You might remember: I have been badly misquoted in an article in THE DAILY TELEGRAPH. Based on a newly published scientific paper, the Telegraph article was about herbal medicines and their potential to interact with synthetic drugs. Towards its end, it cited me stating this:
Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said that doctors should make it clear to patients that they could not be taking herbal remedies alongside drugs.
Prof Ernst said there was no good evidence that they work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to the practice.
Not only did this not make any sense (I felt, it made me look like an idiot), but crucially I had never stated this nor had I even commented to a Telegraph journalist about this scientific paper. This was (27/1) when I wrote my blog-post about it.
Several friends persuaded me to file an official complaint – which I somewhat reluctantly did. Subsequently, I received an email from the paper’s ‘editorial compliance executive’ asking me to supply more details about my grievances. I complied with the request by pointing out that:
The following things are wrong with this passage:
1) I never said this.
2) I have not even been interviewed by your journalist and do not know where this quote is supposed to come from.
3) As far as I am aware, I also never stated anything like this anywhere else.
4) It is not and never has been my view that there is no good evidence that herbal remedies can never be combined with drugs.
5) It is not and never has been my opinion that there is no good evidence to suggest that herbal remedies work.
6) It is not and never has been my view that doctors were contributing to disinformation by turning a blind eye to the use of herbal remedies.
The response came swiftly:
The quoted words were recorded at a briefing at the SMC to launch your new book, More Harm than Good? The Moral Maze of Complementary and Alternative Medicine on 17th January 2018.
We are aware that you have had correspondence with our Science Editor, Sarah Knapton who has since amended the online article to make this clear.
We do however accept that one sentence was mistakenly attributed to you. We have therefore amended the online article and added a footnote to explain what has been updated.
This was most bizarre, I thought, because I did NOT have a correspondence with Sarah Knapton, the author of the Telegraph article. On the plus-side, the Telegraph had indeed changed the passage in question; it now read (and did so until yesterday):
Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said there was a ‘potential for harm’.
“It’s a lazy way out of the problem,” he said at a briefing to launch his new book More Harm than Good? The Moral Maze of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “In medicine you give treatment for a reason and if there is no reason for the homeopathic remedy why should you support it for the placebo treatment.
“As a good doctor you should be able to transmit a placebo effect any case. I just don’t see a reason, I see the potential for harm.”
The research was published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Professor Edzard Ernst said there was no good evidence that herbal remedies work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to their usage. In fact, this was not said by Professor Ernst. The article has been amended.
I felt that this was a correction of one mistake by another mistake and pointed out that the briefing had been about homeopathy and NOT about herbal medicine or herb/drug interactions. Therefore I replied to the ‘editorial compliance executive’ insisting on further corrections and pointing out that such an utterly nonsensical comment might harm my reputation as an expert. I also posted a comment under the Telegraph article explainig that homeopathy is not herbal medicine.
Sadly, nothing happened.
So, a few days later, I sent a reminder to the ‘editorial compliance executive’.
And again nothing happened.
… until yesterday.
I had almost given up and was contemplating what to do next, when I received an email. It was not from the ‘editorial compliance executive’, but from THE TELEGRAPH’s ‘Head of Editorial Compliance’. He wrote that he had listened to the tapes of the original briefing and realised that my comments were indeed made in a different context. Therefore, they had now erased all of the nonsensical stuff and replaced it with this text:
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Professor Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, had said there was ‘potential for harm’ in herbal remedies and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to this. These comments did not in fact relate to interactions between herbal remedies and prescribed medication, and they have been removed. We apologise to the Professor for the error.
I am pleased!
And I gratefully accept the apology.
This might be a long, convoluted and somewhat boring story, but I think it has at least two important elements to it:
- It may seem petty to complain, and complain, and send reminders when the complaint seems to be getting ignored (I certainly did not feel sure that I was doing the right thing). But occasionally, it is worth the effort – not because of the personal satisfaction (nice but not essential), but because the truth has a high value which should be respected.
- Wondering how all this mess came about, I am asking myself: Does the author of the Telegraph article perhaps genuinely not know the difference between herbal and homeopathic remedies? Obviously, I don’t know the answer to this question, but it would explain the mess she got herself (and me) into. And it would also suggest that it might be necessary to educate journalists about alternative medicine in general and homeopathy in particular (In case there is any interest, I offer to give a few informative lectures with opportunities to ask questions to London-based health writers and science journalists).