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.
Adolph Coors Foundation
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.
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:
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.
Adolph Coors Foundation
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.
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.