, with an open mind, who is interested in the truth or otherwise of CAM.”
Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Review
JRSM – Michael Baum, June 2015
“This is a deeply moving and deeply disturbing book yet written with a light touch, humour and self-deprecation.”
THE BUFFALO NEWS
These enlightening books await summer readers. 21 June 2015
“Medical researcher Edzard Ernst spent most of his career stepping on toes. He first exposed the complicity of the German medical profession in the Nazi genocide. Then he accepted appointment as the world’s first chairman of alternative medicine at England’s University of Exeter. There he studied systematically the claims of the proponents of complementary medicine, a field dominated by evangelic and enthusiastic promoters, including Prince Charles. Needless to say, they did not take kindly to his exposures of many of their widely accepted therapies. His book, “A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble,” is a charming account of a committed life.”
“The book is first and foremost a memoir. Even those of us who have long followed Ernst’s research may well find a few surprises here…[Ernst] did not quite behave as many people expected him to after taking up his post in Exeter. He was committed to carrying out high-quality research into the efficacy and safety of CAM, not simply promoting its use in an uncritical manner. This admirable attitude won him much respect in the eyes of fellow scientists and the wider skeptical community.
All this recent attention to Charles’ amazing letters and unconstitutional meddling made me think quite a lot about STUPIDITY. Thus I came across the writings of Carlo Maria Cipolla who seemed to have thought deeply about human stupidity. He described “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” and viewed stupid people as a group of individuals who are more powerful by far than even major organizations. I liked his approach; it made me think of Prince Charles, strangely enough.
It might be interesting, I concluded, to analyse Charles’ actions against Cipolla’s 5 laws.
Here are Cipolla’s 5 basic laws of stupidity:
- Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
- The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
- A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
- Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
- A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.
How does Charles measure up against these criteria, I ask myself? Let’s go through the 5 ‘laws’ one by one.
Charles is just a ‘study of one’, so this point is irrelevant as far as he is concerned. However, he surrounds himself with yes-men of the Dixon-type (I have blogged about him here and here and here), and this evidence seems to confirm this point at least to a certain degree.
Charles had a good education, he is rich, he has influence (just read my previous post on how he made his influence felt in Exeter), and he has many other characteristics which make him unlikely to appear stupid. So, this point seems to be spot on.
Read my previous post and you will agree that this ‘law’ applies to Charles quite perfectly.
Yes, I did underestimate Charles influence. In particular, I did not appreciate the importance and impact of the KNIGHTHOOD STARVATION SYNDROME.
I think that this is a valid point. His ‘black spider memos’ reveal that he is obsessed with integrating bogus treatments into the NHS to the inevitable detriment of public health. And what could be more dangerous than that?
CONCLUSION: FROM THIS BRIEF ANALYSIS, IT SEEMS AS THOUGH THE ‘FIVE BASIC LAWS OF STUPIDITY’ ARE CONFIRMED BY THE ACTIONS OF PRINCE CHARLES
Prince Charles’ meddling beyond his constitutional role is yet again in the press today. I was sent the 2nd batch of ‘spider memos’ yesterday, studied them and commented as follows:
The letters demonstrate yet again that Prince Charles relentlessly meddles in UK health politics and thus disrespects his constitutional role. His arguments in favour of CAM, and in particular homeopathy, show a devastating lack of knowledge and understanding; they are ill-informed, invalid and embarrassingly naïve – but at the same time they are remarkably persistent. Charles tries to give the impression that he is motivated by passion and compassion, but in health care such drivers need solid evidence and expertise. Charles has neither which is not just regrettable, it is arrogant on his part and potentially harmful for public health.
If you get the feeling that I have little patience with Charles’ meddling, you may be right. I have little doubt that it was his interfering that led to the closure of my research unit at Exeter. In my book, A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND, I provide the full details of what happened. Here I would just like to reproduce the incredible ‘spider memo’ in question.
It was not actually authored by Charles but by Sir Michael Peat, his 1st private secretary. On 22 September 2005, Peat wrote on Clarence House note-paper to the Vice Chancellor of Exeter University wrongly accusing me of a serious breach of confidentiality:
I am writing both as The Prince of Wales’ Private Secretary and as Acting Chairman of His Royal Highness’ Foundation for Integrated Health.
There has been a breach of confidence by Professor Edzard Ernst in respect of a draft report on the efficacy of certain complementary therapies sent to him by Mr. Christopher Smallwood. The report was commissioned by The Prince of Wales.
Mr. Smallwood sent Professor Ernst an early and, at that stage, incomplete draft of the report for comment. The accompanying e-mail requested and stressed the need for confidentiality. Professor Ernst implicitly agreed to comment on the report on this basis but then, as you probably saw, gave his views about the report to the national press. I attach a copy of a letter from the Editor of the Lancet published by The Times which summarises the issues well. I also attach a copy of the e-mail sent to Professor Ernst by Mr. Smallwood.
I apologise for troubling you, but I felt that you should have this matter drawn to your attention.
What followed was embarrassing and shameful: my uni started a 13 month investigation, eventually I was pronounced innocent but my unit was closed down. Unbelievably, Clarence house denied that Charles even knew about this amazing attempt to meddle in academic affairs. As I say, you need to read my memoir to understand this story fully.
The Telegraph today reports that, despite relentless lobbying from the Prince of Wales, UK herbalists will not, after all, be regulated by statute. Here are the most important statements from this article:
Prof David Walker, deputy chief medical officer, said he had taken the decision because there was insufficient evidence that the alternative therapy works, making it impossible to set standards of good practice. Three years ago ministers had pledged to bring in an official register of practitioners of herbal and Chinese medicines, which would see therapists regulated alongside other health workers, such as physiotherapists and speech therapists…But ministers blocked the proposals, instead setting up a new committee, led by the NHS deputy chief medical officer – which has now ruled against statutory regulation. The decision came despite lobbying from Prince Charles, a keen advocate of complementary medicines, and a supporter of regulation, who held a meeting with Jeremy Hunt in 2013 in which his concerns were raised…Prof Walker said that although most herbal practitioners were in favour of regulation, those opposed to it feared it would “confer an inappropriate level of legitimacy on herbal practice which was poorly supported by scientific evidence.” He said the decision to rule against regulation was “undoubtedly the most contentious area” addressed by the working party, which also looked at the safety of herbal medicine products. Instead, the report calls for a review of all ingredients sold in such medicines, to check their safety, with a “voluntary register” for practitioners who use them. It says there is too little evidence to show that herbal medicines improve health outcomes, making it “difficult to establish the boundaries of good practice” in regulating practitioners. It also says there is very little understanding of the risks posed to patients from current practices in herbal medicine…Prof Walker’s recommendation has triggered an immediate rift among the 26 members of his working party. Twelve members of the working party have written to Dr Dan Poulter, health minister, alleging that the decision will put the safety of the public at risk, because anyone will be able to promote themselves as an expert in herbal medicine, without any training. Research suggests around three million Britons a year consult herbal practitioners, operating in shops, online and in private clinics, with up to one in 12 of all adults using a herbal medicine at some stage. Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association, said the decision not to regulate practitioners could put the public at risk from rogue operators, with no training. The herbal practitioner, who was a member of the DoH working party, said: “We are deeply disappointed by this. We feared this issue was going to be kicked into the long grass, by quietly putting something out just before the election – and that is exactly what has happened.” He said the public needed the reassurance of statutory regulation, to know that any herbal doctor who is practising had received some training. The association disputed claims there was insufficient evidence to show that herbal medicines worked, saying that several trials had shown its impact for a number of conditions, but that the sector had less money than the pharmaceutical industry had to undertake mass research. The report says that although ministers promised “some form of regulation of herbal practitioners” this only committed the working party to consider the options, and that the introduction of regulation would require the sector to be “more science and evidence-based”.
Perhaps I should first state that I was not involved in any way in this process. Furthermore, I must say that I do think it is the right decision. To understand it better, I need to refer to several previous posts: yes, some herbal medicines are demonstrably effective. But the regulation in question is NOT about herbal medicines; it is about herbal practitioners, and the two are not necessarily related. UK herbal practitioners practice within a range of traditions including traditional European herbalism, TCM, or other schools of thought. They differ vastly but have one characteristic in common: they individualise their prescriptions according to the specific characteristics of the patient. Thus they would rarely prescribe the evidence-based herbal medicines but mix up prescriptions composed of several herbal ingredients. The problems with this approach are numerous:
- there is no good evidence that this approach of individualised herbalism is effective;
- the safety of the herbs used by traditional herbalists is often unknown;
- traditional herbalists tend to use obsolete diagnostic techniques, false-positive and false-negative diagnoses are thus inevitable;
- some of the herbal mixtures have been shown to be contaminated with toxic ingredients;
- some mixtures are adulterated with powerful prescription drugs;
- the herbal ingredients could interact with each other in an unpredictable manner;
- the herbal mixtures might interact with prescribed drugs.
The long and short of it is that nobody knows whether the treatments of traditional herbalists generate more good than harm. Regulating these professions by statute would merely give them a level of credibility that they do not deserve. As with the regulation of chiropractors or osteopaths in the UK, the regulation of herbalists would simply misled the public about the value of traditional herbalism, and it most likely would have prompted the herbalists to happily rest on their assumed merits claiming that their effectiveness and safety has been officially acknowledged and is therefore no longer in doubt.
In a nutshell: THE ‘PROPER’ REGULATION OF NONSENSE GENERATES PROPER NONSENSE
The following episode gives just one of many examples of attempts by my Exeter peers to sabotage my scientific, moral and ethical standards. The players in this scene are:
- Prof John Tooke, at the time dean of my medical school,
- Dr Michael Dixon, GP in Devon,
- Nelson’s homeopathic pharmacy, known from my previous post,
- Mr Simon Mills, former director of the Centre for Complementary Health Studies, University of Exeter,
- Prince Charles, future king of England.
By the year 2000, I began to experience unnecessary unpleasantness at Exeter on a more and more regular basis. This passage from my book describes the key moment when it became clear to me that something profoundly wrong was going on:
The watershed came in 2003, when I saw an announcement published in the newsletter of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health:
“The Peninsula Medical School aims to become the UK’s first medical school to include integrated medicine at postgraduate level. The school also plans to extend the current range and depth of programmes offered by including healthcare ethics and legislation. Professor John Tooke, dean of the Peninsula Medical School, said: “The inclusion of integrated medicine is a patient driven development. Increasingly the public is turning to the medical profession for information about complementary medicines. This programme will play an important role in developing critical understanding of a wide range of therapies”.
When I stumbled on this announcement, I was truly puzzled. Tooke is obviously planning a new course for me, I thought, but why has he not told me about it? When I enquired, Tooke informed me that the medical school was indeed preparing to offer a postgraduate “Pathway in Integrated Health”; this exciting new innovation had been initiated by Dr Michael Dixon, a general practitioner who, after working in collabora-tion with my unit for several years, had become one of the UK’s most outspoken proponents of spiritual healing and other similarly dubious forms of alternative medicine. For this reason, Dixon was apparently very well regarded by Prince Charles.
A few days after I had received this amazing news, Dixon arrived at my office and explained, with visible embarrassment, that Prince Charles had expressed his desire to him personally to establish such a course at Exeter. His Royal Highness had already facilitated its funding which, in fact, came from “Nelsons”, one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of homeopathic remedies. The day-to-day running of the course was to be put into the hands of the ex-director of the Centre for Complementary Health Studies (CCHS), the very unit that, almost a decade earlier, I had struggled—and eventually even paid—to be separated from because of its overtly anti-scientific agenda. The whole thing had been in the planning for many months. I was, it seemed, the last to know—but now that I had learnt about it, Dixon and Tooke leaned on me with all their might to persuade me to contribute to this course by giving a few lectures.
I could no more comply with this request than fly. Apart from anything else, anyone who had read my papers would have known that I was opposed in principle to the concept of “Integrated Health”. As I saw it, “integrating” quackery with genuine, science-based medicine was nothing less than a profound betrayal of the ethical basis of medical practice. By putting its imprimatur on this course, and by offering it under the auspices of a mainstream medical school, my institution would be encouraging the dangerously erroneous idea of equivalence—i.e. the notion that alternative and mainstream medicine were merely two parallel but equally valid and effective methods of treating illness.
To add insult to injury, the course was to be run by someone who I had good reason to reject and sponsored by a major manufacturer of homeopathic remedies. In all conscience, the latter circumstance seemed to me to be the last straw. Study after study carried out by my unit had found homeopathy to be not only conceptually absurd but also therapeutically worthless. To all intents and purposes, the discussion about the value of homeopathy was closed. Even a former director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital had concluded in his book that “homeopathy has not been proved to work… the great majority… of the improvement that patients experience is due to non-specific causes”. If we did not take a stand on this issue, we might as well give up and go home. Consequently, I politely but firmly declined the offer of participating in this course.
By now numerous other incidents of a similar nature had poisoned the atmosphere at my own medical school and university so much that both my work and my health were suffering. How had it come to this? Why was even the most obvious and demonstrable truth being turned upside down so that it could be used against me? Why were my peers seemingly bent on constraining me and making life increasingly difficult for me?
Chapter 5 of my memoir is entitled ‘OFF WITH HIS HEAD’. It describes the role that Prince Charles played in promoting what he now likes to call ‘integrated medicine’. The weird thing is that he was instrumental in creating my Exeter chair…and eventually in getting it shut down. Here is a short sample to whet your appetite:
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear to me now that my hope of bringing the scientific method to bear on alternative medicine was doomed from the start. Reason cannot negotiate with unreason any more than fire and water can commingle peacefully. In either case, a great deal of spitting and hissing is bound to ensue—and precious little else.
Soon after arriving in Exeter, in 1993, I learnt of the long-standing interest Prince Charles had in alternative medicine: he had asked via my Vice Chancellor for a copy of my inaugural lecture, and I remember being delighted at this request. As I never give lectures or speeches from a script, I even composed a summary specifically for him. In return, I received a polite note of thanks from one of his secretaries. This is great, I thought.
I was thrilled that someone as influential as Prince Charles would be interested in my work. What could be better than having support in such high places? Surely, there would come the time when I could meet the Prince and have an open exchange of views. I had no doubt that he would be keenly aware of the obvious necessity for rigorous research—in fact, he often enough had publicly stressed it—and would thus support my research endeavours.
How wrong can one be? Prince Charles turned out to be no supporter of my work. To the contrary: he seemed to be a staunch advocate of unreason and a formidable opponent of any attempt to bring science or critical thinking to bear on alter-native medicine. What is more, subsequent events suggested to me that his intervention played a part in the closure of my unit.