by Chris Holmes
Edzard Ernst, if we are to believe what certain hacks tell us, is in danger of losing his position at Exeter University – but it has nothing to do with his own behaviour, of course! This is a link to a particularly lame piece from the Guardian’s Sarah Boseley which tries to suggest that the reason nobody seems to want to fund “the scourge of complementary medicine” is because The Prince of Wales has somehow made it so! Since when did he have the power to forbid the funding of University research, Sarah? Don’t be silly.
After 17 years of CAM-bashing, with hardly anything positive to say about Complementary Medicine at all, it could just be that everyone’s sick to death of the guy, except of course for all the pathological cynics like Sarah Boseley, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre etc etc who seem to have the simplistic, collective notion that all CAM therapists are “quacks”. The repeated suggestion they make in the media is that private therapists make vast fortunes by hoodwinking people who, because they are ‘deluded’ or ‘vulnerable’ pay willingly for therapies that they often seem quite happy with – only their opinion doesn’t count, because they’re ‘deluded’. How patronising is that?
The only thing that does count – according to these few self-appointed “quackbusters” – is the relentlessly negative outpourings of Ernst’s unit which can be summed up thus: whatever therapy he’s looking at, after a selective review of previous studies the verdict is that there’s no evidence that it works and it could even be dangerous! Yes, that’s right: it’s more or less the same verdict for everything he looks into!
This is exactly why most open-minded people have stopped taking him seriously. After all, if he were finding the very reverse with the same consistency – that ALL complementary therapies worked – how long would it be before everyone suspected his methods, eh? So he’s left with only the rabid hard-core of New Simple Scientism, which can equally be named Prejudice.
Has it not occurred to any of these people that for many, many years millions of people have been using these therapies and returning to them because they find them effective? Not only that, but all those people have families and friends who will also have been aware of that, so although it is often said that only 25% of the population use CAM therapies, a hell of a lot more will have heard about the results. The only people who dismiss those first-hand opinions are pathological cynics, and although those people are often noisy, opinionated and usually rude to anyone who tries to explain that they’ve got it wrong, they are actually in a very small minority. They are the only people with an axe to grind about all this, and they aren’t doing that for the sake of the people who use CAM therapies at all! They have nothing but contempt for people who use CAM therapies… but no-one else does.
So Ernst has had an exciting time, drawing attention to himself as the “scourge of Complementary Medicine” as Boseley rather tellingly put it – which is why she approves – forgetting that officially he is supposed to be objective. But no-one normal who is aware of Ernst at all would ever regard him as impartial, he is quite clearly the champion of the pathological cynics and was from the start, although many people didn’t realise that straight away.
Some of these Ernst Groupies call themselves skeptics, but they are quite wrong to do so. I work with skeptics all the time, and I don’t find their skepticism a problem at all. Hypnotherapists are used to the fact that most new clients are skeptical, which is another reason I object to the term “faith-based therapies” which is repeatedly used to denigrate CAM therapies in general. Most of my new clients don’t have any particular faith in hypnotherapy, in fact they are usually very surprised by the results. Of course we partly have the likes of Ernst to thank for that low level of expectation, but it is also partly caused by the fact that many of my clients will have tried to fix the problem through their own efforts previously with no lasting success, so their conscious expectations are fairly low because of that.
The “faith-based” suggestion is a snidey way of making out that the results don’t go beyond a placebo effect caused by their own delusions, which is extremely patronising and (in the case of hypnotherapy, for sure) utterly inaccurate. Although the majority of people are fairly skeptical of all unfamiliar things, they are not cynics. Most people who try CAM therapies are simply being practical: if you want to get rid of a problem, you just try one thing after another until you find the thing that works for you. If the cynics had their way, you wouldn’t have the choice: you would have to take what the doctor recommended even if it kills you (See ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’ on this site, and also the blogpost ‘Daily Mail Article’ in the blog category Drugs On Trial.)
When I was growing up, if someone said they were “off to see the quack” they meant the doctor, their General Practitioner. Lately the word has been used by the cynics and a few opinionated hacks to attack the entire field of Complementary Medicine, and what these people are forgetting is that the only people who will agree with those mocking, patronising and extremely negative and ignorant opinions are the cynics of the world. Edzard Ernst’s publications haven’t made those people the way they are, they were like that already. He just gave them – briefly – more credibility because of his bogus title and his academic position, but his “don’t shoot the messenger” suggestion that he uses to deflect criticism is a pathetic attempt to erase himself from “the science”, and nobody with any intelligence will fall for that one! So, all published studies are simply “the truth” are they, Edzard? Never mind the intent, never mind the funding, never mind the methodologies… the studies just selected themselves, did they? The science just happened all by itself, as if by magic, and Ernst is just the guy who told us all what it said, like Moses coming down from the mountain with The Word of God. Yeah, right!
No, Ernst was never a simple messenger, he is an author and an instigator, a collaborator with other anti-CAM extremists and a campaigner against CAM – as Boseley says: “unusually outspoken” and “the scourge of Complementary Medicine”. Not really what we expected from the first ever Professor of Complementary Medicine, because it is so clearly at odds with the everyday experiences of CAM users. When those people try to explain that, their views and their attempts to report successes are instantly dismissed just because they did not occur under laboratory conditions. By contrast, Ernst’s activities are given blanket approval despite the fact that the studies he is looking at never involved any professional CAM therapists and he has never been one himself.
So perhaps the only people who think what he has done is admirable, objective or reliable in any way are the pathological cynics who dismiss ALL complementary therapists as “quacks”. And those people are in such a small minority that I seriously doubt they could fund his work for very long if they all pitched in together with every penny they have.
No-one else is taking him seriously any more, it seems. The fact is, we do not need this endlessly negative anti-CAM voice at all, because even if he never published another word on the subject we all know, already, what Edzard Ernst would tell us: “There’s no evidence that it works…” apart from all the millions of people who happily use it, but they don’t count… “…and it could even be dangerous…” although it hardly ever is. Why would anyone waste their valuable resources generating yet more of that kind of unconvincing drivel after being subjected to seventeen years of it already? And no-one needs Boseley whining on about it either. “We need this voice” to tell us what to think! You might, Sarah, but no-one else does, evidently, or people would be willing to fund it without a special appeal from you! (Is there a brain in there anywhere?)
If Ernst and Boseley do find themselves out of work sometime though, I reckon they could get together and reinvent themselves as a Keith Harris and Orville tribute act. “I wish I could have an original thought, but I can’t!” “You can!” “I CAN’T!”
To explain the reference for non-UK dwellers: Ernst could be Keith Harris, a ventriloquist whose dummy is a large and generally clueless baby duck, so of course Edzard provides the voice for both. And if Boseley doesn’t like the idea of being Orville the duck, maybe she shouldn’t play the role of Ernst’s special media mouthpiece and keep mindlessly repeating the word “quack”. What goes around comes around Sarah.